3 Common Pitfalls of Early Recovery that You Should Watch Out For

3 Common Pitfalls of Early Recovery that You Should Watch Out For


When I was in early recovery I had the luxury of being able to make a whole bunch of observations about what worked and did not work for others in their journey to sobriety. This is because I was living in a long term treatment center for the first two years of my sobriety.

As such, I witnessed a whole lot of people who relapsed. Some of them even relapsed, went back out to face their addiction, and then came back to treatment again while I was still there and attempted to give it another try.

So as I stayed in this long term rehab center I paid very close attention to the people who relapsed, and I also paid very close attention to the “winners” in recovery. I very much did not want to relapse myself and statistically it seemed like the threat of relapse was a bit like the boogeyman–nearly everyone I knew in early recovery would eventually fall victim to a relapse. For example, if you meet someone who got clean and sober in a residential rehab, ask them how many of their peers that they met in detox are still clean and sober today. If they have kept track and tried to keep in touch with people then the answer to such a question is nearly always the same: “None of them are still sober. Only I have made it this long.” This is a very common reply and it is not intended to scare anyone, we just need to be realistic here and realize that the odds are stacked against the newcomer in early recovery. Most people end up relapsing and of course this is a fate that we want to avoid if possible. So let’s take a look at the common pitfalls that we want to avoid.

The common pitfalls that I noticed are:

1) New relationships in early recovery.
2) Disregarding treatment (“I can do it myself”).
3) Complacency/coasting through recovery.

Offender number one: new relationships in early recovery

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As I stayed in rehab for nearly two continuous years I immediately saw one common pitfall for many people, and that was relationships.

In fact, at the time I was living with eleven other males in long term rehab, and I quickly noticed that nearly everyone who relapsed while living in this long term treatment ended up doing so because of a relationship. And in nearly every case it was because of a new relationship.

If you have been in traditional recovery programs and heard people talk about new relationships in AA, then you probably know that they recommend caution in this area as well. Many people advise that you not get into a new relationship during the first year of your recovery. Others will say that you should buy a plant first and keep it alive for a year until you can move on to get into a new relationship, and so on.

All pretty good advice, considering what I witnessed while in long term rehab. New relationships are extremely dangerous for people in early recovery.

There is a sound explanation for this. It is that the new relationship feels so good, it gives such an emotional high that the recovering addict or alcoholic feels invincible. They are riding on the emotional charge of the new relationship and they believe that they can handle nearly anything (and in that moment, they probably could). But of course this does not last. Eventually the emotional excitement fades, and the new relationship becomes “old hat.” This crash and return to reality is almost always made easier by taking drugs or alcohol.

The truth is that you cannot find recovery in a new relationship. It is not your salvation, it is not the answer to your addiction, it is not the easy path to overcoming your disease. The problem is that it just feels so right, it feels like the best thing in the world, it feels like it would be crazy not to pursue the happiness and the emotional charge that you get from falling in love with someone. Everyone hears the warnings, but they feel so emotionally good about the new relationship that they believe they are immune. They believe that their situation is different, that this is the one, things will work out, it all feels so good and positive, and so on.

But it never works out. If the person is new in recovery and they are not yet stable enough to be happy on their own, then the new relationship is a trap. It is a pitfall.

The only way to get into a healthy relationship in recovery is to FIRST develop a healthy relationship with yourself (and, if you have one, with your higher power as well).

If you cannot be happy and content WITHOUT the new relationship, then you are setting yourself up for failure. Think about that for a moment. If you are depending on this new relationship for your happiness, then you are setting yourself up for a relapse. It will never work out.

The only way to avoid this pitfall is to put in the work first…..to develop a new life in recovery, to learn the hard lessons, to learn how to be comfortable and happy in your own skin, without depending on a relationship in order to be happy. Do this FIRST. Be alone, and learn to be happy while alone. If you cannot do this then you are NOT ready for a new relationship.

From what I witnessed in long term rehab this is a 100 percent kind of thing. There are no exceptions. I have never seen anyone “cheat” this rule about new relationships and not regret it.

Pitfall #2: Disregarding treatment

While working in a treatment center for over 5 years I saw evidence of this one over and over again.

Call it lack of commitment.

Call it lack of follow through.

Blame it on lack of surrender.

