Once you are clean and sober and living in recovery, real joy and real freedom become possible.
We only get a glimpse of this possibility while we are stuck in addiction. But every time we believe that we are climbing out of that negative cycle our addiction seems to pull us back into it. In other words, if you continue to self medicate in your addiction, any happiness or freedom is only a temporary illusion. Reality sets in quickly and more negative consequences appear in your life.
This happens frequently when we are stuck in addiction but we make a major life change. If you continue to self medicate then you will have this temporary illusion that things are going to be different. So maybe you decide to move to a new city or something like that, and you sober up for a few days (or at least “cut back”) so that you can get yourself all moved in and situated. And you experience this new feeling of hope based on the fact that you made this major change and it feels like you are starting out on a brand new path in life.
But unless you embrace sobriety and abstinence, you are only fooling yourself. Because of course you cannot really run away from yourself, or from your addiction. You take yourself and your problems with you. So this temporary feeling of hope gets quickly dashed into pieces as your addiction rears its ugly head again. Nothing has changed and you are back to feelings of despair and hopelessness.
What you thought was happiness in addiction versus the peace and contentment that you get in sobriety
In the early days of your addiction or alcoholism you think that you have found the magic source of all things. When you discover your drug of choice and how much you enjoy it, it is like you found happiness in a bottle. Quite literally! And so you get into this mindset that you can be happy and free any time that you want in life, simply by drinking enough magic potion (or by taking the right pills, smoking the right substance, etc.).
I can remember this feeling and it was amazing. It was like the lock had finally turned in the right keyhole. Here was my answer! This was what I had been looking for my whole life. A way to self medicate and instantly produce the happiness that I wanted. It was so easy. I couldn’t resist the lure of instant happiness with my drug of choice.
And in the beginning I had the utmost faith in this sort of happiness. It was like a magic trick I had discovered, and it really worked. I could be in a bad mood, or I could be sad, or I could be afraid, or experiencing just about any sort of negative emotion that made me uncomfortable, and yet the magic potion still worked. If I drank enough booze or took enough drugs (or both) then I could erase those negative emotions that I did not want in my life.
I could erase fear. That was amazing, and something that I never even admitted to myself until well after I was clean and sober. What I was really doing in my addiction was living in fear. I was covering up a million different fears and anxieties by drinking them away every day. And so the very thought of not being able to drink ever again was perhaps the greatest fear of all. Because then that implied that I was going to have to feel all of those negative emotions that I had become so used to medicating away. I was going to have to face my greatest fears without any sort of crutch at all if I were ever to get sober. The implication was truly terrifying to me.
Fear drove me in my addiction. I was living in fear and I was full of anxiety. And eventually you get sick and tired of being afraid. It is exhausting to be afraid all the time. And once you realize this and really get honest with yourself about how exhausting it is, then you finally start to weigh the idea of sobriety. You start to weigh the idea of facing your fears. Of saying “screw it, I know it would be scary has heck to face my fears and get sober, but it might just be better than the crap I am living through now.” That is the turning point. When your misery in addiction finally exceeds your fear of sobriety. Once you reach that point and admit to yourself then you can ask for help and start rebuilding your life in sobriety.
Of course then once you get clean and sober you start this rebuilding process. In the first few weeks of sobriety your emotions will be all over the place for a while. You may not be exactly “happy” right away in sobriety because it takes time to rebuild and to heal your life.
But if you are miserable enough in your addiction then you will allow time for this to happen. This is surrender. You agree to trust someone else’s ideas about how to live your life. Because your way was not working. What you thought was “happiness in a bottle” turned out to be constant misery, chaos, and living in fear. And you finally admitted that to yourself and got honest about it. So now you need to get help and find a different way. That is a very humbling experience but it is the only way out of the misery.
And so you start to get a glimpse in early recovery that real freedom and real joy is possible again. You will even have moments of real joy and happiness during your first week of sobriety. Make sure you notice them. Make sure you take the time to be grateful for them, if you can. I admit that I did not have a lot of gratitude when I first got sober, but I should have. I realize today that I was becoming happier with each passing day in sobriety, even when I only had a few days sober. It really is an amazing transformation.
