What is the best way to prevent relapse for a recovering alcoholic?
For me this question dominated my life during the first decade of my recovery. I really wanted to know what the “real answer” to this was, so I was constantly seeking and searching for it.
When I was in very early recovery I simply listened to the conventional wisdom–people told me to go to meetings every day and not to drink in between. So I did this for quite a while but during the meetings I was searching for a deeper answer. As if I was saying: “There has to be more to the secret of sobriety than just showing up to these meetings every day.”
And so I was told things like “the solution is in the steps.” So I started to do the work of recovery, and to take action in my life, but I did not necessarily get a lot of relief from the 12 steps or implementing them into my life. I did in some ways but overall they were not this huge key for me that they seemed to be for some people in recovery. Many people at AA meetings who have experienced a massive transformation through the 12 steps will rave about them and tell you that if you do not work the steps you will drink and you will die. It wasn’t quite like that with me, I made an effort with the 12 steps but I feel like my real growth was elsewhere.
For example, there was a point in my recovery when I realized that I was stuck in self pity. I figured out that this was my problem, that I loved to feel sorry for myself, and this was the drama in my mind that allowed me to fuel my drinking. This was how I rationalized my drinking, through self pity.
I figured this out when I was pretty early in my sobriety because it was forcing me to think about relapse. I wanted to relapse. And I was struggling to figure out what was going on. And so I identified that it was self pity and I realized that I had to stop it.
In terms of the 12 steps, I suppose this would have been a “character defect.” But I had not explored the steps yet and I was still basically at the point of “I surrender, I need a new way to live, and I am going to try to have faith in something else in order to do that.” Essentially steps one, two, and three. I was sort of stuck there for a while in early recovery even though I later worked through the remaining steps as well. I think this is a pattern that many people experience in early recovery.
In spite of being “stuck there” I realized the need to overcome my self pity. So I did so on my own through sheer force of will. I simply told myself that if I allowed my brain to focus on self pity that it was going to cause a relapse. Because I could see it coming at this point. So I made a deal with myself and with my brain. I told myself that if I noticed any self pity at all that I was going to instantly shut it down and redirect my thoughts elsewhere. In essence I was establishing a “zero tolerance policy” for self pity. It was not allowed to run around in my head, unchecked, any longer.
Sure, it would still pop up from time to time. But when it did I shut it down immediately. This is an increase in awareness. Now you are “watching” your mind and making sure that it is not doing things that it is not supposed to do. This is actually very powerful and I highly recommend it. You can use it for anything, including other things like:
* Resentment or anger against others.
* Fear or worry about things beyond your control.
* Shame or guilt.
And so on. Anything that is negative that is running around in your mind, you should have a policy against it. Just shut it down.
In making this policy with yourself, you increase your awareness. You elevate your consciousness. Even if you don’t always catch yourself immediately. At least you are trying. You will get better and better at it if you persist.
And you might say: “Well how do I just shut off worry? Or resentment? Or anger? Or fear? Or guilt?” And so on.
The answer is simple:
You shut it down with gratitude.
If you want to achieve long term sobriety then start practicing gratitude right now. Every day.
You cannot feel any of that negative crap if you are grateful in the moment.
Notice that gratitude can only happen right now. It cannot happen in the past or in the future, but you can only practice gratitude in the moment.
You are fooling yourself if you snap at someone in anger and say “I will be grateful later!” Yeah, right. You can only be grateful NOW.
So when you find yourself in anger, or shame, or fear, or self pity, or whatever your problem is that goes on in your mind every day, the answer is to:
1) Notice the problem is happening. Become aware of your own mind.
2) Make a policy that you will shut it down the second you notice it.
3) Start practicing gratitude so that you can replace the negativity instantly.
So how do you practice gratitude?
The traditional teaching is to make lists.
I encourage this teaching. Sit down, bust out a writing implement, and list what you are grateful for in that very moment.
Not what you should be grateful for. Or think you should.
But what you are actually grateful about.
Write it down. Jot it down.
Then crumple it up and throw it away.
