I reached out to some of the top recovery blogs around the web for this article and asked them a series of recovery-related questions. It is my hope this article will provide a variety of perspectives from some of the most authoritative sources on recovery. It’s the same principle that makes 12 step meetings incredible: listen to different people weigh in on the same topic, and in the process, develop a deeper understanding of recovery.
I’ve also included four sections towards the end of the article, two of which concern alternative forms of recovery. The first features Paul Garrigan, who found recovery through Buddhism. The second features Ester Nicholson, creator of Soul Recovery. Bill Webb provides his wisdom on long-term recovery in this third section, and Kathy Berman gives her insights into emotional sobriety.
I’m indebted to the following people who operate some of the best sobriety resources online…
William White is considered one of the best addiction researchers in America. He is Emeritus Senior Research Consultant for Chestnut Health Systems and publishes his papers on the website Selected Papers of William L. White. His website contains the full text of more than 300 articles, 8 monographs, 30+ recovery tools, 9 book chapters, 3 books, and links to an additional 14 books written by William White and co-authors over the past four decades as well as more than 100 interviews with addiction treatment and recovery leaders.
Cathy Taughinbaugh is a certified Life and Recovery Coach who found her calling after helping her own daughter find the road to recovery. She specializes in help for parents and family members of addicted children. She also operates one of the premiere resources for family recovery at CathyTaughinbaugh.com.
Dr. Herby Bell specializes in Recovery and Wellness coaching and knows the devastation of addiction firsthand as a person in long-term recovery. He developed an integrated approach and simple lifestyle skill set called Blueprint for Recovery. He is founder of Recovery Health Care, where he offers valuable resources and an excellent podcast for those in or interested in recovery.
Lisa Fredriksen is an author and founder of Breaking The Cycles, a website dedicated to providing education, prevention and intervention services rooted in modern brain and addiction-related science for a range of addiction-related concerns including: substance abuse, mental illness, addiction, secondhand drinking, dual diagnosis, underage drinking, help for families, treatment, recovery, brain health and more.
Beth Burgess has been on an ongoing quest to understand addiction for over a decade. Having beaten her own serious addiction to alcohol, she continues to explore the causes of addiction and effective methods of recovery. After seeing so many addicts held back by their own beliefs about themselves, Beth started her own Recovery Coaching service, Sort My Life Solutions (SMYLS). She uses a unique system of therapies to help clients overcome their limitations and achieve amazing recoveries. Beth also received a Distinction for her Theory and Principles of Indirect Hypnosis, Ericksonian Psychotherapy and NLP Diploma (British Hypnosis Research). She has been fully trained in Coaching and Mentoring, Motivational Interviewing and Solution-Focused Therapy through the NHS.
Judy Herzanek is currently the Director of Creative Development and Marketing for Changing Lives Foundation. She loves working from her home office and the opportunity to combine her design, marketing and online skills with her 30+ years of sobriety to bring the message of hope to families struggling with addiction. Judy also loves hiking above tree line any chance she can get, camping, gardening and exploring the beautiful Rocky Mountains.
Joe Herzanek is the president and founder of Changing Lives Foundationand currently serves as Chaplain at the Weld County Jail (Greeley, CO). He previously spent over seventeen years working in the criminal justice system as the Chaplain at the Boulder County Jail and as a certified addiction professional in Colorado. Joe is the former host of Recovery Television, speaker, producer of several DVDs, including The 10 Toughest Questions Families and Friends Ask About Addiction and Recovery and author of the award-winning book Why Don’t They Just Quit? What Families and Friends Need to Know about Addiction and Recovery.
Holly Jespersen is the manager of Unite and Empower at Shatterproof, a nonprofit organization dedicated to prevention of addiction and an end to addiction’s stigma. Unite and Empower seeks to unite, amplify, and empower the voices of millions of American families struggling with addiction. Her department also works to break the barriers and speak with one voice that calls for equitable addiction research funding, policies, programs and support.
