You’ve got 30 days of addiction treatment under your belt, you’re riding that “pink cloud” and you’re prepared, you believe, for anything that comes your way while you’re living in recovery.
Hold up. Not to burst your bubble, but treatment isn’t “recovery.” Treatment is discovery — an introduction to the recovery process. Recovery 101. Sobriety boot camp. Call it what you will, but it gives you the tools you need to continue working on yourself once you leave drug and alcohol rehab, so that you’re able to become a responsible, productive member of society.
That’s recovery: Living life on life’s terms, outside of the safety net of a treatment center environment. And it can be a challenge. Fortunately, within that nice, new set of tools you’ve been given, there are plenty that will help you rise to meet those challenges; overcome and persevere; and continue to grow without returning to the substances that caused you so much pain.
How, you ask, do you live a life of recovery? If you’ve completed residential addiction and alcoholism treatment, then you already know. You just need a reminder from time to time.
Remember how you got here
We used to amplify the good times or forget about the bad ones, and sooner or later, we found ourselves using just to feel “normal.” It was no longer an option, and we were using against our own desire to stop. Our relationships suffered, our families and peers saw that something was drastically wrong and we felt broken, unable to crawl out of the abyss in which we found ourselves.
With insight and education, we begin to understand that we’re not bad people; we’re sick people. Millions of people suffer from addiction, and while medical science can’t pinpoint a specific “cause,” it does agree that it’s a disease  — progressive, chronic and often fatal. Once we’re afflicted, we’re unable to do just “one” of anything, because one leads to two, to three, to as many as we can possibly consume. We try to switch substances or control our consumption, telling ourselves we’ll only do it on the weekends, or only at parties, or any of the other methods that we try to convince ourselves will work … but they never do. Willpower isn’t enough to control this disease, which is why abstinence — remaining clean and sober — is our only option. (Seriously. Research has shown that “abstinence (is) one of the strongest correlates of quality of life.” )
That’s our starting point — recovery from addiction. The longer we do it, the more we discover that functioning with clear eyes and sober thoughts isn’t the grim, boring or uncomfortable reality we first thought it might be; in fact, we discover that with a new perspective on ourselves and our lives, we’re able to enjoy it more fully than ever before. Life becomes an adventure of new experiences every day instead of the endless, repetitive cycle of using drugs that consumed our every waking thought before. If you’re just starting out on this recovery journey, that may seem like an unattainable goal. You may feel like recovery means a monastic existence, but let us assure you — it’s anything but.
Living in recovery with a side of meetings
You’ve no doubt heard the cliché about 12 Step groups: “Meeting makers make it,” which means that meeting attendance can translate to long-term recovery. While that’s true to a certain extent, recovery doesn’t come about through osmosis. In other words, you can’t sit next to someone with extensive clean time in a meeting and expect their recovery to transfer over to you. If all you do is attend 12 Step meetings without participating, then you’re shortchanging yourself and robbing yourself of an opportunity to expand your knowledge of living in recovery.
A good alcohol and drug treatment center introduces patients to the 12 Step recovery process during residential inpatient. That’s what’s known as “12 Step Facilitation,” and it’s a method by which treatment center staff members help newcomers integrate into that process. In an article for the American Society of Addiction Medicine, Dr. Michael Miller, an addiction psychiatrist, writes , “Twelve-Step Facilitation therapy is still a tried-and-true proven approach. It is far more than advising a patient to ‘go to AA’ and providing them a list of meeting locations and times. In Twelve-Step Facilitation, the therapist actively probes and nudges, encouraging not only attendance, but participation, in meetings.”
And repeated studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of 12 Step attendance: In one examination of male veterans published in a 2014 article in the Journal of Addictive Diseases , “rates of abstinence are about twice as high for those who attended a 12-step group such as AA following treatment.” In another multi-year study of 142 addicts published in a 2007 publication for the Society for the Study of Addiction , researchers concluded that “the effectiveness of existing treatment services may be improved by initiatives that lead to increased involvement and engagement with such groups.”
