The Critical Ingredients for Overcoming Complacency in Addiction Recovery

The Critical Ingredients for Overcoming Complacency in Addiction Recovery

My search for meaning and purpose in recovery from addiction

How long does it take before complacency sets in for the average alcoholic?

A year? Five years? Ten years? Longer?

I am not really sure and I would imagine that it varies based on the individual.

Of course there are ways to prevent complacency from ever happening, which is the goal of our strategy. We don’t want to get complacent.

But before we dive into the strategy, let’s make sure we understand the problem.

What exactly is complacency in addiction recovery?

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Complacency happens when a recovering alcoholic or drug addict gets lazy and they end up relapsing as a result.

This can happen to anyone who is not careful. This can happen to anyone who believes that they are working “a good program of recovery,” but they end up being sort of stuck in a rut.

The truth is that complacency sneaks up on people. They do not see it coming.

You can learn this truth for yourself by listening carefully at AA meetings. If you go to lots of AA meetings then you will hear people tell their stories. Some of the stories you hear will be of people who were in recovery and who were already living a successful and sober life, but they somehow ended up relapsing. If that is the case then what you are going to be hearing is a story of how they became complacent. Listen carefully to these stories. Try to ask the person to dig deeper about what exactly went wrong. In many cases such people cannot really pinpoint what went wrong, other than the fact that they “stopped doing what they needed to do for their recovery.”

A common example is the person who “stopped going to AA meetings.” This led them to relapse. In fact what caused the relapse is not necessarily a lack of meetings, but rather it is a lack of personal growth. If you are experiencing all of the personal growth in your life through AA meetings, then yes, you had better keep attending them. This does not really mean, however, that everyone in recovery should rely entirely on AA meetings as their daily lifeline. This is one choice, but it is not the only path in recovery.

The key, therefore, is the line: “I stopped doing what I needed to do for my recovery.” This is complacency. This is how you get lazy in recovery and relapse. You stop taking action. You stop making personal growth. You stop learning.

So obviously we need a way to prevent complacency from happening in our lives.

And even more than that, we need a strategy. In other words, we need more than just a reaction plan.

Because a reaction plan will fail you every time.

Reaction is too slow to overcome complacency, therefore you need a strategy

Your plan for overcoming complacency may very well be this:

“I will just wait until I become complacent, then I will react to the problem and fix it by going to meetings, calling my sponsor, taking action, or whatever.”

This will never work. And the reason it fails is because it is too slow. Reacting to the problem after you notice it is far too slow.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are some problems in recovery that you can deal with in this way (by reacting to them). But complacency is not one of them. If you deal with complacency by trying to wait for it and notice it first, you are going to relapse. By the time you recognize the problem it will be too late and you will be very close to relapse.

Instead, we must design a program of recovery that keeps us active in terms of personal growth and continuous learning.

That is a mouthful right there, I admit it. How in the world does someone achieve “continuous learning?” How do we design a recovery program where we are continuously striving for more growth in our lives? These are not easy challenges, or at least they sound intimidating.

In reality it is not so complicated. It is not so difficult. But that does not mean that it is easy to do or even natural for most people. It takes work. It requires effort. And of course the results of these efforts are well worth it, because you will tend to accumulate more and more benefits as you remain clean and sober.

Complacency is a problem that exists in addiction recovery. It can creep up on anyone who is not suspecting it. Therefore we need a way to overcome this problem. We have decided that noticing complacency and then trying to react to it is no good. That method is too slow to be effective. It is too dangerous to wait around for complacency to show up in our lives.

So we need a pro-active strategy. We must assume that complacency is coming, and therefore we must prepare for it. We must live our lives in such a way so as to prevent complacency before it ever starts. So the question is, how do we do that? How do we adopt this strategy for living?

We adopt this pro-active strategy by engaging in a daily practice.

Every day we have an opportunity to either move forward in our recovery or to fall backward. We must choose to move forward every day.

Part of this can be automated. We can establish daily habits. So when we deliberately create daily habits that move us forward in recovery, we refer to those daily positive actions as our “daily practice.”