IF YOU HAD TO GIVE ONE SUGGESTION TO SOMEONE CONSIDERING A SOBER LIFE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
There is only one ultimate approach to success: Recovery by any means necessary under any circumstances! Millions of people in long-term recovery are living meaningful, enjoyable lives without alcohol and other drugs. We thought initially that we were removing something from our lives through recovery but unexpectedly discovered how much value and richness that recovery added. We welcome you to this world. -William White
First, I would say congratulations on taking the step to make positive change in your life. Have faith in yourself and know that recovery is a journey that includes peaks and valleys. Like any situation, you do have the ability to be resilient and continue on. Some have compared recovery to a marathon. Know that there may be times when you are tempted to fall back into old habits. Forgive yourself and then make the decision to move forward in a positive direction. Reach out for professional help if you feel that will make a difference and surround yourself with people who will support the positive changes you are trying to make in your life. Above all, don’t give up hope. -Cathy Taughinbaugh
Do it. There are many ways to do it, but no coincidence you are considering it. Getting and staying well is your birthright. Contact me–or anyone else in long-term recovery for that matter. I’m happy to talk to you about it and support it as perhaps one of the best and most intelligent, healthiest decisions of your lifetime. Email Dr. Herby Bell. -Dr. Herby Bell
Learn as much as you can about the science of the brain disease of addiction. New 21st century brain and addiction-related research explains so much of what we didn’t know until relatively recently about how a person develops the disease (key risk factors), why relapse happens, why cravings can be so powerful and what it takes to heal the brain. An excellent resource for this is The Addiction Project, a collaboration of NIAAA, NIDA, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and HBO. -Lisa Frederiksen
Remember that it gets easier as long as you work on recovery. Being newly sober is challenging, and you may feel yourself oscillating between feeling very emotional and then very flat. This doesn’t last. You will learn to have fun again sober – in fact, possibly more fun and freedom than you ever imagined. -Beth Burgess
A sober life is possible for anyone. To get a glimpse of what it can be like, you can go to an open AA meeting, sit in the back and just listen. You don’t have to say you are an addict or alcoholic; you don’t have to talk, just listen. -Judy Herzanek
Life in recovery can be very, very good. It can even be fun again. -Joe Herzanek
That it only gets better and you can still have FUN! -Holly Jespersen
IF YOU HAD TO GIVE ONE SUGGESTION TO SOMEONE NEW TO RECOVERY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Recovery is contagious. If you want it, you must get close to it, stay close to it and pass it on to others. –William White
Stay with the basics so you never have to get back to the basics…just for today. -Dr. Herby Bell
Accept that it takes time to heal the brain of this disease and that there is no one, nor right way to do it. By its simplest definition, a disease is something that changes cells in a negative way. This disease changes the way cells in the brain communicate. Thus, as a disease, it requires the 3-stage disease management approach. Stage 1 is detox and stabilization. Stage 2 is rehab and acute care, and Stage 3 is long-term continuing care. Again, check out The Addiction Project for suggestions. This is another good resource from NIDA – Principals of Effective Treatment. -Lisa Frederiksen
It isn’t enough to stop drinking. The real recovery begins when you change your thinking. Let go of the guilt and shame of addiction, and give yourself permission to focus on learning how to recover instead. Learn about recovery from those who have been there and done it, and are happy and sober. Read books, visit fellowships, read blogs, watch videos. The more you connect with resources in recovery, the better equipped you will be to build a happy, sober life. -Beth Burgess
Things get easier and life gets brighter once you have embraced the sober way of living. I did not know it at the time, but my Higher Power was there all along giving me the “want to” when I didn’t have it on my own. Be open, seek and never give up! -Judy Herzanek
Connect with sober people and call them! -Holly Jespersen
WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND TO BE THE MOST EFFECTIVE PRACTICE FOR SUSTAINING YOUR OWN SOBRIETY?
Daily practice of centering rituals, mirroring rituals (contact with kindred spirits), acts of care for self and family, and unpaid acts of service to others. –William White
I have found the most effective practice to sustain my recovery to be a synergistic, daily practice including eating, moving (exercise), thinking/feeling (psychological/spiritual practices)–WELL. I found that once the impulse to use alcohol and other drugs had been lifted, and because I began to generate my own “feel good” chemicals, these practices gave/give me all I need–and more!–to feel comfortable in my own being. No one area can compensate for another–synergistic is the key. -Dr. Herby Bell
As I am in recovery from Secondhand Drinking – the family side of the family disease of alcoholism (one of the disease of addiction) – I’ve found it important to do several things: eat nutrient-rich foods, exercise daily, get adequate sleep and practice mindfulness. Early in my recovery, I also attended Al-Anon and spent three years doing CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) with a therapist specializing in addiction and its impact on the family. –Lisa Frederiksen
Becoming aware of myself, how I think and feel, and how I react to the world. And then changing my responses for the better. I like to teach my clients Mindfulness to help them become aware of their own emotional states, their thoughts and their ‘hot buttons’ – things that cause them to react negatively. I use Mindfulness myself and it has become an essential part of my toolkit for recovery. The more aware you are of how you tick, the better you can arrest your faulty thinking and reactions that don’t serve you. -Beth Burgess
Never stop going to meetings and keeping “one foot in the recovery world.” Helping others with their recovery is the best way to stay immersed in the sober lifestyle. -Judy Herzanek
Being in constant contact with my higher power, talking to other sober friends on a daily basis and prayer. -Holly Jespersen
WHAT WOULD YOU TELL FAMILY MEMBERS WHO HAVE A LOVED ONE IN ACTIVE ADDICTION?
