Alcoholism recovery is really all about habit formation.
This is because the act of remaining sober for years and years on end is actually a daily process.
It is not a lifelong process, but a daily process that is focused on the details.
In order to remain clean and sober you essentially have to keep reinventing yourself. This means that you must keep pushing yourself to improve your life in several different ways.
The changes that are necessary to remain clean and sober must come from:
1) Internal changes – such as eliminating self pity, resentment, shame, guilt, fear, self loathing, anger, obsession, etc.
2) External changes – changing “people places and things” in your life, improving your life in ways that can be observed and measured by other people easily.
Both of these are important in order to build a new life in recovery.
If you just focus on one set of changes and ignore the other then this will lead to relapse. For example, if you clean up your life and start hanging around healthier people, stop going to bars, and get a better job but you still have inner demons that drive you to drink (such as resentment or self pity) then you will still end up relapsing.
Likewise, if you do a lot of internal work (for example, by eliminating character defects through working the 12 steps of AA) then you could still get into trouble if you find yourself hanging around with bad influences, going to old places where you used to drink, and so on.
So it is not just one type of change that you can make and expect for your life to get better. In order to overcome the threat of relapse you must make both internal and external changes in your life. And you must keep making these changes on a continuous basis. Some of the changes will be once and done, to be sure. But other changes will need to be progressive. For example, your relationships in life and the sort of people that you associate with could be a source of constant struggle. This may be especially true if you have codependent people in your family or other relationships that are very hard to avoid. So in some cases there will always be potential for growth and improvement.
The cycle of relapse and why some people lack stability in their recovery
Some people who try to get sober end up finding themselves in a cycle of relapse. This is because they fail to engage the process of change and then carry it through to establishing a daily practice in their lives.
I used to work in a rehab center and I watched a great many people try to get clean and sober. They come into rehab and they disrupt their pattern of drinking by going through detox. Then they learn everything that they can about recovery while they are in residential treatment. They get done with rehab (usually 28 days or less) and then they are thrown back out into the big bad world of temptation. They are assigned aftercare of some sort which may include daily meetings, therapy, counseling, outpatient, group therapy, step work, sponsorship, and so on. Some people embrace these new changes and others may give them a preliminary try for a while. But in the end very few people end up adopting a completely new lifestyle when they leave rehab. When they fail to do this they eventually fall back into their old patterns and then they eventually relapse.
So how and why does this happen?
Change is hard. There is no doubt about it, overcoming alcoholism or drug addiction is very challenging. The problem is one of inertia. The alcoholic has been doing things a certain way for a long time and it is very hard to establish new patterns.
This is why I talk about the concept of “massive action” all the time. In order to break free from an addiction you have to change everything in your life. This requires action. You cannot just sit back and theorize about a new life in recovery, you have to actually get out there and live it. You have to dive into it. It requires action.
Think about this for a moment–if you could just simply think your way into recovery then alcoholics would not really have a problem, would they? Nearly every alcoholic has at one time or another “cured” their own addiction simply by resolving to solve the problem from within, by their own power. For example: “I’ll just limit myself to 3 drinks per day.” Really, if you could solve the problem of alcoholism by simply reasoning it away with logic like this, then it would not be a problem at all. Unfortunately it does not work that way and if you want to overcome an addiction you have to take massive action and get out of your own head for a while. Your brain cannot solve the problem of addiction by itself without any new input. Heck, your brain is what created the problem to begin with, right? It is going to need a helping hand to break free.
People lack stability in early recovery because they fail to follow directions. It is actually somewhat easy to check into rehab, but is much harder to leave rehab, stay clean and sober for a full year, and do everything that is suggested to you during that first year of sobriety as well without going back to your old patterns. If you could do this and simply get out of your own way and take some direction then your life would get better by leaps and bounds. But it is hard to do this and it takes a great deal of humility. Therefore most will fail in this regard. At the very least most alcoholics have to try and fail a few times before they start to realize just how much:
1) They have to surrender.
2) They have to get out of their own way and stop trying to solve addiction on their own.
