There is a fine line in addiction recovery–that between staying open to new suggestions and taking advice from others, while at the same time being able to live your own life, make your own decisions, and shape your own path in recovery.
The key is to find the right balance and get the best of both worlds. Stay too headstrong in early recovery and take no advice at all, and you are liable to end up relapsing shortly after leaving treatment, wasting all of your effort and starting right back at square one. On the other hand, if you mindlessly give yourself over to recovery without taking any initiative to reach or form your own goals, you will end up with a hollow recovery that does not inspire you to grow or take any action at all.
So how can we find the healthy balance?
Will you become like the hole in a donut, sacrificing your self will?
When I was still drinking and using drugs, I got my first exposure to treatment by attending an inpatient rehab. At the time, I had no clue what they were going to try to teach me. I had no idea what to expect of recovery. Furthermore, I was nowhere near being done with my addiction. I had not surrendered in the least, instead, I was just taking a small breather when it came to the long and twisted path of my disease.
What I found in the world of recovery was fairly surprising to me. The ideas they presented seemed to run counter to everything I had envisioned somehow. They talked about being powerless rather than finding a way to increase your power over an addiction. They talked about taking direction and following advice from others rather than strengthening your own resolve to not drink. They talked about sponsorship and doing what you were told to do, rather than following your own ideas. And people joked that the program of recovery was a bit like brainwashing, and that this is exactly what us crazy alcoholics and addicts needed–a good old fashioned brain scrubbing.
After leaving treatment and eventually returning to my drug of choice, I hung on to some of these ideas that scared me, and used them to justify my using. For example, I was terrified of AA meetings and I did not like the idea that I might be forced to speak in front of other people, and so I felt hopeless that this was the main solution that recovery seemed to be offering. Were there alternatives to 12 step meetings? Sort of, but most of them led back to the 12 step program in some way. For example, long term treatment required 12 step meeting attendance, as did almost all of the inpatient treatment centers that I knew about. Recovery, it seemed, was primarily twelve step based, and there really were not any solid alternatives to be had. It was AA or the highway, for the most part. And I was so afraid of the meetings and speaking in front of others that this was an instant turn off.
The part that really scared me of course was that the therapists and counselors were urging me to simply face this fear and get over it, so that I could grow in my recovery and gain support through the meetings. This approach was certainly made with the right intentions but it kept me scared enough to stay out in my active addiction and feel justified based on my fear of meetings. I vowed never to get clean and sober because I knew they would just funnel me back into the 12 step program, and I was terrified of it.
The problem comes down to self will versus taking suggestions in early recovery. Your success in early recovery cannot really come from self will alone. If it does, then it is likely that you are not even a real addict or alcoholic.
Why the addict must ask for help
The issue is one of being trapped in a cycle of addiction. You have problems that are of your own making, based on your addiction, and you cannot solve them by yourself. This is actually what defines an addiction. Certainly you attempt to control your drug intake, or reduce it, and you try for years all sorts of different schemes and control mechanisms, but to no avail. In particular you realize that you cannot both control your drug intake and be happy at the same time. This is what defines you as an addict. You may even give up hope at some point and just say “I guess I am different from other people, in that I am hooked on drugs and that I just need them in order to be happy.”
So finding your way out of this cycle of addiction cannot be achieved by your own design. If it could, then you would not be an addict, because you would simply figure out a way to either stop using drugs and alcohol or to simply control your intake. Do either one and your status as an “addict” or “alcoholic” pretty much disappears overnight. Problem solved, and you figured it out yourself. Good job!
But real addicts and alcoholics cannot do this, they have tried to do it for years, to unravel their problem of addiction, to control their intake, and they cannot figure it out. Thus they are truly addicts and they need help in order to overcome their disease. This is a key point here: the true addict or alcoholic needs outside help in order to overcome their addiction. If they try to conquer it on their own, even if they really try their hardest, this will result in failure and they will eventually return to their drug of choice and the chaos that it brings to their life.
So, key point: real addicts and alcoholics cannot overcome their addiction without asking for outside help.