Recovery is the most common outcome of addiction. Achieving recovery stability can take time for those with the most severe and complex addictions. There are things you can do as a family to accelerate this recovery process. You as a family will also have to go through a recovery process. –William White
Taking care of yourself is such an important piece for family members who are dealing with addiction. There is the saying from the airline about putting your oxygen mask on first before you help others. This saying applies for the situation of coping with the substance abuse of a family member. It is crucial that family members take steps to understand that substance abuse is very stressful. Understanding and managing their emotions can help the situation. When family members help themselves, it will enable them to help their loved one more effectively.
Second, educate yourself on recovery strategies and tools that can help you and your family member. There are many good evidence-based approaches available as well as traditional approaches that may motivate a person to change and seek recovery. One such program is CRAFT which I feel strongly supports family members. The 20 Minute Guide is a must read for any parent concerned about their child. It is important for parents to stay involved in their child’s situation, and it is not always necessary for them to turn away or detach. While it is tempting to want one answer that works for everyone, the solutions are often unique to each individual. Each person has their own individual issues that need to be understood and by doing so can often result in a better chance for long term change.
Finally, positive reinforcement can make a difference. Substance abuse is often accompanied by negative behavior and negative talk. Just changing the conversation to one that is more positive can remind your family member about what they are doing right. While it may feel that you are acknowledging behavior that they should be already doing, like not using drugs or abusing alcohol, positive reinforcement has been shown to motivate people to make positive changes, because it encourages better self-esteem and change. -Cathy Taughinbaugh
Be the change you want to see in your actively addicted loved one. Look into CRAFT and Motivational Interviewing as evidence based, brain science oriented approaches to helping your loved one get help. Take great care of yourself as you maintain healthy boundaries while offering the same, consistent message that you’re concerned with love. -Dr. Herby Bell
All of what I said in #1, as well as learn as much as you can about what has happened to you so you can take steps to heal your brain- change your unhealthy coping patterns and thereby restore your health. Learn more about health recovery. -Lisa Frederiksen
Never take someone else’s addiction personally. Remember that an addict does not set out to hurt you – they are a person with an extremely tricky illness. Reward your loved one with kind words and quality time together when they’re doing well, and keep yourself safe when they are having a hard time staying sober. Remind them that you will always be there support them when they want help to recover. -Beth Burgess
Don’t “go it alone.” Find a support group and learn how to take care of yourself despite the choices of your loved one. Become educated and learn all you can. And—never, ever give up on your addicted loved one. -Judy Herzanek
To tell the person how their addiction makes them feeland offer to get them help—the bottom line is the active person will only change when they want to so they have to realize that they are losing things and hurting people by their actions. -Holly Jespersen
DO YOU THINK SPIRITUALITY IS NECESSARY IN ORDER TO MAINTAIN QUALITY SOBRIETY?
No, but there are spiritual pathways into sustained recovery (as well as secular and religious pathways). Spirituality can serve as a catalyst for recovery initiation and spiritual practices and experiences can buttress recovery maintenance and enhance quality of personal/family life in long-term recovery. –William White
Spirituality can be a helpful component to making positive change or to remain sober. That being said, everyone is different and I do not feel someone has to embrace spiritually to recover. Smart Recovery is one example of a program that uses scientific research and self-empowerment to help people who are interested in recovery. The most important thing that we can do is to provide avenues for change that fit the various needs of those seeking sobriety. There are many different roads to recovery and people should have the chance to follow the recovery path that will work best for them. -Cathy Taughinbaugh
For me, the question is rhetorical. I say that because what is necessary is to heal the “Cartesian split” or the age old, albeit archaic concept that science and spirituality are mutually exclusive in the first place.
