So this is the second article in our series about “modern recovery from addiction.” We are attempting to explore new recovery techniques and flesh out the ideas for creative recovery, the proposed alternative to traditional recovery programs.
So this is very much the overview post, the introduction to the whole idea.
My story is not much different from that of any other struggling addict or alcoholic. I found drugs and booze, I started to self medicate, and it got out of control. I continued to self medicate for years on end, experimenting with different drugs, and always consuming large amounts of alcohol through it all. I worked a simple job (pizza delivery) in order to support my life and my drinking/drug habit.
In my years of addiction I feel like I was seeking something. I was on a spiritual quest of sorts, not necessarily “spiritual” in the religious sense, but rather in the sense that I was trying to find myself.
Eventually the drugs and the alcohol made me more and more miserable, and my tolerance to them grew stronger and stronger. I got to the point where I could not really have fun while drinking unless I was fully blacked out (which was not much fun!). I realized then that the fun times were really over. I was miserable, and I could not fix that misery by adding more booze or more drugs. This was my turning point, and I measured it in terms of happiness (or lack thereof).
My journey for disruption
Before I surrendered fully to my addiction I went to rehab a few times. These attempts at getting sober were not done for myself, they were done for the sake of my family and friends. As such, they did not work, and I failed after both trips to inpatient rehabs only to return to drinking and drugging.
During this time of active addiction, I also went to see a therapist or counselor for certain periods of time. I believe I saw two or three different counselors over the years, which was also a lot of failed effort. I was not ready to get clean and sober yet and I had not fully surrendered to my disease yet and so all of that effort was just a waste of time. Perhaps I did learn a few things along the way but ultimately I could not really learn anything about sobriety because I was still stuck in addiction.
I was in my mid twenties and had been to short term rehab twice and I was still stuck in addiction. Finally I reached my point of surrender and became willing to ask for help. Of course I was directed to rehab again, but this time I realized that I needed more help than what a 28 day program could provide. So I was lucky enough to enter into a long term treatment program, and I credit this move as being a key part of my success.
I like to talk about “disruption” when it comes to early recovery. This is because addiction is a pattern of abuse, and in order to overcome that addiction we need to disrupt the pattern. I had tried in the past to disrupt it with 28 day and shorter rehabs, and this failed for me. My situation was unique in that I was fairly young and fully immersed in a lifestyle of addiction, one in which all of my friends and coworkers were using drugs with me. This required a massive amount of disruption, probably more than most people need.
When we talk about recovery programs and strategies, we are really talking about long term recovery. In the early days of recovery (including detox), you do not need any sort of specialized or elegant solution. What you need is a brute force approach that nearly any treatment center can provide. Medical detox and a few weeks locked up in a facility with no access to drugs or booze, that is the ticket. Anything more than that and you are just complicating the early recovery process. Detox is quite simple; you avoid drugs and booze. Medical supervision is important as well so that you can be safe, but other than that there is not much art to it.
Residential treatment (28 days and shorter rehab) is a bit of a challenge in terms of “learning a new way to live.” Of course the treatment centers attempt to educate you and lecture you and expose you to AA meetings in the hopes that you can learn a new way to live in the very short 28 days (or less) that you are there. But this is not necessarily an easy time to learn and absorb new ideas, most people are still reeling from their detox and will find it tough to absorb all of that information. For me, listening to the ideas in short term rehab and then believing that I might go apply them in the real world was a bit of a leap. It was too overwhelming to me, because my whole life was set up around using drugs and alcohol. Therefore I needed more disruption than what a 28 day program could provide. Long term treatment was the ticket for me.
This may not be the case for everyone, as most people who get clean and sober do not use long term rehab in order to do it. But it is important to realize that addiction is a pattern, and that you need to disrupt that pattern in order to get started on a new path in life. I had to try a few times before I could get the right amount of disruption.
On the other hand, maybe I just had to fully surrender (in order to become willing to go the distance, to check into long term rehab and be willing to live there for almost 2 full years).
Exploring everything in early recovery
As soon as I was living in long term treatment I became desperate to learn “the real truth about recovery.” I wanted to boil everything down and make it simple. Unfortunately, I was getting lots of mixed messages and sometimes even conflicting suggestions from all of the 12 step meetings that I was attending every day in early recovery.
