I have watched a shocking number of people relapse during my addiction recovery journey.
At one time I lived in a long term treatment center. While I was there I attended meetings every day–AA meetings. There was also a short term rehab center attached to the facility and those people in recovery also attended the meetings.
Over a period of 20 months I lived there and attended these meetings. It was very interesting because you got people from the long term rehab, you got people from the short term rehab (28 days and less) and you also got people who came in from the outside, usually people who had previously come to rehab there. It was quite a mix of people.
And so over that period of almost 2 full years I got to know a lot of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.
And I watched many of these people relapse and fall by the wayside.
I know this because huge numbers of these people would relapse and then eventually come back to treatment again. Or they would come back to the AA meeting again and tell their story.
Later on in my journey I moved out of treatment, got my own place, and then I got a job working at that very treatment center. I worked there for a little over 5 years, full time. And during that time I watched the process of recovery and relapse unfold again before my eyes.
Of course, not everyone relapses. I don’t want to paint too grim of a picture here. Some people do make it. I have made it for over 13 years now and I am still going strong. I know a few peers of mine (very few) who have also made it sober for that time period and who are still doing well.
And specifically when I was working in treatment I feel like I really got to know what to expect. I feel like I was much better able to predict when someone was headed for trouble. There are certain warning signs that you can see that just scream “relapse.”
These are easier to detect in early recovery. In long term sobriety it gets a bit trickier.
Let’s take a look at both situations.
Why most people end up relapsing in early recovery
In early recovery, the number one warning sign is something that I would call “Taking your will back.”
In the third step of AA they talk about turning your will and your life over to a higher power.
This is, in my opinion, the meat of the program in early recovery. This is how you get through the first few months of sobriety. You turn your will over.
This is the only way that anyone can ever get sober in light of the fact that we are almost always our own worst enemy.
In other words, you just have to stop yourself from screwing up.
Left to our own devices, every alcoholic and drug addict will find a way to justify a relapse. We tend to screw things up, find ourselves getting into trouble.
We have to find a way, in early recovery, to rescue ourselves FROM ourselves. And the way to do that is to turn your will and your life over to something or someone else.
It doesn’t really matter who or what that is, so long as it is not pure evil. That probably sounds a bit strange, but it is true. You don’t even necessarily need a higher power in your life, you just need peers or a support group who is willing to tell you what to do.
You ask for help, they tell you what to do.
You ask for advice, they give it to you.
You claim that you do not know how to live any more, they tell you how to live your life.
It really is that simple. This is how you turn your will over. You have to listen. Listen and obey.
Kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth, doesn’t it? “Listen and obey.” Doesn’t sound like much fun. No one wants to do it. No one wants to listen and obey. That sounds awful.
But that is the secret to early recovery. That is the secret to avoiding relapse in the first few months of recovery.
Get out of your own way.
That should be the first rule of relapse: “Get out of your own way.”
Who can make you relapse? Only you can do that. Only you can say “screw it” and pick up a drink or a drug. Only you have the power to screw up your recovery.
You might point fingers and blame others, but in reality you only have yourself to blame. The alcohol doesn’t jump into you hand and force its way down your throat. That is your fault. Entirely. Only you are responsible for a relapse.
Therefore you must learn how to get out of your own way. You are your own worst enemy.
In the world of AA they tell you to believe in a higher power. Then they tell you to turn your will and your life over to that higher power. This actually works if you do it. Because suddenly you are no longer in control of your own life. You have relinquished control to a higher power. Now your decisions are no longer your own. You defer to others. You pray and you meditate. You ask for advice and listen to their wisdom. This is the idea behind turning your life over. It is a way to avoid making mistakes. It is a way to protect yourself from yourself.
And I also believe that this rule of relapse is specific to early recovery. This applies to the first year or so of sobriety. Take advice, get out of your own way, listen to others. Do not, I repeat, do NOT listen to your own ideas that are up in your own head. Those ideas probably lead to relapse. Your own brain can fool you quite easily. They may seem like good ideas, but if you have less than a year of sobriety you should probably ignore them for now. It costs you nothing to ignore your own ideas. Instead, listen to the advice of other people. Take direction from them. Don’t just pretend to listen to them, actually take action based on their advice. This is the secret to success in early recovery.