We need to move from either/or to both/and while understanding that the wedding of science and spirituality is helping us realize these are two sides of the same coin. Physics describes energy and intelligence in every square centimeter of existence while wisdom tradition (spirituality) describes the same energy and intelligence with a different language. It is abundantly clear there is a numinous intelligence suffused in the nature of our existence. From atheistic to religious metaphors–all good, yes, spirituality is necessary as an integral part of this being human and quality sobriety–however one describes it. -Dr. Herby Bell
It has been for me. -Lisa Frederiksen
I think the word ‘spirituality’ can put people off. Learning about yourself, your place in the world and nurturing your soul helps to maintain quality sobriety. I think people should learn what they connect with and how to find their peace, whether they call that ‘spirituality’ or something else. -Beth Burgess
Looking back to the day I found myself at an AA meeting 30+ years ago, I now know there was a power greater than myself who guided me there, kept me coming back and allowed me to listen and do what I was told “would work.” I did not realize it at the time, but that “power” was not my own. Being able to realize this and tap into my newfound spiritual life helped me move forward “one day at a time.” I use the Serenity Prayer often. -Judy Herzanek
Do you have to believe in God to attend AA? -Joe Herzanek
I personally do-I believe it is a spiritual malady-I had a hole in my soul that I filled with alcohol and drugs and now I have filled with God. -Holly Jespersen
WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF ADDICTION TREATMENT?
If the essence of addiction counseling is not lost (via colonization and commercialization) in the current wave of service integration, addiction professionals of the future will be working not only in specialized addiction treatment but in a wide variety of service sectors, including within primary health care offices and clinics. –William White
Addiction treatment will, as the father of “Recovery Advocacy,” William White, envisioned nearly 15 years ago, “Shift the focus of treatment from acute stabilization to support for long-term recovery maintenance.”
Addiction treatment will finally fulfill its agreed upon prescription for the three phases of care including detoxification/stabilization, rehabilitation and what’s currently missing, continued care. Treatment will focus on recovery rather than solely on symptom suppression. Integrated, multidisciplinary, holistic–including all evidence based approaches, will be based in 21st Century brain science and brain health reflecting what needs to happen across the entire healthcare landscape; teaching people to take pristine care of themselves rather than cyclic acute care.
The addiction treatment community will necessarily become the entire community as we understand addiction to be the cultural, systemic, family and community phenomenon it is. As the stigma and misunderstanding makes way for brain health and wellness memes, treatment centers will appear in major metropolitan areas having parity with all of the other chronic illness infrastructures of our times and represent a viable template for monetizing wellness through a sustained health management partnership. -Dr. Herby Bell
I hope that there will be a trend towards long-term individualised recovery plans. Addicts need to keep working on themselves to maintain their sobriety, and often a recoveree goes through several levels of recovery in a lifetime. It would be nice to see that reflected in the services available to addicts. Recovery doesn’t stop after leaving rehab, so why should treatment stop? I think we will see Recovery Coaching becoming more popular if services can make the appropriate links. -Beth Burgess
I believe there soon will be even more innovative ways for credentialed professionals to help addicts, their families and also the children and loved ones affected by this disease. In addition to traditional career paths—which will continue to be a solid option for lifetime employment, I believe there will also be future growth and additional creative options for employment and non-profit opportunities in this area due to expanded government subsidies for addiction treatment.
Because addiction is running rampant in the USA, because our criminal justice system is growing, because the stigma is being lifted and awareness is increasing—we will see the development of further options for treatment and ongoing recovery. These options will span a range of price levels from expensive to free. Since people respond differently to various treatment and recovery venues, there is a definite need for variety. -Judy Herzanek
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE LEADING CAUSE OF RELAPSE?
A personal framework of recovery that is not flexible enough to adapt to changing life circumstances and the failure to regularly refresh one’s commitment to a recovery lifestyle. –William White
It’s clear our current addiction treatment institution at large is the leading cause of relapse with its missing, synergistic parts, not the least of which is prevention and continued care.
