The New Science of Holistic Addiction Recovery

The New Science of Holistic Addiction Recovery


This is based only on my own experience and observations, therefore we should use caution in labeling the ideas here as “science.” I do not actually have data to back up these ideas other than my own subjective observations. That said, I have lived in addiction recovery for over 12 years, I worked in a detox and inpatient rehab for about five years, and I continue to study the art and science of recovery. So you might put my ideas somewhere between that of “casual observer” and “hard science.”

The old approach to addiction recovery

There have been many different attempts to treat addiction and alcoholism in the past but one method has become the dominant default choice: AA and the 12 step program. It may be difficult to describe it accurately here but we might think of it as a social+spiritual approach. The 12 steps are designed to bring about a spiritual awakening, and the other “core part” of the program would seem to be the meetings that are attended on a regular basis. So really there are these two main dynamics: the social aspect (meeting attendance) and the religious/spiritual aspect (12 steps).

If this approach works well for you then there are no problems, as the program of AA is fairly widespread. If you go to a random treatment center there is about a 90 percent chance that you will be exposed to the 12 step program while there. Chances are good you will even attend in-house AA or NA meetings while at rehab. It is the default solution at this point, for good or bad.

For some it is good. The program works for them and there are basically meetings everywhere. After leaving rehab they can follow up and continue to attend meetings for the rest of their life.

For many it is not so good, and the program does not work for them. Unfortunately when this happens we tend to blame the person rather than the program of AA. Why do we do that? Because we “know” that the program works, if only the person would put in a more serious effort, right?

Well, the same is true of any random recovery program that you can design in your mind right now. Come up with a hypothetical program, then have a group of people use your new program to try to stay sober. If they fail, it is obvious that they simply did not try hard enough! This logic would work for any abstinence based program of recovery. When individuals fail, we blame their lack of motivation. But when the succeed, we give the credit to “the program” that they were using.

This is the fatal flaw in our old school thinking that has to change. We cannot fault the individual and give all the credit to magical programs (that are obviously not magical). Instead we must realize that it really is up to the individual, that some amount of willpower is involved (no matter how much traditional programs try to deny that willpower is a factor). For example, you need willpower to stick to a program, don’t you? Some people would argue that “you don’t need willpower, you just need to follow the program and have faith in a higher power.” I would argue that this is false and that some amount of willpower is still required for any path that you may choose in recovery, including a faith based path.

If we expose this “fatal flaw” for what it really is and realize that these programs are not actually “magic,” where does that leave us? It leaves us with a more realistic picture of the addiction recovery process. The old approach is to simply do as you are told, not to question the advice you are given, and follow in the footsteps of people who have become sober before you. If it worked for them it should work for you, right? Stop asking questions and just do as the old timers suggest! This is the old path, and it is slowly fading away because people are asking questions when they are continuously told not to. The old timer at an AA meeting will say “This is a not a program for people who need it, it is a program for people who want it.” Once you go down the path of saying “I want this thing that you have in AA” then you are really no longer going to be questioning things. You have accepted the program, as is, for your solution. It may not be perfect but it works for other people, right? So just shut up and go with it.

The logic behind all of this is simple: AA worked for people when nothing else in the past seemed to work at all. AA broke new ground in treating alcoholism and nothing flashier has come along since. If the program works for some people and has produced any amount of success in the past, then it must be the best form of treatment. Right?

The problem is that recovery is incredibly difficult to measure. It all goes back to our flawed logic: we never blame AA for anyone’s relapse, we only blame that individual. But when people succeed in recovery we never give them credit, we only credit the program they used. This is unfair and it exposes the weakness of existing recovery programs.

The old idea is to go ask for help, be told what to do (go to AA), then you do it and you recover. This is the old school path. Do as you are told.

It is not clear to me if the world can hang on to this treatment model for the next few decades. If enough people sense the unfairness of the logic being used (AA succeeds but individuals fail) then eventually a more modern approach will slide into place. This may or may not come to pass on a massive scale, but many people even today have abandoned the old approach for a more modern look at recovery. Based on my limited observations, the results of this have been good.

