When I was in very early recovery I started to pay close attention to the peers who surrounded me in recovery. This was easy to do because I was basically living and breathing recovery 24/7. I lived in long term rehab for the first 20 months of my recovery. After that I moved out but then later returned to the treatment center and worked in the detox area for about five years straight. During that time I got to observe a lot of struggling addicts and alcoholics.
Most of what I describe on this website is based on what I think you should do in order to stay clean and sober. But today I thought it would be interesting to describe what NOT to do instead. Based on my observations while both living and working at the treatment center, I have acquired a wealth of knowledge when it comes to this subject. I got to see, over and over again, what does not work in keeping people clean and sober. More rarely I could observe what actually did work.
Therefore, here are the 4 things that you should never do during your early recovery from addiction or alcoholism:
1. Leave treatment early.
This is number one on the list for a reason. Never, never leave treatment early. It is always a mistake.
I have watched so many people do this over the years while working in rehab, and no one ever comes back and confirms that it was a good idea. It is always the reverse. I nearly always saw the person again, down the road, usually coming back for more treatment, and they will say something like “I never should have left early last time, I should have just stuck it out and made it work.” This is like the universal outcome of people who leave treatment early.
When you are in rehab, you are sort of putting your decisions on hold for a while. You have made an agreement with yourself that you will stop “driving the bus” for a while and you will let someone else “drive the bus” instead. That is why you are in rehab. You are giving up control for a temporary stretch of time in order to get better.
When you leave treatment early you are taking back control and deciding that you should be driving the bus again. At that time you have no business making that snap decision. It is a horrible decision and it is bad timing.
In terms of the 12 step program what you are doing is violating step 3. You are “taking back your will” and deciding that you are in charge again, rather than letting yourself be directed by a higher power. You are running on pure self will when you decide to leave rehab early.
It always results in disaster. It always turns out badly. Just stop and think about this for a moment, what do you actually gain by leaving treatment early? You get back out into the real world, where your drug of choice is waiting to tempt you, so that you can do what exactly? What is so darn pressing that you think you can not spend another week in rehab? You are deluding yourself.
Look at the evidence from someone who has gone through rehab and stuck it out. Look at my life, for example. I never left rehab early. I stuck through it and stayed the course and I took the suggestions and I did what they told me to do. I have been clean and sober now for over 12 years and my life is now amazing. And it keeps getting better, even today. I have not been in treatment for a very long, my experience in rehab was just this tiny little blip at the beginning of my journey. If I truly knew how much of a gift my sobriety was going to be then I would have invested in quality treatment much sooner. If I knew how deep the benefits reached then I would have paid even more attention during rehab, I would have given it even more of the attention that it deserves. I would have respected the process of treatment even more if I knew how awesome the results were going to be.
But the newcomer in recovery cannot see that. They are stuck in the chaos and misery of addiction and they are looking for a quick way out. This is not really how recovery works. Instead, it works best via surrender. True, deep surrender. The kind where you are so miserable from your addiction that you are willing to do just about anything to escape the misery.
I got so used to watching newcomers come into rehab to try to get sober that I would subconsciously start to judge their chances. Sometimes I would judge their chances verbally with a coworker, we could not help but do this. We were not trying to be cynical, we were just trying to be realistic and make predictions. And in doing so you start to develop a sense of who has reached “full surrender” and who is not even really close. You can just tell in many cases when someone has not had enough. Had enough what? They have not had enough pain and misery yet from their addiction. They have not had enough chaos in their life due to their drinking or drugging. They have not been beat up badly enough by their own addiction yet. Because they are too cocky, or too flippant, or too wild. They are not crashed down to earth where they need to be in order to learn this new way of life. And so you just know, you can see that they have another drunk in them. You can tell that they are not done using their drug of choice yet. It is sad but obvious.
And so these are the sort of people who leave rehab early, to go test the waters on their own. They think that they can overcome addiction all by themselves, without any help at all in the beginning. But really they are just telling themselves this so that they can go get drunk or high again. And they will never admit this to you, or to themselves, when they are trying to leave rehab. “No, I’m not going to go get drunk or high, I just….I can do this on my own. I don’t need rehab, I have been here before and it doesn’t help me.” This is the plea of someone who wants to go use their drug of choice, even if they will not admit it to themselves.