So yes … meeting makers do make it. But they have to do more than just attend.
Get a Sponsor
One of the ways to make the most of your journey is to work with a recovery sponsor. That individual acts as a guide — through the program and through the Steps, but primarily through those first tentative strides into a clean and sober world that seems large and, at times, frightening. The literature of one 12 Step fellowship promises that the longer we remain sober, the more we will “intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us,” but in the beginning, we were perplexed by so many things: those keytags, that basket of money, those prayers we chant at the beginning and end of every meeting. Many of these customs and routines felt strange, and we needed someone we could ask about them without feeling like our questions were dumb.
Outside of meetings, we found that a sponsor served as a lifeline, especially as we were first starting out. They became the first person we would call when we wanted to drink or use; they acted as a sounding board in situations where we wanted to act rationally and carefully instead of plunging headlong into the insanity of our old ways of thinking. Sponsorship is a commitment, and our sponsor makes that commitment with the knowledge and tradition of decades of experience by members of the fellowship around the world.
Do Some Service Work
Get to the meetings early and help set up chairs or make coffee; stay afterward to take out the garbage and help clean up. These are little things, and they don’t mean that you’ve suddenly volunteered for a job you’re stuck doing; if anything, it’s a way for you to become a part of the fellowship, and to let your fellow recovering addicts and alcoholics get to know you.
More importantly, they help you get to know them — to become more comfortable around these individuals, and to feel good about an act of service that is focused on others instead of yourself. The more you do it, the more you’ll want to do it, we’ve discovered: Maybe the next time you’re at the store, a box of day-old donuts will inspire you to take a couple dozen to the next meeting; maybe you’ll decide to attend group conscience and sign up to chair one of the meetings the next week.
Along the way, you’ll pick up information through conversations with fellow members that educates you about the nature of service and the fellowship to which you’re becoming attached, and you’ll begin to see that there are other tasks and positions to which you can apply yourself. You’ll see the Seventh Tradition basket go around and learn that the group has a treasurer; you’ll hear the announcements and discover that there’s an activities committee. After you get some time in recovery, you’ll be eligible to volunteer for these service positions, and doing so will strengthen your ties to the fellowship and take up some of that time you’re worried about filling.
You’ll also discover that every group is fully self-supporting, meaning that you don’t have to be a recovery “expert” or sobriety “guru” to chair a meeting; you don’t have to have a degree in accounting to be treasurer. No one in the group is your “boss,” and you don’t ever move up a “hierarchy” to hold a position greater than someone else. We’re all addicts who can each play a role in sustaining the group’s primary purpose, which is to carry the message to the addicts who still suffer. It’s a fellowship of equals, and even if you’re not a “joiner,” per se, you’ll find that these positions are relatively easy, and volunteering for one will make a world of difference in your recovery.
Living in recovery ... outside of recovery
This might be more difficult, and it’s amusing on the surface: After all, when we were using, we never had any lack of excuses for why we should. It’s our birthday? Let’s celebrate! It’s New Year’s Eve? Heck yeah, let’s celebrate! We lost a job? Let’s forget our problems. Typically, we could be counted on to get high on any day that ends in Y … and we never failed to justify it in some form or fashion.
On the other end of that spectrum, however, we find ourselves stumped when we’re challenged to think of things to do that don’t involve getting high. Maybe it’s because our addiction was such a repetitive habit that we’ve lost perspective on how to do anything else; maybe our minds need a period of rest after we stop using. Whatever the case, our brains seem a little sluggish at first, but after time, that begins to fade. By the time we pick up our 90-day keytags, we’re thinking clearer, but then comes the challenge: What do we do during those periods of down time that we once filled with drugs?
