Here are some time-honored, tried-and-true principles for recovering from an addiction. To be sure, I didn’t make these up. They are the result of many decades of experiences gathered and learned by millions of people who have taken this journey called “recovery.” Many have been successful. Others have not. And there are always exceptions and outliers – people who have found a way to escape the devastating outcomes typical of addiction illness without following these principles; or people who despite doing their best to follow them have nonetheless succumbed to the life-impairing and life-destroying consequences of addiction. But those outliers are few and far between. For the most part, the wisdom that I have summarized into the following seven “Jewels of Rules” constitutes a solid road map to recovery that can be life-saving for people who follow it honestly, consistently and with dogged persistence and determination.
Jewel of a Rule #1: Commit to a complete and total transformation for the long haul. Once you recognize that you have an addiction, understand that recovery means a total transformation in your life, for the rest of your life. Nothing less than that will work. Recovery from an addiction requires a spiritual (though not necessarily religious) transformation. You must accept this fact and commit yourself to this change. This is one of the reasons that true recovery is not something that happens overnight. It takes a long time. It is a process – a marathon, not a sprint. And like a marathon, it’s a tremendous amount of work. Active work.
You don’t just passively “stop doing something” when you recover. If that’s all you do, the improvement usually won’t last. People in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) refer to a person that makes this kind of superficial and temporary change as a “dry drunk.”
When you truly enter recovery, you put a lot of work into achieving a total spiritual transformation. That spiritual transformation will cause you to make a lifestyle change. It will almost happen naturally, and the result will be powerful. In this context, when you stop drinking, drug use, excessive gambling, (or whatever the addictive behavior might be) it will be the manifestation of the transformation you have made in all of those other areas of your life. That’s the only way that your abstinence will be sustainable.
But don’t misunderstand this. You must stop the drug use or other behavior at the beginning, and then get to work on making the transformation. You can’t transform your life while actively engaging in your addiction. You stop first; then you immediately get to work in earnest on your complete life change. Then that change supports and entrenches your abstinence. When it’s all said and done, you achieve a “total life makeover.”
This “new you” must then be nurtured, enriched, and enhanced by continuing to work a recovery program for life. You can’t go back. And remember: if you stop moving forward, you’re moving backward. A relapse can put you right back where you started at square one. That’s why recovery is a lifelong commitment.
Jewel of a Rule #2: Develop a support network of people who know how to do this “recovery thing.” At first, recovery may seem incredibly difficult – almost impossible. But here’s some good news: it’s been done before. You don’t have to “re-invent the wheel.” Millions of people have successfully entered long-term stable recovery from addictions. Learn from those who know. An individual “sponsor,” a 12-step “home group,” supportive family members/significant others and supportive friends are key. You need to be immersed in recovery. It is essential that you surround yourself with like-minded people who are going through the same recovery process as you are, and that you seek out guidance from several people who have already achieved long-term stable recovery in their own lives.
Jewel of a Rule #3: Avoid people, places and things associated with the drug, food or behavior you are addicted to. You are kidding yourself if you think that you’re going to recover from alcoholism while going to bars with your same group of drinking buddies, but simply refraining from having any drinks yourself. You may be able to do this a time or two – or even ten. But you will NOT be able to do it for the long haul; and addiction recovery is for life. If you are trying to recover from a gambling addiction, you will not be able to stop gambling but continue to hang out with people who are gambling. You will not be able to continue to frequent casinos but refrain from making a bet. Eventually, you will succumb, and you will resume gambling. This may mean that you will have to cut some people loose. It’s that serious. Recovery from addiction is a life-and-death, do-whatever-it-takes imperative.
Jewel of a Rule #4: Take recovery “one day at a time.” This is an age-old AA principle. At least in the early going, this is the best way to go. No doubt, if you read #1 above, you understand that true recovery means commitment to a lifelong total transformation. But if you’re like me, you probably find it pretty intimidating to commit to changing anything “for the rest of my life.” That’s particularly true when you’re committing to leaving behind something that certain parts of your addicted brain desperately want to hold on to.
