Recovery from alcoholism or drug addictions starts out very slowly. At first, you are completely unhappy. Downright miserable, in fact.
One of the reasons that people stay stuck in addiction for so long is because the withdrawal symptoms are so uncomfortable. No one likes to go through detox. It is never going to be “fun” to come off of drugs or alcohol.
One of the mistakes that I made before I finally got sober was to project this period of misery on to the rest of my life in recovery. I was stuck believing that if I stopped drinking and using drugs that I would be miserable forever and that I would never feel any better.
This is obviously false. And people tried to tell me that this was the case when I was trying to sober up, but I guess I could not convince my mind to believe them. I was terrified of living my life sober because I was so afraid that I would be miserable.
Of course the funny thing is that I was already miserable. I was miserable from drinking and using drugs every day. But I would not admit this to myself for a long time. And so instead of admitting to this misery that I was experiencing, I instead focused on the fear of living life without the crutch of drugs and alcohol.
Classic denial. I was clinging to the “safety” of self medicating every day, knowing that I could get at least a tiny bit of “happiness” from my drug of choice. And all the while I was in denial of what the future would be like if I were sober: I could not accept that I might move beyond my fear and find peace and contentment while living a sober life. I just couldn’t see that as being possible. I was stuck in denial.
And so this is the starting point. The alcoholic or the drug addict is miserable, and they are sick and tired of trying to medicate their misery away using their drug of choice, and it just doesn’t get any better. So at some point they (hopefully) decide to take the plunge and become clean and sober.
And when they do this, when they go through detox and first make this transition, they are generally feeling pretty “down” at first. Not exactly a joyful first week in sobriety. And that is understandable.
But it all builds from there. This is the baseline for recovery. When you start out, the first goal is to simply be “not miserable.” And for starters, that is enough.
Establishing a baseline of “not misery”
When I sobered up I went to treatment and was in a medical detox ward. I told myself those first few days that I was miserable. I guess I believed that I was miserable at the time. I suppose I was miserable.
But I would say that it did not take long for me to move past this state of misery. Only a matter of days or a few weeks and I could honestly say that I was “not miserable.” Being in treatment is not terribly difficult, once you get there. It is the surrender and the “getting there” that can be so challenging. But actually being in rehab is easy.
After I went through short term rehab I moved on to live in a long term recovery house. I can remember that I had a few moments where I was deeply sad and frustrated during my first few months of sobriety, but on the whole I was definitely not miserable. Not every day anyway. And certainly not all the time.
Sometimes you have to dig for the gratitude a bit, but it is always there underneath the surface. I had to stop myself during those first few months of sobriety and realize just how much happier I was already. I had to compare myself to how miserable I was on a day to day basis during my addiction. When I forced myself to look back and remember how bad it was, being 90 days sober and living in a recovery house was not so bad after all. But it was easy to lose that perspective. It was easy to start taking life and even sobriety for granted again. In as little as a few months even! This should just prove to you how important it is to make gratitude a priority in your daily practice. If you can create a feeling of gratitude every day then it will go a long way in helping to protect you from relapse. It is all about perspective.
In my very early recovery, I had to get to a place where I was “not miserable.” That was actually pretty easy to do as long as I was willing to follow directions. I had to be willing to listen to other people and to take their advice. These were not things that I was willing to do in the past, but because I had hit a bottom in my addiction, I was now willing to take positive action. My willingness to change came out of a state of desperation. I was sick and tired of my old life.
The natural state of happiness and how we unlearn this in our addiction
It is not natural to self medicate with drugs or alcohol in order to “become” happy.
That is not normal. In fact, we all have a natural state of being happy in our lives, and if we could just get out of our own way, we would be much happier nearly all of the time.
I can imagine that most of you are skeptical at such a claim. But it’s true. We have unlearned how to be happy. We have forgotten the simplicity of true happiness.
