When you attempt to quit drinking and get sober, you are faced with a particularly interesting challenge.
The challenge is this: If you let go of alcohol and stop self medicating with it, your life improves up to a certain point. But in order to really thrive in sobriety and avoid relapse in the long term, you must do more than to just avoid alcohol.
Essentially, you must pursue personal growth in order to really sustain your recovery and do well. The alternative to this is “dry drunk syndrome” in which you are abstaining from alcohol but you are angry at the world and at odds with everything.
This may seem like a curse at first–the fact that you have to continuously pursue personal growth–but in fact it is a blessing. Because what happens over time in recovery is that you realize that the benefits of this personal growth will start to compound.
Think of recovery as a change in the choices that you make. Instead of making unhealthy choices like you did in active addiction, you start to change over those choices to healthier alternatives. So you go to an AA meeting instead of drinking at the corner bar. You meditate or exercise instead of getting high on drugs. You quit smoking cigarettes one day and you learn to give back to others in recovery.
You trade out unhealthy choices for more positive ones. You trade in your bad habits for good habits.
In the short run this is not all that remarkable. You get a tiny boost but the chaos and stress of going through difficult changes often makes it seem as if you are struggling or flailing. Many times the newcomer appears to be making good progress in early recovery, and they are trading out bad habits for good ones, but because they are stressed and on a roller coaster of emotions they may not be able to see their own progress. Others can look at their life and see that they are doing well, but the individual feels like they are flailing.
That is the scenario in the short term. But in the long term something pretty amazing happens. If the struggling alcoholic continues to push themselves towards personal growth, then in the long run the benefits of that personal growth begin to multiply. So instead of things getting a tiny bit better, as they are doing in early recovery, all of a sudden their life is about a thousand times better, seemingly out of nowhere. This is because all of those tiny benefits in early recovery started to stack up together and reinforce one another.
Let me give you an example. When I first got clean and sober I was still smoking cigarettes, I wasn’t sleeping very well at night because I was used to passing out from alcohol, and I wasn’t very motivated to do exercise.
Fast forward a few years and I had quit smoking cigarettes, I was jogging and working out regularly, and I was falling asleep very quickly and easily every night.
How did all of that change occur? It took time. It did not just happen overnight. Honestly, I had to struggle a bit before I found those solutions and figured out how to get those things working for me. What happened is that someone suggested to me that I start exercising. On that day I did not magically start working out and transform my life–it took some time for me to warm up to that solution. The same thing was true when someone suggested that I quit smoking cigarettes. I had to try and fail several times to quit smoking before I finally found the right path.
And my sleep eventually straightened out, but I had to be patient with this. The exercise certainly helped, and so did quitting smoking, but I also just had to put in some sober time before my sleep could return to anything like normal.
At the same time as I was going through some of these changes I was also trying to create other healthy habits. I started writing in a journal every day and this allowed me to be more aware of my own problems, issues, and blocks in life. I sold my gaming system and started a small business, which turned out to be a much healthier use of my time. And instead of hanging out with my old friends from my life in addiction, I had surrounded myself with positive people who were aiming for recovery themselves.
All of these changes started to compound and grow with each other eventually. Each change, when you make it, is going to feel strange and challenging. Going through the actual change is not a comfortable feeling, unfortunately.
Change itself is foreign and difficult. It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel right, because it is not familiar and it is not known.
But after we go through the change and we are heading in a more positive direction, we can look back and see that this is was the best path for us. And in early recovery from addiction we have to make all sorts of positive changes all at once if we are going to have a shot at sobriety. These changes are unsettling and difficult and scary. There is simply no easy shortcut to “doing the work” when it comes to turning your life around. You have to trade out the bad habits and establish healthier habits, period. You have to do the work if you want to stay sober.
The kicker is that, one day in the near future, you will look back and realize that all of those changes that you made have multiplied together to create an amazing new life. You will realize that your healthier emotional state has allowed you to be more motivated to take physical care of yourself, and that in turn has led you to be more spiritual, which has enhanced your relationships with others, which in turn has led to better quality sleep, which in turn has encouraged you to eat healthier, and on and on and on. In other words, you don’t just put down the alcohol and call it a day. Instead, you have to embrace the idea of recovery and the idea that you are going to trade out an unhealthy lifestyle for a healthier one, and that you are going to keep working at it and taking suggestions and pushing yourself to improve over and over again.
If you take this approach and you push yourself to keep making healthy choices then eventually you will experience this compounding nature of benefits in sobriety. One day you can look back on early recovery and realize that the struggle–while it was quite a real struggle–was most definitely worth it. Because your life will be full and rich and you will have real joy and freedom in your recovery. The key is that you need to start this process somewhere, somehow, and that often means asking for help and going to inpatient treatment. Good luck achieving these benefits of recovery!