There was a strong emphasis on spirituality, and on building a relationship with your higher power. This was often toted as the ultimate secret of recovery.
But, there were somewhat conflicting suggestions as well. For example, if you ask an AA meeting what is the single most important thing that you can do for your recovery, you are going to get lots of different answers: “Work the steps, get a sponsor, find your higher power, work with newcomers in recovery,” etc.
So I was living in long term rehab and I was attending 12 step meetings every day and so I set out to explore all of the spirituality that I could possibly soak up. I read tons of books, practiced meditation, and so on.
I would say that during the first two years of my recovery while I lived in long term rehab I never really found the path that I was ultimately seeking. I stayed clean and sober and I was exploring spirituality, but I never really found the path that would ultimately define my recovery. I was seeking. It was not until I left the long term rehab that things started to fall into place for me. I guess I had to explore all of those things (sponsorship, daily meeting attendance, “book” spirituality, etc.) in order to realize what was NOT the ultimate answer in my life.
So at about 20 months clean and sober I left the long term rehab center and started out on my own. This is when I started to define what recovery really meant to me.
Finding my own path and transitioning to creative recovery
I still believe the idea of sponsorship may be useful in early recovery as a way to get positive suggestions from others.
It is a blow to the ego to believe that we could actually benefit from someone else’s ideas. But I have to admit that some of the greatest gifts that I have received in recovery come directly from other people.
For example, several people in my recovery journey suggested to me that I exercise. I tried to take this suggestion a few times and nothing really took hold for me, I could not seem to get into it. But later on in my recovery the suggestion finally took hold, and now regular exercise is a huge part of my recovery.
Taking suggestions does not meant that you must sacrifice yourself or become a robot. You can still take suggestions from others in recovery and try out their ideas and see if they work for you. This is a powerful way to live in recovery, because you are borrowing the best ideas from other people about how to have a good life. If you try something and it does not seem to work well for you, then you can simply discard the idea. This is how I essentially used sponsorship in my early recovery.
At some point though I drifted away from 12 step meetings because they were a poor use of my time. It took me a long time to admit this to myself because the traditional advice is that if you stop going to AA or NA meetings that you will surely relapse and die a horrible death. So I had to think carefully and really be sure of myself over a period of many months before I allowed myself to stop going to meetings. This was about ten years ago that I did this and I have not taken a drink or a drug since then. Meanwhile, many of my friends from the program who still attend meetings to this day have relapsed over this time period.
When I drifted away from traditional recovery I was influenced by all sorts of literature that I had read in early recovery. It was obvious to me that certain principles were important for staying clean and sober, and that the 12 step program did NOT have the market cornered on these ideas. Anyone should be able to recover from addiction without going through some archaic set of steps, or so I believed. The question for me was more about “how to leave traditional recovery but still work a deliberate program for my own benefit.”
And so I started to think carefully about recovery and what made people successful in staying sober. Certainly many people both in and out of AA relapsed and drank all the time. And there were certain success stories within traditional recovery programs that seemed to set the perfect example. Was it just the 12 steps that was keeping such people clean? I was doubting it because such people gave tons of advice that fell outside of the 12 steps.
For example, if you spoke with people who were successful in AA and asked for advice, they might tell you all sorts of things that were important to them in their recovery journey. For example, exercise was a major theme that I heard more than once. Personal growth seemed particularly important. Education and deliberate work on their career. All sorts of stuff that fell well outside of the 12 steps. Surely there was another path to recovery in all of this wisdom. In particular, my sponsor never seemed to push me on the steps or to read the 12 step literature. Instead, he was pushing me to go back to college, quit smoking cigarettes, and start exercising. If this was the stuff that made up successful recovery, why was it not in the 12 step program? What was I missing, an what was the best path to recovery really all about?
Exercise and entrepreneurship
Somewhere around my third to fifth year of recovery I started to explore these two ideas that would both become hugely important to my recovery.
