What is the key to successful addiction treatment? Why do some people remain clean and sober while others tend to struggle? What can we do in order to insure that our efforts in recovery are rewarded, and that we do not slide back into our old ways?
The key to successful treatment is:
1) A strong foundation.
2) Commitment and follow through.
3) Personal growth.
Creating a foundation for success in early recovery
Before you can enjoy a lifetime of sobriety you have to build your foundation.
This requires work. It requires effort. Therefore, many people who struggle with addiction will initially be put off by this part of the process. It is somewhat simple but that does not mean that it is easy.
It is simple because you can ask for help, follow directions, and create this foundation for success. All that is required is willingness and action. You ask for help, you get advice, then you take the advice and you act on it.
Not surprisingly, most people do not warm up to this model very quickly. They would prefer to do things their own way and make their own rules. It is not easy to become humble and learn from others. It is not easy to squash our ego and then listen to the advice of others. We have to be desperate before most of us will find the willingness to do this. But once we become miserable enough in our addiction we can then find the willingness to reach out and ask for help and take new direction in our lives. Hence, the gift of desperation.
When you follow advice and take direction in early recovery you are setting yourself up for success later on. You are relearning how to be stable in your life and you are giving yourself a platform on which to build future happiness. For example, if you are self medicating with drugs and alcohol on a regular basis then it does not matter what good things may happen in your life because those experiences will always be overshadowed by the misery of addiction. So if you ask for help and people explain to you how to stay sober one day at a time, then in the future you will have a foundation on which you can build real happiness. In order to experience joy and contentment in life we have to eliminate our problems first. If we have negative things in our lives that are dragging us down then we need to start with those issues first and foremost. This creates a foundation. And doing so is always hard work, which is why many people try to avoid it at first. Or rather, they will avoid it until they have exhausted all of their other options first.
Commitment and follow through
After you have built a foundation in early recovery you need to keep following through and taking positive action.
One clear example of this is the struggling alcoholic who attend inpatient rehab. They have taken a positive step towards a new life, but what do they do in the weeks and months after they leave treatment? Do they follow through and take more positive action by attending meetings, groups, therapy, and so on? Or do they slack off and basically expect to magically stay sober forever without any real effort? You can imagine which person will relapse and which will remain sober in the long run. Follow through is critical for long term sobriety. You have to take real action in your life on a consistent basis in order to reap the long term rewards of recovery.
Personal growth in long term recovery
Your life in long term sobriety is not just “you minus alcohol.” If that were the whole story then quitting would be easy.
But it takes work. And recovery is nothing if not change. So you can make positive changes, you can make negative changes, or you can do nothing.
Well if you make negative changes or do nothing then the result is the same: You relapse. It may not be tomorrow and it may not be next week, but eventually you will relapse if you are not making positive progress.
Therefore the only remaining alternative is personal growth. You must continue to make positive changes in your life. This constant reinvention of the self is what protects us from relapse. In fact, personal growth and taking positive action is the strongest form of relapse prevention. If you can find a way to help others in recovery while you are growing as a person then this is even stronger yet.
On the other hand, people who are not making positive progress are much more vulnerable to relapse. So it is not enough to build a foundation and then follow through, but you must also keep pushing yourself in the long run to achieve personal growth. Either you are moving towards a better version of “you” or you are potentially sliding towards a relapse.
So the foundation, the follow through, and personal growth are the three things that can unlock a lifetime of successful recovery. If you cannot achieve these things on your own then you need to ask for help. I personally did this by attending inpatient treatment and then following through by taking suggestions from the people I met there. This led me to a path of personal growth and my life has become better and better ever since then.
So the question becomes: “How do I stay on this path of personal growth?”
Finding the path of personal growth in recovery and then sticking to it
In order to find a path of personal growth in recovery you first have to surrender.
The typical alcoholic or drug addict is thrashing about in their life, trying to find a sliver of happiness, trying to find anything or any way to escape from the misery of addiction.
And their greatest fear is that they will be miserable if they become sober.
In order to move forward in recovery they have to face that fear head on and surrender. They must let go of everything and take a leap of faith.
This leap of faith is the alcoholic essentially saying: “I don’t know exactly what sobriety will be like, and I fear that it might be completely miserable and boring, but it has to be better than the misery that I am living in due to my addiction.”