The reason you throw it away is because you will do it again. And again. And again.
If you practice this daily then you will become really good at it.
And being able to summon gratitude at a moment’s notice is very, very valuable skill to have in recovery.
In fact, if someone says that they are on a spiritual path and they do not know how to do this, then they are sort of fooling themselves a bit.
Gratitude is a basic measuring stick of your spiritual progress. No gratitude, no progress.
So start practicing. Make a daily habit of it. Try to get better at being grateful. This will serve you well in recovery.
Relapse prevention is traditionally taught as a list of tactics
Most people who learn about relapse prevention do so in a treatment center.
In that particular setting they will typically give you a list of tactics, much like the gratitude exercise from above. They make suggestions. “Do these things in order to prevent relapse.” They will give you ideas or lists of ideas for things that can prevent relapse when you feel like you are being triggered. Such as: Call your sponsor, go to a meeting, call a friend in recovery, etc.
Those are tactics. They are simple actions that you can do in case of emergency. And there is nothing wrong with that concept, other than the fact that those tactics are ineffective once you reach a certain tipping point.
In other words, once the alcoholic reaches a certain threshold, there is no recovery tactic that can save them. They have already made the decision to drink in their mind, they just haven’t picked up the booze yet. They have snapped. And no recovery tactic can save them after they have snapped. They will not listen to reason. They are gone. They are going to take a drink, the only question is when.
So I think this is a problem with traditional teaching about relapse prevention. It is good to have a list of “tools” such as going to meetings, calling the sponsor, and so on. But ultimately those are all reactionary approaches. You feel like you might relapse, so then you take this certain action. You must react.
But sometimes it is too late to react. Sometimes you have already snapped and there is nothing more that can be done to help you.
In that case you needed something more than a list of tactics. You needed to be living according to a strategy. You needed to be living in a way that would have prevented you from “snapping” in the first place. And that means you need a long term strategy for recovery. You need a system in place that can prevent you from reaching that point where you snap.
Why a tactical approach is not as good as a strategic approach to recovery
So what is a strategy for recovery that can prevent relapse?
My opinion is that it is a life that you are actively creating rather than passively living.
This is an important distinction because many people in recovery from addiction become passive without even realizing. Show up to these AA meetings every day, read this literature, and you will stay sober. So they go through the motions and they are are not drinking and it seems to be working. Is their life amazing? Not necessarily, but it is getting a little better. They keep going through the motions and they cling to sobriety.
This is not the path that we are looking for in recovery. It is not active enough.
Someone can do the same things but then take them a step further and have a more active role in life. They can get involved at the meetings. They can start sponsoring people, reaching out to others and helping them. Maybe they are too early in the program to sponsor someone so they start their own literature study meeting. Whatever the case may be, they take a more active role in recovery. They start building something, they start taking action, they go beyond just the regular list of recovery tactics.
Now in order to live this way you need a strategy. Your strategy should be one of personal growth and holistic health.
What exactly does this mean, personal growth and holistic health?
Your health is your most important asset, because without you are dead. There are many forms of health, as indicated by the word “holistic”:
1) Physical health and wellness.
2) Mental health.
3) Emotional health.
5) Social health.
So if you are lacking in any one of these areas, it can have a seriously negative impact on your life.
So one part of your overall strategy should be to say to yourself:
“I want to be as healthy as possible, in a holistic sense.” That means that you will pursue health in each of these areas on a regular basis.
The other part of your strategy is based on “personal growth.”
I can break that down into two simple ideas:
1) Improving your life (internal, your mind, how you think each day).
2) Improving your life situation (external, your circumstances, what you deal with on the outside of your mind).
I believe that it is important for you to strive to improve both of those things–both the internal and external aspects of your life.
If you work through the 12 steps of AA, for example, then this is focusing on the internal stuff. You will mostly be fixing the stuff that goes on in your head. Helpful, no doubt, but incomplete. It is not enough to just work the steps. They are not a complete program of recovery in my opinion. In fact, they do not even instruct you not to drink!
