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it possible to make lifestyle changes in order to overcome alcoholism or drug addiction? How would a person go about doing this in a way that produces good results?
This is a tricky thing because ultimately I believe that every struggling alcoholic definitely needs to make significant lifestyle changes in many different areas in order to recover. On the other had, however, what is needed in early recovery is often a very narrow focus on simply not picking up a drink or a drug. If you try to take on too much change all at once it can be self defeating and overwhelming.
Total abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances
In order to get the help that you need to overcome alcoholism I would recommend to every struggling alcoholic that they need total and complete abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances.
This is the baseline for recovery. This is the foundation on which you build your sobriety. Without this foundation there can be no recovery. Without a commitment to total abstinence you are not going to see significant progress.
We can fool ourselves in the short run, unfortunately, by making small changes in our lives while we continue to drink alcohol. So the alcoholic may be able to convince themselves that they can learn to moderate their drinking and still enjoy a good life. But this is denial because in the end they always find themselves getting into trouble. Even if they manage to control their drinking for a short while, eventually they lose control again and suffer consequences.
In the short term the alcoholic may continue to drink and get improved results. But over the long run if they continue to drink then things always get worse. This can be difficult to realize on a day to day basis and this is why many people stay stuck in denial. They fail to step back and look at the bigger picture. They are cherry picking their data, looking at examples of when they were able to control their drinking and enjoy themselves, while disregarding all of the examples when they lost control, suffered consequences, or were completely miserable. They hang on to the good examples and disregard the bad. This is one of the most basic forms of denial.
So the biggest lifestyle change that has to occur is that of total and complete abstinence. Unfortunately for the typical alcoholic this is a bit like jumping into a bathtub full of ice water all at once. The threat of total sobriety can be a real source of fear, and it can be intimidating. This is the fear that kept me stuck in my own disease for so long before I became willing to get help.
So what changed? Eventually I got so miserable and so sick and tired of the addiction lifestyle that I became willing to face my fears in order to give it up. It was fear that held me back but in the end my disease wore me down to the point where I no longer cared about the fear. I stopped caring about everything. I was done caring. And so I got to the point where I was willing to surrender, I was willing to try a new path in life, I was willing to ask for help and take that scary step into the unknown. That scary step into total and complete abstinence.
Total abstinence sounds like a death sentence. I know this because I lived through it myself. I did everything that I could in order to avoid sobriety. I wanted some other solution to work for me. I wanted to learn to control my drinking rather than to give it up entirely. But that was not to be. I had to finally face my fear head on, I had to walk into treatment and embrace the detox process, I had to be willing to let go of alcohol completely. And that is a scary thing for an alcoholic. It takes guts. It takes guts to walk away from your trusted companion, from your crutch. But this is the foundation that you have to build on if you want to turn your life around. It is the necessary step that every alcoholic or drug addict has to take in the beginning. They have to be willing to walk away from their drug of choice, to turn their back on it and be totally and completely sober. They have to be willing to face life without the crutch of drugs or booze. To face reality without a mask on, to learn to deal with it.
So your first lifestyle change is obvious, but also very important: Total and complete abstinence. No drugs or booze, period.
The recovery lifestyle as opposed to the party lifestyle
The lifestyle changes that you will need to make in recovery go deeper than mere abstinence, however.
You can’t just eliminate the alcohol and then continue to do all of the same exact things that you used to do, just without the alcohol. You probably won’t continue to hang around with the exact same crowd of people, either. Or go to the exact same places.
So when we talk about recovery from addiction, there are at least two different categories of potential change. Let’s label them as “internal” and “external” changes.
The internal changes are what goes on inside of you, the stuff that you work on if you are, say, working through the 12 steps of AA. So these include things like fear, resentment, anger, shame, guilt, self pity, and so on. Those are internal changes that you need to work on to stay sober.
