I have watched a lot of people try to recover from alcoholism and drug addiction.
In early recovery I went to rehab and I lived in a long term treatment center for almost two full years. During that time I lived with about 30 different guys who were all trying to stay clean and sober, just like I was.
After that I worked in a detox and residential treatment center for about 5 years. During that time I watched thousands of people try to sober up.
Based on all of these observations, I learned a number of things. Those things can be divided into two categories:
1) Things that might help you in your recovery.
2) Things to watch out for that might cause you to relapse if you do them.
This article is about the second group of things. The things that might trip you up and cause you to relapse.
Number one: “Test themselves” by deliberately being around their drug of choice
If you ever hear a recovering alcoholic or drug addict say that they are going to “test themselves in their recovery” then you know they are headed for trouble.
Nobody should ever deliberately “test themselves” in recovery from addiction.
When someone says that they are going to test themselves what they are really saying is that they are going to TEMPT themselves. Think about it. This is what “testing” really means. You are going to deliberately put yourself in harms way, you are going to deliberately expose yourself to your drug of choice, in order to see if you are strong enough to resist it.
Don’t ever do this on purpose. Ever.
There are a few good reasons for this. First of all, you might relapse. This should be obvious. If it is not obvious, I am informing you now. It makes no sense at all to risk a relapse just to prove to yourself that you might be strong enough to resist temptation. And even if you do expose yourself to your drug of choice and you happen to resist temptation once, who says that you could do it again in the future? As they say, if you keep going to the barber shop, eventually you are going to get a haircut. So “testing” yourself proves absolutely nothing. So what?–You exposed yourself to your drug of choice and you managed to resist it….one time! Could you do it every single day? Of course not! No one could. And doing it once proves nothing. Nothing at all.
If you are testing yourself then you probably have a hidden motive, such as the burning desire to relapse. This is the second reason that you should never test yourself in recovery. There is probably a hidden motive underneath it all, yet you are in denial and telling yourself that you just want to prove to the world how strong you are.
Third, you don’t overcome addiction with willpower alone. And yet “testing yourself” in recovery is a demonstration of your willpower, nothing else. What is the point? You are kidding yourself.
Fourth, there is absolutely no reason to test yourself, because the random nature of life and recovery is going to do it for you. You will be tested. I promise. Just tell yourself that you will be tested in the future, there is no doubt about it, the nature of life insists on it. So there is no reason to go seeking out chaos before it is due. It will come to you eventually and you can then “prove” that you are really ready for recovery.
Never test yourself in recovery. Ever.
This is a sure sign that someone is not really serious yet about their recovery and they are deluding themselves.
Number two: Get into a serious relationship in very early recovery
When I was living in long term rehab, I lived with eleven other recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.
As I lived there, people would relapse from time to time, and thus leave the program they were in.
And I started to notice a trend, because those of us who remained would often talk about what happened, what went wrong, and why someone relapsed.
The trend was this:
Nearly every single peer of mine who relapsed in early recovery did so because of relationship problems.
I am not talking about a handful of relapses. I am talking about 30 or so over the course of two years. And nearly every example had to do with a relationship that had gone bad.
The setup was the same old story:
Boy gets sober.
Boy meets girl who also just got sober.
It doesn’t work out.
Does that sound familiar at all? Have you ever seen that happen before?
I have watched it happen over, and over, and over again.
It is really common in early recovery.
Now normally I would not pay that much attention to a trend like this. I would push it aside and tell you to just focus on the basics of getting clean and sober instead.
But as I lived in that long term treatment center and continued on my journey, I could not ignore the overwhelming evidence that I was seeing.
This pattern was really common, to the point where it accounted for at least 50 percent of the relapses that I was seeing.
Therefore, the conclusion is something that you hear thrown around in AA meetings often:
“Don’t get into a new relationship during your first year of recovery.”
Or they might tell you to buy a new plant when you get sober, and to take care of that for a year, and if that goes well then you can get into a new relationship.
