We need structure in early recovery from alcoholism.
I needed structure when I was in early recovery. Of course no one believes that they “need structure.” I think deep down we all believe that we are smarter than average, that we don’t need special rules to live by, that we will be just fine going our own way, thank you very much.
But the truth is that I needed a whole lot of help in getting sober. And based on watching other people recover, I think that everyone needs some structure in early sobriety if they are going to make it.
Why we need structure in early sobriety
Recovery is a battle of momentum. It is a battle of inertia.
Your old life is based on self medicating every day. That was what you did. You drank alcohol or used drugs in order to escape from yourself.
And you did this over and over again.
This creates a pattern. A set of habits. And obviously it is difficult to break free from these habits. Hence, our addiction.
Now in recovery we make a decision that we are not going to drink any more. We are done with self medicating. No more.
And so we have this decision to stop putting chemicals into our body, and we have to walk around each day and live by this decision.
How are we going to do that when there is so much temptation, when our mind is screaming at us every minute to just indulge and reward ourselves with a drink? How can we fight this temptation in early recovery so that we do not relapse?
The key is in taking action.
Establishing new habits to replace the old ones.
You can’t just stop drinking, change nothing else in your life, and expect a miracle. If this works for you then I am grateful for your luck, but I don’t really believe that you are alcoholic.
No, the alcoholic needs to do more than to just stop drinking. They need to take action.
And when I use the phrase “massive action” I am actually talking about the concept of “consistent action.”
In other words, when I look back in my life and note that I took massive action on something, what I really mean is that I took consistent action. I followed through. I stuck it out until I got good results.
If you want to make it through early recovery then you need this sort of action in your life.
Positive action. Positive changes.
But not only that–those changes have to be consistent.
Question: How many people try to get sober and then relapse within the first six months?
Answer: Nearly all of them.
That is not meant to be a funny joke; statistically it is absolutely true. Nearly everyone who tries to sober up initially will relapse within the first six months (over half before the first 30 days are up, actually).
I am not trying to depress you with these stats as many people do, in fact, make it in recovery. You can be sober if you truly want it. Anyone can.
So what is the problem? Why do so many relapse?
Because they do not follow through. They don’t take consistent, positive action.
So we can frame this idea in terms of structure.
There are probably several different ways we can look at this particular problem. For example, we can frame it in terms of willingness. The people who relapsed lacked willingness.
Or we can frame the problem in terms of honesty. The people who relapsed were not honest enough with themselves about their problem, and about how much help they really needed.
We can frame the problem in a number of different ways, but one of the most practical ways to look at it is in terms of structure.
Because the concept of structure is something that is directly actionable.
I got to a point in my own journey when I decided “yes, I need more structure in my life if I am going to beat this addiction.”
How living in long term rehab saved my life
Living in long term rehab saved my life.
I had resisted the idea of going to long term rehab for many years. In fact, I swore that I would commit suicide before I would ever check into long term rehab. I was pretty immature with that idea, I admit. But in reality I was simply afraid. I was scared. So I covered that fear of sobriety up with anger. “I’ll kill myself before I live in rehab!” Yeah, whatever. I was afraid, what can I say?
But I reached a point in my addiction where I was beyond miserable. You hear the saying all the time: “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.” That is the point I had finally reached. I was totally sick of it all. And I wanted out, at any cost. I wanted change. And I was too afraid to take action, for the most part.
But my misery finally grew to the point where I surrendered. I was able to cast my fear aside. I was sick of being afraid. And so I finally made that leap of faith while I was in complete and total misery. I said to myself “I am miserable and drinking and drugs no longer make me happy. Something, anything has to be better than this.”
And that was my moment of surrender. I cast my fears aside. Or rather, I became so miserable that my fear no longer mattered. I was able to look past the fear. I simply stopped caring about the fear. I was burned out on living in fear, on being afraid.
And so I became willing (see how you can frame the problem in different ways? Willingness, honesty, structure, etc). I became willing to ask for help and to go to rehab.
