What are the secrets that lead to success in early recovery?
The statistics regarding success and failure rates of people in early recovery are astounding. While some reports are more optimistic than others, no one would argue the fact that the outlook is generally pretty grim. In fact, the vast majority of people who get clean and sober and intend on working a program of recovery will relapse within the first thirty days. And for those who make it to the 30 day mark, the vast majority of those people will not make it to a year clean. Depressing. Some are a bit more optimistic than this, but most reports that attempt to measure statistics in early recovery all agree: most people don’t make it very far.Of course, there are success stories walking everywhere among us. There are plenty of people with significant periods of clean time–proof enough that many of us do make it through early recovery.
Secret # 1 – True Conviction: Genuinely Wanting Recovery
During the first two years of my sobriety, while I was living in a long term treatment center, I was joined by lots of other recovering addicts–some who made it, and many who did not. I can remember being amazed at how difficult it was to predict who was going to “make it.” There didn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason as to why some people relapsed and others did not. Looking back, I can see what made it so difficult to predict: everyone in early recovery expresses great conviction. Everyone was talking about how much “you have to want recovery” for it to work, and everyone was busy telling the world how badly they wanted it.
Photo by Mandolin Davis
What I found out was that the people who yell the loudest about how dedicated they are to recovery are not usually the ones who make it. Expressed conviction does not equal true conviction. Anyone can tell the whole world that they are serious about it, and all the while they are telling themselves that if they can convince the whole world, maybe it will convince themselves, too. But it doesn’t work that way. You have to want to get clean–deep down–and it if you truly have the desire to stop drinking and using, then it doesn’t matter who you convince.
Secret # 2 – A Solid Support System
The need for support in recovery is almost what defines us as addicts and alcoholics–if we could do it on our own, we wouldn’t need a formalized “recovery” system. So support is absolutely critical for the newcomer, and the easiest way to get that support is in twelve step fellowships. This is because the meetings are so widespread, and also because the members of that fellowship are so helpful and friendly to newcomers (as a general rule). If you are in early recovery, and you want support, chances are good that you can find it through AA or NA.
There are other ways to get support as well, though they are generally not as widespread and targeted as twelve step fellowships are. These would include friends and family members, counselors, therapists, and clergymen. Although these people are generally supportive of your sobriety, they probably cannot relate to you specifically at the level of addiction, unless they themselves are in recovery. “Targeted” support includes other recovering addicts, and they generally offer the most help when you need to talk with someone.
Because support is so critical in early recovery, AA members often recommend that newcomers go to 90 meetings in the first 90 days. Another idea that proved to work very well for me was to stay in a long term treatment facility. I lived in long term for twenty months with eleven other recovering addicts (and one therapist) and it was the best move of my life. Long term treatment offers very strong support for early recovery. You can read more about long term treatment right here.
Secret # 3 – Relinquish Self Will
For the longest time, this was a huge stumbling block for me. I fought like a stubborn child, clinging to my own self-will, convinced that I alone knew what was best for me. This stubborn self-will is what kept me drunk for years, because I refused to get the help that everyone else could clearly see that I needed.
Here is a huge secret: giving up your self-will is very empowering. This can be very counter intuitive at first though. Letting other people make decisions for you–major decisions about your life–can be scary at first. The results of doing so, however, can be amazing. For example, when I first went to treatment, the therapists were recommending that I go to long term treatment. For many years, I wasn’t willing to make that commitment. I was struggling with my own self-will, refusing to let go of it. When I had finally “had enough,” I became willing to give long term treatment a try, and the experience was a complete transformation of my life.
Photo by Jan Tik
I thought I would be giving up my entire life by confining myself to a rigid set of rules, but it turned out that the decision was very empowering for me. By living in long term treatment, following their rules, and doing what I was told, I became a much more powerful individual. Doors started opening for me that never would have been there without taking the advice and direction of others. Someone gave me a job….and then someone else gave me a car. My therapist at long term treatment pushed me to go back to college. None of these things came about through my own design or thinking–they were all a product of relinquishing my self-will and taking some direction from others.
