Alcohol Recovery Starts Slowly with Little to no Immediate Rewards

Alcohol Recovery Starts Slowly with Little to no Immediate Rewards

Treating addiction with a traditional treatment method

One of the things that every struggling alcoholic needs to realize is that recovery starts out very slowly.

This is an important point and if you are not realistic about how early recovery is going to progress then you may be setting yourself up for failure.

In other words, your life does not magically change the second that you stop drinking.

And to some extent, you need to much more than to simply abstain from alcohol and addictive drugs. Though it should also be stressed that this is the baseline for success–sobriety is how you build a foundation for a better life. But total abstinence is not, in itself, enough to make you “happy, joyous, and free” as the saying goes.

The uphill battle when you first get clean and sober

It can be difficult to convince yourself to go to treatment and get sober in the first place.

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But what happens when you leave the typical 28 day program and have to start facing reality “on the outside” again?

Where is the motivation for overcoming this difficult time in early recovery going to come from?

I admit that it is not easy. And for the most part, all of my motivation came from wanting to avoid misery, rather than in pursuit of a better life. To be honest, I did not really believe that a better life was even possible for me when I first got clean and sober. I thought I was doomed to be miserable forever in sobriety. Luckily I was wrong about that. But I certainly did not know that I was wrong for the first few weeks (or even months) of my recovery.

And this is what makes it such a tough sell. The alcoholic or struggling drug addict is facing the same choice each and every day of their lives: Should they avoid short term pleasure today, stop drinking and using drugs, and go through the misery of withdrawal in the hopes of one day being happy again while sober? Or should they start the cycle all over again and drink or get high in order to enjoy some immediate gratification (no matter how small that reward may be at this point).

So the struggling alcoholic or drug addict is choosing the short term reward, every time. And I totally understand this because that is what I was doing myself for the majority of my alcoholic career. I could not bring myself to face the pain, misery, and hopelessness of detox and sobriety. It was too overwhelming for me. I just could not face the idea of facing life sober. I had to have something. I had to have a way to medicate, to avoid the misery, the boredom, the frustration of life.

Of course what I did not really comprehend at the time was that all of my misery and frustration was a direct result of my addiction. Here I thought that I was just naturally miserable, and that the only tiny ray of sunshine in my life was getting drunk! Boy was I wrong. In fact, the drinking and drugs were what was causing me all of the misery, and I just could not see it. This is known as denial. I had it all backwards. I really believed that happiness in sobriety was an impossibility for me. Somehow I was different, I was unique. I couldn’t be happy without alcohol, or so I believed.

So the task of going to rehab and doing 28 days in a facility was really daunting. It was overwhelming. How could I go for 28 days without drinking? Wouldn’t I die of misery or boredom? How awful would it be to have to endure that? Because, according to my beliefs, the only thing in the world that could make me even a little bit happy was getting drunk and high on drugs. So the idea of “locking myself up for 28 days” was nearly unthinkable.

I want to challenge you for a moment though and tell you about my real world experience.

First of all, I went to rehab 3 times. The third time I moved into a long term treatment center and stayed for 20 months.

Later on I worked in a rehab facility that included a detox, a residential unit (the 28 day part), and also a long term rehab. I worked there full time for over 5 years, and learned a lot during that time.

So in all of this experience I can tell you that when you go to rehab and start to sober up, there are a couple of key observations:

1) Very rarely is anyone completely miserable in rehab. If they are then they leave quickly. In most states and countries this is easy to do (walk out). But I would say over 90 percent have no problem being in treatment and they are not climbing the walls or going crazy from intense cravings. Most detox units medicate people in a safe way that prevents massive cravings or withdrawal symptoms. I am sure there are exceptions out there but for the vast majority this will not be an issue. Being in detox and 28 day programs is easy.

2) Being in rehab is the easy part. Staying sober for the first year after treatment is the real challenge.

3) People are motivated more by avoiding pain than they are by pursuing rewards. This is a shame though because the rewards of sobriety are incredible in the long run, but relatively weak in the beginning.

If only the people who are in detox with 7 days sober could know what their life in sobriety would be like after 3 years, 5 years, 10 years sober. If they could glimpse the future and compare that to the misery of addiction then they would have no problem “toughing it out” for the long run. But we don’t have that luxury.

