One thing that I noticed when I had about a year sober was that staying clean was no longer a daily struggle. In other words, when I first got sober it was difficult at times just to make it through a single day of sobriety. But in long term sobriety this goes away, and you are faced with a different sort of challenge. You are more stable, for one thing, because you are not facing relapse every second of every day.
But I also noticed around this time that peers of mine in recovery were still relapsing. For example, sometimes I would be shocked when someone who had more sober time than I did ended up relapsing. And this scared the heck out of me. If they could have more time sober than me and still relapse, then what did that say about my own chances in recovery? It made me nervous.
And so I realized that I was not immune. I realized that no one is immune to relapse. It doesn’t matter how many months or years you have been sober, it is still possible to get thrown off track and still end up relapsing.
And at that point I realized that my work in recovery was really just beginning. There was a battle against complacency and a lot of people fell victim to this. I did not want to become one of those people. So I vowed to figure out exactly why it was that people relapsed in long term sobriety so that I could avoid a similar fate.
Don’t get me wrong, early recovery requires hard work too….
Now don’t get me wrong, early sobriety is no walk in the park either. It takes a lot of guts to surrender and a lot of energy to make it through early recovery. No one is saying that early recovery is a piece of cake here.
It takes courage to surrender and work through your denial. It takes a huge leap of faith to ask for help and then follow through on it. And it takes courage to walk into a treatment center and hand over control of your life to someone else.
Then you have to take action. Most likely this will involve attending AA meetings, going to therapy, or interacting with a group of people in recovery. You have to get honest with yourself and make changes to your life. No one wants to get honest with themselves if they can help it. No one wants to do the hard work of taking a long hard look at their lives if they can avoid it. But these are the sort of things that you have to do in order to recover.
All of this takes courage, energy, hard work. I am not dismissing that fact.
All I am saying is that after you get done with early sobriety, you are going to reach this point where you are relatively stable in your recovery. And at that point, some people get lazy, and this can lead to relapse. The revelation I want you to have today is that when you reach that point of stability, it is time to double down on the personal growth. It is time to realize that your efforts in sobriety need to last a lifetime if you really want to be protected from relapse.
Realizing that recovery requires personal growth
For a long time I wanted to know the secret of sobriety.
I mean, I was living in a long term treatment center, and I was attending AA meetings every day. But I knew that this wasn’t the only solution, and I also knew that some of what I was being told wasn’t entirely accurate. For example, a lot of people in my early recovery were telling me things like “AA is the only way to stay sober” or “If you leave the AA meetings you will drink and you will die.” I felt that those messages had to be wrong in some way, but I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly.
So I started to explore. I started to poke around the world of addiction recovery, to see how other people might stay sober, and what they actually did on a day to day basis that helped to keep them sober. And what I learned during my journey was that not everyone was staying sober by sitting in AA meetings every day. And I started to question exactly what was keeping me sober in my own journey. I mean, at the time I was attending meetings every day, but was that really the whole secret to recovery? Was that the only thing that kept people sober over the years or decades? Was there more to it than just your daily dose of talk therapy?
I looked at the idea of the 12 steps as well, and I started to work them actively with a sponsor. I did a lot of writing in this process. And eventually I worked through the 12 steps with more than one sponsor and got more than one perspective on the process. I didn’t feel like it was necessarily super helpful to me, and I think I can see one reason why in retrospect.
The people who sponsored me in early recovery were focused on resentments, because that is what had fueled their addiction. But in my personal journey it was not resentment so much but self pity that was my downfall. And I had to dig quite a bit to figure that out, especially when everyone in the 12 step community was talking about resentments like they were the boogeyman. “Everyone has resentments” they would say in the meetings. So I felt guilty because I could not really identify any resentments that were causing me to want to drink. Instead, I had this tendency towards self pity. And it took me a while to figure that out, to digest the real problems that were going on in my mind.
And so eventually I noticed that a few of my peers in AA had relapsed, and I was slowly drifting away from the daily meetings, wondering if the same would happen to me.
But I really didn’t think that it would, because I was figuring out the whole sobriety process at this point. I realized that it wasn’t the 12 steps that had any particular magic in them, and it wasn’t sitting in meetings every day either. Instead, it was the personal growth of each person in recovery, it was pushing yourself to take positive action every day and to improve your life.
In other words, the AA program was pointing to one solution, and that solution could certainly work for some people (it doesn’t work for everyone of course). But that is all the program is–a pointer. It points to the solution, rather than being the solution itself. And that is OK. I don’t believe you could build a program that actually IS the solution. All you can do is to try to show people what you did, what worked for you, and then they take those principles and ideas and try to apply them in their own life. And so instead of a recovery program that works for everyone you get a suggested program that simply points towards the solution.
The solution is personal growth. You are either getting healthier in your life or you are getting sicker.
The alcoholic is never stationary. They cannot stand still on this continuum. They are either getting sicker or they are getting better. There is no in between. The extreme nature of addiction prevents it.
Therefore the solution is to be “getting better.” That’s the whole solution. That is recovery. Now you can use the AA program to guide you in this solution, or you can use other program. But it is the personal growth and the positive action that creates your success in recovery, not a fixed group of 12 steps. The steps are useful and they point in the right direction, but they are not magic.
What it takes to avoid complacency in long term sobriety
In order to avoid complacency in long term sobriety you have to keep pushing yourself to learn new things, to accomplish new things, and to engage in personal growth.
What is personal growth? How do we define it?
When you make a positive change in your life, that’s personal growth.
And even when you make a change that turns out to be “bad,” this might be growth, so long as you have the right attitude and the right mindset about it.