Stress is the leading trigger for relapse. The culture creates that stress and addiction, so it is incumbent upon the culture’s treatment community–including those being treated–to participate in, and to offer robust treatment programs to mitigate relapse and recidivism. The treatment community can do this with a more proactive and aggressive approach to addressing the multi-factorial causation of addiction from childhood trauma to improving cognitive skills and emotional intelligence training and other lifestyle skills in an ongoing continued care program of wellness interventions and check-ups. Addiction recovery requires creating and habituating new “brain maps” which takes much more time than the 30, 60, 90-day programs with woefully inadequate follow up care currently available. -Dr. Herby Bell
Several reasons, actually – not treating a co-occurring disorder at the same time as treating the addiction; not allowing prescribed craving medications (if they’re warranted and supervised by a doctor); not treating underlying issues (mental illness, childhood trauma, for example); not understanding how the brain is hijacked and thus the power of cravings; not having a solid continuing care plan in place – one that is updated and changed as necessary as recovery progresses. -Lisa Frederiksen
In the early days, I think it’s often about not understanding addiction or not having changed your thinking to be able to deal with life. When someone is sober a long time, I think not having overcome underlying issues lead to relapse; not having worked on the feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness that underpin addictive behaviour. People give all sorts of reasons for relapse, but I think the deeper reason is that they haven’t healed yet. The very deepest ‘stuff’ is still untouched and affecting every piece of their lives, whether they can see it or not. -Beth Burgess
Despite all the theories that say stress, peer pressure or other factors cause relapse, I believe that a person does not begin to recover till they have totally embraced/made up their mind to live a life in recovery. This entails many things such as going to meetings, changing “playgrounds and playmates” (avoiding triggers) and daily working/incorporating the 12-Steps.
A person who truly embraces their new lifestyle and begins to believe in him/herself, finds that he will rise up and soar to new levels he never dreamed possible. This is thrilling for the addict and for their family and friends—as addiction is a family disease and recovery is a family affair. -Judy Herzanek
Does relapse mean failure? -Joe Herzanek
Not removing people, places and things from your old life, not being connected spiritually and not being around sober people on a consistent basis. -Holly Jespersen
WHAT CAN PEOPLE IN RECOVERY DO TO CHANGE THE STIGMA OF ADDICTION?
They can speak out when they confront such stigma and support the new recovery advocacy movement in whatever way they can—including participation in public events that put a face and voice on addiction recovery and advocate for pro-recovery social policies. –William White
There is a great deal of shame attached to addiction for the people who are in recovery as well as for family members. Talking about addiction openly and reaching out for support helps to lessen the stigma for all.
People continue to be confused around what anonymity means and doesn’t mean, which prevents many people from talking about their addiction openly. Silence continues the negative pattern of shame and stigma throughout our communities.
There are many ways to get involved and to feel more empowered if you are a person in recovery or a family member. I would encourage people who want to speak or learn more, to connect with others who have similar experiences and to speak out about the benefits of recovery as much as you can.
There are many different ways to get involved. One example is to join the movement at Many Faces 1 Voice. They have a Take Action area, with many different opportunities to get involved. -Cathy Taughinbaugh
The growing “Recovery Advocacy” movement is changing the stigma of addiction. People are self-identifying as individuals in long-term recovery as opposed to the now subjugating and pejorative terms of “alcoholic and addict.” People are coming forward to publicly reaffirm the hope of and for recovery as addiction affects 3 out of 4 of our families.
The cost of addiction, in terms of lost productivity, related health issues, and multigenerational social and psychological consequences, is staggering. We will change the stigma of addiction because we have the social currency and vision for the way forward. -Dr. Herby Bell
Talk about it. We talk about cancer, we talk about HIV-AIDS, we talk about heart disease – we must talk about this disease as well. Learn more about breaking the stigma of addiction. -Lisa Frederiksen
If it is safe to do so, share your story. If it’s not safe for you, then at least educate others about addiction if you hear them talking ignorantly about it. But the more we share our personal stories, the more hope we have of stopping the stigma. -Beth Burgess
I have found that there are some people who will always attach stigma to an addict—no matter what. However, I have also found that by example, I can change some people’s viewpoint. I enjoy proudly, truthfully and matter-or-factly sharing my past as part of who I am. I do not hide it.
This helps others to take a look and see that as an addict, I live an extraordinary life that is, in all respects “normal.” I am not ashamed to let others know that I attribute what I have learned (through recovery) to my ability to deal with life’s problems with serenity and confidence. I embrace my recovery a precious gift and encourage others to seek it as well. -Judy Herzanek
Speak openly about their addiction and recovery. Lead positive, healthy lives in recovery where people see them in action. -Holly Jespersen
WHAT DOES A HEALTHY PROGRAM OF RECOVERY LOOK LIKE?
Sobriety, wellness, service. –William White
A healthy program of recovery includes a robust mind, body and spirit fitness program, the specific practices of which differ for every individual. It looks like an integrated healthy program of wellness by anchoring lifestyle skills that include integrated nutrition, functional exercise, balanced and quality sleep, and psycho-spiritual mindfulness practices chosen from any number of techniques and methods. It is incumbent upon every individual to find and participate in an ongoing, evolving practice including these parameters for addiction remission to be possible–just one day at a time. -Dr. Herby Bell
Growing, healing, learning, loving, giving – and doing the next right thing. -Beth Burgess
A healthy program of recovery looks different for each individual. I do believe that for the first year or so, it is essential to make yourself attend regular 12 step meetings, get a sponsor and work the steps. I also think that a person in recovery has to do what they know they need to do in order to create the environment they need, to move forward successfully with their newfound sobriety. This may mean changing living situations, roommates, friends, entertainment options and sometimes employment. On the other hand, many times none of these things need to change. Finding and retaining a good, solid support system is essential (continue to partner with those who “have been there”).
