Focusing On What REALLY Matters in Your Sobriety


In order to succeed in alcoholism recovery, you have to focus on what really matters.

My problem is that when I first got clean and sober, I honestly did not know what that was. I was lost when it came to prioritizing, because quite honestly, I was confused and overwhelmed.

My early recovery story and the search for what really matters in sobriety

I tried to get sober three times. Each time I went to rehab. The first two times I went I had not yet surrendered fully to my disease, or to a new solution.

The third time I was ready. Really ready. And so I was willing to listen, I was willing to do whatever it took to escape from the misery I had been living in.

I went to detox and residential treatment. Then I moved into a long term treatment facility. I was attending group therapy, individual counseling, and daily AA meetings.

I got a sponsor and started working through the steps. Later I started chairing one NA meeting each week. I talked with my peers every day about what really kept people clean and sober.

So the question for me at the time was where to put my efforts, where to put my focus.

I did not like the idea that I had to do 50 different suggestions on a regular basis and, in doing so, I would then hopefully stay sober.

That wasn’t good enough for me. The old timers told me to keep coming back, they told me to work the program, they told me to do a lot of different things.

And it was overwhelming.

Really, it was too much. If you go to a handful of AA meetings and tell them you are new in sobriety and that you need advice, do you know what you will hear?

Lots and lots of advice. You will hear tons of suggestions. And it is overwhelming.

This is because there are roughly 20 people in each AA meeting and they all have a couple of suggestions for you.

Now admittedly some of those suggestions will be repeats. The advice will overlap in many cases.

But for the most part it is still pretty darn overwhelming. Everyone has an opinion about how to implement the program, how to work recovery.

Some people in AA get angry, and they say that “the program” is absolute and objective, and that as individuals we mislead others with our interpretation of the program. So they argue that there is this perfect path in sobriety that everyone can follow as long as they work the program of AA exactly as it is intended. I think this is misguided though and it mostly a reaction based on fear. We still have to interpret a recovery program and apply it to our lives. We don’t recover in isolation or in a vacuum. Real life means that our recovery program and how we implement it in our own lives will be far from objective. Recovery is subjective in many ways, like it or not. No need to get angry about it out of fear.

So when I was in early recovery I wanted to know what worked, I wanted to pin it down, I wanted a nice script that I knew I had to follow that would keep me sober forever.

I wanted to put sobriety in a box. I wanted it to be like my high school chemistry class. Show me exactly what will be on the final exam, and let me memorize it all, and I will do just fine.

But recovery doesn’t work that way, I found out.

And this is why the people in AA were so frustrating to me. It’s not that they were wrong necessarily. They were telling me to work the program, to keep coming back, that it gets greater later, and I did not like these ambiguous concepts. I wanted an exact outline for sobriety and a sure fire method to stay sober.

Well, it doesn’t exist. Those people in AA are doing the best they can with the knowledge they have. There is no perfect script for sobriety. Life is too dynamic for that. We have to keep learning, keep changing, keep evolving in order to remain sober. Which is why they say “keep coming back.” Because in early recovery you really don’t have the perspective to see that it really is all about personal growth.

I thought I could work the 12 steps, be done with them, and be cured forever. It doesn’t work that way.

Instead, your life in recovery will always be a work in progress. I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is.

Recovery is personal growth.

Don’t misunderstand–it’s not that you have to grow personally in order to recover. It is that sobriety and recovery itself is personal growth.

That’s the whole thing. That is what the 12 steps are directing you towards: personal growth.

That’s recovery.

What matters? Growth matters. Positive action, every day. Hence, the 1 percent solution

So that is what truly matters in recovery.

I can actually outline a recovery program like this:

Step one = don’t drink alcohol or use addictive drugs no matter what.
Step two = strive for personal growth and self improvement every day.

Done. You don’t need 12 steps. Or rather, you are welcome to work through the 12 steps, and you can get the same basic results by following the 2 steps listed above.

I figured this out when I was living in long term treatment. And it was sort of funny because I was arguing with one of my peers about it.

