Episode 274: Sober With Purpose

Every Tuesday at 7:00 PM Central, we have a meeting for listeners of the podcast, that you are free to join anytime. Typically, we’ll have a guest from a previous episode speak or we’ll play a clip from one of our episodes to use as a basis of conversation. This week, I needed to get an episode published and I was having a hard time.  So, I asked the group if they would mind if I used the meeting to record an episode. They agreed and the result is what you are about to hear.

Sober with Purpose

A few weeks ago, I posted episode 270 “What is Recovery”, based on a pamphlet published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), called “SAMHSA’s Working Definition of Recovery.” In that pamphlet SAMHSA defined recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” The pamphlet went on to list four major dimensions that support recovery: Health, home, purpose, and community; as well as ten principles of recovery. I liked the pamphlet so much, that I thought I would record episodes to cover each of the four dimensions and ten principles. So, for this episode, I will be talking about the dimension of purpose. We’ll look at what purpose is, how to go about finding it, and why it supports recovery.

What is purpose?

Purpose is my reason for being, why I get up in the morning, what motivates me to learn and grow, and the passion that makes life worth living. There isn’t any one thing that gives me purpose, either. There are many things that bring meaning to my life and motivate me to live to my fullest potential. This is true with my life overall as well as with my sobriety.

I find meaning by doing what’s important to me based on my values. This gives me a sense of purpose and it’s a freedom I didn’t enjoy while drinking. During that time, I lived from one crisis to the next. I was alive but not really living. There was no purpose, no intention to how I lived. There was no direction in my life.

Sober, if I had any purpose at all, it was this vague idea that life could be better, and self-improvement seemed to be my purpose in recovery. It was important to me to participate in recovery meetings, and to get some stability and joy in my life. This was pretty much the extent of my purpose during the first ten years of my sobriety.

But when I stop to think about it now. I didn’t have any specific goals and I wasn’t trying to reclaim any of my dreams that I lost to drinking. Before my drinking completely took over, I had this vision of how my life would play out. Education was important to me, so I assumed that I would go to college and get a degree. I wanted to have children, so I thought after college, I would get a job, marry, buy a house. I guess it was the white picket fence American dream that I gave up on when my life got crazy.

I carried a lot of guilt and shame because of my alcoholism. When I stopped drinking, I had no idea who I was. I have this memory of sitting in a jail cell waiting for my day before the judge. As I sat there, I had a thought of what I wanted out of life. All, I wanted was to be free. I saw myself getting a job cleaning offices, living in a studio apartment, and going to AA meetings. That was honestly the best that I could do.

I think that because of all the failures I experienced during my drinking years, I figured that I too was a failure. I was ready to settle for something less. I have a friend who reminds me from time to time about a conversation he had with me when he first started out in AA. I was there for a year, and he asked me how I was doing. I said something like “I’m miserable, but I’m staying out of jail and that’s all I care about.” We laugh about that now, but that was my mindset.

Then, in my tenth year of sobriety, my father died unexpectedly and that was the shock I needed to begin to take a serious look at my life, where I was and where I was going. It was really the first time since I had been sober that I was trying to figure out what I was all about.

So, I have learned something from my past that I would like to pass on to anyone who is newly sober. This is an exciting time for you. You can reclaim your lost dreams. You can decide what you want for your life, and you can set goals to achieve those things. You can live sober with purpose. It’s not necessary to wait ten years like I did.

How to find your purpose

A good place to start is to think back to your life before your addiction took over. Were there any hobbies that brought you pleasure, that you gave up because of your drinking? Did you have dreams of what life would be that fell by the wayside because addiction took over? Was there something you were passionate about that you lost to alcohol or drugs? You are sober now, and you can live a self-directed life. If you want to live sober with purpose, then it might be a good idea to look at your values. What’s important to you?

SMART Recovery has a great tool called “The Hierarchy of Values.” It’s used primarily to help people become motivated to change their behaviors and move into another phase of the recovery process. It goes something like this. A person is ambivalent as to whether they have a problem with alcohol, so the meeting facilitator will ask to write on a white board, their top five or ten values. The person will list things like 1) I value spending time with my family, 2) I value my career, 3) I value travel, 4) I value being a good parent, 5) I value being with people.