Of course we hear those things and most of us do not believe that the ideas apply to us. We ignore such advice and we think that we are somehow above it, that we are smarter than that somehow.
I have news for you: I have watched the masses try to recover. You are NOT smarter than that. If you play with fire you will get burned, just like normal humans. And in early recovery, getting into a new relationship is definitely playing with fire.
Number three: Believe that they have been clean and sober long enough that they are now “normal” again
Another thing that I noticed in all of my observations is that most people don’t “get it” on the first try.
In other words, very few people go to rehab (or to AA) for the first time and stay sober forever with no problems.
In fact, I cannot remember a single case where that happened.
Everyone that I met in recovery had to struggle. Every single one of them had tried multiple times to get sober. And the corollary to that is:
Every single person who was on their first try in recovery, relapsed.
I don’t say this to be discouraging. It is just what I observed. And in the end it was not necessarily a bad thing, because many people in recovery finally do “get it” and go on to enjoy a lifetime of sobriety and recovery.
So what is causing this tendency?
Most people do not realize just how hard they have to try in early recovery. They don’t realize just how high the stakes are, and how much willingness and commitment it is going to take in order to remain sober.
So what happens is that we all think we are a little bit smarter than average. We all think that we can try just a little bit less and that our brilliance will carry us through with flying colors. We all like to think that we are just a little bit better than the average.
And so when we get into recovery, they tell us we have to try really, really hard. They tell us that we have to push ourselves every day in order to grow and take positive action.
And so we make an effort. If you truly try harder than anything you have ever done in your life, then you have a shot at sobriety. But if not, you are doomed to relapse.
The other way this problem manifests is that people believe that they are normal again. Sometimes this may coincide with the “pink cloud” syndrome. Early recovery is suddenly going well! It is easy to stay sober. Things are looking up. The alcoholic is feeling better every day. Could one drink really hurt anything? You get the idea.
It is very difficult to learn things, to really learn them, without experiencing the consequences of the lessons for yourself. In other words, if someone tells you that “you will always be alcoholic, even after being sober for a while” do you really believe them?
On one level it is easy to believe them and to take their word for it, but on another level your brain is not really going to know the truth about recovery unless it experiences that truth for itself. Sometimes alcoholics have to bang their head into the wall several times before they realize that it is hurting them. I am the first to admit that I don’t always learn very quickly. I eventually learn the lesson, but sometimes I am awfully stubborn about it.
And that is where you need to be careful. You should never believe that your time in sobriety has somehow “cured” you of anything. You are one drink away from total chaos and disaster.
Number four: Try to manage their own detox
Recently I was trying to help a struggling alcoholic to get to the help that they needed.
This person is older. They have been to rehab, and detox, several times throughout their life.
They were drunk when I was dealing with them. In fact they were really drunk. And so when I suggested to them that they call up a rehab center and go to treatment, this person got angry with me.
They tried to claim that they did not need detox because they had only been drinking for “a few days.” In fact they were completely wasted and they had been drinking for over a week now. But they were too drunk even realize this was a problem, or that they might need to go through a medical detox. The person did not think they needed that much help.
It was obvious to me that this person needed a lot of help, and that skipping the medical detox would be a huge mistake. Keep in mind that alcohol withdrawal can have real consequences. It can be dangerous and even fatal at times. I have watched many people have a seizure during their withdrawal process, even while working in a detox and the person was taking special medications to help prevent seizures. Now just imagine if everyone that I watched in detox was at home and had no medication at all to help prevent seizures. How many of them would have died? Probably several.
Don’t try to detox yourself. Don’t try to do it alone. Don’t try to avoid treatment just so that you can feel stronger, or like you are accomplishing something by not asking for help. You are not accomplishing anything by skipping treatment. In fact you are only making a useless hurdle for yourself. Instead, ask for help and then take direction and advice from others. Follow through.
Number five: Stop pursuing personal growth (or, believe that they have achieved all that is needed in their recovery journey)
They used to believe that they number one killer in recovery that caused people to relapse was resentment.
