In my forty-six years, I enjoyed twelve years of quasi-normal childhood, which ended abruptly when I was raped. I spent the next ten years in a dangerous dance with addiction, suicide attempts, and more trauma. But then I reached a turning point, and my past twenty-three years have been spent healing and learning what works for me in building long-term recovery.
There is no standard set of blueprints for long-term recovery, as everyone is different, but I have identified five pillars that have enabled me to build on a strong foundation of recovery. My daily choice not to use substances forms that foundation and these rock-solid pillars stabilize that recovery into an impenetrable structure. These five pillars are not unique, and they do require work, but once built, they will stabilize your recovery fortress.
- Maintain rigorous honesty. In addition, our lives were built upon lies and false narratives we told ourselves and others. But recovery demands honesty—only when we can admit the truth can we begin to heal. I had to get honest with myself about my addiction. I had to own it and then take a brutally honest assessment of my life. We cannot build a sustainable recovery on a false narrative. When we lie, we enable sickness, secrets, shame, and suffering.
Dishonesty makes us vulnerable in all the wrong ways, but honesty conjures the true vulnerability we require to discover authenticity. Start practicing honesty in all your interactions—beginning with yourself. This must be the first pillar because without honesty, the rest will crumble. Anything created in a lie is chaos, and anything created in chaos will end in chaos.
- Expose your secrets. You cannot soak in the joy of today if your soul is still filled with yesterday’s garbage. Take out that trash. For me, this meant diving deep and pulling forth all the trauma, pain, and sorrow that I had packed tightly away. I thought this was for my benefit—why bring up old stuff? But in fact, my secrets were keeping me sick. They were smoldering under this new foundation I was building in recovery, threatening to burn it all down.
Secrets require silence to thrive, and they allow shame to fester inside of us. Shame is emotional cancer that, if left untreated, will destroy our recovery. I began by slowly exposing my secrets in my journal. At first, it was the only safe space for me. As I began to trust others in recovery, I began to share those secrets, and the smoldering was extinguished by their compassion and understanding. Begin exposing your own secrets. What thoughts and memories are you afraid to give voice to? Those are the secrets that will keep you sick if you do not get them out.
- Let go. All those secrets take up a tremendous amount of space in our mind, body, and soul. We must find ways to process that pain into something productive, useful, and healing. You must unleash this pain so it no longer occupies your mind, body, and soul. When you do this, you make room for hope, light, love, and compassion.
Writing is my release. But when physical-emotional energy rises in me, I need more intense physical activity to push the energy out of my body. I use a spin bike and weightlifting, but you might run, walk, or practice yoga—any activity that gets your heart rate up and helps you sweat, which I think of as negative energy flowing out. When I do this, I am calmer, I am kinder, and I am more the person I want to be. Meditation is another way for me to simply let go and sit with myself when my thoughts are plaguing me or I feel stuck emotionally. I often use mediational apps, guided meditations, or music to help me meditate. When you find what works for you, do it daily. Recovery is like a muscle; when it is flexed, it remains strong.
- Remember you aren’t alone. Connection is core to feeling hopeful. By interacting with other trauma survivors and others in recovery, you become part of a group of people with similar experiences who have learned how to survive. Being able to share those pieces of your past with others is incredibly powerful. Seek out support groups in your area, attend meetings, reconnect with healthy people from your past, and pursue activities you enjoy to help you meet like-minded people. Create the circle of people you want in your life—the ones who will hold you accountable yet provide you with unconditional support and love, without judgment.
In our addiction, we push these people away. We run from them because they act as mirrors of our dishonesty. In recovery, these people become the ones we turn to when things get hard. Even one such person in your life—a family member, friend, sponsor, or trusted colleague—can make a difference. Surround yourself with those who seek to build you up.
- Know you matter. In order to grow, heal, and build upon your recovery foundation, you have to believe you are worth it, that you deserve joy and love. At some point in your recovery, you will have to rely on yourself to get through a rough patch. When this happened to me, I had to really dig down and get to know myself. I had to strip away all the false narratives I used to define myself, all the ways I presented myself to the world and to myself. Who was I? What did I love about myself, and what brought me enough joy to feel worthiness?
I now know what I need to feel calm, to feel beautiful, and to feel deserving of this amazing life of recovery. I matter, and my life in recovery matters so much. It is this core truth that makes me fight for my recovery, my sanity, my marriage, and my job because they are all worth it. I am worth the fight, and so are you. Believe in yourself. Tell yourself that you deserve happiness, joy, success, and a life free from the pain of trauma and addiction. You are worth your recovery. It is the foundation on which you build your new life.
Building any structure requires hard work, and recovery is no different. While we each require different tools and plans to create them, these five pillars will sustain our recovery from trauma and addiction.