Whatever the reasons and whatever the excuse, I definitely noticed a strong trend that–again–was proven to be right nearly 100 percent of the time:

People who leave rehab early always regret it.

Every single time. Without fail. I never met anyone who left treatment who did not later regret doing so.

And I saw evidence of this over and over again, without even looking for it. People who left rehab on bad terms would come back in a few months or even a few years later and say “was I ever stupid for walking out of this place. I should have stayed, should have gone to my meetings, should have followed the program.”

Every single time.

Which is why I always advocate for more treatment, for more counseling, for more detox, more residential, go to long term rehab if you can, whatever it takes. Whatever help you can get, take it. Because the cost of ignoring it is just too high, and everyone regrets trying to cut corners with this.

If I could do it I would go back in time to 5 years into my addiction, to 3 years into my addiction, and beg myself to go live in long term rehab.

I know that this never would have worked, unfortunately, because at that time I believed rehab to be a huge inconvenience. I thought that 28 days in rehab was a huge sacrifice or something. At that time I thought long term rehab was unthinkable. You may as well send me to prison, or so I believed.

Boy, were my priorities screwed up.

If I had known better I would have begged someone to let me go to rehab, to give me as much help as I could possible get. Living in long term treatment for a year or two would not have been a waste of time (as I believed in the past), it would have been an investment. And it would have been a very wise investment. Instead, I shunned the idea of treatment, of getting help, and I stayed drunk and high for several more years.

In the back of my head I had a fatal flaw in my thinking, which was this:

“If I really wanted to stop using drugs and alcohol, I could surely do so on my own, without any help. I just don’t want to quit though.”

This was a lie that I told myself and it was why I believed long term rehab to be such a waste of time. But little did I realize that long term treatment was the best thing I could ever choose to do, and was the smartest investment I ever made in myself.

While I was working in rehab, it would just blow me away when the newcomer would ask “how soon can I get out? How soon can I go home?” Or they would say to one another in detox “How long are you in for?” As if they were in prison or something. I had to just shake my head in bewilderment and frustration: if they really knew what they were up against (and the rewards of recovery) they would be begging for more time in treatment. It is only now that I can see this clearly, looking back after several years in recovery.

The pitfall is in leaving rehab, in wanting less treatment, in believing treatment to be a drag, or a chore, or a burden. Instead, you should be begging for help. Soak up every bit of treatment they will give you. It is the greatest gift in the world and so many do not even realize it.

The final trap: Becoming complacent in recovery

When they wrote the Big Book of AA, the concept of recovery was quite young and resentment was “the number one offender.” This changed over time because addicts and alcoholics learned that they could learn to process and deal with their resentments without having to self medicate over it.

And so the biggest threat for people in long term recovery became complacency. These are people who already figured out how to overcome their cravings for drugs and alcohol, and they also learned how to navigate life and relationships without having to self medicate over any of it.

But eventually such people get bored. They get into a routine. They stop pushing themselves to grow in recovery. They are coasting. They are just maintaining sobriety, doing the bare minimum that the believe will keep them sober.

This is the last and final trap that must be overcome. The only way to avoid it is to engage in personal growth. Continuous personal growth for the rest of your life.

This does not mean that you have to beat yourself up or constantly be criticizing yourself. It just means that you should always have your eye on that next goal, that next project, that next thing that you want to accomplish. If you do not have a vision for yourself for the future then eventually addiction and alcoholism will return as the default.

This is how complacency works, and why it is dangerous. Because the “default state of being” for a recovering addict or alcoholic is to be getting drunk and high all the time. That is the default. That is what is natural. That is what is normal for a recovering addict or alcoholic.

So in order to overcome that “natural tendency” to self medicate, we have to make an effort.

A continuous effort.

This is why recovery is an ongoing process. This is why those who stop pushing themselves to grow eventually wind up complacent, bored, frustrated, and thinking about picking up a drink or a drug. Complacency kills, in its own subtle and patient way. And the sad thing is that no one ever sees it coming.

So you must be proactive. Make it a point to regularly evaluate your personal growth, and if you are happy with the pace of positive changes in your life.

You cannot stay the same in recovery. You are going to change, always. The only question is if those changes are positive (growth experiences) or negative (lack of growth, regression toward relapse, etc.).

So you have to make positive changes. And you have to keep making them. And some of it will feel like a challenge.

That’s just life. This is recovery. Embrace positive changes….simple as that!


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