I have a bit of experience when it comes to alcohol rehab and making mistakes.
For one thing, I went to rehab 3 times myself, obviously failing twice to stay sober.
Second of all, I lived in a long term rehab center for almost two years, and this was also connected to a short term residential treatment center. So I learned a lot while simply living in rehab for two years and observing people in early recovery.
Finally I worked in a detox and residential facility for 5 years+ and had the chance to watch hundreds or even thousands of recovering alcoholics over that time frame.
Now you would think that after someone comes into treatment, they would walk out of rehab one day and that would be the end of the story–never to be heard from again. What I learned in all of these experiences though is that treatment is certainly not an event. Instead it is more of an ongoing process, and over the course of about ten years I was able to really understand that at a very deep level.
For the most part, most alcoholics do not just one day decide to change, walk into rehab, get cured, walk out of treatment, and never take a drink ever again. This is what the ideal might be, but this is very rare that it actually works out in that tidy of a fashion.
Instead, the truth is messy. Just look at my own path in recovery–I went to rehab 3 times, and the last time I lived there for almost 2 years! That is not what I would call a “neat and tidy” recovery process!
Of course in the end the journey is well worth it–regardless of how many times you have to go to rehab. I knew one guy who was on his 22nd trip to rehab. He lived with me in long term treatment. Later he overdosed and died. So tragic (this was) that it is difficult to even process something like this, which is why no one should take recovery lightly.
That said, treatment can obviously make or break your recovery. Unfortunately it is not the cure that we all hope that it is, and on the other hand it is certainly better than doing nothing at all and just continuing to drink.
There is a right and wrong way to leave rehab. The wrong way results in relapse. The right way results in sobriety. Therefore it makes sense to talk with people who went to rehab, remained sober, and have advice to offer about how exactly they did it.
There are a million ways to trip yourself up after rehab and relapse, but there are only a few paths (and principles) that result in sobriety.
Let’s take a look at a few of the common mistakes that people make when leaving treatment.
Mistake #1: Not following through with aftercare recommendations
This is the big one, and quite honestly if you just pay attention to not screwing this one up then the rest of the suggestions in this article might very well just fall into place anyway for you.
Of course there are a lot of things tied into this concept. One of the big ones is pride. We don’t like to be told what to do, period. No one does. It makes us feel weak and stupid. But if you can learn some humility and take advice in early recovery then it will create a powerful effect in terms of personal growth.
When you go to treatment here is what basically happens:
1) You check into detox. Medical staff monitor your symptoms while your body purges itself from drugs and alcohol. They might give you some medications in order to manage your withdrawal symptoms. But the basic idea is that you detox from all chemicals.
2) You go to residential treatment. You attend groups and lectures and therapy. You learn about how to live a sober life.
3) You gain support. Most rehabs will introduce you to AA meetings or religious based support structures. So you learn and experience support from your peers.
4) You are instructed as to your aftercare. What is going to happen when you leave rehab? Everything that you do should prepare you for that transition.
There was one time when I was living in long term rehab and we brought up a good point in one of the therapy groups: “What the heck is each of your plans when you leave out of long term rehab? How are you going to stay clean and sober and build a life for yourself AFTER this treatment is over with?”
And that prompted a lot of good discussion, which inspired a lot of action and change. The idea is to get going on something, to make something happen, to realize that the clock is ticking. It is easy to stay sober when you are in rehab (this goes for short and long term rehab, all the same). But there is going to come a time when you walk out of those doors and back into the real world. It is then that your learning, support, and experience in early recovery is going to be put to the test. Do you have what it takes to remain clean and sober? The answer to that question is going to be based on how much work and effort you have put into your recovery so far.
Aftercare is what you do when you leave rehab. Do you go to therapy? Attend meetings every day? Read recovery literature? Get an AA sponsor and start going through the steps with them? Do you do all of the above? None of the above? Do you do all of it for two weeks and then get sick of it all and go back to drinking eventually?
The biggest mistake that people make when they leave rehab is simply this:
They don’t follow through.
They don’t take action. Their mistake is a lack of action.
If they would dive into the AA meetings every day, if they would explore the recovery literature and get honest with themselves, if they would get a real sponsor and start using that sponsor, if, if, if. But to be honest most people simply don’t do this stuff. They do fine while they are in rehab, because it is so easy to stay sober in rehab. But as soon as they get back into the real world everything falls apart. Temptations arise. Stress kicks in. And so on.
The biggest mistake you can make post-treatment is not doing anything. Doing nothing. Not following through.
Mistake #2: Not evaluating your life and pushing yourself to create change (even beyond quitting drinking)
So let’s say that you manage to avoid the big mistake in early recovery and you actually leave rehab and start taking action. You follow through. You go to meetings. You get a sponsor and you work through the steps.
This is another point where many people get burned out in early recovery. They make an initial push and they actually do start taking positive action in recovery, but then they peter out after a while. Complacency sets in. They get into a routine with their meetings and things get stale. They stop growing. They stop learning about themselves and they become complacent. Eventually this may or may not lead to relapse, depending on if they can correct the problem.
What actually has to happen is this: In order to grow and sustain your sobriety you need to keep pushing yourself to make personal growth. Your first few weeks of recovery are a special case for this, as you just made a pretty major change in your life by quitting drinking.
Of course we all know that if you stop there and do nothing else, you are going to relapse. Every alcoholic has proved this to themselves a million times before as they quit for a brief period and then relapse shortly thereafter. If nothing changes, nothing changes. We all know this by now.
