What is the best way to overcome an addiction to drugs or alcohol? Clearly there is no straightforward answer to this that is going to work perfectly for everyone, but I believe that we can still learn a great deal by looking at the similarities.
In other words, what are the common trends that we see among people who are successful in recovery?
This is what I started to look at myself when I was making my journey through early sobriety. I wanted to know the truth, I wanted answers, I wanted to get down to the real secrets of sobriety. To be honest I was a little overwhelmed with all of the suggestions and advice that I was receiving as I attended daily AA meetings. And part of me just knew that there were inconsistencies because at times it would feel like I was getting conflicting information! So I had this drive to get down to the truth to figure out what was really important in terms of maintaining sobriety.
I was later shocked to find out that not everyone who stays sober does so through AA. This was because I was taught in very early recovery that the 12 step program was basically the only thing that had ever worked for anyone. But today I can look back and realize that the people who taught me that were simply scared. They were projecting their own fears into their message, the message that “We must all cling to the AA program because it is our salvation.” They wanted it to be true because they were afraid for their own sobriety, and so they projected this message onto others.
After learning that other people had found ways to remain sober and healthy without the 12 step program, I started to look at some of those people and ask questions. What were they doing that was different? And more importantly, what were they doing that was similar to the people in AA? Because whatever the commonalities are is where all the real truth is at. The similarities between recovering alcoholics reveal the fundamental principles in recovery. Because no matter which program you choose to use to recover you still have to draw from the same set of principles that lead to sobriety. It is those principles that we are most interested in.
By far the most important of these fundamental principles is that of surrender. Everyone who gets sober has to surrender. It doesn’t matter which program you follow or which recovery philosophy you believe in. Everyone has to surrender in order to win. And that means surrendering to a solution just as it means surrendering to the problem. In other words, you have to do more than just admit that you are alcoholic–you have actually embrace a solution and start following directions. But again, it doesn’t really matter which recovery program you might choose, any of them will technically work. The mechanics of sobriety are dead simple–just don’t drink and start taking positive action every day, making healthy choices, and building a new life. We all know what to do in order to live sober, we just don’t know how to transition to this new life. How do you implement it? How do you relearn how to be happy without drinking? How do you take these steps each day to work towards something positive? How do you pull yourself up off the floor when you are miserable and don’t even care to live a sober life, even if you could? These are the real challenges that the alcoholic faces, it is all about the action, the implementation. We all know what to do. But doing it is really tough.
Which is why recovery programs exist. They are pointers. They are sets of directions. They give us a map for a new life. But it is up to us to build that new life.
But don’t mistake the program for recovery. This is based on the old “finger pointing at the moon” parable. A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. And working a certain recovery program is not recovery. It is only a guide, a set of directions, the program merely points to recovery. But it is up the individual to take action and to implement the concepts into their daily life if they want to recover. So the question is: How do we set this process in motion? How do we drag ourselves out of the misery of addiction, and rebuild our lives?
Why inpatient treatment is your strongest starting point
My belief is that inpatient rehab is your strongest starting point. This will be true for most people, though not everyone who is sober will go to rehab.
I definitely recommend it though.
Being in rehab is easy. I tell this to people who have never been to inpatient rehab before. It is actually easy to be in rehab. There are really only two parts that are difficult, and neither one of them involves being in rehab itself:
1) Getting up the courage to attend inpatient rehab. Working through your denial in order to make the decision to go, and…
2) Leaving rehab and having to staying clean and sober without relapsing.
Those are the only two real challenges when it comes to rehab: The courage to go and then the ability to follow through when leaving. But actually being in rehab is dead simple, and completely non-threatening.
There are at least two strong points that make inpatient rehab the best starting point for most people:
1) You are guaranteed to remain sober and clean while in rehab. It is a controlled environment.
2) You learn how to remain sober and how to rebuild your life from people who have experience doing so.
