Directions for a Better Life

When All Else Fails

…read the directions. It’s hysterical to me when alcoholics and addicts ask me to tell them what to do. I usually smile and say, “No.” Everyone wants a set of instructions and no one really wants to follow them. I ask people to tell me specifically what they want and then I’ll suggest how they can go about getting it.

Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and other self help programs have the solutions for overcoming addiction and the most important insights for having a life. No 12 step program claims to have all the answers and most suggest the need for outside help depending on a person’s needs. Counseling is therefore best seen as a compliment to the work, fellowship, and spiritual growth experienced when one applies oneself to the 12 steps. One of the greatest challenges in counseling is that the less a person knows about what they need, the less likely they are to get it. The best counselors will ask three very difficult questions (in order of importance): What do you need? What do you feel? What do you want?

The most common response we get is, “I just want to be happy.” Sure. Piece of cake. “I just want” is almost always a “poor me.” We seem to view happiness as something we inherently deserve, shouldn’t have to work for, and somehow got screwed out of in ways we had nothing to do with. “What do you need to be happy?” I’ll ask. The laundry list that follows are not entitlements. They are things that healthy people work towards and achieve. My friend Art reminds me often that, “happiness is not so much a feeling as it is a choice.” So what we choose has everything to do with what we become and how pleased we’re likely to be with it. When we need guidance and support we mistakenly ask for advice and solutions.

Advice is the thing you ask for when you already know the answer and you hate it. Alcoholics and addicts are master manipulators. We are con men and women and we do not lose these skills at any point in sobriety or recovery. We can choose whether or not to use them. Sadly we are often using them without realizing it. To con comes as naturally to us as breathing. I met with a recovering alcoholic recently who became progressively annoyed with me as I failed to tell her what she wanted to hear. She had come to me with an ongoing problem and asked me to choose between two solutions. I pointed out that there appeared to be many other options besides the two she gave me. I annoyed her by explaining that her two choices were a dichotomy. Alcoholics love dichotomies because they are the essence of black and white thinking. We consider both extremes and then we choose one. In between the black and white there are often many shades of gray – other choices that do not involve going from one extreme to the other. These other choices will likely involve change, accountability, and perhaps Learning Experiences and thus are seen as undesirable or are overlooked.

Being accountable and managing responsibilities are always the foundation of who we are and what we do. Do the hard work and stop looking for short cuts. If you need to know something specific, by all means ask. Make sure you’ve got the basics covered before you go looking for the advanced stuff. If you don’t have stability in your daily life, don’t look for the perfect relationship. If you’re struggling to stay sober then don’t go looking for ways to deal with your family. A good life is many things – it is hard work, faith, being healthy and it’s a lot to stay on top of.

Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein predicted the world’s demise would come because “everyone wants to build and no one wants to maintain.” Maintenance is boring and it’s never ending. We find no joy in mundane tasks but the life we want requires that the bills get paid, the chores get done, and we can’t let things slide. Creating routines and habits for the daily grind reduces stress and ensures that we’re standing on stable ground as we reach for the next plateau.

For those who insist on instructions (and for the alcoholics who skipped down this far to find the list) I offer what works for me:

1. Find a Higher Power to believe in and talk to it like you would a friend. Ask Her/Him to save you from yourself. Ask for the ability and willingness to both give and receive daily. Say the serenity prayer at least once and as many as 50 times a day. Ask for happiness, joy, freedom, and grace.

2. Pay attention to yourself – to your own thoughts and feelings – otherwise they will run you.

3. Act and speak by conscious choice. Always respond and never react.

4. Remember that half assed efforts and self deceit always ends in disaster.

5. Laugh at every possible moment.

6. Communicate directly. Say things like, “I feel…” “I want…” and “I need…”

7. Give people the benefit of a doubt. Check in with them and ask what they meant.

8. Avoid chaos, drama, and other unhealthy distractions.

9. Journal every day even if it’s only 5-10 minutes.

10. Have at least three people who know you well and want to help you. Call them. Have coffee with them. Ask them to tell you when they think you’re kidding yourself.

11. There are things that always work – take a multivitamin every day. Drink lots of water. Walk.

12. Keep a calendar. Get organized. Manage your time.

13. Make time for people and things that matter most.

14. Be passionate and do your job as well as it can be done.

15. Have a dream. Goals are good – dreams are better.

16. Get hugs – they’re important.

17. Take risks.

18. Believe in yourself and surround yourself with people you believe in.

19. Be vulnerable and seek intimacy – connection is good.

20. Cope. Talk to yourself like you’d talk to a friend.

21. Share your pain, your fears, and your needs with people who care.

22. Be real and be the same person no matter where you are. It’s ok to be more or less private depending on where you are and who you’re with but be genuine at all times.

23. Love wholly and completely.

24. The only way to let go of pain is to grieve. The only way to let go of anger is by being angry. The only way to let go of shame is to share it. Forgive yourself and learn how to let go. There is not forgetting and the feelings don’t go away just because we stopped thinking about it.

25. Take nothing for granted. I know what it costs and I know what it is worth.

One size does not fit all. Instructions have to be tailored to the individual. Each of us faces our own demons, our own challenges, and our own reflection. The more you know about what you need, the more likely you are to get it. Write it out. List every unmet need, every fucked up thing that trips you up and knocks you down. Find sponsors, mentors, family and friends and for the rest find a really good counselor. Interview your counselor. Tell on yourself. Share your tricks and cons and manipulations and find out if your counselor is willing and able to help you further find yourself. Work hard. Be consistent. Pray. We all deserve happiness…there’s just no healthy short cut to it.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.