If you go to traditional 12 step meetings for long enough, you are going to hear some horrifying statistics about relapse.
Most people don’t make it in recovery. Something like 90 percent relapse in the first year. People get numbers from different sources and it is all sort of difficult to track and get accurate data but the bottom line is that the numbers are scary, and they never sound very hopeful.
Even if the statistics are off by quite a bit, they are so bad to begin with that a more optimistic spin on them is still pretty negative. Most people don’t achieve long term recovery, and end up relapsing at some point.
They relapse for a number of reasons. Of course there are actions they could take to avoid this negative outcome, so we will look at those as well.
Lack of surrender
As I mentioned there are actually a whole host of reasons that a person in recovery might relapse, but many of them will all boil down to the same core problem, and that is that they never fully surrendered to their addiction in the first place.
In other words, they may have came into recovery with the wrong attitude, the were getting clean and sober for the wrong reasons, and when they made the decision to sober up they were not really at a bottom. Instead, they were simply engaging in more manipulation, trying to change things in their favor by getting clean and sober for a while, but had no real long term intention of changing their life and seeking lifelong recovery.
This happens frequently with young people who are forced into recovery programs based on the consequences that they may have experienced. So instead of hitting bottom and truly wanting to learn a new way of life, they are forced into getting clean and sober and therefore they do not have a good long term prognosis like someone else who may have hit bottom “for real.”
Treatment can be misleading for people in such situations, especially an inpatient treatment center. Someone who has not fully hit bottom and truly surrendered may find themselves in an inpatient treatment center, and so they get detoxed and they are learning about recovery. Such a person can easily have mixed feelings about staying clean and sober for the rest of their life. They are feeling decent because they are suddenly fully detoxed, eating well, getting sleep each night, and so they start to feel pretty good while they are clean and sober–largely because they are in treatment. But part of them is still hanging on to the old life, part of them does not really want to change, and because they have not really hit their own bottom, they are not yet in a position to fully surrender to recovery yet. Such a person’s prognosis for sobriety is not good at all. Most people in such a position have to go out and experience a lot more pain, misery, and chaos in active addiction because they are really ready to take recovery seriously.
You might think that “feeling good” after the detox process could convince such a person to follow the path of sobriety. You might think that having had a taste of what sobriety feels like again in treatment that they might be convinced to stay clean and sober, simply because it feels healthy and they see that happiness is possible. For the most part, however, this is not really possible because every person in such a situation like this is carrying some sort of reservation about using their drug of choice, they are still hanging on to something, some piece of their old life, and they have convinced themselves that they are going to use again if given the right excuse or the right circumstances.
The only way to fully eliminate all such reservations is to fully hit bottom and surrender everything, to abandon all hope of any sort of normal life while using drugs and alcohol, and to give yourself over completely to some form of recovery. This is the by far the biggest block that people have in recovery in that they simply do not fully surrender.
The problem is getting worse over time and is more apparent today than ever before, because now we have more people entering both treatment and recovery than ever before. In the old days it used to just be the really hard cases who were pushed to get help, but now they tend to put people in recovery or meetings at the drop of a hat, so that now you have a situation where many of them have not fully surrendered. They are not done using drugs and alcohol yet. They have not had their full share of misery and chaos from addiction yet, so therefore they do not have a burning desire to stop using.
How to fix this: The only way to really fix this, unfortunately, is to practice the principles taught in places like Al-Anon, and get out of the addict or alcoholic’s way such that they can hit bottom. Sometimes the only motivator is pain and misery. It all depends on the person and their personality, how they respond to incentives, how they respond to consequences, and so on. For the most part you cannot really predict such things. So, we simply do our best, and encourage people to get help and to seek treatment. If these efforts fail, then they probably need to go find a deeper level of surrender in their life. They need to go “test the waters” of addiction some more and learn for themselves, first hand, that drug and alcohol abuse is not going to lead them to happiness. You cannot tell them this, they have to learn it for themselves.
So in some cases all you can really do is get out of their way.
Becoming cocky in early recovery
Another huge problem that leads to relapse in early recovery is in people who get cocky. You see this over and over again if you attend enough 12 step meetings. People love to talk the talk in recovery, and of course this problem of becoming overconfident is another function of personality.