So your idea of happiness shifts. In addiction, happiness is in a bottle, your drug of choice, and the rest is just details.
In recovery, you get peace, joy, contentment, and freedom from a number of different sources.
Several sources of joy become possible in addiction recovery
The first way that I started to realize a new happiness in recovery was through other people. I was making connections. I was meeting new friends in recovery.
This is something that I never wanted to do, mind you. I hated the idea because I tend to be shy and reserved. So the idea that I could get sober and then get a whole new set of friends was terrifying to me. I did not want that. I would rather stay drunk and keep my old friends, thank you.
But I didn’t have a choice. I had to move on, I had to change everything. And so I forced myself to go live in long term rehab, and there I made many new friends. New connections.
And as you can imagine, I found myself connecting with some of these people more than others. And I found myself laughing with them as we discussed the secrets of sobriety and what it really took to remain clean and sober. And who was going to be the next person to relapse and leave the sober home. Of course we talked like this among ourselves, we were only human. And through these connections with new people I found myself making friends and I found myself laughing with them.
And this was within the first 30 days of my sobriety! That is real joy that was slipping away from me in my addiction, when I started to isolate and distance myself from friends and family. They were just getting in the way of my drinking and drug use so I was pushing people away. What joy is there in that?
So the connections with other people were a real source of joy, even in the first few weeks of recovery.
But there is way more than that. This social aspect is just one tiny example. There are others.
Later in my sobriety journey I started to exercise and work out on a regular basis. Who would have thought that this had anything to do with freedom or happiness?
But it did. I got in shape, and eventually I got to the point where working out actually felt good. It was no longer a chore or a drag; in fact it gave me something like a natural high. And the positive benefits that it made in my life were the icing on the cake. Being in good shape increased my freedom in a way that I could have not have anticipated. It was a form of power because I could do more things and I had much more energy. Discovering health and fitness in sobriety was a huge leap forward in terms of my own personal growth.
From another perspective I started to engage in the idea of personal growth as a means to remain sober. Instead of seeing the spiritual solution of working through the steps of AA, I shifted towards a more holistic approach in which the mechanism of staying sober meant that I was continuously improving myself and my life. Looking back, I don’t really see this approach as all that different from the steps in traditional recovery. Both are a path of growth, a path of self improvement. They both seem to point to the same journey, the same concept of growth.
One of my favorite Zen parables is about the “finger pointing at the moon.” The teacher asks “what is that?” And the student replies “that is the moon.”
Wrong. That is not the moon. That is merely a finger pointing at the moon! Ha!
But it makes a point. Don’t confuse the pointer with the thing itself. Don’t confuse a recovery program that merely points towards sobriety with sobriety itself.
I see people do this when they finally get sober, and they give way too much credit to whichever program finally “cured them.” They give the program too much credit. The program did not cure them, they healed themselves because they finally broke through denial, asked for help, and made a decision to take action. Don’t confuse the finger pointing with sobriety itself.
Sobriety opens the door to accumulation. You start to build a new life in recovery, just as if you were layering new floors on a building you were constructing.
This is exciting. This is one of the gifts of sobriety, one of the “joy bonuses” that you get to unlock.
Because in addiction, whenever you made some tiny bit of progress in any area of your life, it was always offset by your addiction. Your drinking or drug use always dragged you back to reality, always knocked you back down in some way. So it was always two steps forward and three steps back. You couldn’t really make any growth, because your addiction sabotaged everything. Or rather, you sabotaged yourself because of your addiction.
In recovery the opposite of this occurs. Instead of taking two steps forward and three back, you just start taking steps forward. No more backsliding. This is the power of growth and learning in recovery. Since you are no longer self medicating every day, you get to remember everything that you experience and learn from it. You get to create personal growth in your life and keep those gains and benefits that you make without backsliding due to your addiction.
And so this is how personal growth starts to accumulate. You are actually building a new life in layers.
Of course it starts with abstinence from drugs and alcohol. This is your baseline. This is the foundation of everything. If you screw this up then the whole house of cards comes tumbling down and you may or may not be lucky enough to start over (sometimes relapse can be fatal, unfortunately).