First of all I started running on a regular basis and would eventually run a few marathons even. Exercise would become one of the pillars of my recovery. I truly believe that this is an angle that every person in recovery should thoroughly explore. It is a tough sell though because exercise is sort of a long road before it becomes natural and fun. I guess the best suggestion would be to “find a way to get vigorous workout every day, and then keep doing it until it becomes fun!”
In the beginning, it will not be much fun. It will be hard work. It will wear you right out and be a tough challenge that you face, over and over again.
But if you keep it up and keep working out, eventually you will cross a line and it will become natural and fun and you would not think to go without it. At this point, the exercise that you do will have tremendous benefit for your recovery. It will have a deep positive affect on your sobriety and on your life in so many ways. It is difficult to describe them all but suffice it to say that people who “get it” and who work out hard on a regular basis would not dream of quitting. They would never consider stopping. It has become a permanent way of life for them.
Think carefully about that because it shows a strong hint at one of the most powerful recovery strategies that you could ever use. If you can achieve the discipline to get into great shape and then you make a habit of daily exercise, it will absolutely change your life. Furthermore, this was part of the spiritual path that I was promised in early recovery, but that was found in the most unsuspecting place. For me, exercise became a meditation, and a way to connect to something powerful and intangible.
Entrepreneurship was much the same for me. I became a bit bored in recovery and I realized that I had plenty of time and energy with which to do whatever I wanted. Without drugs and alcohol in my life any more, I had almost unlimited time and energy for other projects. It was then that I figured that I may as well create something, I may as well build something. I had the time, I had the energy, and my job was not really much of challenge. So I figured I would create my own job, build something amazing, start a business.
If I failed, who cares? I was in recovery, I had energy and time on my side, and I could simply start over and try again. There was nothing to lose and everything to gain. I was bored with my job and I believed that I might ultimately be bored with ANY job. So I decided to create something.
And so I did exactly that. And I am not just super lucky or anything, I actually did fail a few times. I created some ideas that totally flopped. I wasted a whole lot of time and a bit of money too. But eventually I stumbled onto something that worked for me, and it took off. After some hard work and a bit more soul searching, I was able to leave my day job behind and start really building the new life that I had envisioned for myself. Another layer of freedom was thus revealed to me.
Exercise gave me one layer of freedom. For most of my life I hated exercise and it was always a drag to run or jog or work out. But somehow I fought through that pain and eventually it turned into a gift.
Building a business gave me a second layer of freedom. Both of these freedoms were an extension of my sobriety. Both of them were a natural result of being clean and sober, of using discipline and hard work to create something positive in my life.
Now notice that for me, my new life in recovery was largely defined by these two ideas: exercise and entrepreneurship. This may not be true for you, there may be other ideas or concepts that help to define your new life in recovery. But I would argue that you can go beyond the very limited idea that “recovery = spiritual growth” and find deeper meaning in your life that goes beyond spirituality. This is not to say that you should not pursue spiritual growth in recovery, but only that you will find some of that spiritual growth in places that you never expected (for example, my discovery that running is better than meditation, etc.).
I would argue that we each have a responsibility in recovery to “become the person we were always supposed to be before drugs or alcohol got in the way.”
You have gifts that make you unique. You have certain talents. You have something that you can give to the world. You have a contribution to make.
Are you making it?
If not, what can you do to explore that idea? How can you create the life you really want in recovery? How can you become a better person? How can you best serve others, while benefiting yourself in the process?
Why my approach is holistic compared to traditional recovery programs
Don’t be thrown or intimidated by the word “holistic.”
It just means “whole.”
So we talk about your life in recovery, and we are referring to more than just the spiritual angle.
We want to look at the physical aspect of your health in recovery.
We want to consider relationships. Education. Career. Emotional stability. Finances. Spirituality.
And so on.
Traditional recovery tends to take a very narrow view of recovery. Traditional recovery says “the problem is a spiritual malady, therefore the solution is spiritual.”
I have found that to be overly simplistic, and misleading.
To me, the problem of addiction was complex, and it affected my entire life (not just spiritually!).
Therefore, the solution is holistic. In order to overcome addiction and build a new life, I had to look beyond spirituality.
This is why I am attempting to define “creative recovery.”