We need more direction than that. And you need to make changes in the real world. If you go to an AA meeting you will hear people say that “you need to change people, places, and things in your life in order to recover.” This is the external stuff that I am talking about. Why isn’t this in the 12 steps? I am not sure about that. But I believe that it should be. Therefore it is an important point in my own recovery philosophy. You need to strive to improve your life situation, the stuff that goes on in your external world, the stuff that makes up your circumstances. It is all important.
How to develop a coherent recovery strategy that fits your life
So at one time my goal was to figure out what the optimal recovery strategy was by looking at different case studies of people in recovery. If you can find the similarities between the success stories in recovery then you should be able to piece together a recovery strategy, right?
I found this to be true. I started noticing similarities with people who were “winning” in recovery. They have a saying in AA meetings: “Stick with the winners.” This is because there are always some people in a group who are doing noticeably better than the others. That’s just how it goes, unfortunately. So they common wisdom is that you should seek out those “winners” and take advice from them, because they are obviously doing something right.
My belief is that if you take advice from the “winners” in recovery and you test it out in your own life then eventually you will create a winning recovery strategy for yourself.
Really what you are doing at that point is you are testing recovery tactics. For example, one such tactic in my life involves exercise. I feel really good when I am exercising every day and being in good shape. This has a profound impact on my sobriety. People told me this for years in early recovery but I did not listen to them. Or rather, I listened to them but I was not in a position where I was willing to make the effort to change. I tried a few times but I gave up because it was too much work for too little reward. My mistake at that time was that I lacked persistence. I did not give it a fair chance. I did not try for long enough.
But I kept noticing this theme among the “winners” in recovery. They took care of themselves. They took care of their body. They were in shape. They worked out. It was a theme that I kept noticing. So at some point I had to try again. And eventually it sparked something in me and I “got it.” And so exercise became a part of my recovery.
And it was part of my overall strategy. What strategy is that? My strategy of personal growth and holistic health. I want to be healthy and I want to improve my life. Those are the basic ideas behind my strategy.
So having a strategy like that can help to dictate new decisions for you. If you are evaluating whether or not you should do something, you can simply ask yourself: “Will this help my overall health in recovery? Will it help me to achieve personal growth? Or is it a step backwards in those areas?”
This is how having a strategy can help you to be flexible. If you just use a list of recovery tactics then you may not be able to think on your feet, to process new information like this.
You need a way to filter new decisions in recovery. That filter should be based on a recovery strategy. And my belief is that your strategy should be based on health and growth.
Why you should listen to other people in order to develop a recovery strategy
When you take advice from other people in recovery, you are taking a massive shortcut.
Don’t feel bad about this shortcut. It still takes dedication and guts to make it work in the end. But you can avoid much pain and suffering if you take advice from other people.
It is quite simple: Find a “winner” in recovery. Someone who you think is “winning” at the game of life. It should not be too difficult for you to pick such people out. If you can’t find any people like this, then go to a few different AA meetings. You will find such people if you care to look.
The idea here is modeling. You are going to model your behavior after this person in order to get the same results that they got. If you do not want their results then do not model them. Simple.
This is a shortcut. You might look at a “winner” in recovery and say “I think I will try to get their results. But instead of asking them what they did each day to achieve those results, I will just thrash around and hope for the best.”
Yeah…..not a good idea. Why not just ask the person what they did in order to achieve the life they are living?
When you do this you take a massive shortcut. It is one of the very few secrets to wisdom. In order to use it though you have to kill your ego. Push your ego aside and take advice and direction from someone else in recovery.
If you do this consistently for a year and you really follow the advice you are given, you will adopt their recovery strategy over time. And obviously this will serve you well if it is serving them well.
If it doesn’t work out then just find a different “winner” in recovery and model them instead.
The key though is to take action, to do something, to try something. Test ideas out. Don’t assume that anyone is right (including me!) until you test it out for yourself. Results matter! So find the results that you want by experimenting and trying new things. Always be testing new ideas for personal growth in your life.
What about you, have you been successful at preventing relapse? What is your strategy or technique? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!