"Sobriety is always first. But recovery does not end with sobriety."

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Episode 122 -- June 14, 2021

The Three Stages of Recovery

In his book Destination Joy: Moving beyond Fear, Loss, and Trauma in Recovery, addiction recovery pioneer and counselor Earnie Larsen provides guidance for moving forward in our journey of recovery. Once we have found sobriety, we may still find ourselves encountering bumps in our progress or even hitting a wall.

The map that Larsen lays out will help us know what to expect as we continue working our program, gain a deeper understanding of recovery, and discover ways to live that will provide "more"—more freedom, more peace, more joy. In this excerpt, Larsen introduces the three stages of recovery—addressing issues we may face at each stage. With wisdom and compassion, he shows us how we can courageously face past experiences and forge a road to living abundantly in recovery.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

Dividing Recovery into Stages
The three stages of recovery are Stage I, Stage II, and Stage III. Dividing recovery into three stages seems to make sense. These stages relate to the depth to which we have been damaged along the way, both by others and by ourselves. This damage then blocks the spiritual growth that allows us access to the connections our lives so yearn for. Each level of hurt demands to be dealt with. But the same tools don't work equally well on each level. Knowing what tools the job requires is not only helpful, it is often critical. I recall a friend of mine in grade school trying to measure a length of board he was going to saw using his suspenders as a yardstick. He couldn't figure out why his mark on the board kept changing on him. Suspenders are fine tools, but they don't work very well as a yardstick.

Let's look at these three stages of recovery. As you consider them, ask yourself, "Can I relate to this? Do these stages appear in my story?"

Stage I Recovery
Stage I Recovery is arresting the addiction or dealing with a crisis. This stage requires that all our energy and attention be focused on the issue at hand. If we have an arrow hanging out of our back, no one cares at the moment who shot the arrow or how it got there. First things first. The arrow hurts, so the first order of business is getting the arrow out and stopping the bleeding.

For all the mystery that might exist around an addiction, the recovery field knows pretty well what it takes and how to arrest that addiction. We know how to do intervention, assessment, and treatment. We know how to do crisis management. We have methodologies that work, which include Twelve Step programs. We know how to get people standing up and facing forward if they are ready.

Stage II Recovery
Stage II Recovery is about doing life management work. The focus of Stage II is not the addiction itself, but the habits and patterns at work beneath the addictions. Stage I Recovery is about stopping. Stage II Recovery is about asking why. It is about understanding the triggers and the imprinting that left us vulnerable in the face of so many powerful substitutes for the "real stuff."

Stage II is about seeking out the tools and support to take adult responsibility for our lives. It's about gaining separation from those old patterns and, slowly but surely, with support both human and divine, choosing a new healthy road. Stage II Recovery requires discipline, practice, and the ability to refuse to let the past rob us of our present. Choosing this new, healthy road isn't as easy as it sounds. The assumption is that we know the stages of recovery and recognize the difference between the past and the present as we go about our daily business. Often this is not the case at all. And if we don't recognize the difference between an impulse from the past and our current situation, how are we supposed to make free choices about how we respond to those situations today? Without this recognition and the decisions it calls for, we never do have a present. All we have is an endless recycle of the past.

Stage II Recovery answers will seldom be found in Stage I Recovery groups. They have different focuses, and that's okay. Stage II tools will not be adequate for a Stage I toolbox. The focus and purpose is not the same as Stage I. Keep in mind, one stage is not better than another. There can be no Stage II if Stage I has not been won. First things first. Sobriety is always first. But recovery does not end with sobriety.

Our Higher Power calls us to even deeper levels of growth and recovery. And that deeper level, whatever it may be, can only be gained by a willingness to go as deep as the damage that keeps us from our spiritual destiny of joy and abundance that was ours at the moment of our birth.

Stage III Recovery
Survivors of childhood abuse do not lead the same kind of lives as those spared abuse in their formative years. Their brains have not developed the same. They organize information and sensations in their brains differently. They hear and see different things when they close their eyes.

I am not a medical doctor. I make no diagnosis about abuse or its medical designation as post-traumatic stress disorder. My only intent is to make others aware that there are serious and profound implications of early trauma and abuse for those people seeking recovery and an increased spiritual life. That is what we deal with in Stage III Recovery.

The effects of abuse, of course, are not "one size fits all." Even though there is a psychological designation with established criteria and diagnosis for the damage caused by abuse, we express it in different ways. Every abuse survivor is not affected to the same degree or hurt in the same way. There are too many variables.

But if there is early, intense, consistent abuse in a person's life, the damage of that abuse must be understood and faced before he or she can move on to the joy and abundance spelled out in the promises stated in the Big Book.

Where the road goes
All Stage II and Stage III Recovery issues are about bringing forward early, negative imprinting into our present consciousness. Before we do that, we must come to understand what this negative force or evil tide is and how it affects us. This "lie" we have unconsciously built our lives around from the beginning must be dealt with. When this negative process has control of our lives, we respond to present situations as if we were still living in the early situations over which we had no control or choice.

We are meant to have genuine choices as adults. To realize those choices, we must learn to mentally and emotionally separate from that powerless, helpless child of the past. We must then learn to make decisions in the here and now based on who we choose to be as adults. Recovery beyond sobriety is learning to be an adult, not a terrified, angry child forever acting and reacting to yesterday in an adult body.

About the Author:
Earnie Larsen was a nationally known author and lecturer. A pioneer in the field of recovery from addictive behaviors and the originator of the process known as Stage II recovery, Earnie authored numerous curricula, DVDs, audio CDs, and books with Hazelden and other publishers, including his 2010 Hazelden book Now That You're Sober: Week-by-Week Guidance from Your Recovery Coach, written with his sister, Carol Larsen Hegarty. With degrees from Loyola University and the University of Minnesota, Earnie was a counselor for more than forty years.

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