He helped me to better define my recovery philosophy. He helped me to pin down my ideas more thoroughly. Because at the time, this guy was convinced that the 12 steps of AA had magical powers. He was convinced that those specific 12 steps alone had the power to unlock recovery for people. He believed that if you did not work those exact 12 steps that you were doomed to relapse.

And my mind rejected that notion. I refused to believe it. Not that I thought the 12 steps didn’t work, it was not that at all. My mind just rejected the idea that this was the only path, that the 12 steps had magical power, that they alone held the key to sobriety. That was what I rejected.

And so I started to look at the bigger picture. What were the 12 steps leading to? What were they pointing at?

And there were other recovery programs as well that were not based on the 12 steps. Some of those programs helped people to stay sober, just like AA did. What were those programs leading towards?

In the end, I decided that it was all personal growth.

It was all positive change. Trading in a set of bad habits for a set of good habits. Moving on from that old life and building something new instead.

Learning a new set of skills for dealing with triggers and urges. Learning how to deal with temptation every day and finding a new method of self talk.

Learning to overcome anger, shame, guilt, self pity, resentment. Learning how to forgive yourself and to forgive others.

Learning how to practice gratitude every day. How to become grateful for existence itself.

Those were the things that really mattered in recovery. The forward motion. The progression. The learning.

The growth.

In the end, I decided that it was all just personal growth. You could work any recovery program in the world, but if you were not engaged in personal growth, then you were stuck.

You are either making positive changes in your life or you are not. Which is it? One is recovery, the other path leads back to relapse.

When the alcoholic attempts to sober up they have to engage in positive change. They have to leave behind the negative habits and adopt new, positive habits.

We can call this whatever we want. We can dress it up in a program and involve steps if we want. But ultimately it is the process of change, it is the process of personal growth.

Learning and positive action.

And it is a lifelong process. If you stop doing this then you run the risk of relapse.

I know people who had over a decade of sobriety who relapsed. They stopped learning, they stopped taking positive action. They stopped growing.

How to prioritize your life in early recovery

What really matters in early recovery?

Disrupting your addiction is your first order of business. Of course, before you can decide to do that, you must surrender.

Surrender comes in two parts: You must surrender to your disease (admit to your alcoholism), and you must surrender to a new solution. One way to surrender to a new solution is to adopt a recovery program in your life. This sort of worked for me but ultimately I went with my own path in sobriety. But I got my start in treatment, and there they have you follow a recovery program.

Whatever works. Go to treatment, follow a recovery program. Go to AA, work the steps. Get a sponsor. Get a therapist. Do something. If nothing changes then nothing changes. If you don’t take any action then you won’t get any results.

Surrender. Bust through your denial. Make a decision to get help.

Then, ask for help. Take advice. Actually listen to what you are being told to do.

Go to treatment. Go to AA. Go to wherever they tell you to go. (Who is they? The people you trust. The people who love you. If you have no one at all, then call up a rehab center).

Go to rehab and listen carefully. Soak it all up. Most people who leave treatment relapse. You do not want to be one of those people.

How do you avoid relapse?

By doing the work. By diving into recovery head first. The real challenge begins after you leave treatment. Being sober in rehab is pretty darn easy. Being sober the day you leave rehab is a bit harder. Being sober a week, a month, a year later is even more difficult.

In order to do that you need support and you need to change. You need people who can help support you in your journey. Again, going to AA makes that pretty easy to find. There are meetings everywhere. There are other solutions for this problem (of finding support) but none are anywhere near as simple as going to AA.

Second of all you need to do the work. You need to change your life. And that means changing who you are, becoming the person you were meant to be. You must become that better version of yourself.

How do you do this?

Prioritize. First, figure out what the negativity in your life is all about. This requires work, introspection. You may need a sponsor in AA or a therapist to help guide you. Or maybe you can figure it out on your own.

