The Trick to Long Term Recovery from Addiction

The Trick to Long Term Recovery from Addiction

My search for meaning and purpose in recovery from addiction

Long term addiction recovery is not a foregone conclusion.

It is not easy for someone to say “Oh, I made it to one year clean and sober, so getting to ten years clean should be a breeze.”

The statistics do not bear that sort of thinking out. In fact, the rate of relapse even after one year sober is achieved is somewhat startling.

It is difficult to get accurate data when it comes to this sort of thing. No one wants to admit that they relapsed after years or even months of sobriety. This makes the data very suspect even in a well organized study.

My sponsor worked in the substance abuse community for many years and he said that the best data he could find showed about a 5 percent rate in five year increments, starting with a one year increment. So he explained it to me like this: “Roughly 5 out of 100 alcoholics will make it to one year sober. Then if you take 100 alcoholics who make it to one year sober, roughly five percent of those will make it to five years sober. And again for ten years sober.”

- Approved Treatment Center -


And I thought to myself: “Really? If you look at 100 alcoholics who make it to five years sober, only five percent will then make it to ten years sober?”

That struck me as odd. And I have no idea how accurate his data was, and of course any data in this area is suspect anyway (because there is an enormous “shame factor” that skews the data towards better results).

But his message stuck with me. He told me this when I had less than two years sober and was still living in long term rehab.

Today I have over 13 years of continuous sobriety and I try to remain very, very grateful for each passing day.

But it is hard to do that sometimes.

And that may be the whole trick to this thing. Remain grateful.

But the question is, how exactly do you do that?

I mean, you can only write out so many gratitude lists, right?

The trick is to constantly reinvent yourself so that you do not revert back into what you used to be

What does it mean to reinvent yourself?

What does that even mean?

I was in treatment and had about 10 days sober at one point. A guy gave a lecture about “balanced lifestyle” and I honestly thought it was terrible. I mean really, what did the idea of balance have to do with my recovery efforts at this point? I needed extreme focus in order to remain sober, not balance!

Or so I thought. Turns out, that guy was right. It really is all about balance. Just not in early recovery necessarily.

But as you transition from early recovery to long term sobriety, you have to shift that laser focus (“just don’t drink today no matter what!) into something a little more useful. Sure, you can try to remain sober for decades at a time by gritting your teeth and grinding out your sobriety one agonizing day at a time, but no one really wants to make it that hard.

Instead, we want to get further and further away from the threat of relapse. Design our lifestyle so that a drug or alcohol relapse is a long, long ways off. Is it still possible that we could relapse? Sure, it is possible for anyone. But the idea is to create a lifestyle that turns it into a very distant and remote possibility. So distant and remote that a whole lot of terrible things would have to happen first, complicated further by bad decisions on our part, and all mixed together into the perfect storm. And I realize that sometimes this perfect storm of circumstances could potentially happen to anyone in recovery. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot take action and design a lifestyle that helps to prevent the chaos from happening in the first place.

Some people are just a moment away from relapse. They are hanging on to sobriety by the skin of their teeth. One bad circumstance could slap them in the face tomorrow and it would be all over. They will snap and be “off to the races.”

We don’t want to put ourselves in that position.

Instead, we want to do the opposite. We want to protect ourselves from the threat of relapse so that even when things do go badly (which they inevitably will at some point), we are not left with the only remaining solution being to get drunk.

Given all of that, what exactly does it mean to reinvent yourself?

I think it means personal growth. You have to be continuously learning about yourself and continuously growing as a person. You don’t want to get stuck or be bored in recovery. Those are red flags. They mean that you have stopped making progress, stopped moving forward.

A simple visualization of one solution is:

Self assessment -> Seek advice -> Take action.

Rinse and repeat.

It doesn’t really have to be any more complicated than that.

If you were not alcoholic or a drug addict then you could safely eliminate the second idea there (“seek advice”). But because we tend to sabotage our own efforts at times, it makes sense to get input from other people.

This is NOT a sign of weakness. This is a sign of strength. When you “borrow wisdom” from others you empower your own path of growth.

