Everyone who tries to get clean and sober has to have some sort of plan for change. This is the essence of recovery; either you change how you are living and build a new life for yourself without your addiction in it, or you ultimately return to your addiction.
They told me this the first time that I was in an addiction treatment center, they said “If you don’t have a plan for recovery then you are bound to relapse.” I believe that now. The first two times that I left treatment I did not really have a plan. The deeper problem, of course, was that I had not yet surrendered fully, and therefore I couldn’t really be bothered with a plan. But the bottom line is that if you walk out of treatment and you don’t have a plan in place for how you are going to maintain your sobriety then you are in big trouble.
Not having a plan is the biggest problem that you might have in early recovery. But even if you have a plan–for example, say you are going to do outpatient treatment and also go to AA meetings three times per week–you still might have some flaws in your plan that you are not anticipating. Therefore it may make sense for you to think for a moment about potential flaws or gaps in your recovery plan so that you can make a thorough effort at sobriety.
Things that you don’t know that you don’t know can still hurt you
When it comes to our knowledge of the world and how our life really works, we have a few categories of knowledge:
Known stuff. Stuff we know.
Unknown stuff. Stuff that we don’t know, and we realize that we don’t know it. For example, I know that I don’t know how to do brain surgery.
Unknown unknowns. This is the tricky stuff that we don’t even know that we don’t know about it. For example, before I got into recovery, I did not even know about the benefits of sobriety. I actually did not believe or know that it was possible for happiness to exist in recovery. It wasn’t that I just didn’t have that happiness, I did not even believe it to be remotely possible.
Another example of an unknown unknown would be if you were going to be in an accident next month that would put you in the hospital for a week. You don’t know about that event yet, and you don’t even know that you don’t know about it. It’s not even on the radar.
So there are all sorts of things in life that fall into this “unknown unknowns” category of knowledge. These are things that can surprise us and there is nothing that we can do about them because they are unknowable. Most of it is random stuff that pops up in the future and is completely beyond our control.
The problem is that some of those things can still have a significant impact on our sobriety. So the question becomes: How do we deal with unknown unknowns in life? How can we deal with information that we don’t even know that we don’t know about?
The answer, I believe, is that you have to make a few assumptions in life, and you have to use some sort of system.
And one of those assumptions you can make is that you want to take care of yourself in every way that you possibly can. In other words, you should assume that a holistic approach to life is probably the best form of protection against any threat.
In other words, we want to cover all the bases. We want to take every precaution. And in order to do that, we need to use a holistic approach.
For a moment, assume that your addiction is going to try to get you to relapse by compromising your health in the following areas:
1) Physical health.
2) Mental health.
3) Emotional health.
4) Social health.
5) Spiritual health.
If we make the assumption that our addiction is going to try to make us relapse by compromising our health in one of those areas, then we can react to this threat by coming up with a recovery plan.
This is how we fix the flaws in our recovery approach. First, we make the assumption that our addiction wants us to relapse. It wants us dead. So we need to fight back against that threat. And the way to do that is to protect our health in all 5 of these areas. This is the holistic approach.
And we need to work at this on a day to day basis.
A holistic approach is key to covering all of your bases in avoiding relapse
When I first got clean and sober I was living in long term rehab, attending AA meetings every single day, and making lots of observations of the recovering alcoholics and drug addicts who were all around me at the time. I lived in a treatment center for almost 2 years and later I worked there for over 5 years. I had the opportunity to make lots and lots of observations among people who were trying to recover.
During that time I learned a great deal, and my understanding of addiction and relapse continued to evolve. My first assumption was that people relapsed due to selfish reasons, they simply wanted to drink or get high and so they selfishly relapsed. The solution, therefore, must be spiritual, I concluded. Also, this was the message I was hearing in AA, that the solution was spiritual and that in order to change your personality enough to be sober you had to have a spiritual experience through working the 12 steps of AA. I watched many people relapse, and I had to agree that they were being selfish when they did so.
But then as I remained clean and sober I started to notice that some people would relapse for other reasons. When I lived in long term treatment I noticed that nearly all of my peers who relapsed did so because of a relationship that went bad. This happened so often to my peers that it became, in my mind, the number one threat to people in recovery. A romantic relationship that went bad was the most dangerous thing to a recovering alcoholic in my mind. And you also heard advice in AA not to get into a new relationship for the first year of sobriety, and so on.
As I stayed sober I started to notice a new trend: People would relapse after getting sick. Some of my friends and peers in recovery who became physically ill would sometimes end up relapsing as a result of this. It was almost as if their illness wore them down and eventually they just gave in and drank again. I noticed this happening over and over again. Sometimes this would happen because they had been put on serious medication as well, sometimes for pain, and this would then lead them back to drinking later on. This wouldn’t happen with everyone who got sick or injured of course, but it happened often enough that I noticed the tendency. Becoming physically ill was not a good thing for sobriety. Sometimes it led to relapse.
Of course some people relapse when they fall in with the wrong crowd, or they continue to surround themselves with others who are drinking or using drugs. That is the social relapse. And some people go back to drinking after they become emotionally upset, because they are used to medicating their negative emotions with drugs or alcohol. This happens when they have failed to learn how to process those negative emotions in recovery instead of turning back to their drug of choice.
So you can see that it is possible to relapse for all 5 of those reasons. You can relapse due to your emotional state. You can relapse socially by being around the wrong people. You can relapse mentally with the obsession to drink or use drugs. You can relapse for physical reasons like illness or disease. You can relapse due to a relationship that went bad. People relapse for all sorts of different reasons, and you cannot always predict some of these factors.
For example, some of the peers that I knew who relapsed due to a physical illness were dealing with an “unknown unknown.” They did’t know that they were going to get sick, and there was no way that they possibly could have predicted that. And yet it led them to relapse in the end. So how could they have prevented that, if there was no way to anticipate it?