Now we know that there is an even bigger threat. But we did not know this when AA first started out because not enough time had passed for this to be revealed to us. But today we know that complacency is the real killer in recovery. People who get lazy in their recovery end up drinking again, simple as that.
So what is the solution? You can’t stop growing. You can’t stop learning. You can’t get to a point and say “I’m done, I guess I don’t have to work on this recovery stuff any more.” If you get to that point then it is the beginning of the end and you are just setting yourself up for relapse.
This is why it is so important to establish a daily practice. You have to have certain things that you do every day, certain habits, that can help to stabilize your life in recovery.
Now that might sound like a contradiction, because if you are establishing habits, aren’t you just encouraging complacency? Won’t you get stuck in your ways if you form habits?
Yes and no. The key is to create positive habits in your life that result in open ended growth.
So one set of habits will revolve around your physical health and well being. This might include fitness, healthy eating, getting good sleep, and so on.
If you follow this path then you should also be exploring new knowledge on a regular basis. In other words, I am taking positive action already in order to improve my health, but how can I do more? What does this person do in order to be healthy? Could that benefit me as well? Is it worth my time, or should I seek out another idea? How can I expand my health consciousness? How can I learn to be healthier today in my recovery?
Those are the sort of questions that should drive your learning in recovery.
Keep in mind too that this example just talks about one single aspect of your recovery: Your physical health.
There are other aspects of your recovery that need attention as well. For example, spirituality.
So you should never say in your recovery: “I am done with spiritual growth, I have learned everything that I needed to learn with spirituality, and there is nothing more for me to explore.” Obviously that would be a stupid stance to take. And yet a part of us wants to adopt this attitude so that we can feel more confident in our recovery, or so that we can feel accomplished in some way.
Or maybe you feel that your relationships in your life are “good enough.” Big mistake. The second that you stop working on that aspect of your life is the second that it takes a turn for the worse. You see, relapse is very sneaky. It tries to do whatever it can in order to gain a foothold in your life. This is why I watched so many of my peers relapse in early recovery due to a relationship that went bad.
But take note: I also watched people relapse due to poor physical health. Because they were overweight and they failed to quit smoking cigarettes and they never took action to fix these problems. So they got sick and things got complicated and they needed more medication and before you knew it they had relapsed as a result. The illness either directly or indirectly resulted in relapse. And they could have prevented it if they had taken a more holistic approach, if they had pushed themselves to make growth in different areas of their life.
So you never get to prop your feet up in recovery and say “OK, that’s it, I am done with this recovery stuff. I am all done with personal growth.” The second you do that you are setting yourself up for trouble.
The flip side of this is that life in recovery (when you stay the course) just keeps getting better and better. The benefits of a life well lived in recovery will just keep piling up and accumulating. When you make an effort to pursue holistic health in all areas of your life then it has a synergistic effect. What does that mean?
It means that your daily exercise and fitness will also have a positive impact on your emotional stability.
It means that your pursuit of spiritual growth will have a positive impact on your relationships with other people.
It means that when you improve your relationships with other people this will also have a positive effect on your emotional balance.
And so on.
It all fits together, in ways that we could never predict or fully understand. Sure, we can understand one aspect of how this synergy occurs (like how exercise helps to smooth out our emotions perhaps) but we could never predict and fully understand all of these connections that occur.
And that is why you have to take the holistic approach on blind faith at first. Because there is no evidence that it will really create this synergy, or that the benefits will truly accumulate for you in an amazing way. I can’t prove that to you in advance. You just have to start living it, to start taking positive action every day, and then see the benefits for yourself as you go along in your recovery journey.
Never turn away from the idea of holistic health. Never focus so heavily on one aspect of your recovery (such as spirituality) that you neglect the other areas of your health (physical, emotional, social, etc.). In doing so you can design a program that works for your life.
What have you learned in your recovery? What is something that you think addicts and alcoholics should never do in their recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!