Nobody likes this secret though. Nobody wants to hear that you must “listen and obey.” It leaves a bad taste in their mouth. Which is why it is necessary to first hit bottom and surrender before you can successfully get sober. Nobody wants to do the work. Nobody wants to get humble, to listen and obey. But that is the secret to success. If you are desperate enough for change, you will do it.
And it works. Get out of your own way.
Why most people end up relapsing in long term sobriety
In long term sobriety people still can and do relapse.
It doesn’t happen as frequently but it still happens. And it is just as insidious. Therefore you should know about the risks and protect yourself against them.
In long term sobriety you are no longer your worst enemy. Or at least, not in the same way that you were in early recovery. The game has changed.
There are certain people who are stuck in the mindset that recovery never changes, that it is stagnant, and that the problems facing the newcomer are the same as the problems that the old timer in AA faces. This is stupid. It’s not true.
In other words, there are people who think that the same ideas that work for newcomers “Go to 90 meetings in 90 days” are the same concepts that should work for someone who has 13 years sober. This would assume that we do not change or grow in the recovery process, that someone with 3 weeks sober is virtually the same as someone with 13 years sober.
Obviously this is wrong. There are different stages of recovery, and we each grow and evolve and change as we stay sober and work on our program of recovery.
In long term sobriety the threat is not the same any more. It is not likely that you will suddenly fly off the handle and storm into a bar and order a drink. You have more control than that now, more protection. If you have been sober for several years then your sobriety is not in immediate danger, not like it was in early recovery.
But, you can still relapse. So how does that happen?
In long term sobriety the threat simply takes longer to manifest. And it is far more deceptive and tricky.
There is a little thing known as “complacency” in long term sobriety. This is what happens when you get lazy and stop pushing yourself to make positive changes in life. It can eventually lead to relapse.
So this is like the thread that unravels when you are not watching. Complacency is a disease in recovery that tells you that you do not have a disease. In other words, if you think that you might be complacent and you are taking action to fix it, then guess what: You aren’t complacent!
On the other hand, if you deny that you may be complacent, then you are a candidate. You actually might be complacent.
And how do you know for sure? One way to know for sure is if you relapse. That probably sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. Every single alcoholic who relapses in long term sobriety can look back at their journey and see (after the fact) how they became complacent.
For example, they might still be going to meetings and even working with newcomers as a sponsor and still become complacent in other ways. And all the while they were becoming complacent they used the fact that they were still hitting AA meetings to justify their complacency. It was their defense, their excuse. Yet they were no longer pushing themselves to grow or change. They were not looking deep inside and getting honest with themselves. And they probably were not taking suggestions from others in order to try new things and evolve in their recovery. So they got complacent even though they still had the outward appearance of “doing the work.” Maybe they still sponsored a few people or whatever. But they weren’t really pushing themselves to grow any longer, and eventually this led them to problems.
If you don’t know about the problem of complacency then you are powerless to fight it.
In fact, the only real way to fight against complacency is to assume that it is a problem in your life.
So I have a simple solution for you that you probably won’t like very much, but it is incredibly useful nonetheless:
Just assume that you are complacent. Right now.
Make that assumption. And then act accordingly.
If you knew today that you were definitely complacent and that you had to take action and make some personal growth in your life in order to protect your sobriety, would that really be so bad? How could that not lead to good things happening?
So just assume that you are complacent. And then take action.
Ask for advice from different people. Someone new. Go off in a new direction. Challenge yourself in a new way. Explore those limits. Test your comfort zone. Learn something new that you don’t think will be useful necessarily. Push out to the edges. This is how to really bring the fight against complacency.
So my biggest rule of relapse in long term sobriety would be: “Just assume that you are complacent, and act accordingly.” People who have years or decades sober still relapse, and when they do, it is because they became complacent. They stopped growing. They got lazy.
The solution is obvious: Just assume that you have gotten lazy and stopped growing. Then push yourself to fix this problem.
Always keep pushing.