3) They need help.
4) They cannot do it alone.
How your addiction can sneak back in and trip you up in several different ways
Once you get through detox and residential treatment you are thrust back out into the real world of temptation.
Say that you find yourself in this position and you leave rehab and you actually do take the suggestions and you follow through. Maybe you go to meetings and take other suggestions as well so that you remain clean and sober, at least initially. You are somewhat stable in your early sobriety.
Now you have to get busy. This is where your addiction strikes back. Seriously, this is how it works and if you are not prepared for this then your tricky addiction will sneak back in somehow and get you using or drinking again.
This is why there must be an emphasis on habit formation. You must create new habits in your life in order to protect yourself from the threat of relapse.
You may be wondering exactly how that works.
Here is how it works. Addiction is tricky and it is sneak and it attacks the person in many different ways.
For example, your addiction will try to make you relapse on painkillers when you injure yourself. Or it may try to make you fall ill so that you are worn down from illness and more likely to succumb to relapse. Or it may try to trip up your relationships so that you become so emotional that you relapse (for example, due to a really bad breakup).
In short, your addiction attacks you holistically. It can affect your physically, mentally, socially, spiritually, emotionally, and so on. There are actually more ways than that but you get the idea. Addiction is not ONLY a spiritual malady (as it is taught in some circles). Instead it attacks the person in a holistic way.
Let me give you an example. I knew a man in recovery who had what I thought to be a very strong program of recovery. He was “more spiritual” than I was, whatever that means. He had been sober for much longer. He had people that he sponsored. And after a few decades sober, he got a shoulder injury and started taking painkillers, thinking them to be safe (he was strictly an alcoholic).
What he found out was that he really like the painkillers. As they say in NA: “A drug is a drug” (and alcohol is just another drug!). So this man found himself in a relapse state but he was completely caught off guard by it.
He learned an important lesson there, and he went on to share that lesson with other people. He was doing very well at that time from a spiritual standpoint, but this was not enough to protect him. Because he was not putting his physical health first, he let an injury cause him to relapse in the end. The holistic approach would have helped to prevent this relapse from happening, while his spiritual only approach was not enough to do so.
The holistic approach to recovery is the solution to a million different forms of relapse
The example above is just the tip of the iceberg. It is difficult to explain just how devious and sneaky our addiction can be in trying to get you to take a drink or a drug.
Therefore the strongest path in recovery is for you to be working a holistic program.
What does this mean, to work a “holistic” program?
It means that every day you need to be paying attention to the following areas of your health and well being:
1) Physical health (more important in my experience) – this means not putting addictive chemicals into your body, but also proper nutrition, fitness, exercise, sleeping well. Taking care of your physical body in every way.
2) Spiritually – this does not necessarily mean “higher power” as much as it means “finding a connection” and also being grateful every day. If all you did was to practice gratitude deeply, that would probably be enough. Spirituality is not the key that traditional recovery thinks it is. It is just one piece of the puzzle.
3) Emotionally – this is huge. If you are knocked off your square emotionally you could easily relapse. You must avoid toxic stress in your life at all costs.
4) Relationships – another big one. Many, many people relapse over a relationship that went bad. You must learn to protect yourself from this possibility. One way is by working on all of these other areas before you start trying to explore a new relationship in your life. (Regular friendships are not as big a threat to sobriety).
There are other categories as well, but really what you need to watch out for are big red flags.
If there is something in your life that is causing you undue stress and harm then you need to fix it. That may be one of the things listed above it or it may be something else like financial problems, mental issues, or any number of other things. If something has the power to upset you and knock you off your square then you need to address it and fix it.
Early recovery is basically made up of eliminating this sort of negative stuff. There are all of these things in your life that have the potential to ruin you and make you relapse. Your job is to fix them and eliminate them so that you do not end up relapsing.
There are a million and one excuses for every alcoholic to relapse and drink. Your job is to improve your life and make positive changes so that you eliminate all of the major excuses. Sure, you could still end up drinking. But it is much less likely to happen if you have done the hard work of eliminating all of the major pitfalls.