For example, maybe someone suggests to you that you try distance running. And so you get out there and you try to exercise and maybe it is really hard on your knees and it messes you up. Was that “bad?” Not necessarily. Because maybe the next time you will take a different suggestion and you will try swimming, or yoga, and you will find something that is physically healthy for you that is not hard on your joints. And so the “bad” experiment was actually a part of a larger process, and that process is the search for personal growth. You have to experiment in order to find what really works for you in recovery.
We become complacent when we decide that we are no longer going to have any “bad” experiments, and therefore we are going to stop pushing ourselves to learn new things. We don’t allow ourselves to fail any more, because we don’t want to stick our necks out or take a risk or try to push ourselves to do something new in life. That is when we end up becoming complacent and that is when we run the risk of relapse. We must not allow ourselves to get to this point where we stop exploring new things to learn.
One way to avoid complacency is to find peers in recovery who will challenge you to keep growing. At the same time, you may find peers in recovery that you want to challenge in the same way. This is healthy. That way, your relationships can be more than just support, but you can actually encourage each other to push the boundaries of personal growth. You can push each other to accomplish new things.
Living your daily practice
In early recovery you are not necessarily doing any sort of set routine each day. Maybe you will go to AA meetings every day but beyond that you are probably not doing any sort of daily practice yet.
Your goal should be to establish a daily practice in recovery, one that helps you to protect yourself from relapse and grow stronger in your recovery.
What would such a daily practice look like? What sorts of things would you do every day?
In order to find your daily practice you have to be willing to try some things. You have to be willing to experiment. This means that you have to be willing to think about your overall health in recovery. Recovery happens from a holistic perspective.
In other words, you want to do things every single day that help to improve your life physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. This takes real work and this is also why the real work starts when you get through with early recovery.
In early recovery, you are basically following directions. Go to rehab. Go to AA meetings. Get a sponsor, do what they tell you to do. Work the steps. And so on. You are not in the driver’s seat.
In long term sobriety that is going to change. You can’t stay in that early recovery mode forever. Some people keep it up for years but eventually you have to spread your own wings and fly. You have to make your own decisions. And when that time comes you want to be in a healthy state of being to be able to make the right choices.
In long term recovery you want to be living a healthy life so that your decisions reflect this healthy attitude. In other words, it is all connected. If you are spiritually sick and selfish then this will have an impact on your relationships, on your emotional health, and even on your physical well being. On the other hand if you are grateful every day and practicing gratitude then this can have a very positive impact on the other areas of your health in life.
The way to live your daily practice is to build it up over time through experimentation. I had to try a lot of things in order to find the practices that worked best for me. For example, at one point I tried seated meditation and I wondered if I would be doing that every day for the rest of my life. It turned out that, while helpful, that really wasn’t the best use of my time. Instead, I replaced that meditation with distance running. That seemed to work better for me personally and it gave much the same sort of benefit.
Now, could you do both? Sure you could do both. But it’s not about that….it’s about finding what works best for YOU.
At one time I left the daily AA meetings and my peers in recovery were worried that I was going to relapse. So they warned me about this and talked to me about, asking me what I was doing instead. When I talked to them about personal growth, holistic health, and online recovery, they didn’t get it….they said “Why not do all of that stuff AND go to meetings every day too? Isn’t that safer? Wouldn’t that work better at preventing relapse?”
Well, OK. I guess if you really want to you can go to 3 AA meetings every single day for the rest of your life. Or you could go live in a long term rehab forever. Or carry it to extremes and lock yourself in prison for life. Then maybe you can be positive that you won’t drink!
But it’s not about that. I left the meetings because they weren’t really working for me, and I wanted something more out of my recovery. I wanted a better fit. And sitting in those meetings simply wasn’t a good use of my time. It was benefitting me, yes, but there were other things that benefited me more. So I switched. I changed. I explored my options and I tested new ideas and I went with what worked best.
Welcome to the rest of your life….
Recovery lasts a long, long time. I had been sober now for 13 years and it feels like it has been a lifetime.
If there is one thing that I wish someone would have told me in early recovery it would be “Slow down, you have plenty of time in sobriety. Take your time and do things right.”
But on the other hand, you don’t want to sit idle and be lazy like you have nothing to push for. You definitely want to get into action as quickly as possible when you first get clean and sober. That may sound like a contradiction but I don’t think that it is. Doing the right things matters more than doing the wrong things correctly, if that makes sense. But in order to do the right things you have to experiment, you have to be willing to fail, you have to be willing to waste some time. But the fact is that time is going to “be wasted” anyway, so you may as well be learning while that time is passing. And you can’t learn anything unless you are willing to try new things and put yourself out there a bit.
I did a number of meditation sessions for a few months until I realized that it was probably not for me. And I had to push awful hard with distance running until it because a joyful reward in my life. And today I am looking for that next door to open, that next challenge that I need to face in order to grow as a person and learn more about myself. That is really what recovery comes down to–you are learning more and more about yourself as a person. This is why honesty is so vital to sobriety. If you are not honest with yourself then you aren’t really learning anything, and therefore you are not protecting yourself from the threat of relapse.
This is one of the great mysteries of sobriety. The threat of relapse is always present, now and in the future. And it is always changing in a way that we cannot predict. For example, someone who is complacent might relapse in the future due to poor health issues, or due to a broken relationship, or due to mental health issues. You just never know, and the threat is always evolving.
So your job in sobriety is to evolve with it. You must keep learning and growing and changing too. If you don’t then you become vulnerable to this ever evolving threat of relapse. By pushing yourself for personal growth you stay protected from the threat of relapse. There is no direct way to show exactly how or why this works, but I have found it to be true in my own journey. I am most protected from relapse when I am pushing for personal growth and learning more about myself.