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Years before Zack Traynor was Director of Admissions at FHE Health, he was fresh out of rehab, new to recovery, and trying to discern short-term versus long-term goals. Questions of responsibility loomed large, as they do for so many in this critical first year of sobriety:
- Which responsibilities should come first, and when do you know you’re ready to take on more?
- What are the benefits of taking on more duties and commitments during early recovery? Is there a case to be made for getting a pet or starting a heavy-duty job in your first year?
- And, if taking on more responsibility can be an important indicator of progress in recovery, what does it look like to implement this goal responsibly—in a way that avoids undue stress, burnout, and a relapse?
Today, Traynor uses his own personal and professional experience—in 12-step recovery and as an admissions counselor and director for FHE—to help others who may be asking these sorts of questions. We invited Traynor to share some of this expertise in a recent interview. What follow are highlights from that conversation.
12-Step Tips for Which Responsibilities to Prioritize?
Like many people in their first year of sobriety, Traynor faced the challenge of navigating sobriety while juggling the responsibilities of adulthood. A job that pays the bills. A place to live. Cost-of-living expenses. A means of transportation to and from work and other commitments.
The 12-step wisdom that Traynor inherited then and would later pass on as a mentor to others was to “build the foundation of recovery” and make that the #1 priority:
- Finding a 12-step home group. It was important to find one group to attend consistently, where Traynor could build supportive relationships.
- Getting a sponsor. “Having someone to call every day for help with this process [building a foundation in recovery]” was a really big help.
- Attending daily meetings. (Yep, you read that correctly: daily.)
A Full-Time Job
Recovery may have come first in a timeline of responsibilities during the first year after rehab, but a full-time job was next. Almost immediately so.
“The suggestion was that I get a job that was pretty easy and mindless,” Traynor said, then jokingly, “At the time, I really thought I was going to be a CEO.” Traynor’s sponsor quickly disabused Traynor of this notion. He assured him that the bigger title and salary would come later, but that what Traynor most needed in a job was “consistency” and “to develop consistent behavior.”
Traynor followed his sponsor’s advice and applied for a job washing cars. Five days, 40 hours, per week. It may have provided plenty of mindless hours, but it also provided exposure to business development (an area that Traynor would later specialize in).
Other Responsibilities in the First Year of Recovery?
What about other responsibilities in the first year of recovery? When to get a car and when to get a pet are common queries. Here is what Traynor had to say there….
Getting a Car
In Traynor’s case, attending daily 12-step meetings also meant the responsibility of having to organize a ride to every meeting. Traynor did not have a car at the time.
Wasn’t that a challenge to find a ride to a meeting every day? In some ways, yes, but “there is so much recovery here that there are lots of people available to provide this type of support,” Traynor said. (By “here,” Traynor was referring to South Florida, a well-known treatment destination with a large and very active 12-step community.) And the same spirit of mutual aid that helped Traynor get to daily meetings years ago continues. Today, Traynor has a car and pitches in to give rides to meetings when he can.
This question of when to get a car in early recovery is one that many people face. For Traynor, prioritizing a strong foundation in recovery meant waiting before taking on the responsibilities of a car. (A car didn’t just mean more expenses, after all; it also entailed greater freedom and independence, which could jeopardize recovery if Traynor wasn’t ready for the responsibility.)
Of course, Traynor did eventually buy a car and then used his car to take others to 12-step meetings. His responsibilities in this department grew gradually over time.
Get a Plant Instead of a Dog or Cat
What about us dog and cat lovers out there, for whom having a furry pet is a source of emotional support? Is there a case to be made for taking on the responsibility of a pet in your first year of recovery?
“Get a plant instead of a pet,” Traynor said. “If you don’t have the capacity yet to take care of yourself, you don’t have the capacity to take care of a dog.” His recommendation for gauging when you’re ready for a pet: “Start with a plant and water it every day and see how you do. If you do well with the plant, move to a fish, and then from a fish to a turtle, and from a turtle to a dog,” Traynor said.