But there are external changes as well. These are things like: Where you hang out each day (at the bar or at AA meetings), who you spend time with (people in recovery versus old drinking buddies), and what sort of things you acquire (chocolate milk instead of a six pack of beer). In other words, the external changes are the “people, places, and things” that they talk about in recovery. These are what mostly make up the lifestyle changes. Your patterns and habits with these external changes are what define your lifestyle.
So in order to recover from alcoholism we will naturally adopt a new sort of lifestyle. This is not necessarily something that we have to force, it is just something that should happen naturally as a result of quitting drinking. Obviously you don’t want to hang out in the bar all night if you aren’t going to be drinking booze.
But lifestyle changes can go beyond the avoidance of alcohol. You can create a better life for yourself through some careful planning if you choose to do so. For example, you can ask for advice and feedback from others in recovery and find out how they have changed their own lives in order to better support their sobriety.
In other words, you quit drinking alcohol and you stop hanging out at the corner bar. But then you can go far beyond that and also make other healthy changes that enhance your ability to stay sober as well. What are these other healthy changes?
Holistic health and why it is important for your sobriety
I am a believer in the holistic model of recovery.
So in this case the term “holistic health” refers to the overall health of the recovering alcoholic. Their sobriety and abstinence is one facet of their overall health, but there are other facets as well.
You have their physical health and being free from disease. Nutrition. Physical exercise. Sleeping habits. And so on.
Then you have emotional health and well being. Being stable. Not getting too upset or angry on a regular basis.
Then there is social health and the network that a recovering alcoholic may rely on in early recovery. The people that they connect with. The people they spend time with who influence them.
Of course we would consider spiritual health and the idea of gratitude. Is the person grateful for their life today? Can they generate gratitude even when things are not going their way? This is perhaps the most useful aspect of spirituality when it comes to sobriety (IMO).
And your mental health and stability is also a part of your holistic health.
So we have at least 5 different areas of health to consider in recovery, and all of them can play a role in helping you to remain sober.
If you neglect one of these 5 areas for too long then it can get you into serious trouble. If you completely ignore one aspect of your holistic health then it can lead to relapse eventually. This is why it is important to take care of yourself every day in recovery, in every way.
So this becomes like a checklist. You can ask yourself at the end of each day: “Did I take care of myself today from a holistic standpoint?” And when you say “holistic” just think of those 5 different categories of health: Physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. Did you take care of yourself in each of those areas today?
Or perhaps more importantly: Did you seriously neglect one of those areas today? Because if you did then you know what you need to work on tomorrow in order to pick up the slack.
If this was the only strategy that you used for your long term recovery then it would probably work out fine, so long as you were vigilant at it. It would keep you moving forward and digging to make more and more healthy changes in your life.
There is always something more in our lives to work on. Always something to improve. The key is that we need to have a system to find out what it is so that we can keep moving forward.
When we stop moving forward we get into trouble. When we stop moving forward we become vulnerable to relapse.
Why you should take suggestions from other people in recovery
I am a firm believer in the idea that we should all take suggestions and advice from other people in recovery.
This is not because we are stupid or because other people are so much smarter than we are. It is not about that. Instead, it is a way to share wisdom, to share our experience.
The fact is that we do not know what we need in order to recover.
I learned this myself when I made the journey through early recovery. I realized that I had to take suggestions from other people in order to find out what worked for me and what did not.
For example, there was a person that I met in recovery who really was into seated meditation. This was the core of his sobriety. He meditated every day and it really made a huge impact on the quality of his sobriety and of his life. So he encouraged others to meditate as well to see if it helped them.
So I tried it for a month or two and I really studied the idea of meditating. I practiced every day, usually two sessions per day. I read books about it. I talked with others about it. I really gave it a thorough effort.
And ultimately, in the end, I ended up leaning more towards exercise. In fact I took up distance running later on and this sort of became my own form of meditation. So I did not really get the same level of benefit from the seated meditation and I eventually dropped it. I moved on. I went into jogging instead.
