What is the secret to success in trying to stay sober? Is it simply attending AA meetings? Is it going to treatment in order to get a fresh start on life? Is it having the right attitude in long term sobriety and pushing yourself to keep learning new things?
What can a person do in order to increase their odds of successfully staying sober? And, is it really worth the effort?
Let’s take a closer look at how to achieve long term sobriety.
Creating a strong foundation for successful sobriety
First of all, your recovery begins with a strong foundation, or it probably doesn’t begin at all. In other words, many people will need to go to rehab in order to get the fresh start that they need to overcome their drinking. Of course there are exceptions to this out there, but you don’t need to be concerned with those. If you attend rehab then the data is clearly in your favor (as opposed to doing it on your own). After all, most of us have tried quite a bit to overcome our drinking problem on our own, and failed repeatedly at it, right? I know that was the case for me.
In order to build a strong foundation in early recovery you need to make decisions and take action. Before you can do any of that you have to break through your denial and surrender completely to your disease. That probably sounds like a lot of stuff, doesn’t it? But the process is pretty straightforward once you set it into motion. It typically looks like this:
1) You finally realize that you will never truly be happy if you continue to drink or use drugs. You give up the struggle against alcohol.
2) You realize that you do not know how to live and be happy. You have lost the path to happiness. You decide it is worth finding it again. You choose life.
3) In order to find this path to happiness (without drinking) you need new information. Therefore, you ask for help. This is key. Asking for help indicates that you actually surrendered.
4) You take advice and you follow through on it. Your family member or friend suggests that you go to rehab, so you go. You take action. This is the action phase of your recovery. Hint: It never ends after this!
5) At rehab you get lots of suggestions for sobriety. It is overwhelming in a way. But you take the suggestions and you try to act on them. You follow through with what they tell you to do. For example, they tell you to go to 90 AA meetings for the next 90 days and not to drink in between those meetings. Good suggestion, so you take it. You go. Action.
This takes us up to at least 90 days sober. You are still building a foundation for recovery at this point. Lifelong sobriety lasts a long, long time. I am already at the point where I have been sober longer than I drank for. Hopefully I have more sober years ahead of me as well. So this is not a short journey. Recovery is long. Prepare accordingly. Take your time building the foundation.
It may sound like a big hassle to go to 90 AA meetings in 90 days. Folks, this is nothing. If you think doing 90 in 90 is a big deal then you probably have the wrong attitude towards sobriety.
I have to admit that during my struggle with alcoholism I definitely thought that doing 90 meetings in 90 days was too much effort. And I believed that going to rehab for 28 days or longer was stupid. Why would someone need that long to stop drinking? It made no sense to me. Yet I was in denial. Later on, I ended up living in rehab for 20 months! That was how deep my surrender had to be, that I was now OK with living in rehab for almost 2 full years. Quite a transformation. This is the gift of desperation.
If you ever want to live your own life in recovery and design your own recovery program then you need to start out with a good foundation. Building a strong foundation in recovery really means listening to other people. If you are not taking suggestions and thus “borrowing wisdom” from others in early recovery then your foundation is probably not that strong. You have to crawl before you can walk. You need to take advice, take suggestions, and build a foundation. Do this for one to two years before you start to think that you can create your own path in recovery.
The truth is that you can, in fact, create your own path in recovery. But year one and two are not the best time to attempt it. That is when you will benefit more from taking direction from others instead.
Why most people relapse in early recovery and how to avoid it
When I got clean and sober I lived in a rehab center for 20 months, then following that I later worked at a detox and inpatient rehab for over 5 years. So I had the chance to watch and observe a lot of recovering alcoholics. I got to know them. I got to see their results. I watched many of them come back to rehab at a later time because they had failed to stay sober. And I watched a handful of them succeed and achieve long term sobriety.
Most people relapse. This is a statistical fact based on the current state of alcoholism treatment. Most people do not remain sober. They get out of treatment and they relapse. Most of them do this within the first 30 days. Nearly all of them relapse within the first year. A slim percentage make it to a year sober and beyond. Those are the numbers, basically.
Given that most people relapse, I was introduced to this scary fact when I was trying to get sober myself. So I needed a solution in order to overcome these horrible odds. I paid attention. I was desperate for the solution to work in my life. I did not want to go back to the misery of drinking. I wanted to stay sober.
