The problem with addiction recovery is this: We have to live our recovery moving forward, but it is more easily understood when we are looking back at it in retrospect.
Which is another way of saying that, for those who do end up relapsing in their recovery journey, they generally never saw it coming. But it is all painfully obvious when they look back at it later on.
So what does this knowledge provide us with, other than pithy wisdom? How can we apply this principle in our daily life to help us to avoid relapse?
Well for starters, realize that you can speak from your experience and give wisdom to other people, because you have lived through something and you know about how it works first hand.
Because of that knowledge, you should realize that other people are doing the same for you. When you go to an AA meeting and someone describes their last relapse and the things that led up to it, you should be taking notes. If you are interested in remaining clean and sober and avoiding relapse then obviously that person has knowledge that is vital to you.
So you start to learn the warning signs of what it looks like when your life is starting to spiral out of control, and you begin to get overwhelmed. And of course we learn about the various ways to reach out for help, how to call your sponsor or go have coffee with your peers in AA or read the recovery literature, but sometimes just knowing about these things is not enough.
And so what really has to happen in order for you to be successful in recovery is this: Not only do you have to learn and identify the coping mechanisms to help you overcome relapse, but you must practice those coping skills each and every day until they become a habit.
So maybe you call your sponsor every Sunday afternoon and chat. Is that good enough? In my opinion it really isn’t. Why not?
Because maybe you will be on the brink of relapse on a Tuesday night at 11PM. And you are used to calling your sponsor only on Sunday afternoons. You know he has a spouse who is probably next to him, and they work in the morning so they are probably winding down for the evening, so wouldn’t it just be so incredibly awkward to call him right now?
And that could be the one critical moment in which you needed a coping strategy that would work for you. Not on Sunday afternoon, as per your routine. But right now. On Tuesday night when it is late and it feels awkward to call just about anyone.
Now let’s compare that to another scenario:
Let’s say that you go to inpatient treatment and you do 28 days of rehab. You meet a group of peers when you are in treatment and you bond quite a bit and you feel a real friendship with many of the people. So you exchange phone numbers and Facebook contact and you agree to follow up with each other and go to local AA or NA meetings together.
Some of the people follow through and some of them disappear; that’s just the way it is typically. But you meet up with a few key “survivors” from your rehab and you start attending AA and you connect via your smartphones all the time. And every morning and every night you shoot a few texts out to this group, or you hit them up via Facebook or social media, and you just check in and see how everyone is doing.
Not only are you connecting with this core group of support, but you are also going to meetings on a regular basis and you are reaching out and communicating every single day of your life.
So now, when you eventually have a serious craving or trigger for your drug of choice, you are already in the habit of reaching out to your support system every single day. It is natural to shoot a text to someone, or to hit them up via messenger, even if happens to be late at night.
The nice thing about this kind of support is that it is really fairly easy to acquire, even if you are very shy or have social anxiety. The major shortcut to all of this is to simply go to rehab. Go check into a 28 day program, and by doing so you will automatically acquire a group of peers who want to see you succeed.
So there is power in daily habits, in practicing these things on a daily basis, so that when you are feeling triggered and you want to relapse there will be help available to you.
I noticed the same effect when I started exercising. I lived through the first 18 months or so of my recovery without any real physical exercise. At some point, at the suggestion of many different people, I started to exercise on a consistent basis.
At first it was a real chore because I wasn’t in good shape at all. But slowly I got into good shape, and finally it became natural and easy for me to work out or to take a nice long jog. And then I was in the habit of doing this every single day, and I noticed that it gave me a tremendous boost of energy when I would work out. Furthermore, I also noticed that I got a lot of emotional stability when I had an intense workout that day–as if the “volume” on all of the drama in my life was suddenly muted. Somehow none of the regular drama and anxiety seemed nearly as important after I had just completed an intense jog or workout. And that effect seemed to last throughout the rest of the day as well.
So what I was really searching for in my early recovery journey were the right habits to form. I was looking for the kind of daily habits and the kind of daily practices that would help to protect me from the threat of relapse. Note that exercise, in my case, has really substituted for another common suggestion that you will hear over and over again, which is to meditate. Nearly everyone who is successful in long term recovery seems to have some form of meditation, relaxation, or reflection built into their daily routine. For me, distance running filled this role and allowed me to get into that mental and emotional “zone” in which I wasn’t deliberately thinking about anything while just letting my mind wander and take in the countryside. Getting into that zone on a regular basis has arguably been one of the keys to success in recovery.
It is up to you to find out what habits and practices work for you. Obviously not everyone is going to jog every day in order to get the meditative benefits of doing so. But there are bound to be alternative ways that you can tap into these lifestyle changes in order to get the outcomes and benefits that you want. Good luck!