Secret # 4 – Stop Glamorizing
There is a tendency amongst addicts and alcoholics to glamorize their drug and alcohol use. When we first get sober, it is easy to sit around and tell war stories of our using days. If you are in treatment, chances are good that you are surrounded by other people who are new to recovery as well. Talking about the good times we had while we were drinking or drugging comes naturally to most newcomers. Also, there is a phenomenon in which newcomers glorify their excessive level of alcohol and drug consumption in order to be accepted by their peers. They are trying to convince their recovering peers that they are a “hardcore” addict or alcoholic, and thus really need treatment or help.
The first few times that I tried to get clean, I allowed myself to talk with others and glamorized my drug use. I allowed myself to get caught up in the war stories and reminiscing about the good times I had while I was using. This time around, I became aware that glorifying drug use could only make me miserable. I made a pact with myself that if people started glamorizing about past use, I would walk away from the conversation. I have since done that consistently and it has worked extremely well for me. Today, I try to focus on the solution (recovery) instead of remembering the few “good times” I had while I was using.
Secret # 5 – Total and Complete Separation from Old Drinking Buddies
While I was still drinking, my life eventually evolved into a system that worked around my drug and alcohol use. All of my friends and people I hung around with were using and drinking buddies. The people I spoke to at work were all users as well. People who didn’t “party” were slowly phased out of my life. I surrounded myself with addicts and alcoholics.
This can be a huge problem when you first get clean and sober. You have to find a way to develop and focus on a new support system while saying goodbye to those old drinking and using buddies. This was especially hard for me because a few of those old associates were more than just buddies–they were really friends of mine. Despite this friendship, they were addicts and alcoholics too–with no intention of getting clean–so I had to sever those ties. There is no other way; to continue the friendship is to return to using. Focus on building new relationships with other people in recovery.
Photo by Le Chef
Twelve step fellowships like AA and NA can provide a ton of support.The biggest factor in my recovery for severing those old ties came through my admission to long term treatment. This was the single most important thing in replacing all of those old using buddies with new friends in recovery. Keep in mind that the younger you are, the harder it will be to give up those old relationships. This is because younger people place such a high value on friendships. Just another reason that the best option for young substance abusers is long term treatment.
Secret # 6 – Complete and Obsessive Immersion in Recovery Literature
If you attend AA or NA meetings, you will start to hear a mantra over and over again: “The answer is in the book,” or “The solution is in the steps,” and so on. Recovering addicts emphasize recovery literature because it describes the process of recovery that saved their lives. There is a wealth of knowledge out there in recovery and self-help literature, and just about anyone who has significant sobriety will tell you that they have read and even studied this literature. The basic text of Narcotics Anonymous and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous are good starting points, as they have stood the test of time in helping people to recover. However, there is no need to limit yourself to these books–ask around at meetings or with your support group and find out what other recovery related literature people have been reading. Some people make it a daily habit to read at least a few pages of recovery literature–certainly not a bad idea.
Secret # 7 – Relentless Pursuit of Spiritual Growth
When I finally got clean and sober this time, I went through an intense period during the first two years in which I was seeking spiritual growth. I read a lot of different books regarding various religions and philosophies. This was part of my path; part of what I needed to do to push myself to find a sense of spirituality. While I don’t think it is necessary to read a bunch of books about the world’s various religions, I do think it was critical that I was making a conscious effort to grow spiritually. A big part of that seeking was learning how to meditate. Spiritual growth will be different for each individual–the important thing is that you are making a conscious effort at it.
Putting it All Together
Photo by daita
Looking back at my early recovery, I can see how each of these things played a major role in keeping me clean those first few years. Taking even one of these key ingredients away might have disrupted my entire recovery and caused me to fail. If there is an overall theme here, it is the concept of overwhelming force–taking each of these ideas and really concentrating your full efforts on each and every one of them. Don’t just browse through the recovery literature–start devouring it. Study it. Immerse yourself in it. Do the same thing with whatever recovery groups and support systems you can find.
You can’t just make a light-hearted effort at recovery and expect miracles. Throw yourself into it, totally and completely. Hold nothing back. Really listen to others in recovery and actually take their advice and apply it in your life. Do this thing to the max. Anyone who has achieved significant sobriety will tell you that this is what it took for them. They finally achieved success in recovery when they applied overwhelming force. This is the greatest secret of success in overcoming addiction. You must give yourself entirely to recovery….surrender yourself completely, and a whole new life will open up to you.
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