I have found that as a person’s years in sobriety progress, the recovery lifestyle becomes more and more “the norm” and their old life fades. On the other hand, healthy recovery requires that a person never forget this fact: they will always be an addict. -Judy Herzanek
Is an addict ever cured? -Joe Herzanek
WHAT IS SOMETHING YOU PRACTICED TO DEAL WITH A DIFFICULT LIFE SITUATION OR CIRCUMSTANCE?
Centering rituals, mirroring rituals (contact with kindred spirits), acts of care for self and family, and unpaid acts of service to others. –William White
I have many family members who are career military, Army Rangers and Special Forces officers. There is a saying that, “Danger is no stranger to a Ranger.” The meaning stems from a Ranger’s dedication to preparedness for whatever life delivers.
I have found that analogous to working a balanced program of wellness in addiction recovery. I find that balance through my beloved spiritual practices, exercise, healthy food choices and mutual support groups including my now 20 year men’s group. Living life on life’s terms, just one day at a time has allowed me to move through whatever life offers with acceptance, respect and gratitude.
A gift of addiction recovery is to observe life from a different perspective. Victor Frankl’s quote sums it up for me:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is the power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
One definition of a miracle is, “a new perception” and in that regard, addiction recovery is a truly miraculous, ongoing event and a fantastic and transformational way of life. -Dr. Herby Bell
Consider how any actions I take now will make me feel tomorrow. -Beth Burgess
I have found it somewhat humorous that during my 30+ years of sobriety I still often try to solve my problems on my own. Time and time again, I have found that when all else fails, I can stop, pray The Serenity Prayer and take a moment to give my concern to my Higher Power.
If I will be quiet and listen, a silent “voice” comes to me with thoughts and ideas that I know are not my own. Often my “answer” is to just let it go. I can move forward knowing that God is in control and I can say from experience that I have always been able to look back and see how everything worked together to bring me to where I am today.
One article by Joe that touches on the concept of “Letting go and letting God” is a chapter in Why Don’t They Just Quit called “Pivotal Teaching Moments: The Rock Bottom Myth.” -Judy Herzanek
I reach out to friends in recovery right away and I pray. -Holly Jespersen
BUDDHISM, RECOVERY AND PAUL GARRIGAN
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Paul Garrigan now resides in Thailand as a freelance writer. He is author of Dead Drunk, a book that chronicles his adventures travelling the world in active alcoholism, and ultimately, his transition into recovery through Buddhist practices. The book is a rare first-person account of treatment at Thamkrabok temple.
How did you find recovery from addiction through Buddhist practices?
In 2004, I attended a 26 day meditation retreat in Northern Thailand. I was suffering from withdrawals when I arrived, but I somehow managed to convince the monks to let me stay at the temple. During the retreat, I got to experience profound episodes of mental freedom, and I realized that this is what I’d be searching for all along – it’s what I wanted from alcohol. I continued drinking for another two years following the retreat, but it was a significant turning point for me. The pain of addiction was much worse after tasting this mental freedom, but it also opened my eyes to what is possible.
What do you find to be the most effective Buddhist practice in dealing with addiction?
Mindfulness made it possible for me to understand the nature of cravings, and it gave me the insights so I became less of a prisoner to thinking. I could see that deep down, I’m more than my thoughts. I gained the ability to see cravings as like clouds passing through my mind – they only became a problem when I latched onto them. I also understood that it would be possible for me to completely let go of the alcoholic identity.
The key Buddhist practice that helped me was loving kindness (metta) meditation. I was full of self-hatred as a drunk, and this followed me into my new life. Practicing metta allowed me to begin showing myself some compassion instead of being bullied by my inner-critic.
What are some common misconceptions you think people have about Buddhism and addiction recovery?
I suppose the biggest misconception is that you have to become a Buddhist in order to benefit from the teachings and techniques. My impression is that the Buddha advocated a ‘try it and see’ approach – use what is useful and abandon what isn’t.
What does your day to day Buddhist practice look like?