There is a spectrum here, a continuum between being cocky and being truly humble. The old joke is that a guy will brag in an AA meeting that he has won a world class award in humility. Of course we want to share our experience and our strength with others in recovery, especially the newcomer, and we want to help people. And on the other hand, we know full well that we have to be humble in our recovery and be open to learning new things, and that we are never really finished with our learning process in recovery.
I personally lived in long term rehab for almost the first two years of my recovery, and during that time I attended AA meetings each and every day. What I learned during those two years of observations was this:
Cocky people never make it in recovery. Never.
If you have attended plenty of meetings then you know who I am talking about. Usually these are the talkers….they love to hear themselves talk and they love to think that they have all of the solutions for recovery and that they know all the tricks. They believe they are God’s gift to the newcomer. They have this false respect for the disease and they put on a big show about how dangerous the threat of relapse is, but deep down they believe that they are smarter than the average bear and that they have this recovery thing licked. And they love to talk at meetings and they love to hear themselves talk and they love to share their knowledge with the world.
So I could not help but notice such cases in my early recovery and I just sort of sat back and thought: “Huh. This person really talks some good stuff and they really seem excited and even a bit over confident about their recovery. They must really have this all figured out. I wonder if I need to be as enthusiastic as they are in order to remain sober? I wonder if I have to get to their level of guru-ism if I am going to make it too? Because I hear them talk about statistics and how most people relapse, and I don’t want to relapse, so I wonder if they really do have it all figured out?”
And so I sort of wondered about such people and I watched them very closely.
And so during my early recovery, one such person like this who was cocky and animated and full of confidence ended up relapsing. And I was absolutely stunned. It really shook me up, quite badly. And then it happened again, to another one of these people that I sort of looked up to, someone who was full of confidence. They relapsed as well.
Every couple of months, it would happen again. I was going to lots of meetings, all over town, both AA and NA, and I was just stunned when one of these people would relapse. It shook me up so badly because these were the people who talked such a good game in the meetings! And here I was, quite shy and nervous to speak at meetings, and I thought that these confident people had it all figured out, and that I had to be more like them if I was going to recover.
After about the one year mark I had it figured out pretty good though: Cocky people always relapse. Always. They can either lose their cocky attitude and have a chance at sobriety, or they can stay cocky and they can relapse. But I never saw someone stay cocky and remain sober. Not once.
How to fix this: The way to fix overconfidence and cockiness is by becoming humble. And I am not so sure that this is just a choice that can be made. Rather, the cycle of addiction and relapse will certainly teach people this level of humility if they continue to relapse over time. If someone is truly overconfident then learning this lesson is not going to be easy. Relapse will naturally cut them down to size and so you eventually see people “come back to recovery with their tail between their legs.” That is the old saying anyway and when you have just been served up a large dosing of misery and chaos due to your addiction then it is likely that you will not be quite so cocky the next time around.
Essentially, this problem is self correcting. The price for learning the lesson is rather steep, however.
Depending on meetings without taking real action to grow
One problem that causes a lot of people to relapse is meeting dependence. I know I sort of harp on this a lot but I have a long history (over a decade) of watching people fail in recovery due to a fundamental problem that they truly believe can be fixed by daily meeting attendance, but they are mistaken. This fundamental problem is simple complacency and a lack of personal growth in their recovery.
In the old days, recovery was about doing the footwork. You took action, you worked the steps, you made significant life changes and did some serious soul searching in order to overcome your alcoholism or addiction. This was done in the first weekend of your sobriety!
These days, the attitudes and the methods have shifted greatly and become quite lax. No one today would suggest that you work through all 12 steps of the AA or NA program in a single afternoon when you just got sober two days ago. And perhaps this is part of the problem.
Instead, we sort of coddle people by encouraging the wrong actions. We try to help them and set them up for success by encouraging a healthy pattern, such as meeting attendance. “Here,” we say, “come to these meetings every day. Don’t ever miss a day! Come to 90 meetings in 90 days and don’t drink in between, and things will get better!”
