In order to plant the seeds of success for long term sobriety you have to lay down a good foundation in early recovery.
There are several ways to go about doing this and one sure fire way to screw it all up. But more on that in a moment. First, let’s take a look at how you can build a strong foundation when you are just getting started in recovery.
How to start with a strong foundation in very early recovery
My number one suggestion for people who are struggling with addiction is to go to inpatient rehab.
I realize that this is not a perfect solution, nor is it a sure-fire cure of any kind. In fact, by the numbers, most people who go to inpatient treatment end up failing. They relapse.
So why would I recommend it?
Basically, inpatient rehab is still the best solution we have got, even if it is not perfect.
There are alternatives to going to inpatient treatment, of course. For example, you might go check out some AA meetings without first going to rehab. Or you might go see a counselor or a therapist and try to quit drinking just by seeing them for an hour or two each week. Or you might see a doctor who might prescribe you the latest medications that are designed to help control cravings for various drugs, or for alcohol (such drugs exist, but they are far from being a miracle cure).
But aside from all of these potential solutions, I still believe that going to inpatient rehab is the strongest alternative. There are many reasons that I believe this.
One, this is something that eventually worked for me. Granted, I went to rehab 3 times and therefore I obviously failed twice. But the third time worked, and being in rehab that third time around was a huge part of my success. I do not believe that I could have remained sober without being in inpatient rehab (or following up with long term treatment, for that matter).
Two, inpatient treatment is the most concentrated form of help that you can get for addiction. It is 24/7 treatment, whereas pretty much all of the other solutions are not.
Three, inpatient treatment is a platform that gives you an opportunity for exposure to other solutions. For example, when I was in inpatient rehab, I was exposed to both one on one counseling, group therapy, and AA and NA meetings. These were all things that potentially continued for me after leaving rehab. They were part of my long term solution, whereas my inpatient treatment stay was over in a just a few short weeks.
Four, inpatient treatment gives the best possible chance at achieving short term success in sobriety. As you may realize, this is a necessary condition for long term sobriety to occur. You can’t get a year clean if you never get a month clean. So being in rehab for 28 days (or even less) can at least get you started on the right foot. It is not a cure but it sure is a powerful tool if you are using it correctly.
But inpatient treatment is not the only way to build a strong foundation in early recovery. It is my number one suggestion, but it is closely followed by my number two suggestion, which is to ask for help from others in recovery and then take their advice.
Asking for help and feedback and why this should become a lifelong habit
Asking for advice and then following through on it is one of the keys to success. But not only is one of the seeds that you should plant early in recovery, it is also a lifelong practice that you should continue with for a lifetime of sobriety.
In early recovery you don’t know what the heck you are doing. Period. Any alcoholic or drug addict who claims otherwise is lying to themselves. Being newly sober is terrifying and disorienting to say the least. In general, you don’t know the first thing about staying clean and sober at that point.
Therefore you need to ask for help. And you need more help than what books or websites can offer you, because those do not have the ability to give custom advice based on your specific circumstances (unless it is a recovery forum where real people are trying to help others via a discussion).
No, you need to ask for help in early recovery so that you can figure out how to stop drinking and taking drugs.
Or rather, to be more specific, you need to ask for help in early recovery so that people can tell you how to not go completely crazy while you are not drinking or taking drugs. There is a difference.
Anyone can figure out the secret to sobriety: Don’t drink. But the alcoholic has a much bigger problem–what happens when you take the alcohol away? They go crazy. They cannot stand themselves. They live in fear, have anxiety. They are not comfortable in their own skin. They have a million and one problems that need to be medicated away.
So how does the alcoholic learn to live inside of their own skin? How do they figure out how to be OK with being sober?
The question is not “how do I not drink?” That’s easy. Just don’t drink.
The problem is: How do I live with myself now that I am sober all of a sudden and feel like I am going crazy?
I think that you need help from other people in order to tackle this particular problem. You need to relate to other people in some way.
AA meetings are actually very useful for this exact purpose. You go to AA, you hear the stories of other people, and you (hopefully) realize that some of those people were just like you are now. They had the same struggles. Or it was so similar that their current sobriety gives you hope. That is how you relate to people. You listen and learn.