This is where it’s helpful to remember the old Chinese saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Think of it exactly that way. One step. And then another. And then another. Don’t tell yourself, “I have to do this for the rest of my life,” since that can be daunting. Tell yourself, “Today, I’m going to engage fully in my recovery program. I’ll worry about tomorrow when it comes. But right now, I’m only going to focus on today.” It’s infinitely easier to focus on your commitment to your recovery transformation for the next 24 hours than to contemplate changing “the rest of your life.”
Jewel of a Rule #5: Be careful not to fall victim to “cross addiction.” Addiction is not a drug-specific disease. It’s not even a “behavior-specific” disease. When Vietnam vets who had become addicted to heroin while at war returned home, many of them stopped using heroin – which was illegal and socially frowned upon – and turned to alcohol, which was legal, socially acceptable and even “cool.” Predictably, it became common to see Vietnam vets who had previously been addicted to heroin but later developed alcoholism. Or consider a present day example. People with addictions to online gambling have found that they are particularly susceptible to developing addictions to online pornography or even to shopping (both online and in stores).
The other side of this is also true. A growing number of scientific studies are now demonstrating what I’ve been arguing for years (sometimes drawing the ire of staff members on some of the treatment units where I’ve worked): that people are more successful in their efforts at recovery from “hard drugs” – not less – when they attempt to quit smoking at the same time that they enter treatment for their other drug addictions. So this means that when you attempt to recover from addiction you are seeking a total transformation into a healthier spiritual and lifestyle existence. This must be a comprehensive change.
Jewel of a Rule #6: Don’t neglect the “medical side” of your recovery. If addiction is truly a brain disease (which it is) then it would make sense that modern medicine might have something to contribute to your efforts at recovery (and it does). It’s been estimated that anywhere from 30% to 60% or more of people with addictions may also have a coexisting mental health condition, like depression or OCD or generalized anxiety disorder. We know from a large body of research that people with addictions who also have one or another of these general mental health conditions have little or no chance of achieving sustained recovery from addiction if the general illness goes undiagnosed or untreated.
So get in to see your doctor. He or she may, in turn, refer you to a mental health professional. This, of course, would be the gold standard. (You think I might be biased in this regard?) But truth to tell, that’s not the only way a mental health problem can be diagnosed or treated. Sometimes your primary care doctor can diagnose you with one of these conditions and provide you reasonable treatment for it. Don’t shy away from this. You’ve got to see this as an integral part of your effort to recover. And your attitude towards your recovery must be, “I’ll do whatever it takes to recover!”
Jewel of a Rule #7: Never give up; keep coming back. Understand that addiction is a chronic, potentially recurrent condition that can be treated and controlled, but not “cured.” The mean-spirited and pejorative way some people have said this is, “Once an addict, always an addict.” This has a ring of validity to it because it speaks to the chronicity and recurrent nature of the disease. But this is a nasty and cruel – and ultimately inaccurate – way to think of addiction, because it serves to “box in” the person with an addiction into the notion that they can never progress, change their lives or transform their situation. And nothing could be further from the truth!!
Still, if you’re like most people, you WILL have challenges and setbacks along your road to recovery. You may even fall completely “off the wagon,” at times. The key is to NEVER get discouraged. It’s NEVER too late. You can never make too many attempts to try again and get into recovery. Ten times. Fifteen times. Twenty-five times. It doesn’t matter. If you’re still breathing, you can – and you must – come back and try again. It’s too important to give up on this. The stakes are too high; the consequences of failure can be death. But the only way you can fail is by not trying again. Rededicate yourself to complete and total recovery. Look at what you did in past attempts at recovery that didn’t serve you well (or that led you to relapse). Then do things differently the next time. (Remember the other old saying: “The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result.”) Seek advice from those who have had long-term success. And then go back into recovery mode once again. Remember: if this were easy, there’d be no people with addictions in the world – but there are! If it were impossible, there’d be no huge recovering community of literally millions of successfully recovering people in the world – but there is!
It’s important to remember that addiction is a brain disease that in its worst forms will ruin your life and then prematurely end your life. For many, it is a powerful and devastating foe. But we’ve learned a great deal over the years about how to recover. Following these seven “Jewels of Rules” will give you the best chance for success.