Relapse in addiction or alcoholism recovery is a complete tragedy. The stakes are extremely high because the recovery journey is entirely pass/fail. As they say in traditional recovery circles: “You are either working on recovery, or you are working on a relapse.” There is no in between. If you think that you have found a middle ground, then you are actually drifting towards a dangerous relapse. You don’t get to sit idle in recovery. The only path forward is one of personal growth.
So what can you do in order to avoid the tragedy of relapse? I can only speak from personal experience and my own observations–having relapsed twice and then this last time around I have stayed sober for over 12 years and counting. In addition to those experiences I have worked in a rehab facility for many years and made hundreds or even thousands of observations about what works and what does not in recovery.
If I were to give people advice on how to avoid relapse, the following is what I would tell them…..
Dedicating your life to sobriety
The first two times that I tried to get clean and sober I was not really serious about it. I had not surrendered fully to my disease, and therefore I was not willing to dedicate my life to sobriety. In fact, I was annoyed at the time that the recovery community seemed to demand so much of my time and energy. Why did they want me to go to rehab for 28 days? In my opinion (at the time) this was much too big of a commitment. And then they expected me to attend counseling every week and go to AA meetings every night? It was all just too much for me. But understand that it was all too much for me because I wasn’t ready. I just wasn’t ready to take action yet. I wasn’t willing to dedicate my life to sobriety.
In some AA meetings or treatment centers they suggest that you have to “build your life around your recovery, and not the other way around.” Meaning that if you try to go back to your normal life and just drop in a little bit of recovery here and there, you are going to fail and relapse. They are absolutely correct in this. What you really want in your recovery journey is to start it all out with a “hard reset.” Meaning that you wipe everything in your life out of the way and start with an extremely strong foundation in early recovery. For example, I did this myself by living in long term treatment for 20 months. After I left that treatment center my life still revolved around recovery. And even to this day, 12 years after getting clean and sober, my life is still all about addiction recovery. I talk about it, I write about it, and many of my friends (almost all of them really) are in recovery. Many of the daily connections that I make are about recovery. Many of the emails that I get are about getting and staying clean. My whole life has been about recovery since the day I got clean and sober.
And this is the whole secret. But you have to realize that at first I was never willing to take it to this level. When I was still early in my drug and alcohol addiction I thought “yeah maybe I could go to a few meetings or something, but nothing serious.” I was not ready to commit fully to a new lifestyle. I was still hanging on to my old ideas, to my old lifestyle, to my old friends and my old hangouts. This is what they mean when they say that “you must let go absolutely.” That means that you have to let go of everything….all of it. If you are still hanging on to the past then it will be very hard to start over in recovery.
If you want to overcome the possibility of relapse then one method is to dedicate your entire life to recovery. This is the level that I had to start at in order to get a fresh start on my life. This is also what they mean in AA when they say “half measures availed us nothing.” If you only put in a “half” effort at your recovery then you will not get good results.
Use the odds to inspire you to take action
If you have been around the addiction recovery scene for any length of time then you have probably heard people talk about relapse and success rates. This is very common and people seem to love to talk about how difficult it is to stay clean and sober. Many times when you hear people quote success rates they are only talking about 3 to 10 percent or so who will actually stay clean and sober.
If you look at the entire pool of people who attempt to get clean and sober, maybe 5 percent of them will still be sober a year from now (without any relapse). But then the amazing thing is that if you take, say, 100 people who make it to one year sober, only 5 percent of them will still be clean and sober after five years. These are the sort of “scary statistics” that people love to throw around in treatment centers and AA meetings. When they say such things they are hoping to “scare people straight.”
If you go to a treatment center or attend 12 step meetings then you are bound to hear some of these statistics yourself. It is easy to be discouraged or annoyed with such statistics and I admit that I used to be that way myself. But ultimately you have a choice: You can either be discouraged by the grim statistics or you can be inspired by them. I recommend that you choose to be inspired.
And how exactly can you do that? If you hear how heavily the odds are stacked against you, then you should use this as a primer to get you to take more action. If only 5 percent of people “make it” in recovery, then you need to be trying harder than 95 percent of your peers. So ask yourself: “Are you?”
So when you are debating as to whether or not you want to go to that meeting, write in your journal, study some literature, or whatever you might be considering for your recovery–the obvious answer is to “just do it!” Don’t beat around the bush when it comes to your recovery efforts…..dive in head first. See the last point as well about dedicating your entire life to recovery. If the odds are stacked against you then you want to make sure that you are doing everything possible in order to give yourself an advantage.
Be in it for the long haul and don’t push too hard or too fast
The pace of your recovery journey is important. There is a phenomenon that you may have heard of around traditional recovery called “pink cloud syndrome.” This is where you are fairly new in your recovery and everything seems to be coming up roses and everything is just grand in life now that you are sober, and apparently it is happiness and bliss from now to eternity. The problem with this state of being is that eventually what goes up must come down, and life will give us an inevitable twist or turn at some point. That is just the nature of life–there are going to be ups and downs. So if you find yourself floating along on this “high” in sobriety then you should realize that eventually the tide will likely turn a bit. Not that it is all doom and gloom–you just need to stay realistic that you will not be derliriously happy forever and ever.
In a similar way, you do not want to push yourself to quickly for personal growth in recovery, lest you burn out. Pace is important.
So the question is:
How can you push yourself to make personal growth without over-doing it and burning yourself out?
How can you find the right balance in your journey?