This is the essence of surrender. It may be worded slightly different in your mind, but that is the basic idea. You are stuck in addiction and you fear sobriety, but at some point the misery of addiction outweighs those fears of sobriety. And when you reach that point you will make a leap of faith and ask for help.
When you reach this critical point of surrender you will become open to the idea that maybe….just maybe….being completely sober and clean might be the way to real happiness.
I know, you have fought back against that idea for a long time.
This is surrender. You become open to the idea of total abstinence.
So you ask for help and they tell you things like:
* Go to rehab.
* Go to AA meetings.
* Go get a sponsor in AA.
* Go work through the 12 steps.
* Go see a therapist and work through your issues.
* Go see a doctor who can help you to overcome your addiction.
* Go to group therapy.
* Go live in long term rehab for your addiction problem.
All of these suggestions, all different forms of help. Most of them are pretty much pointing you in the same general direction: That of being clean and sober and healthy.
So my suggestion to you is to listen to those suggestions. If you are willing to follow through on one or any of them then this is a hopeful indication that you may be at the point of total surrender. If so then your life is about to change for the better as long as you take positive action.
Other people are making these suggestions to you. It is now up to you to take one of them and put it into action. To get on the phone and call up a treatment center. To put one foot in front of the other and make a positive choice. To dive off into the deep end with no safety equipment. This is what it feels like anyway, for the alcoholic or addict to face their fear head on. To go check into rehab where you know you will be deprived of the drug or drink that you crave. It takes guts to make this leap of faith, to believe that it might actually get better if you choose the path of sobriety.
And so hopefully you surrender and go to rehab.
Of course, many alcoholics and drug addicts will do this much but then later end up relapsing anyway. They will fail to follow through.
Being in rehab is easy. I have been there three times myself, and then I worked in a detox and residential unit for over 5 years. I know what it is like in rehab. I know what it is like for alcoholics, I know what it is like for heroin addicts, I know what it is like for people hooked on painkillers. Or tranquilizers. And so on. I have had enough experience “in the trenches” to know what goes on and what it is really like for people. I have worked many third shifts and talked with people through the night. So I have seen the averages and I have seen the extreme cases as well.
And I can tell you that, based on all of that observation (including my personal experience in rehab), being in treatment is pretty darn easy. Sure, there may be some rough spots here and there for certain cases, but for the vast majority of alcoholics and drug addicts, being in rehab is a piece of cake.
I will admit that getting to rehab can be difficult. So difficult, in fact, that many people never make it there at all. But once you are in treatment, being there is not difficult at all.
There are a number of reasons for this. One is that they keep you comfortable. Two is that you realize that it is not so bad, and that you can handle it. Three is that you have peer support, as everyone around you is in the same boat that you are in. Those three reasons combined are extremely powerful. Making the choice to go to rehab can be really tough, but actually being in treatment is easy. No doubt about it.
But what happens when the alcoholic leaves treatment?
This is where it gets complicated again.
Actually making the decision to go to treatment? Really tough.
Being in treatment? Easy peasy.
Staying sober after leaving rehab? We are back to “really tough” again, unfortunately.
After you leave residential treatment it can be extremely challenging to stay sober.
Even if you follow all of the suggestions that you are given in treatment, it can still be tough to remain sober. And keep in mind that most people do not follow through with all of the suggestions! This stacks the odds against them even further.
Of course if you really want to stay sober and you are willing to take serious action, then anyone can potentially stay sober indefinitely. This is the promise and the hope of recovery, that you can turn your life around and make real lasting changes. And it most certainly is true, if you are willing to put in the work.
Most people are just not willing to make the supreme effort, however.
Recovery takes work. More work than most people are anticipating.
How much work?
Well, the first two times that I went to rehab, I seriously underestimated how much work it would take to remain sober. So I relapsed both times.
The third time I went to rehab I lived in long term treatment for 20 months and dedicated my entire life to sobriety. That was enough to lead me to a successful turn around in my life. Was it overkill? Maybe. But it worked when my previous attempts had failed.
There is an old joke about going to AA meetings. Someone asks “how do I know how many AA meetings I need to go to?” And the old timer says “Just keep cutting down until you relapse. Then you will know!”
