Yesterday we looked at the optimal timeline of success in addiction recovery. Today we want to look at what your best defense is against relapse while you are fighting addiction or alcoholism.
In my experience the best defense against relapse in recovery starts with a strong foundation of sobriety. For me this meant that I had to go to inpatient rehab. I had tried in the past to get clean and sober without going to treatment and it had never worked for me (for example, I attended counseling on an outpatient basis but continued to self medicate).
Early recovery and inpatient rehab
One of the most obvious principles that come into play with inpatient rehab is that you get an “early win” no matter what. For the time that you are in treatment, you stay clean and sober without much effort. This is exactly one half of the entire point of inpatient treatment. The other half is that they attempt to teach you relapse prevention in some form or another–whether that is a 12 step program, a religious based approach, or whatever. But most folks who are experienced in treating addiction agree that inpatient rehab is the best way to start.
When you go to inpatient rehab you start building a foundation. First of all you stay clean and sober while you are in the facility as it is a tightly controlled environment. Second of all they attempt to educate you as to how you might stay clean and sober once you leave rehab and are back on your own again. Both of these things are attempting to build a foundation for you in early recovery.
I went to short term rehab twice and immediately relapsed upon leaving. Therefore I figured out at some point (based on what the counselors were telling me as well) that I needed long term treatment. This may not be the case for everyone but it was definitely the case for me. I needed more help than what 28 days or less could provide for me. Instead of a one month long foundation in recovery I needed a two year long foundation in recovery. Looking back this was the best decision I ever made–to live in long term rehab. Not everyone will need this but if you repeatedly fail after attending short term rehab (like I did) then you might consider it at some point.
There are very few effective alternatives to inpatient rehab. How else might you build a foundation in early recovery? You could try to detox yourself (unsafe in many cases) or you might just try to attend 12 step meetings every day (not reliable or consistent enough). None of the possible alternatives are nearly as effective as actually staying at an inpatient facility for several days or weeks. This is not to say that inpatient rehab is the only thing that could possibly work, it just means that inpatient rehab is likely to build the strongest foundation for you.
Living recovery and finding support when you leave rehab
How many people do you think leave inpatient rehab, only to relapse and fall flat on their face almost immediately?
The numbers on this are staggering. It is so intimidating that it might almost seem like going to inpatient rehab is not worth it at all.
But you have to remember what treatment is: a foundation. Without it your recovery will be much more difficult. But just having built this foundation does not mean that you are home free. Not by a long shot. In fact, the real test in recovery begins when you first leave the safe environment that inpatient provides and have to make decisions on your own suddenly. This is your first real test in recovery. In comparison, being in inpatient treatment for 28 days is a walk in the park.
This is why they encourage you to find and use support while you are in treatment. For example, they will typically suggest that upon leaving treatment you:
* Attend 12 step meetings every single day.
* Follow up with either counseling or outpatient treatment on a regular and consistent basis.
* Get phone numbers of your peers in recovery so that you can call on them for support or in times of trouble.
Obviously support is important in early recovery. If you leave out of inpatient rehab and you have formed no new contacts with people in recovery then it will be very difficult to maintain sobriety.
They say that in recovery you “only have to change one thing, and that is EVERYTHING.” This cliche is undoubtedly true, and anyone who has made the transition into successful recovery can look back say “yes, that is accurate….I really did change everything!”
This changing starts with people and support. Before you came to rehab you obviously had zero support in terms of recovery. You were not associating with healthy people in recovery at that time. Now that you have been detoxed and left inpatient rehab you need to start associating with “the right people” every single day.
The easiest way to do this is to immerse yourself in AA or NA meetings. When I say “immerse yourself” what I mean is:
* Attend a meeting every single day no matter what, and possible more than one meeting if you feel it necessary.
* Get involved with your peers in the 12 step program and start spending time with them outside of the meetings.
* Find a sponsor quickly in recovery and start talking with them every single day and start working through the steps with that person immediately.