What happens when we take outside advice
When the addict or alcoholic allows themselves to ask for help and they start acting on the advice that they receive, something transforms. Suddenly, they are no longer running the whole show. They have delegated some of their decisions to someone else for a while, and thus they have surrendered some amount of self will.
They are essentially saying to themselves “I am still in control of my life, I reserve the right to make my own decisions, but just for now I am going to ask this other person for advice on how to live and what I should do, and I am going to take their suggestions and see what the outcomes are.”
This is how to surrender self will. And what happens when you do this in early recovery is almost always a positive and transforming experience for the addict. In fact, it matters very little who you even ask for advice. Just about anyone had better ideas about how we should live than the addict themselves!
Stop and think about it for a moment: Our best ideas about how to live our lives were absolutely terrible. As addicts and alcoholics, we thought that the best way to live was to self medicate all the time. We really believed that this would result in the most amount of success and happiness in our lives. And of course it created a huge mess. But you have remember, our brains were wired that way, and we really believed that self medicating with drugs and alcohol was a good idea!
When we ask for help, we get to try someone else’s ideas. We might ask a treatment center, a counselor, a therapist, a sponsor, a religious leader, a family member, and so on. We ask for help and we ask for advice on how to live. We say to others “I have made a mess of life due to my addiction and I do not know how to live any more. Please show me.” This is the level of surrender that is required to overcome addiction. It is a question of living, how do we actually live in recovery, and are we willing to take and follow advice on how to do that?
An amazing thing happens when we surrender, ask for help, and start taking advice. Suddenly our life starts to get better based on this new direction. Obviously when we take advice from others, they urge us to start with abstinence from drugs and alcohol as the baseline of our new life in recovery. This is obvious to others, that we need to be physically clean and sober.
Of course they will have other suggestions as well, and this is where I resisted initially due to the idea that I was sacrificing myself. “Go to meetings, go to rehab, live in treatment, get sponsor, go back to school, take advice, follow suggestions,” and so on and so forth. This is where I became resistant because I was afraid I would be like the hole in a donut, that I would not have any life for myself, that I would just become a robot who was living for others.
Well here is the thing that you need to remember:
When you take advice and suggestions from others in recovery, you retain full control at all times. You are never like the hole in a donut, because you remain in charge and you remain the decision maker. No one can take away your self will, you will ultimately always be in the drivers seat of your life. You can take suggestions, follow advice, and always be one step away from saying “this is crazy, I’m not doing this, I am going to do it my way instead.” That option is always available to you in recovery, anyone can take back self will at any time, and many people do.
You can follow advice and suggestions without becoming a non-person.
A question of timing – when to listen to others the most, and when to design your own program
So we have established that there are times when it makes sense to take advice and direction. In early recovery especially, we are not so great at making our own decisions. Doing so tends to lead us back to our drug of choice.
So in early recovery, we surrender our self will, and let most of our decisions be made by someone else. This works very well for keeping us clean and sober in early recovery, as most people will suggest treatment, rehab, meetings, safe environments, and so on.
Early recovery is the best time to take advice and suggestions. Early recovery is the best time to relinquish self will.
So how can you “shape your own path in recovery” if you are following the advice and direction of others?
This will change as you remain clean and sober. Naturally, as you stay in recovery for longer periods of time, you will start to shape your life more and more with self will.
Many people in the program will caution you against this, but take it as an opportunity for growth instead. The only danger here is if you become cocky or over-confident with yourself.
You might even look at recovery in two major phases at some point: Early recovery and long term sobriety.
Early recovery is about eliminating negative problems. Long term sobriety is about achieving positive goals.
Early recovery is about taking advice and direction in order to overcome your bad habits.
Long term sobriety is about looking for opportunities in your life to do the things you have always wanted to do.
You start shaping your own path in recovery when you are transitioning out of the “early recovery” phase and into the “long term sobriety” phase.
When does this happen? The length of time will vary for different people. It is not so much about clean time or the number of months or years sober, but more about your own stability and clearing up the wreckage in your life.