You can do this outside of AA meetings, but it is a bit more difficult to find people who will tell you their story in this regard. At AA meetings, telling that story is the whole point.
But this is not the only way that you need to ask for help.
In early recovery, you need to ask for help so that you can make it through the next 24 hours without taking a drink.
But after you gain some stability in early recovery, you need a different kind of help. You still need to seek feedback and advice in my opinion, but it is not the immediate advice of how to avoid a drink today. Instead, it is long term advice about how to avoid a relapse over the next few years or decades.
Long term sobriety is different from short term sobriety. There are, I am sure, people who disagree with this idea. But I stand by my idea here–my life at 13 years sober is nothing like my life was when I had 4 weeks sober. And my sobriety and my recovery program is completely different. The only thing that remains the same is the core foundation–“Don’t drink or use drugs today no matter what!” But other than that, I would say that just about everything is different.
And that is OK. It should be different. We change and grow and evolve in recovery. Your program of recovery should change over time. If it doesn’t, chances are that you will relapse.
Every person in recovery has to keep reinventing themselves over and over again. So in a way, you are always “planting seeds” of growth in your recovery journey. And then down the line at some point those seeds bear fruit and reward you with a better life. And this process continues over and over again. I was still “planting seeds” when I had ten years sober. Just as I did when I had ten days sober. But the seeds that I planted were very different.
When I had ten days sober I was trying to figure out how to get through a whole day without drinking alcohol or going crazy.
When I had ten years sober I was trying to figure out how to train up for a marathon and start a successful business.
In both cases my number one truth in life has remained constant: “Don’t drink or use drugs no matter what.”
But as you can see, my life in recovery continues to change and evolve. I never could have predicted what it would be like when I had over a decade of sobriety under my belt. Needless to say, the reality has blown away my expectations. Life in long term sobriety is really, really good.
Because I built a strong foundation. And continue to keep planting new seeds of growth. Even today.
Holistic health and why it becomes more important in long term recovery
After you get a few years sober under your belt, the game changes.
Suddenly it is not about making it through the next 24 hours without taking a drink. You got that part down. I realize that someone can still relapse, and that is ultimately still the priority here. But the game changes nonetheless.
You need a new approach.
It is no longer about sitting in AA meetings all day and hanging on to your sobriety for dear life. If that is your strategy at 5 or 10 years sober then you probably have a problem. Time to evolve. Time to grow, to learn, to change. This is a process that keeps unfolding in front of your eyes. Recovery should evolve.
My experience has been (both in observation and in my own personal journey) that holistic health is one of the keys to long term sobriety.
This is not necessarily true in short term recovery. In the short term, you need to focus on only a few things:
1) Not taking a drink today.
2) Finding a power greater than yourself to believe in (not necessarily spiritual even).
Those concepts are enough to get you through to 90 days sober, give or take a few months. Possibly even through the first few years of sobriety. But at some point you have to move beyond the first step of AA. At some point you have to go beyond the fact that you are powerless over alcohol and you want to a new life.
At some point you have to put in the elbow grease and actually build the new life.
How do you do that?
There are many ways. My revelation is that your overall health, your holistic health, is a big part of this process.
So in other words, you need to–as you start to transition into long term sobriety–start taking care of yourself every day in all of the following ways:
This is very important in terms of your long term success in sobriety.
Again, it is not so critical in early recovery, because at that time what you really need is extreme focus. You need to quit drinking and find a higher power. But in long term sobriety you need more than this.
In long term recovery, you can relapse because of many different things. Complacency is a sneaky foe.
When you get complacent, you are being lazy in one of those five areas listed above.
Think about it: How have you taken care of yourself today physically? Spiritually? Emotionally?
You have to do this every day in all five of those areas. If you don’t then eventually you will probably relapse.
Now I realize that most people in recovery who remain sober are not going through this little checklist consciously as I am suggesting here.
But, they are doing it. They may not realize it, but they are taking care of themselves physically. And spiritually. And emotionally. And so on.
Because if they weren’t then they would relapse. It will eventually destroy them from the inside out if they slack off in any one of those areas for too long.
