Updated: Nov 9, 2020
I spent a little time writing about labels in the past, but I think I forgot one. It's a big one, too. It is one of the most consistently used labels for those seeking sobriety, and it is one of the most misused terms in the sober community. The intention of the label is sound, but the way it is used most often conjures up a lifelong sentence for the alcoholic to remain in a specific phase, if you will, of their journey. I have even been told it is necessary to remain in this phase to be successful. Unfortunately, to remain in this stagnant phase is actually the antithesis of the original use and meaning of the word, and therefore can actually prevent success. I would go so far as to say the way this word is used can be damaging to the person who desires a holistic change in their life.
I haven't done this in a while, but if you have followed me for any amount of time you know I like to look up the definitions of words. Recovery: noun; a return to a normal state of health, mind, and strength. Recovery is a period of time with an end goal. There is no time attached to it, of course, but it is meant to end when a person reaches a point of normal health. At this point, a person is then considered recovered. The way I see this word used most often is in reference to a person who has quit drinking. That's it. If a person has quit drinking they are in recovery. I do not ever hear people use the term recovered. Why? Isn't that the goal of recovery? Isn't that the point of entering into rehabilitation? Have you ever been injured and settled for just recovering from that injury for the rest of your life? No. Can you imagine even a papercut on your finger that never really healed? Every time you ate something salty it would sting. Every time you washed your hands it would hurt. Forever. No. That is not how our body works and it is not how our minds work, either. We are built to heal, but the caveat is we have to believe we can heal, first.
I will concede right now there will be many people who vehemently disagree with what I am suggesting here, and that is okay. If you are someone who believes you need to stay in recovery your whole life and that is working for you, more power to you. I applaud you for finding the path that works for you. It is different for everyone, but we can all benefit from keeping an open mind to new ideas, paths, and journeys. Since I quit drinking, I have been open to and even accepted many ideas as valid, even when I did not agree with them. I benefited from these ideas because they either helped me learn new possibilities or solidified my original beliefs. Either way, I grew as a result of listening to the beliefs and paths of others.
The moment we put down the bottle, step away from our old lives, and step onto the path of recovery, we begin a journey. While we are at it, let's look up the definition of a journey too. Journey: noun; the act of traveling from one place to another. The act of traveling from point A (alcoholism) to point B (recovered). There is a destination, but I will also concede the majority of the learning and growth does occur in the journey, not the destination. It is at the destination we get to enjoy all the benefits reaped from what we learned along the way. The important thing to remember here is recovery is not meant to be a lifelong sentence. It is meant to be a learning ground for change. It is meant to be a time to redirect our thoughts. It is meant to be a time to learn new skills. It is meant to be a time to reacquaint ourselves with ourselves. It is meant to be a time to recover.
Some programs talk about steps in the recovery process. This is a great approach as long as the steps lead somewhere. I did not join any program or follow any predetermined path when I quit drinking. I feel very fortunate for this because I never really experienced anyone else's opinion about recovery. I did not have a preconceived notion about my journey. I did not have any emotions attached to the process based on what I had heard or seen others experience. I simply set off on my path (with my partner), and I learned what I needed to be successful along the way. What I learned came from books, conversations, therapy, and trial and error. To be clear, when I say error I do not mean failure or falling off the path. I just mean I learned what did and did not work, for me. This journey is such an independent and personal one, and it really is different for everyone.
Learning ground for change
When we quit drinking and begin our path toward recovery, we are admitting we are open to change. We are saying we are ready to make the changes necessary to be successful in life without alcohol. This is obviously important because, otherwise, we stay stuck in our destructive lifestyles. We do not grow or learn, and we settle for a life that is less than we deserve. The simple act of opening ourselves up to change affords us the ability to see life through a new lens. It allows us to hear things we never heard before. It allows us the opportunity to act in ways contrary to what we are used to. Surviving change gives us the confidence to know we can grow, know we can learn, and know we are able to live a life different from what we have become accustomed to. Change can be as simple as admitting we were wrong, changing a routine, changing the verbiage we use to describe ourselves or the world, truly listening to others, trying something new, or simply accepting each day as a new opportunity to live up to our dreams. Our openness and willingness to change is a catalyst for growth.