As you can imagine, any recovering alcoholic could make an effort at some of these things and then later end up trailing off in their effort. This happens all the time, over and over again. They make an initial effort to make positive changes in recovery but then they run out of steam and revert back to their old behaviors and patterns of abuse. How can this be prevented?
Habits are recurring. Making positive changes are infinitely more powerful if they are locked in as new positive habits.
This is why we say that you must “reinvent yourself” in recovery over and over again.
It is not that you always making changes, but is that you are always seeking to push yourself towards healthier and healthier habits.
How to start forming your daily habits by taking suggestions from other people
One of my biggest recommendations in early recovery is that you take suggestions and advice from other people.
This actually runs counter to my advice in long term sobriety (which is essentially to figure out what you want in life and then set out to achieve it), but in early recovery this advice is critical. People who ignore it always relapse. This is just what I have observed after working a rehab for 5+ years and watching thousands of people try to get sober.
It takes a great deal of humility. The idea is simple: You must surrender completely to your disease and get out of your own way in early sobriety. In order to do this you must let go of all need to control and let other people tell you what to do.
This is really hard to do. Most people find that they just cannot do it. Give up total control and let someone else run my life? Let someone else tell me what to do? No way!
But that is what gets you amazing results in recovery.
I don’t care how smart you think you are. I thought I was pretty smart. The truth was that I still could not find sobriety unless I went through this process that I am describing to you. I had to surrender, I had to get out of my own way, I had to let other people tell me how to live my own life. It was a bit humiliating, but at the time I really did not care anymore. This is a key point: You must be so miserable in your addiction that you no longer care about someone telling you how to live. Pretty intense, I realize that. But this was the point at which things started to get better and better for me.
One other thing: While I was working in rehab, I watched thousands of people (literally!) try to get clean and sober themselves. Some people made it and many of them did not. Of the people who actually remained sober, I cannot think of one single person who was cocky, doing it all their own way, or who was not open to suggestions. Those kinds of people always, always, always relapsed. And some of the people who seemed to have genuine humility also relapsed. But the people who remained sober were always humble. Always. This is a really important observation because honestly there are not any other traits that I can find that are common among the “winners” in early recovery. Basically the only predictor that is worth anything at all is humility. And even that fails at times, because the disease of addiction is just so darn powerful and tricky.
Becoming the person you were meant to be in long term recovery through positive habit formation
There is a massive bonus to anyone who will heed my advice and try to attain this ideal life of positive habit formation in recovery.
Your life will get really, really good.
Believe it or not there are some people who manage to cling to sobriety who are not happy at all. They are sober and they seem to remain sober but they are definitely not happy with their life.
You do not want to end up as one of those people.
Recovery should be fun, exciting, interesting, and…..challenging.
That last bit is key. No one wants to hear that least bit, that recovery is supposed to be “challenging.” They want to hear that it is going to be easy, or that it gets easier and easier.
In truth recovery does not really get easier. It does get….different. But you still go through challenges. Life keeps happening. Life keeps showing up, even after you are sober for 10+ years.
It may not get easier, but it does change. Maybe you start to understand the journey a little better, and realize that if something challenging or frustrating comes up, then you are simply meant to learn something from it. So you can watch yourself a bit more objectively and you know that there is always a lesson in things, but that doesn’t automatically mean it will be easier.
On the other hand, the rewards keep coming as you move through the challenges of sobriety. Your life does get better and better, even though it may not become super easy like you were hoping.
As you keep establishing new positive habits in recovery, you will affirm more and more that you are becoming the person that you were really meant to be. Success breeds more success. The holistic approach will yield benefits in your life that could never have been predicted (for example, how exercise + proper nutrition may lead you indirectly to better relationships and emotional health). If you keep pushing yourself to make incremental improvements over time then your life keeps getting better and better.
Positive habit formation is the cornerstone of holistic relapse prevention. The positive changes you are making become an every day defense against relapse.