And the problem is that in very early sobriety the rewards are much less, and they are harder to notice. This is a bad combination.

Where is the immediate payoff for sobriety?

When you first get sober you are actually punished instead of rewarded. Your body, which has become dependent on your substance of choice, screams out at you in agony due to the physical withdrawal. This alone is a massive disincentive to get sober and is a hurdle that keeps many people trapped for years.

Even after you get through the discomfort of withdrawal you have to deal with another level of adjustment, and it is a big one. Basically you have to learn how to live your life again from the ground up, sober. You have to learn how to deal with reality without self medicating. You have to learn how to have fun again like a real human being. You have to learn how to deal with your feelings and emotions without covering them up with alcohol or drugs. You have to learn how to communicate with others in an effective way. And on and on and on. There are a million and one things that we have to relearn in sobriety just to be able to function like “normal humans.”

So there are two main problems when it comes to the rewards of sobriety:

1) The rewards are slow to kick in. Someone with 30 days sober has made some progress but might still be feeling pretty down on themselves. That same person with 3 years sober is probably enjoying massive rewards in recovery. Their life has been completely transformed somewhere between the 30 day point and the 3 year point. Hence, “It gets greater, later.”

2) The rewards that the alcoholic DOES get in early recovery are often dismissed or difficult to even detect. They can’t see their progress because they are too close to themselves, and because they lack long term perspective. They are also using a faulty yardstick for measuring based on their experiences during their addiction. In other words, they have to redefine what fun is before they can realize that they are actually having a good time while sober. This adjustment period takes time, it does not happen in 30 days. But it does happen over the course of the first year or two.

And it is not just that the newly recovering alcoholic has to relearn how to gauge “fun” or “having a good time.” They have to relearn everything and gain new perspective on multiple areas of their life. For example, feeling peaceful and being content is probably not high on the priority list for most practicing alcoholics. But once you are sober this value might become much more important to you in recovery. But of course it takes time. Your perspective will change, slowly.

And so, as much as I know that the newcomer does not want to hear this, it is absolutely true:

Some of the rewards in recovery simply take time to manifest. You cannot have it all right now! If you could, then how would it be any better than the immediate gratification that you get from drugs or alcohol? Easy come, easy go. This is about building something better in your life, something more sustainable, a peace and joy and happiness that is not so fleeting as it was in addiction.

In order to build this awesome new life in recovery you are going to have to lay the foundation, put in the hard work, and give yourself time so that your perspective can shift. It doesn’t all happen overnight.

How the benefits of sobriety multiply over the long term

When I was in treatment and had two weeks sober, I attended a lecture about “balanced lifestyle in recovery.”

Honestly, I thought it was a bunch of crap.

This is because I had finally surrendered completely to my disease and figured out the real truth: That I was going to have to FOCUS my entire life and energy to the goal of remaining sober. I needed extreme focus at that time. The idea of spreading my efforts out and chasing after a “balanced lifestyle” seemed to run completely counter to this strategy.

So I dismissed the idea of seeking balance.

And this was OK. Things worked out.

For a while.

In early recovery you need laser focus. I stand by that assertion. You need to dedicate your life to sobriety, and your number one priority has to be total and complete abstinence. This has to come first. It is more important than any other concept in your life, even more important than spirituality or faith.

But as you evolve in your recovery, as you remain sober for months and then years, this laser focus on total abstinence has to evolve. It has to change. Because, believe it or not, after a few months or a few years sober, it DOES get easier.

I think anyone who has multiple years sober would agree that it gets easier. That after a few years sober, their last month in sobriety was definitely easier than their first month in sobriety. No one would argue that.

So then, what happens to your life when sobriety becomes easier? What happens when staying sober becomes somewhat more automatic?

A few things can happen. One is that this is a trap. The trap is known as “complacency.” If you get to lazy in terms of your sobriety, it can cause you to stumble right into a relapse.

And this can blindside people. I knew a guy with several years sober in AA, and he got injured and hooked on prescription painkillers. He had no idea that this could happen to him, that he might “like the pills” so darn much. And yet it almost completely sabotaged his recovery and almost led him back to the bottle. For some people, I am sure the consequences from something like that have been ever worse. Our addiction can sneak up on us if we are not vigilant.

So what is the solution?

Vigilance. Personal growth. Staying active in your recovery, helping others and reaching out and challenging yourself to keep improving your life.