They would have had to make an assumption. They would have had to assume that their physical health was really important, and they would have had to take preventative steps towards better health just as a matter of course.
And in order to make that assumption, you also have to protect your health in other ways as well. You have to assume that relapse might attack you through your relationships, through your emotional state, spiritually, physically, socially, emotionally, mentally. You have to assume that the threat could be coming from any of those potential directions.
And therefore the assumption that we make in recovery is that we need to take care of ourselves every day in every one of these ways. So we need to be taking care of ourselves physically in order to prevent that unknown illness that may threaten our sobriety. We need to exercise, to eat healthy food, to get plenty of sleep, to eliminate our addictions. We need to take care of our emotional state and learn how to process and deal with those negative emotions, because they may threaten our sobriety.
We need to take care of ourselves in terms of our social life, our relationships, and surround ourselves with positive people who want the best for us. We need to eliminate toxic people who are dragging us down, who want to see us relapse, who drain us of our energy.
We need to take care of ourselves spiritually, and remove the selfish part of ourselves that wants to drink every day. We can do this by helping others, by reaching out to others, and by practicing gratitude.
If you have a recovery plan in your life, ask yourself this question:
Does my recovery plan involve taking care of myself physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually on a daily basis?
Because if it does not, if there are gaps that are exposed by that question, then that is where you need to focus your efforts. Maybe you haven’t been practicing gratitude lately, and you feel rather selfish. That means that you are in danger of being able to justify a relapse to yourself if you are not careful. Therefore you might want to practice gratitude every day so that you can pull away from that selfishness.
The network, and getting suggestions and wisdom from others
If you are early in recovery then I would suggest that you form some sort of support network for yourself in sobriety.
The quick and easy way to do this is to go to AA meetings every day. There are other ways to do it too if AA is not your thing.
There are two reasons to have a recovery network in early sobriety.
One is that if you feel the need to drink or use drugs, you can call someone up and ask them to go get coffee with you. You can talk yourself out of relapse by relying on others. This is very powerful and you should definitely take advantage of this sort of fellowship. I had this because I lived in long term rehab for 20 months, but even during that time (and after as well) I was going out to coffee quite a bit with people in recovery. This was especially true after AA meetings. Later on I eliminated the meetings altogether but I still socialized with people in recovery, and I still believe that this is important.
Second of all, you need a recovery network so that you can learn how to live a sober life. That is part of what you will get by associating with others in sobriety.
You can’t just sit down one day, read the big book of AA, and know everything that you need to know about living your life sober. It doesn’t work that way.
This is because your life is dynamic, and that book of AA is rather static. You need new information. You need to be able to roll with the punches in life. You can do this by interacting with other people in recovery, by learning from them, by borrowing their wisdom.
Everyone who gets clean and sober is going to go through new experiences in sobriety that they are not prepared for. Again, these are the “unknown unknowns.” You cannot predict them and you certainly don’t know how to react to them. And they might even be a direct threat against your sobriety.
So your support network can help with this. You suddenly realize that you are facing a brand new challenge, that you are dealing with a new threat to your recovery and you don’t know what to do or how to respond to it. The solution here is simple: You ask for help.
You reach out to your peers. You reach out to your mentors, to your teachers in recovery. You ask them what to do and how to behave. You ask them for advice and what your next step should be.
This is how we borrow wisdom in recovery. Others will have gone through similar challenges in their journey, and they can advise you directly. They can tell you what to do. But it is up to you to reach out to your support network and ask for help. And, it is up to you to have that support network in the first place, to have someone that you can ask for help, to have a place that you can go for wisdom and advice.
This is how you deal with unknown unknowns. You create systems. One is the system of holistic health, the other is having a supportive network in place. These are flexible solutions that can help you with a wide range of unknown problems.
Growing strong in recovery based on personal growth and humility
In order to protect yourself in long term sobriety you need to remain humble.
This can be counter intuitive. Why do we need to remain humble when obviously we are getting smarter and more experienced as we remain sober?
The answer is because your addiction is actually getting stronger in the background as it devises new ways to try to attack you and get you to relapse.
Some people think it is silly to personify their addiction, as if it were a little devil sitting on their shoulder, whispering temptations into their ear.
That may make it sound a bit silly, but I can assure you that this is a very useful model for thinking about addiction and relapse.
And that is because the threat of relapse is very real, it is always going to be there, and we are ultimately our own worst enemy. So your biggest threat in the long run is that you may one day talk yourself into taking that drink again. So in a very real sense it is like that little devil is sitting on your shoulder.
And your addiction does progress over time, even if you are clean and sober. Most people don’t grasp that either. You would think that after taking a few years off drinking that your tolerance would change, that you would be able to drink a bit more normally if you went back to it.
Not true. In fact, they have found that your disease gets worse even while sober. So if you remain sober for several years and then relapse, you will find that your drinking is worse than it has ever been in the past. The disease is progressive even during sobriety. Watch out for this as it is a serious threat. Many people who relapse after years or decades of sobriety don’t even live to tell about the mistake that they made.
In order to avoid relapse in the long run you have to stay humble, so that you can learn what you need to learn in order to deal with all of those unknown unknowns.
In other words, new challenges are going to pop up in your life, and there is nothing that you can do to escape from some of them. They are going to happen. And so the best that you can do is to build systems into your life (holistic health and a support network) and also to remain humble enough to be able to learn new things. If you are not humble and are instead too proud then one of these unknown threats can potentially lead you to relapse. We must always remain humble and remember to practice gratitude every day so that we have the best possible chance at remaining clean and sober.
What about you, have you taken a close look at your recovery plan? Where are the gaps in it based on the holistic health model? What actions can you take to fix those gaps? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!