I used a bit of both. I had therapists and I had a sponsor but I think the real breakthrough I had to figure out on my own. And that breakthrough for me was in figuring out my fatal flaw, which was self pity. That was how I justified my addiction. That was how I got my excuse to drink every day.

So I had to identify this problem and then come up with a solution for it. I did exactly that, and I figured out how to overcome self pity. But what was really important was in discovering this problem and then deciding to do the work. Most people don’t even know that they have these internal problems. People who are angry and with resentments often don’t even know that they are angry. They walk around with this huge chip on their shoulder and they don’t even know it. They may have lived with that anger for so long that it becomes a part of who they are.

So you need to identify the negativity inside of you. Every alcoholic and drug addict has something like this. It may be anger, shame, guilt, fear, self pity, or something else. And you may need to do different things in order to deal with it or move past it.

For example, you might need to forgive yourself or others. Or you might need to deal with a fear that you have. Or you might need to learn how to stop feeling sorry for yourself, like I had to do.

Realize that you will never be truly happy, and you will never be truly free in life if you still have this negativity clouding your mind.

That can be a real revelation for some people. You can strive for happiness all you want, but if you have anger or fear or guilt or shame inside then it will never really feel like you are truly joyous and free in life.

So you have to fix the negativity as your first order of business in recovery.

You get clean and sober, then you prioritize. And this is how you do it. You figure out where the negativity is coming from inside you, and then you make a plan to eliminate it.

If you cannot do this all by yourself then it is quite simple: Ask for help! Find a therapist or a sponsor or someone who can help you to do the work.

This is what “doing the work” is all about in recovery. No one wants to do it because it is uncomfortable to get honest with ourselves. It is not fun to admit to our flaws. But this is part of the key that will unlock our freedom. This is how you should prioritize.

Using feedback from others to test new ideas in your life

One of the keys to early recovery is to listen to other people.

Again, we generally don’t want to do this. No one likes being told what to do. No one likes being told what is wrong with us.

But just stop and think for a moment about how much value this would have. Let’s say you get to know a bunch of people in recovery who become your close friends. Some of them might even be a sponsor or therapist that you know.

And let’s say that you go to each and every one of these people and ask them: “What do you think my biggest problem in life is right now, and how would you suggest I deal with it?”

If you honestly seek that advice from all of the people that really know you best, and then you take their advice and you apply their ideas, what do you think will happen?

I can tell you what will happen: Amazing things!

I can tell you this because I have done it. I have asked people what they think I should do next, what my next change in life should be.

And I did not always like hearing the answer. But then I usually would come around eventually and take positive action.

And as a result my life would get better and better.

Sometimes it didn’t always work out perfectly. Sometimes I would take advice from someone and it wouldn’t work out.

For example, I once took some advice to try seated meditation. In fact, many people suggested this to me. And I figured if everyone was telling me to do something that I had better give it a chance. There might be something there.

And so I meditated. I did seated meditation for a few months. And in the end I moved on to a different kind of meditation, which for me turned out to be distance running. Jogging was my chosen form of meditation and I got all of the same benefits from it that I was getting from seated meditation. Running was simply a better fit for me.

So the suggestion did not really work out. Seated meditation did not turn out to the answer for me. But that is OK. It was part of my journey, it was part of my testing.

I tried it and I ultimately found a better solution for myself. I had to find what worked well for me.

And this is what you need to do as well. You need to find what works well for you, you need to test new ideas in your recovery, and you need to have the willingness to be able to try new things.

Why gratitude will help you to see new opportunities in recovery

If you remain grateful in recovery then this will allow you to see new learning opportunities.

I have found that when I am not grateful, when I am feeling selfish, I can’t learn anything new.

When I am selfish I already have all of the answers, or so I think. I know exactly what I want and I am upset that I am not getting it. That’s selfishness.

When I am grateful I am the opposite of this. I am not sure exactly what I may need or want, but I am happy for whatever shows up in my life. And as a result I am always looking for the lesson that life may be offering me. This is how you prioritize learning and discovery. This is how you become happy and delighted in your journey.



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