At a certain point in recovery, you have taken all sorts of advice and you have made some very positive changes and things are starting to go really well. You asked for help, people gave you advice, and you took their advice and implemented it into your life. Now you have achieved some stability and you are sort of saying to yourself “OK, things are going well. What next?”
This is where the personal growth aspect of recovery comes in. You have asked for advice and people gave it to you, helping you to achieve growth in obvious ways. Now it is time to evaluate your self, evaluate your life, and start working toward your own positive goals.
Thus, early recovery is the time to take direction from others. Long term sobriety is where you really start to find your own path. If you try to find your own path in early recovery, you are probably going to wind up relapsing. The timing is all wrong. Early recovery demands that you take advice and direction from others instead.
Seek advice from people who have what you want in life
This is the old suggestion in the program about how to find a suitable sponsor, but it makes sense and so it bears repeating. “Find someone who has what you want.” Don’t look at what they are saying or talking about in meetings, as anyone can sound good and talk a good game in recovery. Instead, find someone who is living the kind of life that you want to live.
That is the person that you should seek advice from.
There are really three levels of “taking suggestions from others” in recovery.
The first level is when you have not yet surrendered and sobered up. At this stage, it almost does not matter who you are asking for help, as nearly anyone can plainly see that you need abstinence and professional treatment.
At the second level, you are attempting to learn how to live a sober life, so you want to take a bit more care in who you ask for direction. This is the “sponsorship” level of seeking advice.
At the third level, you have already taken much advice and direction in your life, and now it is time to look within, at your own goals and dreams, such that you will no longer need much outside help and direction.
It is almost like you need to start in recovery by taking lots of direction and advice from others. You continue to do so until you pretty much get all the value from others that they have to offer you. You have learned what others have to teach you. Now it is time to define your own goals and chase them for your own self. This is how you create your own path in recovery. You start with advice and direction and then as you become stable and successful you shift over to shaping your own path.
Finding a sponsor and taking suggestions from them
Sponsorship makes sense in early recovery and can even be beneficial as you remain clean and sober. The key is that you seek feedback and advice in a positive way as you progress in your recovery.
Surprisingly, I found that my sponsor focused much less on the basic ideas of recovery and abstinence, and more about long term personal growth ideas. For example, my sponsor encouraged me to go back to college very early in my recovery, and I thought that this was a mistake at the time. I felt overwhelmed because I was still somewhat early in my recovery, and I thought to myself “Aren’t I supposed to be focusing on just staying clean and sober at this point? Why is he pushing me to go back to school? Isn’t that just going to stress me out?”
Another suggest was for me to start exercising. Again, I found this suggestion to be annoying at best, because it seemed like such a distraction from the core of my recovery. I was so terrified of relapse and for some reason I believed that every suggestion that I got should focus directly on preventing relapse.
Little did I understand at the time, all of these suggestions were about preventing relapse–I just could not see it from my current perspective. And perhaps this is why we need sponsors and to take advice from others in recovery. We cannot always see the growth experience that is laid out in front of us and how we will benefit by going through with it.
I thought exercise and education were a waste of my time in early recovery, because I was afraid of relapse and wanted to focus more narrowly on doing the work, writing in the steps, or finding some sort of way to prevent relapse directly. My sponsor could see the bigger picture and he knew how beneficial exercise and education would be for me in the long run. I could not see those benefits and would not have really believed him if he tried to convince me of them.
So instead, I simply did what I was told to do and can now look back on it, realizing the growth experience. I was not ready at the time to push myself to go back to school, but someone else pushed me instead. I was not motivated enough to seek out an exercise routine on my own, but someone else pushed me to do so and therefore I benefited greatly from it.
And so this is how recovery works. You seek advice, you seek direction, and then you follow through and act on positive suggestions. As you do so, you are shaping and sculpting your life based on your experiences. Some of those experiences are chosen by others, and some of them will eventually be led by your own ideas. It’s a mixture of both. You can still have self will while following advice from others.
Some of my greatest accomplishments and growth experiences in recovery were not my own ideas. They were suggestions from others.