I was lucky enough to have that happen. I somehow managed to remain sober and I am going on thirteen years of continuous sobriety now. Whatever I did worked for me, and so I have observed other people to see what works for them. If there are similarities in the success stories then you should focus on those as your actions of choice.
In other words, you need to do something in order to remain sober. You need to take action if you want to avoid relapse. But the amount of information that you get in early recovery is overwhelming. You cannot follow all of it. You cannot take every single suggestion as there are just too many of them. You must pick and choose and decide.
So, how do you do that?
One way is through sponsorship. Get a sponsor in recovery and stick to just taking their suggestions. That way you don’t get overwhelmed. The problem with this is that the sponsor you choose may or may not have the “key” that will unlock your long term sobriety. For example, they might be big into meditation and you might need to be led in the direction of daily exercise instead. If that is the case then you have a mismatch and it would be a mistake to put all of your faith into one person. They don’t have the answers you need. Not really. Oh sure, they will have the basics down and if you follow all of those basics then you should not end up drinking, but that is no great feat. The basics are simple, it is the execution of them that is tough. The alcoholic basically knows what they have to do in order to not get drunk, it ain’t rocket science. Don’t drink! The rest of the details can get complicated though, and this requires testing.
So the alternative to having blind faith in one person (like a sponsor) is to test every suggestion. Remember that you have nothing but time in recovery. You have plenty of time. Recovery is long. So start taking suggestions, one at a time, and testing them for yourself. Don’t just assume that any suggestion is worthy of your life energy. Put energy into each suggestion temporarily and then judge its worthiness.
My favorite example of this is with meditation. Someone suggested that I try seated meditation. So I did so for a few weeks and I saw some benefit in doing it, but not a lot. It was not as transforming for me as this person had suggested that it might be. Then later I took a suggestion from someone else to exercise. I started jogging on a regular basis and I found this to be superior to the seated meditation. For my life, the jogging worked much better than the meditation. Could someone do both? Sure they could. But my own experimenting showed me that I could get the benefits that I wanted out of just the jogging. I could drop the meditation and focus on what really worked well for me. This is the power of testing.
And this is what you need to do if you want to avoid relapse. You need to be like a sponge in early recovery and soak up all of the information and suggestions that you can. But don’t just believe any of it or accept it at face value, start testing it. Test everything. Give every suggestion that you can a 30 day trial at least. Then evaluate if that suggestion is worthy of becoming a lifelong habit for you.
Recovery is about habits. Or rather, you can frame the idea of addiction recovery in terms of habits. You are trading in an old set of (bad) habits for a new set of positive habits. But you have to test things out and try various actions in order to find which habits work well with you. My example is seated meditation versus exercise. Most people would benefit from one or the other, and a very small percentage of people would benefit greatly from both. And probably another small percentage of people would reject both suggestions and find something else that works for them. But the point is, you don’t know this when you first get sober. You have no idea. You are rebuilding your life from scratch and none of the old rules apply. You have no idea what will benefit you in your quest for sobriety. Therefore you must start testing suggestions, taking real action, and evaluating the results. This is an iterative process. You keep doing it for the rest of your life as you try new things.
And you have to keep doing it. You don’t get to stop at some point and say “OK, I am recovered now.” No, you don’t get to do that. Because if you do that and you take that attitude then you are opening the door for your disease to come back into your life. The only way to avoid this is to constantly be reinventing yourself. And that means trying new things in recovery and keeping the ideas that really help you.
You will end up saying “no” to a lot of ideas. This is no problem though. You have to say “no” in order to get to the ideas that really help you. I had to say “no” to meditation in order to get to the idea of distance running, which totally transformed my life for the better. Recovery is about seeking, about pushing yourself to reach that next level, to take positive action and establish new healthy habits. This is how you prevent relapse.
Most people leaving rehab do not have the right attitude towards any of this. They want it to be easy and simple. In my opinion recovery is neither. It is not simple because you have to juggle many different concepts and you have to keep testing new ideas. It is not easy because you have to have the drive, the commitment, and the energy to do all of this testing. You must be seeking. Most people just want to kick their feet up and watch TV. Complacency kills. Better to explore and test new ideas.