If we want to overcome complacency then we must do it (pardon the cliche, but I have to admit that it is true) “one day at a time.”

Overcoming complacency really is a daily practice. We can’t take a vacation from this life strategy and expect to stay sober.

What is your daily practice? Could you improve it? Keep asking this question

Consider for a moment what your daily practice is now.

What does it consist of?

Mine is nothing special. Don’t feel like I am trying to intimidate you here. We all have room for improvement in our lives.

One thing that I do is when I first wake up in the morning I immediately start writing about addiction and recovery. This is a big part of my daily practice. I write whether I feel like it or not. And actually I was already forcing myself to do this writing years ago. Every single day. I don’t skip days and I don’t make excuses. I simply wake up and write for an hour about addiction and recovery. It is automatic. It is part of my daily practice.

Not everyone will find writing so therapeutic. It works for me and it is important for my daily practice, but you may have other rituals. And that is fine.

If you go to traditional recovery they will attempt to structure your daily practice for you. This works for some people but not for all. For example, they will suggest that you go to an AA meeting every single day. They may suggest that you get a sponsor in recovery and that you call that sponsor every single day. They may suggest that you read recovery literature every single day. Many people in recovery use the “day at a time” philosophy because it is an important and effective concept. The basic principle of it is this: If you are going to do something that helps you recover, then you had better do that thing every single day of your life. Otherwise you are just leaving yourself open to relapse on the days when you fail to take action.

Think about that for a moment. I am sure everyone who has been in recovery for a while is just about sick of hearing about how “it’s one day at a time” to remain sober. This gets repeated so often because it is true. Recovery really is a day at a time journey. And the reason for this is because if you take a day off from positive action, a day off from learning more about yourself, then you open the door to relapse.

Therefore the key is to come up with a daily practice, with a set of positive habits that you engage in on a daily basis. This way you cannot screw up your recovery. When you establish daily habits you free up mental energy. This is actually a deep and fascinating topic that most people never even consider. They actually did studies on this recently and realized that they could free up more mental energy and help people to make better decisions if they created these positive habits each day and simplified things. These studies impacted the current president of the U.S. He actually has a daily practice in which he exercises for an hour each morning. This is impressive given his intensely busy schedule. Obviously the positive benefit of the exercise is such that he prioritizes it even though he has one of the most important and demanding jobs in the entire world. Yet that hour of exercise and the daily ritual of it must have a positive impact on the rest of his life and his ability to make good decisions.

This is not to say that “you should exercise because it will help your recovery.” This is the wrong way to look at it. If you struggle with exercise and you don’t always follow through with it then you are missing the benefit that I am talking about here. What you want to do is to find positive actions that you turn into consistent habits. The consistency is critical. If you are skipping days then it has a much weaker impact on your life. But if you are ultra consistent then it goes a long way in helping to prevent relapse.

When you exercise on a set schedule and you stick to it, there is no mental discussion. You don’t wake up and say “Oh, I don’t really feel so good today, so maybe I won’t exercise today.” That discussion cannot even be permitted if you are really using a “daily practice.” It is not negotiable. Just like my writing in the mornings. I wake up and I do it, no questions asked. There is no question at all, I already know that I am going to do this thing. It is certain. I wake up and do it.

This is discipline. It is based on consistency. And this is something that I learned. When I started my recovery I did not really have this thing, this discipline. But I slowly learned it over time by going through the motions and establishing these daily habits. And in doing so, my recovery got a whole lot stronger.

Learning from others and taking suggestions

So you may be wondering:

What actions do I take? What healthy habits do I establish? What does my daily practice consist of?

There are many things that a recovering alcoholic must learn in order to remain sober. In order to learn these things you need new information. You must talk to other people in recovery. You must ask questions and seek advice.

In early recovery you can almost be overwhelmed with suggestions. Everyone has an opinion. If you go to a few AA meetings then you will hear many different suggestions for what you should be doing in your recovery. You will hear many suggestions for which actions you should take. You must prioritize. But in addition to that you must also listen and take advice and experiment. But how can you listen to others without being overwhelmed?