And there is nothing wrong with this. I had to find my own path. But I did it by taking suggestions from other people. To be honest I don’t think I would have tried either seated meditation or jogging on my own if it were not for people suggesting those things to me.
So I had to reach out and take advice and try some new things. I had to experiment and find out what worked for me.
They have a saying in recovery: “Take what you need and leave the rest.” This does not mean that you can ignore everything that you disagree with, it means that you should experiment and test new ideas until you find what works best for you!
The thing about recovery from alcoholism is that it is a hands on process. You can’t just sit back and theorize about what might work for you and what won’t. That doesn’t work. That is what I was doing when I was in denial and still drinking. I would look at the idea of treatment and AA meetings and say “nope, I don’t think that will work for me.” But did I actually know that? Of course not. I was just guessing (because I was afraid).
So instead of doing this in recovery you need to get your hands dirty. You need to dive in head first and start testing out some of these ideas. They will suggest that you go to 90 AA meetings in 90 days (probably). So you might give that a try. Maybe it is not for you (I went for the first 18 months or so, but have not gone for over a decade now). It is possible to change and evolve in your recovery. And there is nothing wrong with this, so long as you are taking care of yourself every day, and in every way. This is how the holistic approach works. You must learn to take care of yourself every day and in order to do that you are probably going to have to experiment and try new things. The best way to learn what those things might be is to ask for advice from others in recovery. Whatever they are doing is obviously working for them! So borrow some of that experience and wisdom. Use it to your advantage. Ask them for help, ask them what they do in their own recovery, and then experiment with it yourself.
Building a new life from scratch
I had to start over from scratch when I got into recovery. I realize that this option may not be available to every person. I am grateful that I had the chance to do it myself.
What I did was to move into long term rehab. I was lucky that they took me in. They only had one spot available at the time and I was lucky to get it.
I never saw any of my old friends again. My drinking buddies. They simply drifted out of my life forever. I was lucky in that as well.
I quit my old job where I used to drink all the time. I was lucky to be able to just walk away, and then later find a new job.
I had a family that supported me 100 percent in all of this. I was lucky to have that support.
I was lucky to be able to rebuild my life from scratch, simply because I was finally at the point of real surrender. I was finally done being afraid. I was finally willing to face my fears, to walk into them head on.
I don’t know if every alcoholic will have these opportunities. Probably not. But I have also realized that it doesn’t necessarily matter if you have all of this “luck” that I had on my side or not. Because I have watched many alcoholics who had even more opportunity than I did and they can’t find that point of surrender. They may die from drinking before they ever truly surrender in spite of having all the support and resources in the world.
So you just never know. If you are lucky enough to surrender to your disease then don’t waste any more time. Get yourself to rehab. Ask for help. Go to an AA meeting. Go see a counselor or a therapist and get expert advice. Find the path to sobriety.
If you are willing to go to treatment then by all means, go. It can be the start of a new life if you allow yourself to get out of your own way.
Rebuilding your life in recovery does not have to be a chore. It may seem like a chore when you are going through detox but it starts to get really exciting after that. Sobriety is definitely not boring–not like we think it might be when we are still drinking and drugging. It gets interesting. It gets exciting. But you have to give it a chance.
And it takes time. It takes time to heal, it takes time to build a new life. It takes time for your lifestyle to change. And it takes time for you to appreciate your new lifestyle. It may not happen overnight. And this is why you have to have some faith. Faith that things will get better, even when you may feel down or depressed.
So your first step is to make the decision, to ask for help. My suggestion is to get to rehab. Inpatient treatment. Detox.
Embrace total and complete abstinence. I know it is scary at first. It gets easier though. It is not so hard to be sober when you have help and support. Getting to rehab can be very tough, but actually being in rehab and being sober is pretty easy. That might not make sense right now but once you are in treatment you will realize that it is true. Once there, it is easy to be sober in treatment. Which is the whole point!