These two points are really important. If you stay in treatment for 28 days then it is fairly easy to get 28 days sober. All you have to do is go through the motions, do what you are told to do, and not break any rules. This is actually really easy to do. Anyone can be in rehab, it is the getting there, and the post-treatment part, that is so difficult.
How to find plenty of support when you leave rehab
One of the things that a recovering alcoholic needs to know when they leave treatment is the importance of support systems. This is the number one reason why they encourage AA meeting attendance so heavily. If you leave treatment and you have no support at all from anyone else in recovery then you are going to have a very difficult time.
As a recovering alcoholic there will be a tendency to feel alone. There will be a tendency to question yourself and ask why in the world you are even trying to walk the path to sobriety. So you will need reassurance from others. You need reassurance from other people who have also walked the path, who are successful in sobriety, who can help to encourage you on your journey.
It is not enough to simply avoid negative people. Instead you must embrace positive people as well, and people who can relate to you directly in terms of quitting alcohol and drugs. You need people who can give you pointed advice about the exact struggles that you are going through. You need support from people who have been exactly where you are at in your journey. Without this sort of support you can easily drive yourself crazy believing that you are the only person in the world who has faced this same challenge of recovery. It is so easy for the alcoholic to isolate and to believe that they are unique and that no one else has ever faced their challenges before. But the truth is that many other alcoholics and drug addicts have overcome their exact problems, and so they need to hear this in order to gain hope and strength. So that they can do the same.
The easiest way to get this support is to simply embrace the 12 step program and go to AA. If you are in early recovery or you are just leaving treatment then I suggest that you do this. It is what I did in my own journey.
That said, I no longer go to AA meetings and I don’t think that they are truly critical for long term sobriety. I believe that they are important in early recovery for the support that they offer. In long term sobriety they are strictly optional, at least they have been for me. Daily meetings can be a source of inspiration or strength or they can also lead to complacency. It all depends on how you use them and what your attitude is towards sobriety. Daily meetings are a tool and therefore the intent behind there usage is what really matters. Use them in early recovery for support.
There are other places to find people in recovery outside of AA but you will have to look a little bit harder. Some people use recovery forums online such as the one here at Spiritual River.
A word of caution about the people you meet in inpatient treatment
When you are in treatment you will have a peer group consisting of the others that you are in rehab with. There will be a strong bond between you and these other people because it will feel like you all tried to get sober together. There will be a tendency to believe that you are all going to make it and that you will all stay in touch as you go forth in the world and discover this new journey together.
Here is the word of caution: Most of these people will relapse. And they will relapse quickly.
I don’t say this to be negative. I don’t say this to try to scare or intimidate you. I am telling you this because:
1) It is absolutely true.
2) It is important that you use this information to help you in your own recovery.
Now how can you use this information to help you?
The way you can use it is to make sure that you do not base your support system on the people that you meet in rehab. Instead, go to outside AA meetings (AA meetings that are not inside of the treatment center, but out in the real world) and meet people there. Base your recovery on the support of those outside AA meetings. Do not base your recovery on the people that you met inside of treatment.
The reason for this is because the outside AA meetings are sustainable. They were there before you went to rehab and they will still be there five years from now. You want to build your foundation of support on something that is sustainable.
The peer group that you met while you were in rehab is not sustainable at all. Let’s say that you met 20 to 30 people or so while in rehab. Chances are really good that 90 percent of them will relapse over the next 18 months. I am not making this up, the statistics are that bad. Furthermore, I went to rehab myself and then later I lived in long term treatment for 20 months. I can confirm that these sort of statistics are right on the money. Nearly everyone relapses. If you want to find stability then you should go to the AA meetings, the meetings found out in the real world, outside of the treatment centers.
You can learn a great deal from being in rehab and you will no doubt meet some interesting people. But do not rely on those people for support, because they will most likely let you down after leaving rehab.
I know that sounds like an incredibly negative message but it is true. You can even check me on it: When you are in rehab, be sure to ask the counselor or therapist which is more important:
A) Making friends with the peer group that you meet in rehab, or
B) Going to outside meetings after leaving rehab and finding a support system.
