It is only natural and human to want to get rid of an addiction once and for all. I perfectly understand why people would want to eradicate a problem like this on a permanent basis. To some extent it is very possible to do so, but probably not in the way that most of us would want (at least in the beginning).
We all want for there to be a simple cure, a one time event that permanently alters a person away from their self destruction. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.
The myth of permanent sobriety, or a “cure”
The world is divided right now into two groups:
People who know that addiction cannot be cured, and people who don’t have a clue about this.
That’s it. Either you know how the process of recovery works, or you simply don’t have a clue.
Let me explain to you the tragedy of someone who doesn’t have a clue.
Maybe there son or daughter develops a drug or alcohol addiction and is really struggling. After several consequences come to light the parent decides that they will do whatever it takes and pay whatever amount of money is necessary in order to “cure” the child.
Unfortunately no such cure exists. The part of society that is not well informed about addiction secretly believes that if you simply throw enough money at the problem that it can be solved. The media is actually helping to correct this false perception, believe it or not. This is because so many celebrities who struggle with addiction and alcoholism are exposed in the media, and people can clearly see that having tons of money does not immediately solve the problem or lead to any sort of cure.
It is a helpless moment indeed when a wealthy family realizes that their money can not cure the problem of addiction. This is truly a powerful disease that does not discriminate, and thus demands respect. You cannot overcome an addiction simply by throwing money at the problem. The best treatment in the world is useless if a person has not truly surrendered.
And that right there is a hint to the real secret of overcoming addiction: “true surrender.”
Programming your life in such a way to help insure continuous growth and recovery
Recovery starts when you arrest the disease and surrender fully to it. This is an act that crushes the ego and forces you to let go of all need for control, totally and completely. Most people take a long time before they actually reach this critical point.
If there is a secret to success in beating an addiction, this is it. You have to surrender fully to your disease and agree to do just about anything in order to get the help that you need.
I believe that most people are going to have to sort of reprogram their life from the ground up in order to do well in recovery. This is exactly what I had to do in order to find successful sobriety. When I failed to make these massive changes in early recovery, I always relapsed. It was only when I was willing to change everything that things worked out well for me.
This started with the idea of long term treatment. Not everyone has to go live in a rehab center for 20 months, but it certainly worked for me because it was such a drastic action. I had to find new patterns, new routines, new behaviors. I had to find a new way to live that did not involve self medicating. This required massive change on my part. I could not just go through a 5 day detox and then do a counseling session once a week. That never would have worked for me. It was not enough.
I never could have just gone to AA meetings twice a week and called it good. That would not have cut it. Instead I had to dive much deeper into recovery.
As a general rule, you should put about the same level of energy into your recovery effort that you put into your addiction. So for me, this meant I had to go live in long term rehab for a few years. Why? Because my life was completely dominated by my addiction for a full decade. I did not casually drift away from my addiction at times. I was an “always on” drug addict and alcoholic. I was a mess the whole time I was an addict. I never let up. I always wanted more, more drugs, more booze, more of a high. I constantly pushed for ten years to get as wasted and messed up as possible. So when it was time to surrender and try to find sobriety, do you think that a few AA meetings each week was going to be enough for me to really change my life? No. The recovery process should match the intensity of your addiction. If you lived in your addiction 24/7 then you will probably need a fairly intense form of treatment, at least initially. Obviously the idea is that after you go to rehab, you can transition back into the real world and learn to live a life of freedom, without the need to self medicate. This doesn’t happen overnight and you need to be realistic about how long it is going to take.
Making permanent lifestyle changes that can lead to stable recovery
After I initially went to rehab and got a few months stable in recovery, I was facing a new challenge:
How was I going to arrange my life in such a way that I did not just wander back into drug addiction and alcoholism? How was I going to live my life in such a way that I was not tempted to return to the old solution of self medicating all of the time?
The answer to this did not present itself clearly in a flash of light. In fact, the answer to this is basically the topic of this entire website, and represents at least a ten year journey of discovery in addiction recovery.
The answer is personal growth. You cannot just sit idle in recovery and expect for relapse to pass you by. If you are bored, complacent, or stagnate in your growth–then expect for relapse to become a real challenge.
On the other hand, if you are taking positive action on a regular basis and you are pushing yourself to make growth in your life, then you can expect that during those particular times you will be well protected from the threat of relapse.
You can prove this to yourself by simply paying attention. Raise your awareness and pay attention to how you are living and how you feel. Pay attention to your brain and what it is doing, what cycles it is running lately. Is it craving drugs and alcohol? No? Well then what have you been doing lately that is avoiding cravings and triggers? Probably something that involves a lot of challenge and growth and positive action.
What I noticed was that there was a correlation between how hard I was pushing myself to make new growth and how little I thought about relapse. When I was active in growth I never thought of drinking or using drugs. But when I was bored and idle and not doing much with my life I noticed that it was much easier to think about possibly getting a drink or taking some drugs. Relapse becomes a possibility only due to a lack of personal growth.
Therefore the solution should be obvious at this point (at least it was for me when I figured this out roughly ten years ago in my early recovery):
You need to keep growing and taking positive action in order to avoid relapse. The secret to long term sobriety is personal growth.
Positive action yields positive results. It doesn’t get much more straightforward than this.
So the challenge becomes: “How do you keep achieving positive growth in long term recovery?”
Challenging yourself to keep growing in long term recovery
My answer is that you have to keep challenging yourself to take positive action.
I like to picture my sobriety as a sort of cycle. You are bound to have periods of growth followed by periods of idle reflection. This is inevitable.
Are the periods of idle reflection dangerous or bad? Not necessarily. They are needed in order to evaluate what you have accomplished and what you might want to tackle next in your life. We are always going to need periods of down time in order to recharge our mental batteries.