But it is important that you seek feedback and advice because without that step you will eventually put too much stock in a bad idea. When you get advice from others you eliminate that possibility. Other people can weigh in on your situation and give you sound advice.

Do you have to find brilliant people who are smarter than you are?

No. That is not what makes this work. In fact, your own advice is valuable to other people as well, simply because it is objective.

It is very difficult to take our own best advice. Yet it is easy to look at someone else’s life and tell them exactly what they need to do. So you can look at your peer in recovery and say with confidence “You need to start hitting meetings every day, talk to a counselor about this issue, get this certain person out of your life, and get back to your old job/school whatever the case may be. It is easy to look at someone else and give good advice, but it is really tough to give ourselves that same advice (and then follow it).

So one of the biggest tricks in recovery is to simply get yourself out of your own way.

Eliminate your ego.

Do this by outsourcing all of your decisions.

This is a level of freedom that will absolutely amaze you if you have never tried it.

Simply start asking for advice and feedback from other people. Then take their advice. Really put it into action.

Easy concept, but hard to actually do it. And even harder to keep doing it consistently.

But when you do this little experiment you will be amazed at the results. Your life will start getting better and better and you will not understand how it is all so easy all of a sudden.

It becomes easy because you are no longer getting in the way. When you are free to simply execute rather than worry about WHAT you are supposed to be doing, everything starts falling into place.

So stop demanding of yourself that you figure everything out. Start taking advice from other people. Find a counselor, a therapist, a sponsor. Someone you trust. Someone who knows how to get and stay sober. And tell them that they need to tell you what to do. As in, exactly what to do each day.

And then start doing it.

This is not an easy thing to do. It takes guts to really surrender and follow through with this particular suggestion.

It is dead simple though. Anyone can do it if they are willing. But most are not willing.

And therein lies the great challenge of sobriety. You can’t access the miracle until you get your own ego out of the way. But once you do make this leap of faith, look out. Your life is about to get a whole lot better in a hurry.

So how does a person reinvent themselves? What actions do they take?

So let’s say that you take my suggestion above and you squash your own ego. You get out of your own way.

You ask for help. You truly humble yourself.

And someone tells you to get to rehab. Go to rehab and then start going to AA meetings.

So you get honest. You start taking suggestions. You take action. You follow through.

And things start to slowly get better. Maybe you get out of treatment and you start seeing a therapist each week and also going to AA meetings.

Now then, your sobriety is not insured for the long run just yet. In fact, it never will be guaranteed. You have to keep working for it.

And this is where “reinventing yourself” comes in.

When you surrendered and went to rehab that was your first “reinvention.” That changed your whole life.

Now you have to do it again.

Of course every time you do this it may not be quite so drastic of a change. In fact, the changes that you make in recovery will get smaller and smaller as your health and happiness increases.

So maybe next you will join an AA home group. And maybe start exercising. Or find a healthier job. Maybe eliminate a toxic relationship and find healthier people to be around.

And so on. Each time you make a change like this in recovery you are reinventing your life.

Remember the idea of “balanced lifestyle?”

It is relevant now.

Now that you are out of treatment. Now that you are facing the prospect of staying sober on your own.

Now is the time to consider balance.

Because if you are not careful, a lack of balance in your life can lead you to relapse.

If you neglect the health of your relationships for too long, it can lead to relapse.

If you neglect your physical health in too many ways, it can lead to relapse (I have watched this one happen among my peers over and over again).

If you get emotionally out of balance it can lead you to relapse.

If you become ungrateful and spiritually bankrupt then it can lead to relapse.

If your mental health is not in good shape then it can lead to relapse.

All of these aspects of your health (physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, social) have the potential to screw you up and cause relapse.

So you cannot just work hard on, for example, your spiritual health and say “OK, that’s it, I am all good! Totally protected from relapse now!”

That is not how it works at all.

No, if you neglect any one of these areas of your life then it can lead you into problems.

And this is why you need balance.

The way to do this is simple.

You must prioritize.

And in order to do that you might have to ask for help. Talk to people. Ask for guidance and wisdom. And in talking about your life and your situation, you can determine which aspect of your life needs to be addressed right now.

In other words, what is the one change that you could make in your life right now that would have the greatest positive impact on your recovery?

