I can remember being in very early recovery and wanting to go drink alcohol. At the time, I reminded myself that I was sober now, that I was living in recovery now, that I was in a treatment program and I was trying to do the right thing. So I hung on as best I could and somehow I made it through that craving.
Today, I have accumulated many years of dealing with triggers, urges, and cravings. I can tell you a great deal about how I specifically have learned to overcome such urges to drink or to self medicate.
But I think that it is important to make a distinction here: There is a difference between having 3 weeks sober versus having 3 years sober when it comes to that craving.
My life in recovery looked a whole lot different when I had 3 weeks sober than it does today (17 years and counting!).
So let’s break it down based on this imaginary line in a person’s recovery: Early recovery versus long term sobriety.
When you are in early recovery, every moment of every day is a potential trigger, because you are new and everything is raw and your emotions are all over the place. The recommendation to the newcomer is typically this: Go to inpatient treatment and then follow that up with intense focus in a recovery program, such as AA or NA meetings. After rehab, do the 90 meetings in 90 days. Supplement those meetings by going to IOP groups, counseling, group therapy, and whatever else the treatment professionals suggest to you.
You cannot tiptoe your way through early recovery and succeed.
You cannot just lightly dabble in early recovery and somehow remain clean and sober. It will never happen.
No, if you want to remain clean and sober in early recovery, you have to dive in head first like your life depends on it (it does!) and do everything that is suggested to you. If you hold back in any way then you are just opening the door for relapse.
If you go to rehab but then you leave early, you relapse. If you go to rehab and they recommend a long term program and you balk at this, you relapse. If you start going to AA meetings after treatment and then you get lazy and you quit going, you relapse. If they tell you to read the literature and work the steps and you get lazy about it, you relapse.
Early recovery can be a bit overwhelming because there are a lot of suggestions and they can cover a lot of different areas of your life and your experience. Go to meetings. Write in a journal. Get a sponsor. Go to therapy. Share from the heart. Call your sponsor every day. Work these steps.
And on and on and on.
But you’ve go to do it. And you have to do it all. I don’t mean to pressure you, and honestly you do not need to feel overwhelmed, because this recovery stuff should honestly be the only thing that you are focusing on. Push everything else to the side for now and simply go to treatment and then do every single thing that they tell you to do. Period.
Stop trying to control everything. Stop trying to make your own decisions. Right now is the time for you to step to the side and simply do what you are told to do. Allow the therapists and treatment professionals to guide you in your recovery. Get out of your own way. Do exactly what you are told to do and don’t resist or complain about any of it. This is your key to a new life.
This is how you make it through early recovery without relapsing. Go to rehab and then follow through exactly with everything that is suggested to you.
The truth is that you are still going to have some cravings throughout your early recovery journey. However, if you are doing what you are told to do, you will be able to overcome those cravings and resist the urge to medicate. Most of what you are doing in early recovery has to do with support. So you are going to rehab, you are going to meetings, you are reaching out to your peers, to your sponsor, to people who can help you to overcome cravings.
You must go “all in” when it comes to early recovery. If you hold back even a tiny bit then you will eventually relapse as a result of this. People who have held back and then relapsed have eventually come back to recovery and explained it: “I get it now, I really do have to dedicate my entire life to this recovery stuff, or I will end up relapsing again.”
Now I mentioned that long term sobriety is a bit different than early recovery. In long term recovery you have already established a solid foundation of recovery, you have built a new and healthy life, and you probably are not still going to 3 AA meetings per day when you have 10 years clean and sober. You may still go to some meetings and you may still practice a few of “the basics” but your life and your recovery has evolved.
In long term sobriety the threat has shifted. In early recovery you could experience a trigger and suddenly relapse as a result. It doesn’t work that way in long term recovery.
Why not? Because in long term recovery you have learned how to avoid an “instant relapse.” For example, I am not going to walk down the street today and pass my old liquor store and suddenly run in and relapse as if I had 3 weeks sober. That won’t happen any more for me because I have a solid foundation in recovery now. I have learned enough to get “past that level” of trigger.
However, even with multiple years of sobriety under my belt, I could still potentially relapse. But how?
The threat shifts in long term recovery to that of complacency. A relapse will unfold over the course of months or years in long term recovery.
If you get too complacent in long term recovery then eventually a perfect storm of triggers will happen–not just a single trigger but many at once–and it will overwhelm the person in long term sobriety.
There are two ways to prevent this from happening. The first principle that is important to remember is that you still need some of the basics, you need some support systems, you need people that you can trust and reach out to. That never changes.
The second principle is that of personal growth and holistic health. Even after several years in recovery, you need to keep pushing yourself to learn, to grow, to evolve. You need to keep seeking that next level of personal growth.
Your disease of addiction is constantly looking for new ways to invade your life and trip you up.
Therefore, we need to constantly be learning new things about ourselves, “leveling up” our spiritual health, our emotional stability, our mental status, our physical health, and our network of support.
Your health is multi-dimensional in recovery. You need to keep improving your healthy physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. If you stop growing in any of these areas then you open the door for complacency and relapse to potentially happen.
Good luck to you in your recovery journey!