Traynor’s point, in citing this progression, was not so much to encourage people to follow it literally but to illustrate the need for small, incremental steps toward greater responsibility.
When you’ve just finished treatment, “we’re talking about starting at ground zero,” Traynor said. When you’re still trying to establish a foundation for recovery, the responsible thing is to wait to get a dog.
The Benefits of Taking on More Responsibility
What quickly becomes clear, from a discussion with Traynor, is that taking on more responsibility in early recovery can often be a matter of saying “no” to certain commitments (such as a pet). There are benefits of saying “yes” to more responsibility, too, though, according to Traynor:
- Personal growth – More responsibility helps you “to grow in recovery, as a person, in your character, and in different components of life. It also helps with long and short-term goals.”
- Greater autonomy and reward – “You get to do more with more responsibility.”
- “You get to fail” – “A lot of times we think we’re ready for something and we’re not.” Traynor gave a personal example. At the nine-month mark in sobriety, he “tried to get back into college” but quickly realized he had taken on “way too much responsibility” and had to quit. Two years later, Traynor tried again and “ended up with a master’s degree” this time.
More Confidence and Self-Esteem
With the right approach, one that sets you up for success, taking on more responsibility can increase your confidence and self-esteem. What does that look like, and how do you get there? Here is how Traynor put it:
The best way to get there is through small wins, so if my goal is to get to a meeting every day, then if I get to a meeting, that’s a win. I used to have a hard time waking up at 7am, so if I woke up at 7am, that was a win. Or, if I get to the gym, that’s a win.
When those wins accumulate over time, that is when “you develop more self-confidence,” said Traynor, who also recommended practicing “esteemable acts” (a 12-step expression). These gestures of service to others, however small, are also ways to take more responsibility and, in turn, develop greater confidence.
Esteemable acts include just about any kind deed and may look different depending on the context. Say, for example, you are living in a halfway house. (Many people coming out of rehab may spend six to nine months living in one of these sober residences.) An esteemable act, if you’re living in a halfway house, might be as simple as welcoming newcomers, making dinner, coordinating logistics to meetings, or offering a cigarette.
Tips for Gradually Increasing Responsibility?
Being careful to gradually increase your responsibilities is a recurring theme in the conversation with Traynor. Did he have more advice for how to do that?
“Start small,” Traynor said. He said one common perception among people who have just spent 35 or 60 days in a treatment center is that “we have to play catch up and now we’re sober, so we’ve got to make up for the 4-20 years that we feel like we missed out on.” It is important to realize, though, Traynor continued, “that this is a long game and not a short game—we can’t have everything back in one year.”
Tips for Avoiding Burnout and Finding Balance?
While balance can be elusive, Traynor conceded, he thinks that in some ways it is easier to measure in early sobriety when 12-step responsibilities are very clear (going to a meeting, connecting with a sponsor, etc.)
The term “mind-body-spirit balance” may be a helpful way to assess what may be out of whack, Traynor said. His advice: In addition to daily participation in a 12-step program (which helps to provide mental and spiritual balance), “definitely make time for exercise, whether that’s going to the gym, a swim in the ocean, or just going for a walk.”
Finally, consistency and motivation are key. Small, incremental increases in responsibilities are less likely to lead to burnout. They are also easier to maintain. This consistency over time builds more confidence and self-esteem, which are also protective factors against stress.
In the absence of motivation, though, it can be hard to achieve consistency. We returned to the example from earlier in Traynor’s recovery when he struggled to get out of bed at 7am. With the right motivation, he “went from having trouble getting up in the morning to becoming an early riser.”
Traynor’s parting advice for those in early recovery who are trying to develop healthy habits and more responsibility: “Find what motivates you.” If you’re struggling to get out of bed, “find the motivation to get out of bed,” Traynor said. “Now we have an opportunity to get up sober and impact the day in a completely different way. Just the motivation that I’m not waking up hung-over is reason enough.”