Overcoming triggers and urges in early recovery
In early recovery they tell you how to overcome your triggers and urges.
Basically you reach out and do whatever you can, in any way that you can, just to avoid a relapse.
So that means using any and every tool that is at your disposal. First of all I would recommend (and many others would as well) that you get as much professional treatment as you possibly can. I stayed in a rehab for about two weeks before transitioning to a long term rehab for 20 months. This was the best decision I ever made. And it gave me a ton of support in terms of dealing with triggers in early recovery.
The second tool that most people recommend is daily AA meetings. I have mixed feelings about this as I basically stopped going to the meetings during my first year of sobriety and have never had any regrets about doing so. But this can be a huge support system for certain people in recovery and you would be wise to investigate AA meetings as a potential solution. If you go to meetings every day then you build up a social net that can save you in terms of relapse. Not to mention the fact that you build some accountability into your life, because they all expect you to show up sober the next day.
Another tool is sponsorship. Go to the AA meetings, find someone who is living the life that you want to be living, and then ask that person to sponsor you. If you feel like drinking or using drugs, simply call them up and ask them for advice directly. It doesn’t get much more direct than this sort of lifeline support. One alcoholic helping another.
You may also get phone numbers from your peers in recovery, meet new people at AA meetings, go out to coffee after the meetings and hang out with sober people, and so on. This is one way to build a new life in recovery. It is not for everyone but it can certainly work if you put in the effort. And all of this networking will create a net that can “catch” you in terms of your sobriety.
These are sort of the general guidelines for avoiding triggers and overcoming urges in early recovery. I don’t necessarily disagree with them. It takes a lot of help and support to get through early recovery. Heck, I lived in rehab for 20 months. I had a lot of extra help. So my only advice to you is to do the same–use any and every tool that is available to you.
Why you need a strategy to overcome triggers and urges in long term sobriety
I see this mistake a lot, as mentioned earlier. People assume that the same tactics that keep people sober in early recovery (90 meetings in 90 days, etc.) will also work for people who have several years sober.
I don’t think this is true.
I believe that in long term sobriety you need a strategy in order to stay sober.
Having a strategy implies that you have a system of tactics that all work together, that are more flexible, that can accommodate unique situations.
It talks in the big book of AA about how the alcoholic has no defense against the first drink. Then later in “the promises” it talks about how we will (if we work the program) intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. In other words, if we stay sober and keep learning new things then eventually we will be able to overcome that problem where we “are our own worst enemy.” We will face those old tough situations and we will not relapse as a result. We will have found new solutions.
I say that this requires a strategy and a design for living.
In my experience the solution is holistic. So that means that you do not just pursue spiritual growth in recovery, as some programs would indicate. Instead, you pursue growth in all areas of your life, to include spiritual, mental, physical, social, and emotional. If you are lacking severely in one of these five areas then it can lead you to relapse.
Think about that. You can get tripped up to the point of relapse if you are not making growth in one of those critical five areas.
For example, I watched many people relapse in recovery over a failed relationship. It happened over and over again. This is because the person was using their new significant other as a “higher power.” They were lacking spiritually. And it was also likely that they were still very vulnerable emotionally at the time. So when the relationship fell apart they were not strong enough to avoid relapse. They did not have a foundation built before they fell into the new relationship. They had nothing to fall back on. Their recovery was built on the idea that this new relationship would make them happy. When that failed, they drank again.
Another example: people failing in recovery because of poor physical health. They get the spiritual and the emotional part, but they fail to take care of their body. Maybe they keep smoking cigarettes. Or they are out of shape and overweight. I have watched this happen again and again, too. And I have a question that makes the point perfectly: “What good is sobriety if you are dead?” I have peers in recovery who are gone now because of these issues. They were, in my eyes, “spiritual giants,” but they did not take care of their bodies.
Living your daily practice in order to remain healthy in recovery
It all comes down to your daily practice.
What are you doing each and every day in order to live a better life in recovery? What are you doing every day in order to push yourself forward, to learn and to grow?
What are those daily habits?
In order to succeed in the long run you have to answer that question for yourself.
How are you taking care of yourself today? How are you learning to love yourself today?
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