I live in a Buddhist country, I’m married to a Buddhist, and my child is being raised as a Buddhist, but I don’t refer to myself as a Buddhist. I’ve been influenced by many different practices, but my main teacher has always been life. The Buddha used to refer to his teachings as being like a raft – it could get you to where you wanted to go, but once you were there, you should abandon this prop. I continue to practice meditation daily, but I no longer see it as a Buddhist practice so much.
ESTER NICHOLSON AND SOUL RECOVERY
Ester Nicholson is author of the acclaimed book Soul Recovery – 12 Keys to Healing Addiction. The book guides readers through a 12 week process of study and practice, while fearlessly sharing her inspiring journey from addiction and domestic abuse to a new world of wholeness, serenity and success. Ester was kind enough to answer a few questions…
What was the inspiration for “Soul Recovery?”
I realized over seventeen years ago, when I was ten years sober that the 12 steps had done in my life what they were designed to do, but couldn’t take me any further if I didn’t enlarge my spiritual life – which is what Bill Wilson encourages us to do.
My particular spiritual path introduced me to metaphysical teachings which opened up a whole new world for me, but I saw that the way those teachings were being translated by most metaphysical teachers were lacking the accountability of the 12 steps. Because of this separation between the 12 steps and other spiritual teachings, I saw a lot of suffering and confusion in people that didn’t know how to bridge that gap.
Since I had access to both, and needed both to reclaim the fullness of my own life, I was compelled to create a process for my own healing, which ultimately become a teaching called Soul Recovery, which is a unification of the 12 steps and metaphysical teachings.
How does the Soul Recovery program work?
First of all, Soul Recovery isn’t about recovering from addiction or anything else. The Soul Recovery teachings are here to assist us in recovering and rediscovering that which is real – our own sense of wholeness – which is how we perceive of ourselves. In the rediscovery of that which we’ve become disconnected from, addiction and dysfunctional behaviors are healed.
How does Soul Recovery supplement a 12 step recovery program?
Soul Recovery is an expansion of the 12 steps of recovery in that it takes you from powerlessness to empowerment, introduces us to a God that is the very essence of who we are vs. a God that is still outside ourselves, supports us in doing a fearless and moral inventory from a place of deep compassion, understanding and unconditional love as opposed to the self-flagellation that most people in the 12 step programs think is necessary in order to acknowledge mistakes.
What does the future hold for the Soul Recovery program?
My intention is that this healing modality transcends addiction to drugs and alcohol, and reaches any and everyone who find themselves suffering from dependent, compulsive, dysfunctional and self-sabatoging behaviors.
What is the most powerful exercise in the Soul Recovery program?
I believe that they are all equally powerful because just like the 12 steps, you need the foundation of one key in Soul Recovery for the others to make sense in a way that is productive of real healing. But if I had to choose, I would say Key #3 which is all about surrendering everything we think we know, everything we think we are and everything we think about anything – in order to open our hearts and minds to the all-powerful will of Spirit.
If you could tell a person struggling with substance abuse one thing, what would it be?
You are worthy of all the good you can imagine, and even that which you can’t imagine. You deserve to be liberated from everything that holds you in bondage, and there is a power within you that really can set you free. But you must do the work. You must become willing to give up every excuse and all your resistance, so that the sunlight of the Spirit can shine it’s healing powers through you. You are here for a reason, and that purpose can heal everything that challenges you.
LONG-TERM RECOVERY WITH BILL WEBB
Bill Webb operates an award-winning recovery blog called What…Me Sober? His blog has been recognized by Residential Treatment Center as one of the best recovery blogs on the web. He was generous enough to answer a few questions regarding long-term recovery.
What is the one thing you see people do that allows them to transition from short-term to long-term recovery?
I think the most important thing a newcomer or someone coming back from a relapse can do is develop a strong support group as quickly as possible. That includes going to meetings regularly and often, getting a sponsor and a lot of phone numbers, and getting to know the people ahead of time so that we’re comfortable with them. Waiting until the stuff hits the fan before we make supportive friends in the program is not a recipe for long-term recovery.
I’m also a strong proponent of professional help. The 12-step groups are not equipped to deal with many of the issues that can prevent us from developing a healthy life in recovery, although a thorough 4th and 5th Step can certainly do a good job of revealing some of them.
What do you think is the leading cause of relapse in long-term recovery?
Complacency and/or failure to deal with all the issues. It’s easy to get involved with the legend in our own mind and decide that just not using is enough, but unless we get serious about the reasons we wanted to turn our brains off to begin with, we’re never going to achieve that “happy, joyous and free” thing, regardless of how we lie to ourselves.