What is the one thing that you could work on that would strengthen your sobriety the most right now?

Do you know the answer to that question?

If so, then you have a clear action plan. Get to work!

If not, then you have a clear path to getting feedback and advice from others. Go talk to people you trust. Ask them to help you identify your next potential area for growth.

I will give you a hint.

It is almost always something negative.

This is because if you can strip away all of the problems and all of the negativity in our lives, we are basically happy people.

So we seek to eliminate. To reduce. To simplify.

I can give you specific examples in my own recovery journey. I started by going to treatment. Then at various times I got feedback from counselors, therapists, sponsors, peers, and family that suggested that I:

* Start exercising.
* Quit smoking cigarettes.
* Go back to college.
* Get a new job.
* Find a new relationship.

Those are specific things that I would not have done in my life, but I talked to other people first and was inspired to pursue them. And each of those goals had a positive impact on my overall recovery.

In each case, someone helped me analyze my life, and they were saying “If I were you, this is what I would do next in my life.”

So I took their advice in those cases and I did it.

Building a new life in recovery based on the power of cumulative actions

It is possible to be in recovery from addiction and to be living a very passive life.

We want to avoid passive living though. It does not help us to prevent relapse.

Instead, we want to be active. We want to take inspired action in our recovery journey. This is what helps to prevent relapse.

You are either getting closer to relapse, or you are moving in the opposite direction towards a better life in recovery.

If you try to stand still then you slide backwards, unfortunately.

But the bonus here is that if you remain sober you generally are moving in a positive direction.

The benefits of sobriety tend to accumulate over time. Things get better and better. If they are not getting any better over time, then you are probably doing it wrong, and you might even be in danger of relapse. Of course we all have bad days here and there, but the long term trend in sobriety should be towards a healthier and happier life.

One of the fundamental ideas in recovery is that the main form of currency is your health. You got sober for a reason, right? Number one you were miserable, and number two it was killing you. So not only did you wish to be happier but you also want to be healthier. The two go hand in hand together.

And this is another thing that accumulates over time. At first you simply stop putting drugs and alcohol into your body, and this is a huge leap forward in terms of health.

But that becomes a foundation that you then build on. Most people start sleeping better in recovery, though it might take a while for this to really kick in (over a year for me).

Then you might start exercising. I think it is absolutely crazy not to take advantage of the power of daily exercise if you are in recovery from addiction. It has such a massive benefit in so many different ways that it can be like an entire relapse prevention plan all by itself.

If you are exercising regularly then you will probably realize that you benefit from using higher quality “fuel.” So you start paying a little bit more attention to what you are eating and putting into your body for energy.

And if you were a smoker (like I was) then at some point you realize that there is no real benefit to the endless cigarettes, and you cut those out as well.

So in my case it was a very cumulative thing in terms of my health. I sobered up, stopped smoking, started sleeping better, started exercising every day, and improved my nutrition.

And these are just the main points, the big items. This is to say nothing of the details and all of the smaller changes that I have made in addition to these things.

None of these positive changes could have happened without sobriety first. And some of the changes (such as daily exercise) would have not happened without some of the previous changes (such as improved sleep and quitting smoking). So there is a snowball effect where one success in your recovery can become a foundation for more success to be built on top of it.

Prioritizing your actions based on feedback and advice from others

It is possible that you will get overwhelmed in recovery and not even know where to get started.

If this is the case then you need to prioritize.

There are two ways to do this. One is self assessment, the other is in asking for advice from others. Of course you could do both and see if your ideas match up to the advice you are given.

Look at your pain points. Find out if there is any unhappiness in your life right now. What is the source of it? How can that be changed?

The answer lies in eliminating the pain points. This is how you prioritize. Because if you eliminate your major pain points then you are left with peace, contentment, and happiness.

If you have major pain points remaining in your life then you need to establish a plan to tackle them and eliminate them.

If you are willing to seek help and advice from other people (and effectively borrow their wisdom) then you can do this much quicker than if you make the journey by yourself.

And this is one of the biggest tricks in recovery. To borrow the wisdom of others. Easy concept, but very few have the willingness to humble themselves.

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