First suggestion is to turn off the massive flow of information overload. You can still go to meetings but you should find someone to model. They call this “sponsorship.” So what you do is to find someone in recovery who is living the life that you want to be living. Then you start modeling them. You start imitating them and listening to their advice. You can still go to meetings and take in other information as well, but you really focus in on and prioritize what your sponsor is telling you. This is one way to narrow the information down and make it actionable.

A second way to do it is to ask yourself: “What change could I make today in my recovery that would have the greatest positive impact on my life?” You can also go to your peers in recovery and ask them this question as it pertains to you and your situation. I did this once and everyone told me to go back to college. I did it another time and everyone told me to quit smoking cigarettes. In each case I was getting the same advice from multiple sources. When this happens it is a warning sign that you really should be listening. When everyone tells you the same advice they are generally correct (and you are generally missing something important).

You may think that you have to find the perfect sponsor or the perfect piece of advice in order to act on it and become successful in sobriety. This is not true. You just need to be willing and to keep experimenting by taking positive action.

Really what you are doing is trying on new habits. Try them on like a new hat. See if the new habit is a good fit for your life or not.

I did this once with meditation. My counselor in rehab believed that I should try meditation. So I tried it for a month or two. I studied up on it. I tried different techniques and I experimented with it a great deal. I had one hour long meditation sessions at one point. I tried different breathing techniques with meditation. And so on. I gave it a fair shot.

Ultimately I decided that it wasn’t for me. I still wanted the benefits of meditation, and I got them from something else: exercise. I ended up turning to daily exercise rather than daily meditation. But the important thing is that I experimented. I took a suggestion from people (to meditate) and I gave it a fair trial (I believe a fair trial for most things is 30 days). Later on I took another suggestion to try exercise and this proved to be a better fit for me.

Realize that in order to find these parts of my daily practice I had to be willing to experiment. I had to take suggestions. I had to listen to other people.

When I was still smoking cigarettes, I asked the question of myself: “What is the one change that I could make today that would have the greatest positive impact on my life?”

Quitting smoking was the obvious answer. At other times in my life, the answer to that question changed. But the important thing is that I keep asking the question, and therefore I keep prioritizing what is my next important change to make.

Recovery is all about having a new set of problems.

We trade in an old set of problems for a new set of problems. We used to deal with hangovers and drunk driving and broken relationships and so on. In recovery we still have problems, but they are a different sort of problem.

And if you keep taking positive action then your “problems” will become more and more subtle. They are no longer big and in-your-face problems like they were in the past. But you can still look at your life critically and you can still learn something about yourself. And you can always find a way to improve yourself or your life.

And this is the essence of our strategy. To examine your life on a continuous basis, and constantly ask the question of ourselves: “What can I improve next? Where is the negativity in my life right now? What can I learn about myself? How can I change?”

When you stop asking these questions of yourself, complacency and relapse become possible.

Improving your life versus your life situation

You can improve your internal life in recovery, meaning you can consider how to overcome anger, fear, guilt, shame, resentment, self pity, and so on. These are internal qualities. This is about changing your life from the inside out. It is an important thing to consider in recovery.

But you can also look at improving your “life situation.” These are the external qualities of your life. These are the people, places, and things in your life. Your career, your job, your relationships, your exercise routine, and so on. This, too, is important to consider in recovery.

If you want a truly holistic approach to addiction recovery then you need to look at both of these areas. Both your internal and your external life. Do not shut yourself off to either of these paths because the growth and learning experience that you need may be in either one of them.

Most people in recovery tend to look at one of these paths over the other. Try to balance the two and always be searching for your next positive change in recovery. Keep asking yourself the question: “What is the one change that I could make that would have the greatest positive impact on my life?” In order to answer that question you may have to look at your pain points–what is causing you grief in your life? Eliminate those things and you will be left with peace and contentment. Not to mention that the learning experience of going through that process will help you to overcome complacency and prevent relapse.

That is how it works for me anyway. How does it work for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!

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