Modern idea: do what works for you

The new science of addiction recovery is to find the method or actions that help to keep you sober, and then to do them. We are concerned with results, sobriety, and quality of life rather than religious or spiritual conversion.

Some people are so stuck in the old model of treatment that they cannot imagine someone recovering without going to meetings every day. But there is evidence of this with dozens of alternative programs and methods of treatment. For example, there is a movement of individuals who use exercise as their primary means of recovering from addiction. That is their entire program. They do not go meetings and they do not “work any steps.” They simply push themselves to get into awesome shape and then they race in competitive events. This is their recovery model and they have formed an organization to help spread their model.

Now does it really matter if this particular program has a hundred people in it or ten thousand? Obviously it is working for several individuals and that is enough to make the point here–there is recovery outside of AA.

My own example is that I stopped attending meetings and using the 12 step program over a decade ago. For the last ten years+ I have been living a good life of recovery without any 12 step influence. How is this possible?

Because I have embraced the principles of modern recovery (rather than subscribing to the old school methods to “do what I am told”).

I experimented in my own recovery. Instead of relying on an old book (The big book of AA) to tell me what to do in order to maintain sobriety, I started paying attention to my own life and measuring what things helped me stay sober. Instead of relying on old timers in meetings to tell me what to do, I started experimenting and trying new things in my life to see how they affected my recovery.

This is not a passive approach. This requires an active mind. You have to pay attention if you want to measure something. And in this case we are measuring what works and what does not in your life.

Most people in AA are not active. They are passive. They show up to the meetings and they try to absorb “some of the good stuff” that the real “winners” at the table are talking about. The key is not to find good stuff to absorb–the key is to start making the good stuff yourself! Get active. Start experimenting. You want to learn something? Then you need to try something. Get out there and explore your options. Maybe you tried AA and decided that it is not a great fit for your personality. Well, what are you going to do with your life? Start exploring, start trying some things. Try exercise. Try meditation. Try working with other addicts and alcoholics. Try going back to school. Try religion if that is your thing.

But don’t just expect the old school of traditional recovery to give you an answer. The only answer that they have is “do it our way. This worked for us, don’t try to tweak it, you will only screw it up and relapse. Our way works if you work it. So don’t mess with a good thing. Just do as you are told.”

So ultimately you have a choice: you can go with the old school approach (just follow the steps, do as you are told, do not deviate) or you can create your own modern approach to recovery. If you create your own modern approach then there is a little bonus that I think adds up to increased self esteem: you get to claim credit for your recovery. If you go with the old school approach then “the program” and “your higher power” get all of the credit for keeping you sober.

And of course if you relapse–regardless of what program you are working (or not working)–it is always your own fault and your own responsibility. You don’t get to blame AA if you end up relapsing, because the whole world knows that the program did not fail you, and that you failed the program. That old logic will never die…..

What is the driver of positive action?

Whether you choose old school recovery or try to devise your own modern approach, you have to ask yourself:

“What is the driver of positive action in my life today?”

Recovery is all about change. If you are not making changes in your life then you are not really recovering, plain and simple. Successful recovery requires change.

In order to make any change you must take action. Action is the driver of change. No changes can occur unless you take some action first.

If you take action once then that is good, but it is never going to be enough. For example, you may check into rehab. Great, you have taken action. But what will you be doing at 3 months sober, at 9 months sober, at five years sober? Will you still be taking positive action then? Or will you slip into some passive state where you are just hoping that things work out and that you are not too tempted to relapse?

Recovery must be proactive. Successful recovery requires continuous change. Therefore it requires continuous action.

Working the 12 step program is one way to try to encourage this continuous action. You can go to meetings, get involved in sponsorship, connect with your peers in recovery, and so on. If this works for you in the long run, then go with it. Find a way to take positive action. Find a way to embrace a continuous cycle of positive change.

Some people find this cycle of positive action in religion. They may be involved with a church and they may find a way to motivate themselves to keep making positive changes through religion. If so, that is great–go with it.