How about a hobby? Don’t set unrealistic expectations like earning a pilot’s license, at least not at first. Start simple: If you’ve always wanted to try gardening, put out a few tomato or pepper plants in some pots on your porch or deck; if you’ve wanted a pet, invest in some tropical fish. Take a few guitar lessons. Start experimenting in the kitchen and teaching yourself to become a better cook. Before long, you might find a passion into which you can lose yourself entirely — it’s not unheard of for those of us who dabbled in woodworking in the beginning to become fully qualified carpenters after years of honing our skills! Just start small and work your way up.
What about continuing your education? Some of us want to pick up where we left off and finish the degrees we may have long ago abandoned; others of us may want to learn something new that adds a new dimension to our lives. Either way, local community colleges, trade schools and universities offer an abundance of non-credit courses you can take for personal improvement, and who knows? Perhaps you’ll discover a whole new career along the way.
The most important thing about finding your passions outside of the rooms of recovery is to be unafraid of failure! Trying new things can be daunting, but if they become overwhelming, you can always quit. There’s no shame in recognizing you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, and it will only make your ability to live in recovery easier if you’re not overwhelmed.
Above all else, it’s imperative that you realize that your life isn’t confined to the rooms. You’re not joining a monastery, and your life isn’t relegated to chants and quiet contemplation and six meetings a day. Twelve Steps programs make our lives whole, but they shouldn’t become our whole lives. There’s a big world out there, and as long as we stay anchored to a fellowship that keeps us centered, we can find the faith and the willingness to try anything.
Take Care of Your Body
If you came through residential treatment at Cornerstone of Recovery, then you’re well aware of the importance we place on our fitness program while in treatment. You can carry that with you after you leave, because exercise promote the release of natural endorphins that make you feel better, and knowing you’re caring for a body you destroyed for so long with drugs and alcohol is a good way of making amends to yourself.
Join a gym, or set up one in your home; buy a bike and start riding; go swimming; start jogging. Keep in mind your personal limitations, and consult with your primary care physician about your needs, but by all means, work those muscles.
You can also begin to focus on other areas of your health, because in our addiction, we often let our personal grooming habits go. Maybe it’s time to make an appointment with a dentist, or to get new glasses, or to buy ourselves a new wardrobe. If you look good, you’ll feel good – take some pride in how you look, whatever your individual style is, and you’ll find it personally rewarding. And sometimes, just the little act of shining your shoes or putting on a shirt that’s free of wrinkles can be enough to bring you that reward.
Get Involved In the World Around You
If the goal of recovery is to help us become responsible, productive members of society, it’s important to consider what that really means. Yes, paying our bills on time and staying out of jail are worthy endeavors that certainly qualify, but what can we do to improve the corners of the world that we occupy?
Volunteering to take out the trash or make the coffee at your home group is a wonderful thing, but don’t lose sight of the fact that there are hundreds of other non-profit organizations around the country that need volunteers every day. Hospitals, homeless shelters, advocacy agencies and other institutions and organizations are in dire need of assistance in every community.
You can find that information online or from local civic or government agencies, and if you feel good about being of service to another addict or alcoholic, just imagine how amazing you’ll feel after helping a sick child or delivering a meal to an elderly shut-in.
Living in recovery: Slow it down!
It’s not easy, of course, to resume your life outside of a treatment center and incorporate all of these suggestions in the first 30 days. It takes time to even figure out what we want to do; all we know is that “just stopping” is never enough. Just not drinking or using drugs is a sterile action if we don’t take the steps necessary to stay stopped.
To do that, we need to put into place a positive program of action that allows us to live in recovery, and more importantly, to do so with a certain happiness and peace of mind.
Fear, after all, may have driven us to seek help for our problem, and a certain amount of fear of the misery to which we can return if we start again isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But living in a constant state of fear is a miserable existence in and of itself; it’s certainly not the serenity we pray for or look forward to.
We didn’t get clean to live in fear or to be miserable, because we did enough of that when we were using. We get clean to find recovery, and more important, a life worth living that recovery can give us. It takes effort and willingness, but it can be done — because like some of the old-timers in our meetings like to say, “The work is hard, but the pay is worth it.”