And I was honest with myself at the time, knowing that if I just did 28 days I would get out and go back to drinking. I had to be really honest with myself in order to admit this information to myself.
And therefore I knew what the answer was:
I needed structure.
I needed to protect myself from myself.
This is an important concept because I think it applies to pretty much every alcoholic and drug addict who is struggling through early recovery.
When you first get clean and sober and you are just starting out in recovery, the typical alcoholic is very vulnerable to self sabotage. They are very likely to screw themselves up.
If you listen to people talk about this in AA meetings they will use language such as: “The disease will try to trick you into taking a drink.”
We sabotage ourselves. The alcoholic is their own worst enemy in early sobriety. Relapse is a constant threat.
And this is why structure is so important.
When I moved into long term rehab it was an agreement with myself to put this new structure in my life.
There were 2 group therapy sessions each week.
I had to go to AA meetings every day.
There was a one on one counseling session each week.
I had to get a sponsor and work through the steps.
I had to be back “home” to the rehab each night by a certain time (the curfew got later the longer you stayed in treatment).
So I was accepting this new set of rules in my life. I was accepting this structure. In exchange, I was getting the help that I really needed in order to stay sober.
The concept of “structure” is really just the idea that you are imposing a system that is forcing you to do things that you might not necessarily want to do on a consistent basis.
For example, if I left a 28 day detox program and then said “I don’t need structure, I will just go to AA meetings every day on my own.”
Would that really work for me? Maybe it would have and maybe it would not have. I don’t really know. I know that in the past I tried to do things on my own in order to solve my addiction problem and it failed miserably.
So the idea of putting myself into a structure (long term rehab) was very helpful. It forced me to do these things consistently.
So that over time my life started to reshape itself. I was forced to change for the better, whether I wanted to or not (because I had committed to living within this structure).
Old patterns of behavior and how to change them
I don’t think that you have to go live in long term rehab in order to get structure in your life.
Just look at the traditional AA sponsorship. Typically the sponsor will tell the newcomer: “Call me every day for the next 30 days straight.”
The nice thing about daily habits is that they happen every single day.
Does that sound painfully obvious to you? Daily habits happen daily!
But this is a revelation. Just look at the power of this idea when applied to AA meetings. Many people who used to drink every single day now go to a meeting every day. One of the benefits of this is that you no longer have to guess: “Do I really need a meeting today? Maybe I should skip it?” etc.
Instead of guessing like that you just go every day. Structure! Consistency! Now you are “fully covered,” so to speak.
I don’t necessarily even go to meetings and that may not be a huge part of your recovery journey either, but it helps to illustrate the point.
I like the idea of having a daily practice. This is structure.
I exercise every day. I don’t have to wonder if today is an on day or an off day. I simply exercise every single day. There is no question if I need to do it or not. I don’t have to waste time and mental energy struggling over whether I should do this thing or not. There is no question. It has to be done, because I am committed to it.
I am committed to the structure. To the consistency.
This is a very powerful tool in your sobriety.
I write about addiction and recovery every day. I don’t wake up and wonder if I should write today or not. I don’t contemplate if that is a good idea or not. It has already been decided long in advance. I committed to the structure because I evaluated it in the past and decided that it was a healthy part of my daily practice. So I simply do it every day. It is a part of who I am, a part of the consistent action that I take. Part of my structure.
If you want to change old patterns of behavior (and this is the whole point of recovery, no?) then you need to start replacing those old habits with new habits.
And when you do this, when you start taking new and positive actions in your life, you need to do it consistently.
And amazingly enough, this will lead you to total freedom.
How adopting a strong structure in early sobriety leads to total freedom
Before I quit drinking I believed that structure was evil. I thought that having structure in early recovery would be like being in prison.
I believed that total freedom meant self medicating every day as much as I wanted.
I had it all backwards.
When I first got sober I honestly did not know what to think. I was scared and I was sick and tired but I was so miserable that I was willing to walk through the fear. I was willing to face my fears of sobriety and see what was on the other side. But I had no idea what to expect.