So what you need to realize is that your sobriety is sustained only through the continuous reinvention of yourself. That may sound a little “new-agey” but it is the closest thing to the truth. In order to remain sober you have to keep moving forward, you have to keep making progress, you have to keep improving your life.
There are a whole host of things that you can work in early recovery, and many of them are actually vital to your chances of long term sobriety. For example, you need to fix many of the negative things in your life that are internal and threaten to sabotage your serenity. Guilt, shame, resentment, self pity, and anxiety can all threaten to drive you back to drinking some day. In order to sustain your recovery you must systematically figure out what these internal problems are and then take action to correct them.
Likewise, you will need to take a big step back and take an objective look at your life in recovery as well. I am talking here about your external situation in recovery–your job, your career, your relationships, your social circle, your finances, and so on. This is all of the “real world” day to day stuff that can threaten to trip us up in recovery. It has an affect on your sobriety.
Now some people will argue that it doesn’t really matter what is going on in their external world, so long as they have their internal life straightened out. In other words, some people argue that if they have done their homework in terms of spirituality, then it doesn’t really matter what is going on the real world, because they will be able to handle it.
I disagree with this approach. My strategy has always been to work on both the internal and the external. So not only do you try to become stronger internally and reduce the negative garbage in your mind, but you also try to improve your life situation so that there is far less stress and drama to have to deal with. Thus you are making progress as far as increasing your serenity from both an internal and an external approach at the same time. To me this is much more effective than just focusing on one or the other, as many recovery programs tend to do.
So this mistake is basically summarized as:
“Go to rehab, leave rehab and hit a few meetings, then stop most efforts at personal growth. Eventually relapse.”
The key is to instead embrace a strategy of long term personal growth.
Mistake #3: Ignoring feedback, lack of modeling
The third most common mistake that I see in early recovery has to do with the mentality that says “I can do it all myself and I don’t need any help.”
In particular, there is a whole world of help that you can receive from others if you are willing to open yourself up to suggestions and advice. Without this you are severely limited in your recovery to your own ideas.
Why is this a problem? Because our own ideas in recovery are not that powerful. This is especially true in very early recovery when all you really know how to do is to self medicate in order to try to escape the pain and misery of existing.
There is a saying in traditional recovery: “Your best thinking got you here.” Meaning that your best ideas about living ended up making you completely miserable.
The mistake that I see in early recovery is that people will not let go of their need for control.
It is amazing what happens when you let go. I cannot describe it perfectly but here is how it worked for me.
I was in early recovery and I had just gone to rehab. I realized that if I relied on my own thinking that I was probably going to relapse. I was basing this conclusion on the fact that this was now my third visit to rehab.
So I made a deal with myself. I made a silent agreement with myself that I would not follow any of my own ideas for the first year. At all. Instead, if I had an idea, I would make sure to bounce it off of several different peers in recovery before I ran off and made a big mistake. Because in the past this was how I lived my life–if I had an idea I simply ran with it, without stopping to check with other people to see if it made any sense.
So in early recovery I was doing this experiment. I was relying on advice from other people.
And here was the amazing part: I really didn’t think it would work. I thought it would be a disaster. Because at the time I was so self centered and so selfish that I really believed that I was the only one who could make myself happy, and that other people in this world could not possibly have my best interests at heart. And even if they did, how could they possibly know what would make me happy.
How could other people really know what would make me happy? How could they?
Well, I was wrong. This was the amazing part. Because I started to take other people’s advice while ignoring my own ideas. My plan was to do this for a full year but before the first 30 days was up I could already tell that I had stumbled onto something amazing.
It was like cheating. I was letting other people do my thinking for me.
And it was working!
My life got better and better.
This was a huge mistake that I had made in the past (not letting other people give me advice and direction).
Finally after 3 trips to rehab I decided to get out of my own way and trust other people for once.
Fixing these common mistakes
So there you have it, the three mistakes. They basically amount to:
1) Not following through after rehab.
2) Not embracing personal growth.
3) Not accepting feedback and advice from others.
So the solution to this is obvious, right?
It is not so much something that you have to figure out here….it is something that you have to DO.
You must follow through after rehab. The only way to do that is to take action. You can’t just sit around and talk about how it will be different this time. Actually take action and make it different!
The same is true with the other two mistakes. You can think about them all you want, or pay lip service to them and talk about it to death, but ultimately it all comes down to taking action.
You have to make an effort in order to get results.
Getting on the right path immediately after rehab
I don’t necessarily advocate for AA or 12 step programs as a long term solution in recovery. I have mixed feelings about them in the long run.
But in short term recovery it is hard to argue against the support that is offered.
So when it comes time to leave rehab, I would not hesitate one bit. Go to an AA meeting the first day that you get out of rehab. Try to make it within a few hours or less even. Get there fast.
When you get to that first meeting, you might tell them (right at the start) that this is your first real meeting outside of rehab.
If you do this then the amount of support that you will receive should be impressive. Most people in AA will bend over backward to try to help you out and give you support.
I would also recommend that you try to get a sponsor at that first meeting. Again, this is just a suggestion based on my 10+ years of observation in early recovery (and also based on what worked well for me).
You need to get into action. If you leave rehab and just go home and then maybe go to a meeting here or there, you are not doing enough. You have to be way more intense, way more committed to recovery than this. You must dive in head first and really change your whole world.
Most people who leave treatment are not intentionally trying to relapse. It just happens. They are not planning on it, they did not want it to happen, but it happens anyway. The way to prevent this is by taking massive action. Remember that relapse is the default. That is what is “normal” for the alcoholic–to be drinking alcohol! So in order to overcome this you have to put in a serious amount of work and effort. Don’t expect sobriety to just fall into your lap. It takes real work.