But on the other hand we cannot lapse into permanent laziness. This is a path that leads to complacency and relapse.
Every time that we accomplish a major goal in our lives we need to evaluate and figure out what our next big move should be.
The only mistake that we can make in recovery is to achieve a positive goal and declare to ourselves “That’s it, I have arrived. I am officially cured now of addiction. No more hard work for me!”
That would be a colossal mistake and would lead us down the path to certain relapse.
So the answer is that we must pursue a different approach. We have to use that down time to evaluate what we have done, what goals we have achieved, and what we want to do next in our lives.
My suggestion is that when you reach this period of down time, when you have accomplished a major goal and you are starting to make these evaluations, you should definitely seek feedback and advice from other people in your life. Go to your sponsor, go to your trusted peers in recovery, go to your trusted friends and family members and ask them:
“What do you think I should do next with my life? What goals do you think I should be pursuing now?”
This is valuable feedback and it will be especially insightful if you go to different people and ask this question separately to get different opinions.
If you actually do this and collect a variety of opinions then you will gain an amazing amount of insight. Not all of the suggestions will be useful but you will get plenty of ideas and food for thought. If there is a common theme or you hear the same suggestion over and over again then you can be sure that there is some value in that particular suggestion.
For example, I did this myself in early recovery and had many people suggest to me that I should go back to college and finish up my degree. After a while I could no longer ignore that suggestion because so many people were making it to me. My thinking was that “they can not all be wrong!” So eventually I took the advice and went back to school.
The same was true with a suggestion that I was getting to incorporate exercise into my recovery. After enough people made the suggestion I had to take a look at the idea that it might be really important for me. Turns out that it was, I just had to take action and pursue the suggestion, and I was not willing to do so at first. I had to keep collecting data, talking with various people, and realize that a whole lot of people thought that this would a good choice for me.
How complacency can trip some people up in the long run
Many people can get tripped up by complacency in long term recovery.
What is complacency? It is basically a lack of growth. You stop taking action.
If you want to overcome alcoholism or addiction once and for all, then you have to live your life in such a way that a relapse could never even think about creeping back into your life. This will only be true if you are active in pushing yourself to pursue personal growth on a regular basis.
My suggestion to people in recovery is to look at their:
1) Overall health.
2) Life situation.
The two things are normally tied together quite a bit, but not always.
And then my suggestion is that you take action in order to deliberately improve both of those things.
Notice that there is no limit to how much you could improve either of them. If you are taking steps to become healthier, there is always another level of superior health that you might attain. And this is true on so many different levels: Fitness, nutrition, emotional health, social health, spirituality, and so on.
Your health is not one dimensional. It is not just your physical lack of disease. Your overall health in recovery has many, many layers to it. We need to consciously try to improve all of those layers, and continue to learn about how we can better our lives.
The same is true of your life situation. Maybe you rate your career in life (or your current job) as an 8 out of 10. Obviously that means there is room for improvement there!
The question is: how do you prioritize these things? How do you know what changes to make, and what positive actions to pursue? Because obviously you cannot do everything all at once.
I can tell you exactly how to prioritize the changes in recovery.
You simply eliminate the worst parts of your life as your top priority, and then slowly work your way towards the more positive goals.
So you start with your addiction itself. For most people that is (by far) your biggest problem in life, and is the biggest hurdle to success.
So you have to start with detox and abstinence and learning to build a new life without drugs and alcohol. This is your first step in this new life of better health. You can’t really make any progress until you have done that.
But the second step is that now you have to get stable in recovery and then take a look at your overall life:
What are you still doing to harm yourself? Are you still smoking cigarettes? Do you sabotage your recovery efforts with bad relationships?
And what are your positive goals that you want to achieve? Do you want to work with struggling addicts in a professional capacity?
So you may have a number of goals, some of them are:
Moving towards something positive (a new job you always wanted).
Moving away from a negative (overcoming addiction, quitting smoking, etc).
My instructions to you for prioritization is that you must eliminate the negatives first and foremost in your life. This is one of the secrets of recovery that no one necessarily explains at first. You have to eliminate the negative stuff first that is holding you back so that you can one day chase your more positive goals without getting caught up.
After you eliminate the negative stuff in your life you will clear the path and be able to pursue your more positive changes. But make sure you do things in this proper order so that you are not sabotaging your own efforts. Many people get this wrong and attempt to pursue their dreams before they have properly cleaned up their nightmares. It just doesn’t work that way so do the responsible thing and take care of your major hangups before you try to create your dream life.
Is living a life of personal growth really a cure for alcoholism and addiction?
Unfortunately, just because you are living a life of personal growth does not mean that you are immune to relapse.
And this is a good thing.
If you want to experience the full benefits of recovery then you have to be taking serious action.
You’ve probably heard at some point that “a little fear can be a good thing.” This is the idea behind overcoming complacency in long term recovery. You don’t want to get too comfortable. You do not want to get so comfortable in your recovery journey that you believe that you have it all figured out and that nothing could possibly trip you up.
For example, I know a guy who was in AA for over a decade, and he basically got tripped up badly because of pain medication. The disease of addiction found a back door in his life, and so it found a way to sneak in. It is important to realize that this could happen to anyone, in any number of different ways, in a way that we would never expect even. It is important to realize that none of us are ever cured, none of us are ever immune to the possibility of relapse.
Living a life of personal growth is the best way that we can live in recovery, but it is not a cure by any means. It is just the most diligent way to live in order to protect ourselves from the ongoing threat of relapse.
In the end, we are never really cured. We only a have a daily reprieve, just as is stated in the AA program. I believe that this is contingent on personal growth, while AA is saying that it is contingent on your spiritual condition. In the end we may be splitting hairs here. Whatever inspires you to take action is the best path for you in recovery.