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Build your lifestyle around your recovery,
not your recovery around your lifestyle

For many alcoholics and addicts, our lifestyle blocks our recovery. It is easy to see the
problem when we have a bad lifestyle: living with an abusive partner, hanging out with drug-dealing and drug-seeking friends, or going to bars with old friends just to prove that we can have a soft drink among all that alcohol. Counselors and sponsors tell us that we must leave behind all negative influences in order to make recovery our highest priority.

For me, recovery has to come in first place, ahead of wife, kids, job, and other relationships that I treasure. Part of this decision is practical. If I put recovery in second (or lower) place, I will eventually lose my recovery, as well as whatever it was I put in first place. Hazelden wouldn't allow me to work with patients if I relapsed. My wife isn't willing to stick with me through an alcoholic death spiral, the way she did with her first husband. My daughters wouldn't want a melancholy, drunk granddad for their children.

There is also another way that lifestyle can interfere with recovery. Our mistake is taking a good, attractive lifestyle and making it the center of our lives. We require our treatment and recovery goals to "fit into" our lifestyle, and not disrupt it. The more attractive our lifestyle, the more likely we are to compromise our recovery in search of a happy and comfortable way of life. If our lifestyle is comfortable, easy and well funded, we take that as a "given" fact of life and then try to accommodate our recovery without disrupting all that's pleasurable about life.

In treatment, this shows up as an unwillingness to spend more than 28 days working on our recovery full time. Patients frequently tell me they'd love to have additional time here, but something about the home or workplace demands the highest priority instead. I've had many professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, tell me that they must return to their professional practice right away. Managers and directors swear that their companies could not live without them, and so the patients must get right back to work.

To counter this belief, I pose this question: "If you died, would they close down the business in your honor because there's no point in going on without you, or would they adapt to your absence?" If we try to have "business as usual" as our lifestyle, recovery fades away because there isn't enough time in a day to do our usual lifestyle and add AA or NA to it.

My suggestion is to take a blank calendar week and write down what we need for recovery, and then open the rest of our time for other things. That way, when we reduce our schedules, all of our recovery activities are preserved.

I've made lifestyle changes to support recovery. I don't eat at restaurants that feel more like a bar with booths than a grill. My two meetings a week are on my palm PDA every week forever, so I don't end up skipping meetings because of a schedule conflict. I pass up a lot of potential arguments because the disease thrives on chaos and conflict.

As much as I love many things in the "real world," I love the world of spirituality and sobriety more. AA's Big Book (p.84) says, "We have entered the world of the spirit." It also says, "We have ceased fighting anything or anyone--even alcohol," and "love and tolerance of others is our code." In sobriety, I've developed a very fine lifestyle, but my recovery is non-negotiable, and everything else must give way.

John A. MacDougall, D.Min, is manager of Spiritual Care and the Family Program at Hazelden in Center City, Minn. He welcomes your feedback. His e-mail address is jmacdougall@hazelden.org.

Published in The Voice - Summer 2005


The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation is a force of healing and hope for individuals, families and communities affected by addiction to alcohol and other drugs. As the nation's leading nonprofit provider of comprehensive inpatient and outpatient treatment for adults and youth, the Foundation has 17 locations nationwide and collaborates with an expansive network throughout health care. With a legacy that began in 1949 and includes the 1982 founding of the Betty Ford Center, the Foundation today also encompasses a graduate school of addiction studies, a publishing division, an addiction research center, recovery advocacy and thought leadership, professional and medical education programs, school-based prevention resources and a specialized program for children who grow up in families with addiction.

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