Leaving treatment early is always a mistake. It is never the right path to take. The consequences for staying in rehab for the duration and sticking it out? Nothing but good things. You get a better shot at sobriety, at actually achieving happiness in sobriety. Leave early and you doom yourself to relapse. It is as simple as that. Take it from someone who lived and worked in a rehab for 7+ years total (2 living, 5 working). I’ve watched many leave early, and it never, never, never turns out well!
2. Switch drugs.
I have to admit that I tried to do this when I was struggling to find sobriety. It was a colossal failure of course, which is why it is on this list. Narcotics Anonymous does a good job of making this distinction as well, saying that we must avoid all mood and mind altering substances, and labeling them all as “drugs,” to include alcohol.
But when I first went to treatment I was nowhere near full surrender, so I was willing to experiment. At the time I was using alcohol and marijuana, often at the same time. And I decided that the effects of alcohol were far more detrimental and harsh than the effects of the marijuana. So I got an idea while I was still in treatment (for that first time), that when I left I would apply all of these ideas to alcohol, but I would allow myself to keep using marijuana. I was hearing people say that you had to watch out for “cross addiction” and that such an approach would not work out, but I did not care. I was not willing to face a life of total abstinence at that time, so I wanted to give it a shot. I was going to try the “marijuana maintenance program,” as they call it in AA.
So I did exactly that. I left rehab, vowed to stay off the booze no matter what, and I started smoking myself silly. And here is what I remember from the experiment:
When I was getting stressed out, I tried to smoke more and more marijuana in order to medicate my stress level. I was frustrated and I was using the drug to self medicate. The problem was, it was not very efficient or convenient compared to my old standby (alcohol). And it was not very cost effective either was my tolerance was changing. It was easy to smoke up 30 or even 50 dollars worth of marijuana in a day just to try to keep myself “happy” and regulate my mood. But my tolerance kept changing with this experiment and I could not seem to get high enough to be truly happy. After a week or two of this I had a particularly bad or stressful day, and there was just no help for me. I was smoking 50 dollars worth of the stuff and it was just not going to cut it. I needed about 3 dollars worth of cheap liquor dumped into my stomach at a rapid pace. See the math?
So I finally caved and bought a bottle. I dumped cheap liquor into my belly and I was back off to the races. Notice that I had never technically “left the races,” I only thought that I had. But in truth I was just self medicating my emotions all along and the marijuana by itself was not quite doing the job. In trying to switch drugs I only led myself back to the one that was most effective in the long run.
Therefore I believe them in NA when they say that “a drug is a drug is a drug.” If you are using something to self medicate with then it doesn’t much matter if it is truly your drug of choice or not. It all leads to the same destructive behaviors.
3. Design your own program.
This idea goes along with the concept of leaving rehab early. We already talked about why leaving treatment early does not work, and should never be attempted. For the same sort of reasons, you should never try to design your own program in early recovery. It doesn’t work.
I am a big advocate of designing your own path in recovery. In fact I try to “wake people up” and push them to find the edges of AA, to move into their own path, and to explore the alternatives. But I always include a disclaimer that involves timing.
It is all about the timing.
For the first 20 months of my recovery I did not try to explore anything outside of the boundaries of what was suggested to me. I simply asked for help and followed advice. This is what you should do as well in your early recovery.
So what defines “early recovery?” For me it was about my first two years of sobriety. For you it may be different. You will know if you made the leap too soon if you relapse. How is that for a useful metric? Not very helpful but definitely points to the truth.
What I am saying is that in early recovery you want to trust in other people more than yourself. You want to stop driving the bus, so to speak. Get out of your own way for a while. Give yourself a challenge to let go completely for the first year of your recovery and see where it gets you. What do I mean by “let go completely?” I mean that you should not try to control everything in your life, or indeed, control anything at all. You should simply ask for help and then follow the advice you are given. Feel free to ask for advice and feedback from many people. But do not use your own ideas in deciding what to do or what course of action to take. Only take other people’s suggestions for the first year.