Taking suggestions from other people and setting yourself up for success
One of the easiest ways to achieve success in early recovery is to listen to other people.
The key to this is to “kill your ego” first. Make a decision that you are no longer listening to your own mind. Ignore your own ideas for one year. Set a timer for one year and during that one year you are not to use any of your own ideas. Do this on the day that you get sober. After one full year I can insure you that you will:
1) Be amazed that following suggestions from other people can actually make you happy.
2) Be amazed that your life keeps getting better and better.
3) Be amazed at how much your definition of happiness has shifted. What makes you happy today will be completely different than what made you happy in the past.
These were all realizations that I had after doing this little “ego killing experiment.”
I was amazed that I could be happy while taking advice from other people. Yet it works. And it is so simple. You just have to listen to advice and take action. Remove yourself from the driver’s seat. This is the whole (functional) point of the first 3 steps in AA that make so much of the magic work for people: You are removing yourself from the driver’s seat. So who ends up driving “your bus?”
The collective wisdom of others. You can attribute however much of this to your higher power as you want, but ultimately “God speaks to us through other people.” So if you are in early recovery and you stop drinking and you need to make decisions, the idea is that you kill your ego, get out of the driver’s seat, and let other people help teach you how to live. Let others tell you what to do. Very simple, but not easy. It takes humility. You must kill your ego to even stand a chance with this technique.
And this is why desperation is so important. This is why you must surrender first. You have to get to that miserable point where you throw up your hands and say “I don’t know how to live any more, someone please show me!” This is surrender. This is desperation. This is the point at which you have a fighting chance to stay sober, because you are finally desperate enough to become willing to squash your own ego and get out of your own way.
Listen to other people. Who should you listen to? It almost doesn’t matter, so long as it is not your own ego. Your ego will drive you back to drinking. Other people can tell you how to remain sober, it is so easy to do that even a child could tell you the secret of sobriety. Don’t drink.
Don’t drink alcohol. Don’t take addictive drugs.
Don’t drink and go to meetings.
Don’t drink and take positive action.
Don’t drink and listen to your peers.
Don’t drink and take suggestions from others who are already sober.
Don’t drink and do these things.
This is very basic stuff, right? But it is not easy to do. The only way to do it is to push your ego out of the way, with all of its bright ideas, most of which will just get you into trouble.
And all you have to do is surrender, to let go of the need to control, and take advice from others.
Do a one year experiment. Tell yourself that you will ignore your ego for a full year, and that you will only listen to the advice of other people. If you have your own idea, you will put it “on the shelf” unless you hear it as a suggestion from someone else.
You may think that this will be a boring way to live or that it will not produce happiness for you. You probably think that you are different, and that only YOU know how to make you happy.
You would be wrong. Trust me, you would be wrong in believing that only YOU hold the key to your own happiness. If you take suggestions and live according to others you will be amazed at the results you are getting within 3 months or less. Try me. Trust me.
What have you got to lose? If you are already miserable then you are risking nothing. If I am right then you become happy. If I am wrong then you will still be miserable. It is foolish not to take this bet.
Avoiding complacency in long term sobriety
There is a chance for relapse in long term recovery.
It would be nice if you could pass a certain point in sobriety (say like 5 years sober or something) where the odds of relapse drop to zero.
Sorry, but this never happens. The chance for relapse is going to be there until you die.
Therefore, you need a strategy to prevent relapse until the day that you die.
That strategy should be based on the idea of personal growth.
Remember when I mentioned that you “need to keep reinventing yourself in recovery?”
That has to keep happening. Forever.
But it is not so bad. All that means is that you continue to test new ideas in your life to see if they help you or not.
And by doing this on a continuous basis you will notice a massive benefit from it as a side effect. Not only does this “continuous reinvention” keep you sober and prevent relapse, but it also means that your life just keeps getting better and better.
Every year your life is better than the year before it! Imagine how awesome that will be on a long term basis. Life just keeps getting better and better.
The “cost” of this is that you have to keep doing the work. You have to keep taking suggestions from others and testing new ideas.
But the benefits are truly amazing, and this is the gift of long term sobriety. Relapse prevention plus personal growth. This is what recovery is all about.
What about you, have you found a way to prevent relapse in your recovery? What is your strategy for long term sobriety? How has it worked for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!