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Three hours a day.  That’s the commitment it takes to achieve real recovery from addiction, says a behavioral health pioneer.

Investing time each day to nurture and perpetuate recovery is essential, since rehabilitation is a lifelong process and relapse is common, according to Michael Cartwright, a founding board member for Dual Recovery Anonymous and Chairman of the Board of American Addiction Centers.

“People have to start looking at drug and alcohol (addiction) like a healthcare disease.  It’s a long-term disease that you continually fight over and over, and you can beat it back,” says Cartwright.  “You have to put together a game plan – an all-encompassing plan. Where are you going to live, do you have a sponsor, do you have a job?”

In his book, “Believable Hope:  5 Essential Elements to Beat Any Addiction,” Cartwright advises people to spend three hours a day making small, consistent lifestyle changes.  These new habits – which could include changing negative self-talk, finding a mentor and visualizing your healthy new life – can add up to dramatic personal transformation.

“Many addicts and alcoholics spend twelve hours a day on their negative behavior, so to ask a person to commit three hours a day to positive change is not an unreasonable request.  I’ve never met anyone who consistently puts in three hours a day working on his or her recovery who regularly relapses.” 
-Michael Cartwright, addiction specialist, author of “Believable Hope”

Cartwright knows firsthand about the journey to self-transformation.  A former drug user, he recalls walking five miles in the snow or rain for a fix.  When Cartwright began his recovery more than 20 years ago, he realized his entire trajectory had to change.

“When I got clean and sober, 98 percent of the people I knew did alcohol and drugs,” Cartwright says.  “So it was very challenging for me.  Where do I go, who do I hang out with, do I go to family functions?”

After several drug relapses, Cartwright began shaping a new mindset – as he constantly visualized the rewards of a better life.  “You have to think positive.  You’re going to have relapses and letdowns, but it’s your attitude on how you’re going to overcome those that makes the difference,” he says.

Since addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease, people in recovery should view setbacks as a learning opportunity, not a failure, Cartwright says.  Relapses should be anticipated and seen as a time to re-engage professional help, identify triggers to avoid, and put recovery steps back into place.

“Most people don’t have a concrete plan for what to do if they relapse,” he says.  “You should have that in your game plan already.”

Steps to Self-Transformation

Cartwright shares his insights on how to recover from addiction in the book, “Believable Hope.”  Here’s an overview of his five principles to overcome self-destructive behaviors and facilitate lasting change:

Find Believable Hope

It can’t be done until you believe it can be done.

You have to believe that you not only can change, but you will, Cartwright says.  The mindset of believable hope is critical to transcend addiction.

One of the best ways to create believable hope is by finding and emulating a mentor, Cartwright says.  The power of personal example allows others’ experience to build believable hope within you.  Someone who has achieved freedom from addiction inspires you to say, “If that person can change, so can I.”

Cartwright also recommends finding hope and resiliency in a loving Higher Power, and in the supportive environment of residential treatment programs.

Visualize The Life You Want

The second truth, Cartwright says, is that you must vividly imagine the new world you want to create for yourself.  Most successful people incorporate this sort of positive imaging into their lives, he says.

Don’t allow your present circumstances to deter you from what you can be.  The key to effective visualization, Cartwright says, is to focus on your potential – where you can go and the person you can become. You must find what motivates you and gets you excited in life, Cartwright says.  Imagine the life you are creating.  Where are you living?  What does

it look like?  Who is with you?  What career are you enjoying?

Since our lives move toward our dominating thoughts, Cartwright recommends dwelling on positive statements such as:

  • “I’m a survivor. I can handle this. I’ve handled a lot of other difficulties.”
  • “I can do this.  I can change.  I can be better.”
  • “I’m feeling better every day.  I like the new person I am becoming.”

Be specific.  It’s not enough to say, “I want a better life.”  You have to see yourself free of alcohol and drugs, visualizing the specifics of your new joy-filled life.  By changing your mindset, you’ll begin to talk, act and react like the person you think you are.

Surround Yourself with Winners

We become like the people with whom we most frequently associate. If you want to get free of addiction, Cartwright says, you must avoid other users or addicted individuals – at least until you’re strong enough to overcome temptation.  Reshape your thinking with positive books, motivational seminars and uplifting influences. Help someone else, since gratitude is one of life’s great motivators and part of your own healing.

Keep your life in balance; counteracting negative situations with positive people and surroundings is key to lasting recovery, Cartwright says.  Go to meetings where other people are fighting similar battles as you.  Find a sponsor or a mentor – someone who will share insights on recovery, be a role model and hopefully keep you accountable.

Put Your Plan Into Action

Your recovery game plan isn’t optional, Cartwright says.  By not setting goals, you are abdicating the responsibility for your life, giving it over to chance.  Cartwright recommends making short and long-term recovery goals using the SMART acronym:

  • S for specific, well-defined goals with a target to aim for
  • M for measurable goals, so you can determine your progress
  • A for action-oriented, with a written plan and steps to get there
  • R for realistic; slightly out-of-reach but not far beyond current capabilities
  • T for time-bound, with set dates to achieve specific goals

Rather than stating vague goals such as “I don’t want to be miserable” or “I’m never going to crave drugs again,” Cartwright says a better goal might be “For the next two weeks, whenever I get down, I will write about my feelings in a journal.”  The difference is that the second goal is specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and able to be accomplished within a set period of time.

Cartwright advises people in recovery to visualize their future as they create actionable goals:  Where will I live?  Who are the winners who will influence me?  What type of lifestyle will I have in my healthy new world?

Remember, real change is often gradual – the accumulation of a large number of small, incremental improvements.

Maintain the Life you Love

An important key to sustain your recovery is to anticipate and plan for relapses, Cartwright says.  Recovery is an ongoing process, and many people begin rehab programs five to 10 times before they’re finally able to achieve sobriety, he says.

Don’t allow setbacks to define the rest of your life.  Learn to regard a relapse as an opportunity to identify high-risk situations and choose more effective methods of handling them, Cartwright says.  Re-establish positive patterns in your life, and keep yourself motivated by celebrating your sobriety with small rewards for success.

Respond to warning signs and triggers so that you can stop relapses before they happen.  You may need to learn how to call a HALT – noting that many problems result from being hungry, angry, lonely or tired.  These four feelings, if left unmanaged, can lead to addiction relapse.

Avoid vulnerable situations and contact someone who is supportive of your recovery.  Family and close friends may not always be your best resources, Cartwright says, since they are often in denial.

Practice reacting in the opposite spirit.  Just about the time you don’t want to go to a recovery meeting is probably the best time for you to go.  When you feel yourself lean toward unhealthy behavior, rely on your new mindset to help you do the opposite.

At least three hours a day, build healthy habits into your life. Read positive material that reinforces your lifestyle change, find inner strength through prayer and meditation, seek out recovery support groups, get exercise and put yourself in a position to meet positive-minded people, Cartwright says.

And keep your progress in mind, focusing on the person you are becoming.  Remind yourself of the better health, improved self-esteem, increased energy and freedom you will enjoy as you overcome addiction.