You may be asking “why? This sounds awful!”
OK, first of all, the reason why is so you do not sabotage yourself in recovery. If you allow yourself to follow other people’s advice then there is no chance that you will sabotage your own efforts. And this is a very, very common problem in early recovery. Seriously, if I had a quarter for every person who screwed up their recovery because they followed their own ideas instead of just taking advice? I’d be rich. And yet it is so hard to do this, to let go completely and trust in others.
Second of all, you say “that sounds awful” to just follow other people’s advice and turn your own ideas off completely. I have two things to say to this:
1) It is not awful, just try it for a year and find out. You will find that it is not bad at all, and that other people actually have some pretty good ideas for what you should be doing in your life. You will find that it is not so bad living according to someone else’s suggestions. You will start to enjoy yourself, and be amazed that you are doing so.
2) You will find that you are still ultimately in control, even though you are depending on the advice and feedback of other people. You will realize that you never really gave up full control, and that you were always in control 100 percent. You were just sort of fooling yourself in the beginning so that you would not screw up and sabotage your own recovery. You tricked yourself into getting out of your own way long enough so that you could succeed. You do this by simply taking suggestions from other people and then following through on them.
In long term recovery you get to design your own program. In early recovery, doing so is a one way ticket to self sabotage and relapse.
There comes a point in your recovery when you realize that you are very stable in your recovery, and that you are not in danger of imminent relapse. And you will also realize that you got to this point based on following other people’s advice and directions. And you will be a different person at this point. For example, I took a suggestion once to start exercising on a regular basis in my recovery. So I started running with my dad and this changed who I was over time. After years of running and building this discipline, my future decisions and ideas are slightly affected by this new person that I have become. The discipline that I learned from becoming a distance runner affects my future decisions about seemingly unrelated things. The learning process of recovery ultimately changes who we are and who we become (for the better!).
In other words, if you want to design your own recovery program, I am excited for you and I can show you how to do that. The best way to start is by giving up total control and following advice and feedback from others for at least the first year or two. Don’t try to design a thing–instead, allow yourself to be directed. Give up total control. Take suggestions and advice and follow through on what other people tell you to do. This may feel counter-intuitive but the results will be amazing for you.
All of that growth that you will go through in the first few years will serve as a foundation for your future recovery. Now when you go to “design your own program” in the future you will have a strong foundation upon which to build it. If you get clean and sober and then suddenly try to forge your own path right away, you are very likely to fail. You need help in the beginning so that you can build a strong foundation first.
4. Lose focus.
It is difficult to say exactly why someone relapses but “loss of focus” could definitely be used to describe it in most cases.
And if you ask someone who is coming back from a relapse they will almost always tell you that they “stopped doing what they needed to do in order to recover.”
So the question becomes, how do you maintain focus and keep doing what you need to do in order to recover?
I did this in part by living in long term rehab, but I can clearly see that this is not a shortcut to success by any means. Many of my peers in that rehab relapsed, and I know of many people who made it successfully in recovery without living in treatment. So living in rehab was just part of my solution and part of what worked for me. But there was certainly more to it.
The second factor which cannot be ignored is the depth of your surrender. If you are not ready for recovery then you are not ready, and there is no changing this. The only way to change it is (unfortunately) to go back out there and get some more chaos and misery from your addiction. If you have not surrendered fully to your disease then it will appear that you lose focus in your recovery and this will lead to relapse. In all truth, you never had “full focus” because you had not fully surrendered yet.
The third factor when it comes to losing focus is really about later in recovery when you are so comfortable and confident in your current path that you fail to keep pushing yourself to make positive changes. They call this “complacency” and it cannot be overcome in a reactive manner, only with a pro-active strategy. That means that you need to have a strategy for personal growth, one that insures that you are not becoming lazy or living your life on auto-pilot. Having a good sponsor is one way to challenge yourself to continuous growth.