If you watch a child lose themselves completely in something simple like running through a sprinkler, you can see a glimpse of “real happiness.” How often do we adults allow ourselves to embrace those moments of freedom and pleasure? Instead we spend most of our time doing the “time travel” thing, where we are either regretting the past or worrying about the future. But we are missing an opportunity for happiness because we are not being present in the moment. We are distracted. We have unlearned how to be simply happy.
Our addiction forces us to do this on an even greater scale. When I think back to what my life was like during addiction, I was nearly always “time traveling.” I was never happy. Even if I was already starting to drink for the day, I wasn’t really happy–because I wasn’t drunk enough yet! Or because I wasn’t properly buzzed yet. Or because I needed more drugs to mix into my present state in order to produce the perfect high. Or because I wasn’t happy with my surroundings, my circumstances, or the amount of money in my wallet. I was always worrying, always anxious, always regretting what I wasted yesterday (money, drugs, booze) and always worrying about what I was going to do tomorrow in order to get my fix and be “happy.”
It was extremely rare for me to be happy in the present moment during my addiction. Yet my brain tried to convince me that I could take drugs or booze and instantly be both happy and “present” in some awesome state of consciousness where my mind expanded and I realized these great truths. It was all a bunch of garbage though. I was rarely happy and my mind was constantly fretting about things and always time traveling.
Even in recovery I notice that I am less happy when I am thinking of the past with regret or worrying about the future. Being on drugs or alcohol seems to intensify this problem, but sobering up does not cure it completely. Not by a long shot. And so it becomes part of the daily practice in order to fix this problem of “time traveling,” the mental obsession of either going back to the past or worrying about the future.
The solution of course is in the moment, it is in appreciating the moment, appreciating what shows up in the universe today for you. The solution is gratitude.
But just knowing this is not going to magically fix your life. You have to apply the knowledge. You have to work at it, to practice it. And it is a daily struggle for me.
Embracing the challenges and the process itself
I can remember times in my recovery journey where I was in total gratitude and totally at peace with myself. I had just conquered some particular goal or challenge in my life, and suddenly everything was right in the world.
And I realized in that moment that the joy was not in reaching the goal itself, it was not the outcome that I had wanted or wished for, but that the joy in my life came from the process, from the challenges themselves. And I knew in that moment that there would be more challenges ahead, and I was not afraid.
In my addiction I would have felt fear at this. I would have wished for an easier life, to make the challenging parts go away.
But in that moment of peace I realized that it was alright, that there would be more challenges, and that the joy in life was through that process. And in that moment I was actually grateful for the struggles, for the challenge, even for the negative events that happened in my life. I wasn’t just grateful for the good things, I was grateful for ALL OF IT. I was grateful for the struggle and the challenge as well. Because I could see that embracing this process was what led to joy and growth.
Now I want to clarify something here and tell you that this is not a feeling of peace that I experience every single day. I am not a guru! I can remember feeling this very deeply once or twice in the last thirteen years of my sobriety. And of course this is an ideal that I strive for on a daily basis. But it would be wrong of me to try to convince you that this is my everyday reality, and that I have challenges all the time and I am this bundle of joy and energy through all of it. That is not reality!
I still have struggles, to be sure. I still have tough days and even some tough weeks. I still face challenges and frustrations in my life where there is zero gratitude on my part. Where I cannot summon a positive attitude no matter what I do.
So it is still a practice for me and a learning journey. I am not a master or a guru by far. I know that the solution is in the process, not in the outcomes. I know that I have to do my best and then leave the outcome up to my higher power. I know that I need to be grateful for the challenges and life lessons that come my way, even if they seem “negative” at first.
Your happiest moments in recovery
Your happiness moments in recovery will come when you are deeply engaged in the present moment. You will experience this happiness when you are not obsessing over the past or the future, but you are firmly grounded in reality and experiencing a moment of peace without trying to alter it in some way.
There is always going to be this balance in recovery between two things:
1) Acceptance of self, and acceptance of the world around you, and
2) The desire to change yourself and the world around you.