What would you tell someone who is considering a sober way of life?
Get serious. Go to treatment if possible. If not, get a therapist and begin in the fellowships as I outlined in the answer to #1. At the very least make recovery in a 12 step fellowship a way of life, not just a hobby or temporary fix.
How do you think your recovery has evolved over the years?
I had it pretty easy to begin with, because there were issues that I chose to ignore. Just didn’t seem important. For a while the pink cloud and my own ego carried me along, but it wasn’t until recently (and I have nearly 25 years “sober” in AA and NA) that I was able to identify the real core issues and begin to deal with them. My life is better now — and improving. Recovery is a process, not an event, and we need to make sure we carry through with it.
What do you think is the leading cause of relapse amongst people in their first year of recovery?
Stress and relationships, which are mostly one and the same thing when we’re newly sober. A relationship, for someone who hasn’t learned to love him – or herself is a recipe for disaster on its own, and when you consider the potential for distraction from a program of recovery (about 110%, at a guess), they’re devastating. That’s an opinion based on a great deal of observation.
What’s your life like today after decades of sobriety?
It continues to improve as I continue to work on myself. My marriage has never been better, nor my relationships with family and friends. I’m getting on up in years, so many of my ambitions are less impressive than they used to be, but my chances of reaching reasonable goals and remaining happy in recovery and my outside life are immeasurably better.
EMOTIONAL SOBRIETY WITH KATHY BERMAN
Kathy Berman operates a site dedicated to emotional sobriety and bringing those in recovery together online. Raised in an alcoholic home, she confronted her own issues and found sobriety in 1976. But 33 year later, Kathy realized the need to confront symptoms of PTSD due to her upbringing in an alcoholic environment. An incredible advocate for a neglected issue in recovery, emotional sobriety, Kathy continues to offer excellent resources for those looking to take recovery to the next level.
What are some common misconceptions people have about emotional sobriety?
Most people don’t understand that their emotions are controlled by their thoughts. So, in order to change your feelings and moods, you have to learn a new way of using your thinking. You have to earn how to become an observer of your thoughts.
Also many people don’t accept that no one can make you feel anything. No one else can make anyone feel anything, everything we feel is our choice. If we are choosing to continue in relationships, jobs, or situations that contribute to our feelings of negativity, we need to ask ourselves why we aren’t choosing to be happy. Happiness is a choice. With the choosing of happiness comes the responsibility to give up self-destructive patterns. Learn to distinguish what you like and what you don’t like.
What are the most effective practices you suggest to foster emotional sobriety?
The healing principle is that as we believe we will get better, we will get better. But choices have to be made. You can’t hold on to misery with one hand and reach for happiness with the other. As the trapeze artist lets go of one bar before she grasps the next one, so also must we give up misery for happiness.
Other methods to increase our self-esteem are (1) set goals from the dreams we have of what we would like to have in our lives, (2) learn to take risks in all areas of your life, and (3) develop a clear-cut, precise schedule adding physical, mental, and spiritual healthy activities to our weekly life.
In developing positive self-talk, affirmations and guided imagery may be used. Remember our subconscious mind doesn’t know if something has happened already or is to happen in the future. Only the conscious mind knows time.
Therefore, don’t implant wishes or doubts with words like maybe or is or I hope. Use action positive words such as I am, I enjoy, I believe, I want, etc. Trust your subconscious to lead you to your “higher self”.
Develop an attitude of being gentle with yourself. Learn to recognize that the source of uncomfortable feelings is that we have added some degree of judgment to the future. The pain we feel is fear which is the withholding of love. The withholding hurts us as well as the person we’re “punishing”.
How important are emotional sobriety practices for family?
Emotional health is directly connected to our physical health. Choosing healthy ways (exercise, meditation, centering, and deep breathing) to deal with stress go far toward our overall health. The mind-body connection is the way your body responds to how you think, feel and act.
Are there practices for emotional sobriety you suggest specifically for family?
All family members can learn meditation principles together. The sessions should be short—maybe 20 minutes. Learn deep breathing, getting centered, full body scan, and meditation. The practice will change each person’s life and the family dynamics.
What role can PTSD play in addiction, and what do you suggest someone with PTSD do to start the healing process?
Until I learned about PTSD and myself in 2010, the trauma of growing up in an alcoholic home had controlled my emotions for 70 years. PTSD is genereally misunderstood and under-evaluated. The Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) fellowhip book unblocked much of my earlier emotional beliefs. You must change how you perceive the world and your place in it to change.