Redirecting our thoughts
I do not know if it is the same for everyone, but it seems to me addicts tend to get stuck in certain thoughts. This is especially true when those thoughts revolve around drinking or using. I can remember a myriad of different situations in the past when I was trying to quit drinking or nicotine. A single thought would enter my mind about using, and it felt like a freight train barreling through my subconscious. All I could do was focus on that thought. Nothing else mattered except the pain and discomfort that accompanied not using. Until I gave in, that train kept circling my thoughts and blaring its horrid whistle. Our minds are incredibly powerful tools. They are equally our greatest strength and our greatest weakness when it comes to successful sobriety. The strength necessary to drive that train through our mind is equally contrasted to the strength necessary to drive our thoughts away from using and toward something healthier. They are the same thought processes, but it is up to us to choose which thought we will allow to win. Learning to redirect those thoughts to healthier alternatives is a major change toward growth, and it is not as hard as you think. With each successful redirection, it gets easier and easier until you find yourself doing it subconsciously with very little effort.
Redirecting our thoughts in times of temporary weakness or uncertainty is helpful for short term change, but there are long term scenarios in which the need to redirect is actually too late. Life, at its best, is still challenging. Relationships, environments, financial status, world events, and even internal beliefs are all susceptible to breakdowns or failure. If we are not adequately prepared to deal with these negative scenarios, we are susceptible to failing in sobriety as well. Again, everyone is different, so everyone needs different coping skills to be successful in times of crisis.
Here are the three coping skills I gained through my journey and time in therapy. The first and one of the most important coping skill I acquired was writing. Since I quit drinking, writing has been my emotional place of solace. It is a place where I can vent my frustrations or celebrate my successes. It has given me a positive outlet, and it has allowed me to participate in an amazing community of people. The second coping skill I have acquired in sobriety is exercising. It is scientifically proven exercise decreases depression, and depression was a big reason why I drank. Take away one of the biggest triggers for drinking and success is inevitable. The third and arguably most important coping skill I acquired came from my time in therapy. It is the ability to sit with discomfort. The ability to have a bad day, to experience failure or loss, or to just feel bad and not drink has been a life-changing skill. It is okay to have a bad day. Here is a link to the three-part series I wrote about sitting with discomfort. Sitting with discomfort is something addicts never learned how to do, hence why we drank. Learning this skill will forever change your life.
Reacquainting with ourselves
Once we accept we are ready for change, learn how to redirect our negative thoughts, and acquire positive coping skills, we have begun true healing. In this place of healing, we are able to get to know ourselves. For some of us, this may actually be for the first time. For so long, we reacted to life instead of participating in it. When we react to life, we act from a place of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. When we participate in life we act from a place of intention. It is from this place we can learn about our true hopes, dreams, and desires. We can question our thoughts and actions because we are taking time before acting to identify our intentions. Each intention comes from within our true selves. We learn a little bit more about who we are, and what we want in life. For example, one of the things I learned early on in my recovery was my desire to help others. I never knew this about myself because I was always too busy reacting to life. I did not have time to think about others and therefore only thought about myself. In recovery and now as a recovered alcoholic, I embrace opportunities to help wherever I can. I have found the service aspect of sobriety to be one of the most wonderful things I have learned about myself. I have learned so much more, too. I have massive dreams. I am a really good listener. I am a good friend, partner, and father. I am passionate about life. I am a positive and supportive person. I am the best version of myself. So far.
How do we know when we are recovered? This, like every other aspect of sobriety, is individual and personal. Only you can define when you have truly recovered, but you have to know you can recover, first. Let's go back to the definition. A person is recovered when they have returned to a normal state of health, mind, and strength. To me, this would mean returning to a place you were before you began drinking. Now, granted, some of us began drinking at a very young age. Do I mean to suggest you need to return to your twelve-year-old self (if you are like me)? Of course not. But, I do mean to suggest when you were twelve you dealt with problems, uncertainty, and stress without alcohol. Sure the stressors were different, but so too was how we dealt with them.
If you are not drinking, not feeling cravings, not experiencing triggers, able to positively cope with stress, living well, achieving goals, and believe you are the best version of yourself then you are recovered. You have returned to a normal state of health, mind, and strength. In this state, you are no longer an addict because an addict believes they need a particular substance or behavior to survive. You have proven your growth and you deserve to feel good and positive about your progress. You do not need to think of yourself with negative labels such as addict, sober, in recovery, alcoholic, or any other number of labels that limit our growth. You have succeeded, you have healed, you are cured, you have recovered. At this point, you have the same two choices every other person in the world has from which to choose. You can choose not to drink or you can choose to drink. The choice is yours, just like it is for everyone else.
Congratulations! You have made the right choice.