If you just want to do one of these things but not the others then I believe you are missing the point. You want “full immersion” in this new life of recovery and so therefore you need to go all out when pursuing recovery. Don’t hold back. Put a 100 percent effort into this.
Now you may also note that I do not normally advocate for strong 12 step involvement on this website. My philosophy of recovery does not generally depend on programs, meetings, or sponsors. However, I think it is important to realize how crucial the timing is in all of this. If you are in your first 2 years of recovery (approximately) then you need all of the help and support that you can get. Keep in mind that I actually had a lot MORE support during the first two years than what I describe here. I was living in rehab for two years, attending meetings, having a sponsor, etc. Later on in my recovery I reduced these dependencies (on outside support) and found a way to depend more on myself for my recovery efforts. But I think it is important to recognize the need for support in early recovery.
Tactics versus strategy in recovery
Most of the suggestions listed above are tactical in nature. Go to meetings. Get a sponsor.
The overall strategy that dictates those actions is essentially: “Immerse yourself fully in recovery.”
You can follow a strategy without necessarily knowing all of the tactics. So long as you know what your strategy is (live and breathe recovery every moment of every day) then you can sort of “fill in the gaps” as you go along and figure out which tactics will plug into your life.
I think it is important to think about strategy much more than what is typically taught in addiction recovery. If you go to a dozen 12 step meetings you will probably hear people talk about tactical approaches 99 percent of the time. Maybe 1 percent of the information you hear will be a suggestion that speaks of strategy in recovery.
Your strategy is important because it dictates your long term outcomes. Your strategy tells you WHY you are going to meetings, not just that you need to go to meetings. Therefore it is more powerful than blindly following suggestions that people give you.
I took issue with this in early recovery because people were basically telling me to ignore strategy. They were saying “stop thinking so hard about this recovery thing and just do what you are told to do! You will only screw it up if you try to over think it!” Indeed, strategic thinking is discouraged in early recovery. “Don’t drink and go to meetings.” I was told many times that I should “not try to figure this recovery thing out,” but to “just do it and have faith.”
This approach may be good enough for some people, but it did not sit well with me. Basically what I was told was that I should blindly use the tactics I was being given (go to meetings, get a sponsor, etc.) but not WHY I was using those tactics (the overall guiding strategy of recovery). Sure, people could give their opinion as to the “why” we used certain tactics in recovery, but no one could tie it all together with a unifying strategy that made sense.
There are some advantages to this: Early recovery benefits greatly from a tactical approach rather than a strategic approach. The old timers were basically right: Shut up and do what you are told! This works well in early recovery because addicts and alcoholics tend to over think and complicate things if left to their own devices.
The problem comes in when you have this mentality of “shut and follow our directions” that is extending into long term recovery. If you have 4 years or more of sobriety and you cannot improvise and think on your own two feet in life then something is wrong. If you need a sponsor to get through a craving or trigger situation after several years of recovery then something is wrong. So really what I am cautioning about here is the long term reliance on tactics.
You should not be relying on tactics in long term recovery. Instead you should develop a recovery strategy that is flexible and resilient enough to keep you clean and sober for the rest of your life. You don’t get such a strategy by simply following directions and taking orders blindly.
At some point, you have to transition into long term recovery. There are people in “the program” who refuse to do this. They want to “stick to the basics” and rely on a tactical approach to recovery forever. This is the weaker path.
The stronger path is to develop your own recovery strategy. Find the tactics that work for you and then fit them into a framework that makes sense. Test your conclusion by experimenting and pursuing more growth and learning. Refine your strategy as you use it to guide yourself in recovery.
How to develop your own recovery strategy
Begin with foundation knowledge. Early recovery is not the time for deep thinking. Attend treatment and take advice, follow orders, do what you are told. This is not to punish yourself or belittle yourself in any way. You are simply learning the basics of discipline and self control in a totally new way. Allow yourself to do this. Let go of the need for control. You can even let go of the idea that you want to develop your own recovery strategy.
You don’t need a recovery strategy in early sobriety, you need to follow orders. I know that sounds harsh but it is the truth. If you could get away without having to take some direction then you would not be in trouble in the first place. Suck it up and do what the counselors, therapists, and sponsors suggest in early recovery. Build your foundation.