Most people can correct before that happens. For example, maybe they are starting to isolate a lot, and they start to get thoughts of drinking because of it. So they think: “oh, gee, I should really get to some AA meetings, call my sponsor, and reach out to others in recovery before I find myself in serious trouble.” So maybe they will catch the warning signs themselves and take action.
Or they might not catch it. And it could lead to relapse.
And this can happen in any of those 5 areas. You can relapse emotionally before you pick up a drink. But you can also relapse spiritually before you pick up a drink. Or you can become physically ill or diseased to the point that you need drugs, or you are wore down to the point where you relapse. I have watched that happen with my peers. Illness or sickness can lead to alcoholic relapse. Socially, isolation can lead you to relapse. And on and on.
So it is not just a matter of avoiding the drink. That is not the immediate threat in long term recovery. No, in long term sobriety, you have this battle going on among these five different fronts. And those fronts are your holistic health, and all of the ways that you need to be taking care of yourself. If you fail to protect your health in recovery then relapse will find a way to sneak in and attack you.
I have watched this happen over and over again in my journey among my peers. You can get complacent in many different ways.
Most people believe that complacency is one dimensional. It’s not. You can slack off physically. Spiritually. Emotionally. And so on. Any one of those is a trap.
Therefore, if you want to plant the seeds of success, you need to be tending to this “garden.” You need to be giving yourself what you need every single day in all five of these areas. Not just spiritually. Not just physically. But in all five areas.
What will happen if you do not plant the seeds of success in early recovery
Recovery lasts a long time.
And your daily habits are a multiplier.
So what happens is that you plant these seeds of success, and they become daily habits. Positive habits.
And then it snowballs. Over months, years, decades–those positive habits start to multiply. Exponentially.
Really, the effect is astounding when you are clean and sober and putting in the work. Just a few weeks can make a big difference. Just a few years can change your whole life. A complete transformation from misery and despair to peace, contentment, and gratitude.
There really isn’t much to it, actually. Simple but positive habits, multiplied out over time, yields incredible changes in your life. It really is that simple.
The hard part is the consistency, the commitment. Getting yourself to surrender, and do the work. And then sticking with it.
So if you are not doing this work, if you are not building a foundation, then the default life mode will take back over.
Your addiction is the default. That is what your life reverts back to if you do not consciously steer it in a new direction.
This is what defines an alcoholic or a drug addict. Their “default setting” in life is to self medicate. That’s what they do. That is what makes them an alcoholic or an addict.
Drunks drink. Addicts do drugs. It is as simple as that, and so we should not be shocked when people relapse. Recovery is not guaranteed. If you make the commitment to yourself and then do the hard work, it is pretty much a given that you will remain sober and build a better life. But that is a pretty big “if,” one that takes a whole lot of commitment and hard work to live up to.
Be patient and the rewards will come in time
To extend the analogy just a bit further, you gotta give your plants time to grow.
The rewards will come in recovery if you are doing the work.
At some point you may have to develop some faith that this is true. Because there will a time in your recovery journey when you are tested, when you not believing that the rewards are coming, or that it is all worth it in the end. And you will have to hold on for dear life, for dear sobriety, and just gut it out.
I went through that moment myself. I remember it clearly. I was laying on a bed in rehab, crying. I wanted to walk out the door and go drink…..so, so badly. But I didn’t. Honestly, I don’t even know why I didn’t. I just held on.
At some point in the near future, I had “the miracle moment. That moment when I looked back and remembered the struggle, and suddenly realized that I was no longer struggling today. I suddenly realized: “Hey wait a minute! I haven’t thought about drinking booze all day today, not even once!” And that was a miracle. I never thought it would happen, to be honest, and yet it happened to me before I even had six months sober. Today I have over 13 years of continuous sobriety, and it just keeps getting better.
You can have this miracle, if you want it. You can have a day when you are happy and content and you never even think about drinking or using drugs. If it is possible for me then it is possible for anyone to achieve. Yes, it takes some work. Yes, it takes a serious commitment to yourself. And it takes guts.
It takes guts to plant the seeds of change. To uproot your old life, your old identity.
To face your biggest fear with complete abandon.