A number of people have found that they are on a path of personal growth in recovery. They may not go to any meetings or be involved in any church, but they are still pushing themselves to improve their life and themselves on a continuous basis. They seek positive changes for the benefits that such change will bring. For these people, recovery is personal growth, and taking positive action is the method of change. (This is my own personal philosophy of recovery that I follow).

So you may have to ask yourself:

“What motivates me to take positive action? What can be the driver of positive changes in my life? What is it that I need to embrace in order to keep making positive changes?”

The modern approach to recovery is not necessarily something that you are told how to do–rather, it is something that you discover. I am just letting you know that it is possible, that you can find the driver of positive change in your life, and then embrace it.

The holistic approach to recovery

What is the holistic approach to recovery?

“Holistic” just means “whole.” As in, you are a “whole person” and there are many different aspects of your life and of your recovery.

For example, you may think of your possible growth in recovery in terms of the following areas:

* Physical health – fitness and nutrition. Being free from disease.
* Spiritual health – connecting with a higher power. Meditation. Connecting with others. Finding purpose and meaning.
* Emotional health – being happy and healthy from an emotional standpoint. Staying level. Not flying off the handle in anger.
* Relationships – being happy with your relationships with others. Making healthy connections.

And so on. We could also consider less obvious aspects of our health, such as financial (not directly related to health but can certainly affect things like stress level, etc.).

So when we talk about a holistic approach to recovery, we are really considering the fact that we want to look at all of these possible aspects of our lives in terms of positive changes that we might make.

Traditional recovery only considers one of these areas: spirituality. The entire focus in old school recovery is on the spiritual aspect. All other areas are ignored at the expense of spiritual growth. They say in the Big Book “If a solution isn’t spiritual, it isn’t practical.”

What I have found in my own recovery is that this is simply not true. I have found many solutions and many positive changes to be made that were not spiritual in nature. For example, one of the most important changes that I have made in my recovery was when I adopted the habit of distance running. This was a physical change, not a spiritual one. And yet it has been one of the biggest drivers of my success in recovery.

Another change that I made in recovery was to quit smoking cigarettes. Again, this was not a change that was based on spirituality. Rather, it was based on my physical health. And this is one of the changes that has had the biggest positive impact on my life in recovery.

So I am not suggesting that spirituality is not important, or that you should ignore it. This is not the case. But in old school recovery, the entire emphasis is only on spiritual progress. That’s it. They ignore all other forms of personal growth.

Modern recovery seeks to correct this problem. The holistic approach means that you look at your entire life (not just the spiritual aspect) and you look for growth opportunities.

Recovery is all about personal growth. Why would you want to limit your personal growth to only spiritual matters? There is so much more opportunity out there for positive change. This is why the modern approach to recovery is a holistic approach. If you narrow your solution down to just the spiritual aspect then you are doing yourself a disservice.


Sure sounds like a buzzword, doesn’t it? What the heck is synergy anyway?

Synergy is the concept of “the sum being greater than the parts.”

Now how does this apply to modern recovery?

The holistic approach to addiction recovery takes many forms of growth into account. Instead of just pursuing spiritual growth, you are also encouraged to seek personal growth in other areas of your life. So you may look into exercise, going back to college, eating a healthier diet, working with others in recovery, and so on.

The idea of synergy is that your goals can enhance and compliment each other. We also talk about “alignment” when we talk about synergy. If your goals are in alignment with each other, then they will tend to have a synergistic effect.

Let’s use an example. Let’s say you are trying to get into shape but you are also smoking cigarettes. And you may not be paying much attention to your diet.

This was the exact position that I was in at one time. I actually became a distance runner while I was still a cigarette smoker.

Later on I had the goal of quitting smoking. This was a natural goal for me because it complimented my goal of being in shape and being a distance runner.

When your goals are out of alignment (like smoking and running) then you are fighting against yourself. You do not experience synergy. Your goals are not complimenting and helping each other.

So obviously the idea is to choose goals that DO compliment each other (such as quitting smoking and distance running).

Now if you add proper nutrition in there you can see how your overall health and effectiveness begins to multiply. And that is the whole point with this synergy idea–when you align your goals they do not just add together, they start to multiply your results because each goal enhances and compliments the others. This is alignment.


Comments are closed.