They will not have to think about this for a second, as option “B” is vastly superior to option “A.” You need a sustainable support system after rehab and the best place to get that support is from people who have a history of staying clean and sober. You can find those people in outside AA meetings. This is not the same thing as having 5 friends who all have 4 weeks sober just like you do.
Creating an even stronger foundation post-treatment
So the most important thing when leaving treatment is to take massive action. You don’t want to leave rehab and then sit around and do nothing.
Because if you do nothing then you will relapse. Remember that your default mode in life is to self medicate with drugs or alcohol. This is the default state of being. So if you do nothing special or make no special effort then you will revert to this default state. You will relapse if you do nothing.
In order to recover you must do something. You must take action. You must build a life of sobriety from scratch. The only way to do this is by taking action.
You got off on the right foot by taking action and going to rehab. This is an outstanding start to your new life. But it is only the beginning. And in fact it is just a tiny blip, it is almost nothing compared to your next ten years in recovery. You have a tremendous amount of work ahead of you when you leave treatment.
Building the foundation for this new life should be based on the pursuit of personal growth. I say “personal growth” because it encompasses these ideas:
1) Improving your life and your life situation (internal and external).
2) Eliminating bad habits that seek to drag you down.
3) Establishing healthy new habits that can lead you to a better life.
So this is how you build a new life in recovery. You start taking suggestions from other people and you start testing new ideas in your own life. When something works well for you then you keep the idea and you continue to build on it. When something doesn’t work so well you move on and find other new things to try.
In recovery, you never stop testing new ideas. You never close yourself off to the possibility of new ideas and growth. You are always open to learn something new or a way to improve yourself.
If you stop this process then you are in danger of relapse. As soon as you stop reinventing yourself then you are slowly drifting closer to the person that you used to be in addiction. The only way to avoid that slow reversion to relapse is to keep moving forward and innovating. You must constantly seek to refine and improve your life, both inside and out.
By “inside and out” I am talking about the the internal stuff as well as the external stuff.
Internal are things like anger, guilt, shame, resentment, self pity, needing to forgive others, needing to forgive yourself, seeking a higher power, meditating, etc. Everything that goes on in your mind.
External things are like your life situation. Your relationships, your job, your education, your career, all of that external stuff that happens in your day to day life. This stuff is all important as well. Sometimes in AA they refer to the external stuff as “people, places, and things.” All of this external stuff is important for your recovery as well.
In order to do well in long term sobriety you must consider both internal and external growth. You have to work on both aspects in order to truly protect yourself from relapse.
Living a successful life of sobriety
The long term life in sobriety is all about preventing relapse from a holistic standpoint.
The problem is that relapse can sneak into our lives from nearly any direction. It is very difficult to actively prevent relapse from any given direction and to do it all at the same time. For example, you could get an injury that requires you to take painkillers, and the addictive painkiller medication could lead you back to drinking. This has happened to at least 3 people that I have known in AA before.
So if relapse can sneak up on us from any given direction, how are we to protect ourselves against this threat?
The answer to that, I believe, is in the holistic approach to recovery.
When you use a holistic approach you are actively trying to improve your life in all areas, including things like:
1) Physical health, nutrition, sleeping habits, fitness.
2) Mental health, generating ideas, education, learning, being open to new ideas.
3) Social health, finding support, eliminating toxic relationships.
4) Emotional health and balance. Stability.
5) Spirituality and being grateful. Finding gratitude every day.
I believe that anyone who relapses in long term sobriety has dropped the ball in one or more of these areas. They may have been focusing heavily on one aspect of growth, but they went far too long in neglecting some or all of these holistic points.
Therefore the key to long term sobriety is to use a holistic approach, and to make sure that you are giving each of those areas attention on a regular basis. If you neglect any of those points then you leave the door open in that area for relapse to sneak back into your life.