This is when the idea of balance comes into play.

Most people would argue that your emotional health is important for sobriety. That you need to take care of yourself emotionally so that you do not relapse.

I would agree with this. We relapse emotionally before we relapse physically.

But the same can be said of every area of our health, potentially.

And that is why balance is important. We need to take care of ourselves physically (exercise, good sleep patterns, proper nutrition, etc.). We need to take care of ourselves spiritually (being grateful every day is critical). We need to take care of ourselves socially (hang around positive people, reach out and help those who struggle, etc.).

This is where the idea of balance comes into play.

And so how does this all relate to the delayed rewards of recovery?

Think back to when I had two weeks sober, in rehab, and they tried to sell me on the idea of having a “balanced lifestyle.”

I wasn’t buying it at the time.

Because it wasn’t fast enough. The rewards were too slow for me. I wanted it all right now, without having to wait.

Well, I was wrong about that, and I had to learn it the hard way. I had to be patient. And I had to start doing the work, and slowly building up this balanced lifestyle where I actually took care of myself in all of these different ways.

So I started to exercise. I went back to college. I got a job. I worked on relationships. I found several ways to reach out to struggling alcoholics and addicts (online, chairing an NA meeting weekly, etc.). And so over the next few years in my sobriety I started to build this balance. I started to do these things that were suggested to me, even though I did not always see the immediate rewards.

Distance running was a good example of that. The first few weeks that I started jogging were awful. No reward. None whatsoever. Only pain.

But now, ten years later, I exercise every day, and it is one of the most important parts of my recovery. It is a joy to exercise now.

And there is that principle again that I am trying to get at here: Delayed reward. It took time. Heck, I think it took over a year of regular exercise before I would call it “a joy.” For a long time it was just a struggle to keep it up. It was work.

And this is what recovery is like. It starts out slow. It is a lot of hard work. And you will not always see what the benefits are right away. You may not even believe that the rewards will come to you. I certainly didn’t. I never believed that I could be happy again in life if I were totally sober.

So the question is, how do you buy into all of this?

How do someone reconcile these ideas when they are miserable in early recovery? How do they force themselves to forge ahead, take positive action, and trust that it will all get better?

The answer, I believe, is faith.

Why faith is a necessary component of early sobriety

Not necessarily faith in the strictly religious sense. But just a general faith that things will improve.

Look at steps two and three in AA. They are about hope and faith. Step two is hope and step three is faith. And really they are linked pretty closely. In a sense they are almost the same thing.

In AA meetings they sometimes say “it gets greater, later.”

And so it almost all sounds like a giant scam. “Suffer now, put in the hard work, and we promise it will get better later!”

You have to have faith. You have to weigh your options and realize that the alternative is certain misery.

If you go back to drinking or self medicating then you already know what the outcome will be: Misery and chaos.

This is really the only level of “faith” that a person needs in order to get started in recovery.

You just have to believe that it might be possible for you to be happier sober than you were when you were drinking.

Is that possible? Is it possible that sobriety might actually lead you to greater than happiness than drinking did?

If you can answer “maybe” to that question then you are ready to recover. You are ready to get started.

Now I also believe that your hope and faith in recovery can do much more than this. It can open up your life and give you a whole new world, a whole new perspective.

But all that is required in the beginning is the slightest bit of hope. The tiniest bit of hope that things could improve if you quit drinking.

Convincing yourself that it really does “get greater, later”

“Everyone is unique, just like everyone else.”

You are not so special. Meaning that if you are an alcoholic or a drug addict, there are others like you who have gone before.

Sometimes we feel like we are the only person who has ever fallen in love with drugs or alcohol in the history of mankind.

Not true. Gain a little perspective and realize that you are not the first alcoholic.

Then look around you. Go to a few AA meetings and just talk to the people. Go out to coffee with a few of them. Seriously, if you ask a room full of AA people if you can buy one of them coffee, you will have yourself a coffee date after the meeting. Go talk to one of them. Go talk to several of them.

Prove it to yourself: There is life after drinking. There is life after drugs. You just have to put in the work, get sober, go to detox, hit the meetings every day, find your own path, do whatever it takes. And after a certain point your life gets better. A whole lot better. But you have to be willing to strive for those rewards. They start slowly and then multiply over time. Before you know it your life is amazing.

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