Then you go to the meetings and you hear people talking and giving advice. Of course the people who have 30 and 60 days into the program are talking and giving advice as well. And so they are of course saying “I am so grateful for these meetings, I come to them every single day, they keep me sober, I don’t know what I would do without them, blah blah blah.”
And so people go to meetings and this becomes their salvation. Then they start preaching this as their solution for others. “My advice? Go to meetings every single day, don’t ever miss a day, these meetings are like your medicine for recovery!” And on and on.
Now because I lived in long term treatment for two years and then worked in the treatment industry for another five years, I got to see and observe an awful lot of “real world data.” I watched people in recovery and I watched people attending meetings this entire time. And what I learned is this:
Meetings don’t keep people sober.
They really don’t. We say that they do, and sometimes the newcomer gives credit to their daily meetings, but they are not a solution for recovery, and they are not the secret to avoiding relapse. In fact they probably contain at least one major trap that causes people to relapse for various reasons, and in many cases this could have been prevented if the person had not become so dependent on them for their daily dose of recovery.
Of course it is tricky because meetings are definitely not all bad, and they do offer a lot of help and support. But the way we use them these days (as a daily reprieve from our addiction and a cheap form of therapy) is not helping anyone in the long run.
No, in the long run, you have to take action outside of the meetings in order to recover.
How to fix this: Do an experiment: stop going to meetings entirely. Do not announce this, don’t tell everyone about your experiment, because the people who are really brainwashed into believing that daily meetings are essentially will absolutely freak out. They will try to save you from your own “stupidity” in doing an experiment by going to less meetings.
So what you do is this:
Stop going to meetings, and then see how you feel. Watch yourself. Observe yourself. You go one without a meeting. Now you go two days without one. How are you feeling? Are you feeling anxiety, frustration, are you getting cravings for your drug of choice? What is happening?
You have to watch and observe yourself carefully, and be honest with this. If you are freaking out and experiencing triggers to use and you feel like you might relapse, then obviously, go back to meetings.
But now you have learned something. Now you have proven to yourself that you have a problem. You have a dependency. And it is a dependency that is worth fixing, and working on.
I am not saying that no one should ever go to meetings. I am saying that if you are dependent on them for your continued sobriety, then you have a huge weakness that needs to be addressed.
The problem is that you are not doing “the footwork” outside of meetings. Start doing that work. Start building a new life for yourself in recovery, outside of meetings, such that you are not dependent on daily meetings for your sobriety.
You can still go to meetings, and you should. But you should not be dependent on them for your recovery. If you are then you are not living a proper life in recovery. You are not pushing yourself to grow out in “the real world.”
Just showing up to a meeting every day and venting is not recovery. If that is your method of staying clean and you depend on it, then you could stand to benefit from pushing yourself to grow in other ways. Get to work!
Lack of follow through
Again, this issue can generally be traced back to “lack of surrender,” but it is a common enough symptom of early recovery and relapse that it bears mentioning.
Lots of people get clean and sober via treatment of some sort. They may be in a rehab, talk with counselors, and be given some form of an aftercare plan. This is a list of suggestions that they take in order to remain clean and sober after they leave rehab.
Such aftercare suggestions may consist of things like outpatient treatment, 12 step meetings, counseling or therapy appointments, and so on.
Now here is what the data suggests:
Something like 60 percent or so of all people who leave rehab will relapse within the first, say, 3 weeks. And guess how many people fail to follow through with their aftercare recommendations? About 60 percent!
And it is sort of chicken or egg problem. Are the people relapsing because they don’t follow through with their aftercare? Or are people not following through with their aftercare because they relapse?
The answer is yes.
Unfortunately it is a bit of both. Which is why you can definitely trace this problem back to the root problem that we talked about in the beginning:
These people have not fully surrendered to their disease. It is not so important if it was the chicken or the egg. The bottom line is that they are just not ready for recovery, because they have not fully hit rock bottom and they have not fully surrendered yet.
How to fix this: Like so many of our problems in life, this one self corrects too. When the addict gets enough pain and misery in their life from their addiction, they will finally see the light and become willing to change. Surrender and willingness is achieved through real world experience, not via snap decisions.