The answer is that you need to give some conscious thought to your journey of personal growth, and use the following strategies to implement it:
* Prioritize your goals and find the highest impact goal first. This is your first and primary objective in life: your biggest goal (or hurdle!).
* Focus on that one goal until you achieve it. Put all of your energy into it for a sustained period.
* Seek advice, feedback, and guidance from your peers and/or sponsor. Try to get advice from several different sources about how you should pursue future changes in your life. Try to get wisdom from people who have achieved the sort of success that you are seeking.
* Pause and reflect after achieving a major goal. Evaluate your life and seek more feedback about your progress. Determine your next goal by prioritizing again.
You can use these strategies and techniques without burning yourself out. Keep a nice steady pace in your personal growth so that you do not become overwhelmed.
Long term commitment to growth
If you want to succeed in long term sobriety then you need to commit to long term growth. This is a decision that you are never going to stop learning. Some people get into recovery and they have this destination in site….they feel like they “arrive” at some point, and therefore they are done with the growth process. This is obviously a mistake and the key is to realize that you are never done growing in recovery.
Incremental growth in recovery has tremendous rewards if you are willing to take consistent action. Most people do not start out in early recovery with this level of discipline, however. It has to be learned and developed over time, through consistent action.
I never really made this commitment to long term growth right off the bat. It took me several years before I was ready to have the correct attitude towards long term growth. Why was this?
Because in very early recovery I had not yet reaped any of the benefits of long term growth. In very early recovery, I had received some of the benefits of sobriety, but certainly not all of them just yet. It takes time for those full benefits to fully kick in. After I had experienced some of these longer term growth benefits in my recovery, I wanted more. And so therefore I became more willing to commit myself to long term growth projects.
This meant that I was willing to go back to college, even though I knew that I would not get immediate benefit from doing so. And there was also the goal of running a marathon, which is not something that you can just set out and do on a whim one afternoon! It took some careful planning and serious dedication to be able to achieve those sort of goals, but these are the sort of things that (I believe) make recovery worthwhile. What did you get clean and sober for if you are not going to push yourself to go above and beyond, right? I believe we have some obligation to fulfill our true potential in recovery, to become the person we were supposed to be before our addiction derailed us.
Fighting complacency through a long term vision
Eventually these thoughts of long term growth should evolve into a long term vision for yourself. Where do you see yourself in five years, in ten years from now? What are you going to be doing with your life then?
Well, what do you want to be doing with your life in five years? This is your vision for the future. My own personal vision for the future has changed and evolved as I remained clean and sober over the years. Part of this was because I achieved some of the previous vision that I held for myself, and part of it was because I matured to the point where I wanted different goals in my life. In other words, I was making progress and also learning as I went along.
If you do this learning process with the right attitude then it will definitely help to protect you from complacency. If you approach long term recovery with the wrong attitude then it can set you up for failure and eventual relapse.
My long term vision has always challenged my own personal limits. I want to reach out and help others, but I want to do it at a scale that is both meaningful for me as well as being most helpful to other people. The limit to which you push yourself is a personal choice, and you have to live with the consequences. I can (and have) limited myself in the past to only helping one person: myself. At other times I have attempted to reach out and help more than just myself, but to include lots of other people as well. Writing online is just one possible medium for this out of many opportunities. I know a guy in AA right now who has a huge impact on the lives of many people in recovery, yet he never writes anything online. He might observe that I affect many people but do it in a completely different way from what he does.
This is part of the challenge as well: finding your own unique strengths and talents in recovery. If you want to truly reach your potential in recovery then you have to find a way to use your unique talents to help other people. Usually when you figure this out, society has a way of compensating you for it. If not, then find another avenue of helping people.
You should be working towards a long term vision for yourself and for your life situation, unless you have “already arrived” there. And I suspect that no one ever fully “arrives,” as there is always more incremental progress to be made.
The power of 12 step work or helping others
Already discussed in many parts of this article is the power of helping others. This is by far one of the most powerful relapse prevention strategies because it helps to prevent relapse right from the core. You cannot be simultaneously helping someone else to recover while also moving towards relapse yourself. It is just not possible. Therefore, helping others in recovery is an important technique to learn and incorporate into your overall recovery strategy.
There are plenty of traditional paths for doing this, including 12 step meetings, sponsorship, and so on. But there are also many non-traditional paths that might be a better fit for you, though you will not hear about them in traditional recovery venues (such as at AA or NA meetings). These would include things such as online recovery, church communities, big brother or big sister programs, and other alternative methods of connecting with others.
How you connect with other people and help them is not nearly as important as the fact that you actually do it. If you have struggled to maintain sobriety in the long run then this may be the crucial ingredient that you are missing. Find a way to help others and to give back. Find a way to do it with your unique strengths and talents.
Looking at past mistakes and determining your level of support
One final issue when it comes to avoiding relapse is to look to your past in order to learn about your future.
I had to get honest with myself in looking at my past recovery attempts. Clearly, short trips to inpatient rehab centers were not enough to really help me. I had already been to a 14 day and a 28 day program, only to get out of both and relapse almost immediately. I knew that I needed more help based on these failures.
So I had to get serious about looking a deeper level of support. Long term rehab was not something that I warmed up to in the past, but at some point I had to look at my past track record and admit that I needed to use a new approach. I needed to take more action, more drastic action, in order to get the results that I wanted. And so that forced me to consider long term rehab.
What tips do you have for avoiding the tragedy of relapse? How have you managed to stay clean and sober? Let us know in the comments!