I knew that I could not let myself get in my own way. I knew that I had to find structure in order to avoid self sabotage. In short, I knew that I had to listen to other people and their advice rather than following my own ideas.
This was scary. It was a leap of faith to do this. Basically what I was saying was: “I normally depend on my own ideas to make myself happy. But that hasn’t been working out lately, so I am going to listen to other people instead of myself. But I don’t really have any faith that their direction and advice can make me happy. But I am at my wit’s end so I will try it anyway.”
That was my attitude when I finally surrendered. I knew that I was unhappy in my addiction and that it was all my own fault. On the other hand, I had no great faith that other people could advise me to happiness.
But I did it anyway.
I took the leap of faith.
I can remember telling myself in my first week of recovery: “You are no longer in charge. You are no longer making the decisions. Let the therapists and the counselors here at rehab tell you what to do. You are going to follow their advice and see where it leads you. Because this drinking stuff no longer works.”
So I made this leap of faith. I killed my ego, essentially, and got out of my own way.
And it is important to point out that at this point I still had no great hope that I would be happy again. I did not actually believe that it would work. I figured that I would probably be miserable forever while I was sober.
I was willing to give it a try, to listen to advice, to adopt a new structure in my life. But I had no great hope that it would work.
Well, you know the end of the story I am sure.
I became happy. Life got better and better in recovery.
I don’t really remember exactly how long it took. Sometime during that first year of sobriety I had definitely found a new peace and a new happiness.
Of course I did not realize it right away. I lived in bliss and harmony for a few weeks before I even realized that “Hey, I am no longer miserable every day! And I am sober! This is a miracle!”
And from there it only got better and better.
I felt like I had stumbled on the secret of life. And I could not believe how I was being rewarded, and I was not even doing anything other than taking advice and listening to what people told me to do.
I had embraced a structure and started following directions. And life just got better and better.
It almost did not seem fair. I mean, who was I to be rewarded like this with such happiness, when I had not even figured any of it out for myself? All I did was to surrender to a new structure. I asked people to help me, and they told me what to do. I was blessed beyond measure. I was one lucky guy to become so happy in recovery.
And I had not pushed for this happiness. I was not searching for it. Because I honestly did not think it was possible. I really thought I would be miserable for the rest of my life in sobriety without alcohol or drugs to medicate with. So it came as a complete surprise.
And this is what having structure really did for me in early recovery.
It allowed me to overcome my own self, my own worst enemy.
Because if it had been up to me (which it was for many years), I would sabotage myself every time and go get drunk. I would take the immediate gratification over the long term goal of peace and contentment. And so I would screw myself up every time.
This was until I embraced some structure in my life.
I had resisted this idea of structure for so long, because I thought that it would enslave me.
In reality it set me free.
Going to long term rehab was the best decision I ever made. It is what gave me my life back.
I had to make that leap of faith though.
In early recovery, I had to embrace the structure that I was so afraid of. The structure that I thought would make me miserable. The structure that I thought would enslave me.
I had to embrace it and give myself over to it completely. Total surrender.
And this is what set me free.
I was in denial about the value of this structure for many years until I surrendered to my disease
In my journey towards long term sobriety I was always worried about my freedom. I wanted to be free, and in my mind this meant that no one could tell me what to do.
And the amazing plot twist that I never could have expected is that, as I voluntarily gave myself over to a new structure, and as I started taking advice from other people, my freedom and my power started to grow and grow.
I never could have anticipated this in a million years. That I would actually gain freedom by listening to others and following their directions.
There was no way that anyone was going to convince me of this when I was stuck in denial.
Instead, I had to break through my denial and surrender. I had to reach bottom, to be at that point of absolute misery.
And then I could finally say “I don’t know how to be happy any more, please show me how to live my life. Tell me what to do, and I will do it.”
And that is the leap of faith that you have to make in order to become sober.
You have to let go absolutely. You must let go completely.
Give your whole life away. Turn your world over to a new structure.
And in doing so you will gain the ultimate freedom.