Your strategy in recovery will build on this foundation of action. In early recovery you will do things that are suggested to you. Some of these things will be highly effective for you and other things will not do much for you. For example, I had suggestions in my early recovery to both exercise and meditate. I tried both. Eventually I became a regular jogger and looking back I can see that this replaces and fulfills the “meditation requirement.” I could not have known this going into recovery, but instead had to discover it after taking suggestions and experimenting.
When I say that you should “take orders in early recovery” I am not saying that you become a doormat. What I am saying is that you take action and try new things, new ideas that come from other people. This is critical. As you do this you will keep the effective actions and discard the useless ones.
After you do this for a few months or years (take suggestions and experiment with new ideas) you will slowly start to develop your own recovery strategy.
It may be the case that everyone’s recovery strategy is the same; I am not actually sure on this yet. I just know that my personal strategy is to “pursue health and personal growth.” I want to be as healthy as possible and also become the best person that I can be. This is what my strategy has become and because I have taken the time to so thoroughly refine this strategy I no longer need to think or worry about individual tactics.
Your best defense against relapse is personal growth
Your best defense against relapse in the long run is a strategy of personal growth.
As I said this might not be the exact strategy for everyone but I believe most people will have to have some element of learning and growth in their long term strategy for recovery.
Having a strategy of personal growth means that you:
* Will always be willing and eager to learn more about yourself and what you might be able to improve in your life.
* Will always be building self esteem based on personal achievement and growth (this is huge for protecting against relapse).
* Will be reducing stress and building more contentment into life by making constant incremental improvements in the way that you live and do things.
* Will be healthier and happier in the long run based on a strategy that equates personal growth with improved health. This fits in with the holistic health approach as well and being aware of health in all areas of your life.
Anyone who ignores such a strategy of personal growth and holistic health is likely to stray into dangerous territory. They will essentially be relying on tactics to get them to do the right thing rather than being able to use these principles to guide them.
Keep in mind that this is a long term strategy in recovery. You can use these concepts to help dictate your actions in the short run, but the long term effects are what motivate your decisions in most cases. This is why you will intuitively want to quit smoking cigarettes some day in recovery–because you know it is the right thing to do for your long term health in recovery. The same strategy can lead you to physical exercise, meditation, or whatever seems to work well for you in terms of increasing your health.
Long term recovery never ends – how to fight complacency
People who relapse in long term sobriety do so only after becoming complacent. They get lazy. They stop growing and learning.
Therefore your long term strategy should include the ideas of continuous learning and continuous growth. Thus you can naturally prevent relapse in your journey by being aware of complacency and taking a pro-active strategy against it. Anyone might become lazy in recovery but if you plan for it and intend to keep yourself motivated to make new growth on a regular basis then your strategy can help protect you from this threat.
I do this by taking on “growth projects” and attempting to push myself to learn and try new things. This is not as easy as it might sound. Why would you want to leave your comfort zone in recovery if everything seems to be going good for you? Yet this is the sort of risk that you have to take in order to pro-actively fight against complacency. It is only by continuously challenging yourself that you can make new growth in your life. You don’t reach new milestones in life by playing it safe and being boring. You have to try new things, learn new things, and take some healthy risks. When I say “risk” I do not mean trying to jump over canyons with a motorcycle. I am talking about the risk that you feel when you try to learn something totally new and feel that you might look foolish or stupid. I am talking about the risk that you take when you want to explore meditation but know absolutely nothing about it and are afraid to ask people.
In a way this is like returning to the innocence of early recovery. Find a new direction in which you might learn and start asking questions again. Pretend you are new in recovery all over again and find a new path of growth to explore. This can be uncomfortable for people and it can feel like it is a risk. But if you want to keep growing in your recovery and protect yourself from relapse then this is actually the strongest path. It feels weak because you have to make yourself vulnerable at times in order to embrace new ideas and learn new things, but it is actually the strongest approach to long term recovery and continuous growth.