There is always going to be this dichotomy: Either accept it, or change it.
You always have this choice, and it faces you every day, several times each day, even if you are not consciously aware of it.
Accept your day job as it is, or look for better employment?
Accept your physical fitness level as it is now, or work out on a consistent basis in order to change it?
Accept your habit of smoking or gambling or sex or whatever it may be, or get help in order to change it?
Accept toxic relationships in your life, or take action in order to change them?
I wish that there were some piece of wisdom that I could hand out like candy that made this problem easier.
There is not. If you want to see a glimpse into this wisdom, simply recite the serenity prayer, and apply it to your life.
And this is the struggle that we all go through in recovery, walking that fine line between acceptance and personal growth.
If you have a sponsor or a mentor or a life coach or someone you look up to, this is always going to be the crux of their advice to you. It will always deal with this dichotomy, either you need to accept something in your life, or you need to change something. It is always one or the other. We explore it, we talk about it, we get advice about it, and so on.
One of the key things that you will need to learn in recovery is that as you go about making new changes, you need to learn how to enjoy the process of change itself. How to embrace the process and see the benefit and the gratitude that comes along with the process.
Because if we tie ourselves completely to the outcomes of those changes then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. There is no way around this other than to embrace the process instead.
This is one of the reasons why exercise feels so great to me now that I have been doing it for such a long time. I am no longer focused on the outcomes of the exercise. I am not trying to achieve certain measurements or strength or anything like that. I simply engage in the daily habit and I enjoy the process. I run outdoors and I enjoy the process of doing that. It is a moving meditation and a sensory explosion of sorts. I try to enjoy every aspect of it and doing so is actually quite easy now.
Your happiest moments in recovery will be when you are deeply engaged in process. When you let go of the outcome and you enjoy the process for what it is and focus on it completely.
It just keeps getting better and better
Recovery just keeps getting better and better.
The main reason for this is fairly counter-intuitive in my experience.
We think that recovery gets better because we learn more and more about how to “be happy.”
I don’t think that is the truth though. If you try to chase after happiness itself then it will remain elusive.
Instead, what we find in recovery is that we get better at avoiding misery.
Go back to the start of this article and remember that we start recovery by finding a baseline of “not being miserable.”
That is all it takes to get started in sobriety. And then as you move along and develop further you realize that you can deepen this understanding.
Just take a look at the 12 steps of AA or NA. Those steps are a bit uncomfortable for most people and that is because they force you to do the work. They force you to do the work of looking honestly at yourself, finding the negative points, and then working hard to improve them.
Sound like fun? Probably not! It’s hard work. No one wants to get honest, look closely at their life and their faults, and then come up with a plan to fix all of that stuff.
But this is the stuff that makes you unhappy.
Remember when I said that “we unlearn how to be in our natural state of happiness?” That is what doing the work is all about. This is why many people benefit when they work through the 12 steps of AA. Because all of that negative stuff that you have acquired in your life (shame, guilt, resentment, self pity, fear, anger, etc.) is all stuff where you unlearned how to be happy.
And so if you want to be “happy, joyous, and free” again then you need to eliminate all of those things.
And this is one of those counter-intuitive secrets of sobriety–that you cannot really chase after happiness and achieve it directly, but you can do the hard (and uncomfortable) work to eliminate all of the negative garbage in your life, and this will create a path to peace and contentment.
And this is why it keeps getting better and better in recovery. Because you keep peeling back more and more layers of negativity in your life through doing this hard work, through being honest with yourself, through taking suggestions from other people. And once you strip away all of that madness from your addiction you are left with a life of peace and freedom.
At the core of all this is gratitude. When you get what you want in life you are essentially free. When you want what you have in life you are happy. And when you practice gratitude every day then you are forcing yourself to be happy with what you have, rather than always wanting for more and more and more (like we did in our addiction).
Ask yourself this:
If someone lacks gratitude, are they really happy?
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