So then you start to make new connections in early recovery and hopefully start learning some things. And you do this by taking suggestions and putting ideas into action.
A recovering alcoholic can sit in meetings all day long and listen, but this doesn’t really produce too much benefit unless they start applying some of the ideas in their own life. That is where the real magic happens.
And so it becomes a numbers game of sorts. Are you willing to try something new in your life? Are you willing to change?
Great. Let’s assume that you are willing.
But now…..are you also willing to keep doing this? To keep choosing the path with a heart, to keep learning new lessons, to keep peeling back those layers of yourself and discovering the real truth that is inside? Are you willing to risk some discomfort in order to grow as a person?
Personal growth is scary and uncomfortable at first but when you look back at it you will realize that this is the pay of joy and happiness. Meet new challenges, work hard at them, and then you win some and lose some. And you live to fight another day in recovery and you seek continuous improvement of yourself and of your life situation. And it is through this growth that you gain contentment and even peace.
At first you may not see the peaceful part of this path. Because it is hard and uncomfortable. But in retrospect you will be able to see that there were actually no shortcuts, because the path without a heart, the path that was not a path of personal growth would only lead to more misery, complacency, and idleness.
It is a jump in responsibility in my experience. It is a bit like saying to yourself: “OK, I realize that to remain sober I am going to have to work at it, get honest with myself, and possibly be uncomfortable at times. But I also realize that this is the path to real peace, freedom, and happiness. The alternative to this is far less rewarding.”
A shift in values from selfish pleasure seeking to helping others
One of the things that you realize in long term sobriety is that you no longer derive happiness from your selfish desires (as you once did in addiction).
Instead, you get real joy and excitement from helping others. This opens up a whole new world to you. So helping others becomes like a win-win situation.
Many people in recovery will focus exclusively on helping others to recover as well. This is the classic message of step 12 in AA, to carry the message of hope to the alcoholic or addict who is still suffering.
There is a lot of joy and amazing transformation in that path, but I realize that it may not be for everyone. You don’t have to get sober and then go save the world necessarily.
But I think you eventually will do something. And it may not be helping others to get sober.
One suggestion from one of my mentors in recovery is to find your greatest heartbreak. That probably sounds a bit strange, to find your “heartbreak.”
So what you do is figure out what in this world breaks your heart the most. Who do you most desperately want to help in this world? Do you start crying when you think about a certain group that you want to help? If so, then you have discovered your biggest heartbreak.
Then that becomes a bit like your 12 step work in recovery. You have your mission now, go and do whatever you can to help those people. Go volunteer, or seek a career that would allow you to help that specific group. Or start a fund raising campaign or create a foundation for them. Whatever. But that is what will help to keep you sober in the long run and bring you a huge amount of joy.
There is an ancient teaching (not sure of the origin) that says something to the effect of “The bowl that holds your joy in life is hollowed out by your pain first” or something to that effect. In other words, the extent to which you can feel joy is going to be limited by the depth of your greatest sorrow.
Therefore you have a clue to how you can pursue real joy in your recovery. First you have to explore your greatest sorrow and what breaks your heart the most. And that takes courage. But once you figure that out you will have a clear road map to joy and happiness.
By doing what I was told in early sobriety I gained a total freedom that I never could have predicted
Here is one of the great paradoxes of addiction recovery:
If you want total freedom, then you must obey and take orders in early recovery.
I wish there was a shortcut around this, but there’s not. I wish I could tell you that you can somehow skip this part where you take advice and listen to others, but I can’t.
If you want total freedom in your life then you have to do the work.
You have to ask for help.
You have to surrender completely.
Go to rehab, go to detox, go to treatment, go to a counselor, go to a sponsor in AA, and say to any or all of these people:
“I don’t know how to live any more. Please tell me how to live.”
That is true surrender.
And then you actually do it. You listen and you take action.
Forget about freedom and peace and joy for a year or two.
Just take advice and put it into action.
Over and over again.
Then one day–much sooner than you would expect–you will wake up and realize that you are happy, joyous, and free.
Because you did the work.
Have you done the work yet? Are you joyous and content in recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!