By Patrick O’Neil, Group Facilitator, CAST Centers
I’ve been gratefully clean and sober and in recovery for quite a few years now. But I wasn’t always grateful or even happy to be here. I came in kicking and screaming. I wanted to use without consequences and that just wasn’t possible. I had a grandiose sense of myself. If I could just become a famous rock star then everything would be perfect. Fortunately that didn’t happen. If it had I’d probably be dead. Instead I reluctantly went to rehab, followed suggestions, and begrudgingly got involved with a 12 Step program. After a month of meetings I obtained a sponsor and began working the steps. Over the next year I slowly became a member of the AA and NA communities. In doing so I found my support system and a bunch of friends that didn’t use and helped me stay clean and sober.
That first year wasn’t easy. In fact it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But the alternative was much worse. My life when I was using wasn’t much of a life. Unless I was passed out or obliterated on drugs and alcohol then I was totally stressed out and depressed. Which, much to my disappointment, didn’t just go away when I got into recovery. In the beginning I was raw and a bundle of nerves. I had to learn how to navigate life on life’s terms. Instead of avoiding everything being loaded and running away from my responsibilities.
Over the years since then I’ve learned, through trial and error, to maintain a program of recovery. Where I used to constantly think of using, my biggest issues now are avoidance and complacence. If I’m not vigilant and working a program then my meeting attendance drops, I isolate, I don’t exercise, and I spend way too much time in my head (which is not a safe place for me to be). When I was new and at a meeting and some old timer would share their program of recovery was slacking, they needed to step up their participation, and I’d think, “How the hell does that happen?” Well now I know.
It takes work to stay in recovery, but if I keep it simple, engage in healthy activities, and use these six “tools” then I’m well on my way.
1. Support System: For me this means meetings, commitments, working with a sponsor, fellowshipping with group members, and sponsoring others. I know that sounds like a lot. But what I get back is ten-fold. With meetings I get to walk into a room and for an hour feel comfortable and safe, and I get ignore all those self-absorbed thoughts in my head. Working with a sponsor I can talk about everything that I’m dealing with (see #4. Resentments). Working with a sponsee I get to be of service to others. With the fellowship I find the support of a community that understands what I’m going through. There are alternatives to this, but with a 12 Step group you get it all. If you do it on your own then you need to incorporate these essential elements from other sources. It can be done. It just takes more work and self-motivation. I know myself. I can be lazy and at times lack motivation. AA and NA works for me.
2. Spirituality: I grew up thinking religion wasn’t very nurturing. In fact it felt damning and shaming. I never adhered or believed in their methods and teachings. So when I came to 12 Step meetings and they told me it was a spiritual program I resisted because I associated spirituality with religion. It took me a while to figure out that spirituality was more how I interacted with others. I used to pass a car broken down on the side of the freeway and think, “better them than me.” I judged others and thought I was better than everyone else. I didn’t care about anyone’s wellbeing, especially my own. All of which left me shallow inside. These days I’m of service to others. I work in treatment, I volunteer, I donate my time and money, and I try and walk through life with grace, acceptance, and understanding. That is my spiritual path.
3. Health: No one that puts a needle in their arm or drinks a half gallon of booze at a time is concerned about their health. In early recovery I stopped using drugs and alcohol but continued engaging in an unhealthy lifestyle. I ate badly. I didn’t exercise. I smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. I slept as much as possible to avoid reality. Gradually, over the years, I started caring more about my health and myself. Because of copious years of neglect I had bad teeth and worse physical health and started seeing medical professionals on a regular basis. I became concerned with the quality of the food I put in my body. I started exercising. I quit smoking. Not so strangely I came to understand that how I treated my body affected my mind as well. I discovered that I was less depressed and anxious if I followed these simple healthy habits and a daily exercise regime.
4. Resentments: Left to my own thinking I’m a resentful and self-centered individual. Working the steps I came to see that I made the majority of my decisions out of fear. I was unable to be happy for the success of others and I felt the world, and everyone in it, owed me. Needless to say all of that “negative thinking” left me resentful and unhappy. I am the maker of my own suffering and if I don’t actively work a program of recovery then I’m stuck there. Working with my sponsor I can tell him all of my fears and resentments and he helps me work through them. This alleviates my petty nature and helps me be a better person to those that I love and to complete strangers.
5. Meditation: When I was growing up meditation meant tie-dyed hippies, inedible health food, and contemplating one’s navel. To say I had negative preconceived ideas would be an understatement. What I didn’t know was how effective meditation would be for quieting the ever-present chatter in my mind. And while in the beginning it was near to impossible to sit silently for any period of time, with practice it became easier. With more practice it became beneficial. Where 5 minutes of silence used to be excruciating, 20 minutes is now the norm. Fifteen years ago I joined a meditation group and I meditate regularly. The benefits are a calm mind and less tense body. Without it I’m stressed out and anxious. It takes effort but the trade off is well worth it.
6. Be My Best Self: I spent years not being my best self. I was not aligned with who I truly was. I wasn’t listening to my authentic inner voice. I had to figure out what the good parts of me were. How they were me. Not the negative parts that I had been embracing that I thought were me. I grew up as a creative person. I was an inquisitive artistic child that was excited about art and music and writing. My addiction practically destroyed that creativity. Over the past eighteen years I’ve worked very hard to get back to being that creative person that I was. By working to be my Best Self I discovered I’m still passionate. I’m still creative. I’m still me.
Following these six ways to maintain my program of recovery allows me to be my Best Self. I don’t always do them all perfectly. But then it is my program, not yours, and I’m doing the best I can.