Those are all good values, but the facilitator will ask, “Where is alcohol on that list?” If the person is honest, they will see that their drinking took priority over all their other values. They weren’t spending time with their family, their job was suffering, they couldn’t take trips, they weren’t there for their children, they isolated from others. The person now realizes just how much alcohol effected their life and they become motivated to change and start the recovery process.

Well, a similar exercise can be undertaken to find your purpose. You already have the motivation to stay sober, and you know what you lost to alcohol or drugs. Now, it’s time to go about figuring out what you want your recovery to look like. What’s your purpose?

SMART Recovery has a great article about this called “Values and Goals Clarification.” The article suggests that clarifying our values will help us live a more self-directed and “purposeful” life. Start by writing down your values, either on a piece of paper, or use your computer. Whatever you prefer. List as many as you can think of and then go back and rank the top three or five values. Your values can be things such as: being emotionally stable, getting an education, being physically fit, being married, having companionship, having a career.

Once you have identified the top three or five values, you want to translate those values into changing behavior. They suggest writing down three columns. The first column being what you value, the second column being the goal of what you want to have happen, and the third being the behavior – what are you going to do about it.

In my case, I valued education and I carried some shame for not having completed my college degree. So, I write down “education” in the first column as my value. In the second column, I write down the goal – I want to earn a degree, in the third column I write down what I’m going to do. This could include looking into local colleges and programs, figuring out how to finance it, make time for it. The goals for me start simply and then build as I accomplish the first. So, I learn about a program at the University of Missouri Kansas City to earn a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. I then go through a series of steps to make this happen. I did this after ten years of sobriety. When I was 35 years old, I went back to college. I loved it. I was reclaiming a dream that I gave up on long ago. I was realizing that in sobriety, I could do what I wasn’t able to do when I was drinking. I realized that though, I had experienced failures. I was not a failure. I also learned about my limitations, what classes were too much for me, and I was careful not to get myself in over my head. I got that bachelor’s degree and then went on to earn an MBA.

I started setting other goals that fit with my values. Having a partner in life, was important to me, so for the first time since I was sober, I started taking action to find someone who I was compatible with. It took a little longer than I had hoped so there we weren’t going to have kids, but when I was 44 years old, Susan and I got married.

That time after year ten was magical because I was living with purpose. I was doing more than just not drinking and going to meetings. I was doing what was important to me that aligned with my values. Ever since, I have continued to live my recovery with a real determined purpose. Now, with what I have learned over the years, I can live with real intentionality. I live with purpose.

Why does living with purpose support recovery?

In my case, living with purpose keeps me motivated to stay in recovery. I have proven to myself that I can’t live by my values when I’m drinking. I can’t have a self-directed life. I can use my values as a compass to keep me on track.

Also, when living sober with purpose, we get to know ourselves and live authentically. I’m not living my life based on how someone else thinks I should live it. I’m living it in a way that comports with what I value. Knowing myself and being true to who I am helps me connect with other people. Community has always been vital to my wellbeing and my recovery.

A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that purpose in life predicts better emotional recovery. I will quote from the most basic section of the study that tells you what it’s about and I’ll send you a link so you can read it yourself. But basically, this is what it says:

“Purpose in life predicts both health and longevity suggesting that the ability to find meaning from life’s experiences, especially when confronting life’s challenges, may be a mechanism underlying resilience. Having purpose in life may motivate reframing stressful situations to deal with them more productively, thereby facilitating recovery from stress and trauma. In turn, enhanced ability to recover from negative events may allow a person to achieve or maintain a feeling of greater purpose in life over time.”

Essentially, I’m happier when I live with a sense of purpose, when there is meaning to my sobriety. When I keep my values front and center it helps me organize my time so that I am spending the right amount of time in activities that align with my values.

Now, I would like to hear from you. Are you sober with purpose? How did you find your purpose? Has it changed over time? Do you realize that in sobriety, you have the freedom to reclaim at least some of your dreams? Have you?

Links and Resources

SAMHSA’s Working Definition of Recovery 

SMART Recovery: Values and Goals Clarification 

Herren Wellness: The Importance of ‘Discovering Your Why’ in Recovery 

Study: Purpose in Life Predicts Better Emotional Recovery from Negative Stimuli 

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