It is meant to be funny, of course, and to encourage people to work hard on their recovery rather than to slack off. But the truth is that I had to apply the principle found in this joke to my own life. Instead of saying “how little treatment can I get away?” I had to surrender totally and go all-in. Going all-in for me meant living in rehab for almost two years straight. Maybe you don’t need that much help in order to recover, but my point here is that you should err on the side of getting too much help rather than too little. If you relapse then you know you did not get enough help, you did not try hard enough, you did not dedicate your life to sobriety enough. Keep in mind that the penalty for relapse can be death in some cases. That is not meant to glamorize the addiction but instead to serve as a practical warning and a guide. Some people who relapse never get a second chance.
A taste of rewards yet to come to keep you motivated
When I was in early recovery, things started very slowly for me. I was not happy at first. I had just lost my best friend (alcohol) and also the ability to use other drugs to self medicate. I was lost for a while and I did not know how to make myself happy. I believed that happiness was only found in altered states. I had to relearn how to be content and at peace with myself without getting high.
So over those first few months in my sobriety I started to slowly change. I was taking suggestions from other people and I was taking positive action. Things were improving, but they were doing so very slowly.
And here is the interesting part:
When you are in early recovery and you are taking positive actions every day (like going to meetings, seeing a therapist, eating healthy, exercising, etc.) you cannot see your own progress.
This is important. In your first year of sobriety (or so) you probably won’t be able to see much of your own progress. It will feel like you are stuck, or at least in slow motion. Things will change very slowly.
This is a perception thing though. Things are actually changing very rapidly for you, but you just can’t see it. You are too close to the progress, too close to your own life.
Later on you will gain perspective. Once you have 6 months sober, or 18 months sober, or whenever…..you will suddenly look back and say “Wow, look at how far I have come….my sobriety is really amazing. I can’t believe how much happier I am today!”
But this won’t happen when you have two weeks sober. And it might not even happen when you have two months sober. It varies from person to person of course. And it all depends on the fact that you keep taking positive action, each and every day. So that you keep eliminating the negative stuff from your life, so that you can build a foundation on which happiness can occur.
You won’t be able to see your own happiness until after the fact.
And this is why you have to have a bit of faith in the beginning. To know that it will work out, that it will get better, that you will be happy again some day.
No one really wants to hear that I guess. No one wants to be told that they will be happy in the future if they just keep up all the hard work. No one wants to be told that they need to keep working hard today in order to get this vague reward of happiness in the future.
We don’t want to hear that.
But that doesn’t mean that it is not true!
Think about this for a moment. I am telling you the truth. It is a truth that I had to experience for myself. It is a truth that others told me about, but I did not really want to listen to it. But I was lucky enough to follow through with it and do the hard work anyway. I am not sure why I persisted, to be honest. I guess I had a faint glimmer of hope, a small taste of the rewards that sobriety might offer me one day. When I was stuck in my addiction I did not think that happiness was really possible for me if I were sober.
And yet here I am. It is almost unfair that I have found such happiness and contentment.
But I had to be willing to slug it out in early recovery. I had to be willing to fight through those doldrums of early sobriety. I had to be willing to make that leap of faith, that maybe it would get better some day.
And of course it does get better. No one wants to hear it. No one wants to accept the truth, that if you put in the hard work for a few months then you will be happy while you are sober one day. But that is what it takes.
The cumulative nature of sobriety and happiness
When you stay sober and keep taking positive action, your life improves.
It improves so slowly at first that you cannot detect it. You cannot see the progress for yourself. Others can see it in you though. We imagine that they are just saying nice things to try to encourage us, but the truth is that they really can see the progress. We just can’t see it for ourselves.
If you continue to take positive action each day then your life will get better and better. This happens slowly over time but it is very powerful.
The reason it is powerful is because you are no longer backsliding once you are sober. Without alcohol and drugs to screw up your life, you actually get to lock in your gains that you make.
Therefore, the progress that you make in recovery is more permanent. It may come slowly, but it is here to stay. You get to keep your gains.
The benefits of recovery accumulate over time.
And so in the long run, this becomes really amazing. Your life gets better and better in a way that you could not have predicted based on your past experience.
Because in your past life, when you were drinking or drugging, everything that you gained you eventually lost. Addiction destroyed any progress you made.
So in recovery this is a real switch. It is a gift. Now you make progress, and you get to keep your gains.
And this is the key to successful sobriety in the long run. You keep learning, keep growing, keep reinventing yourself.
And the adventure continues…..