Is it really possible to fully recover from alcoholism? For someone who is not in the world of addiction and recovery, this is a very understandable question.
If I think back to before I had ever taken a drink in my life (and was not yet addicted to anything), I think that I probably had the following beliefs:
1) Alcoholism was simply weak-willed people who had no self control (obviously wrong).
2) Alcoholism was probably an easy thing to cure once it was diagnosed (also wrong).
In short, I did not really think much about alcoholism because I had no reason to do so. I did not have any alcoholics in my close family and so the only exposure I had to the disease was in the media. I believed what I did because I had no direct experience.
Of course, all of that changed when I finally took a drink one day, and found myself thoroughly addicted to the stuff, even though I had never even given permission to become addicted. It just happened. To me of all people. And I found myself caught up in what would become the biggest hurdle that I had ever faced in my lifetime.
Is it possible to fully cure alcoholism?
If an alcoholic manages to stop drinking on a seemingly permanent basis, does this mean that they have been “cured?”
You could try to argue that this is, in fact, the case, but you would be wrong. No alcoholic is ever fully cured from the disease. If you don’t believe this then you need to hang out a series of AA meetings for a few years. You will discover that no alcoholic is ever cured, even if you think that they have been. People relapse. It happens. And when they relapse, they go right back to the chaos as if they had never even stopped drinking. This is true even for someone who had multiple years or even decades of sobriety. Wherever they left off in their drinking career is exactly where they pick back up if they happen to relapse. There is no gap in the chaos that comes from their years of sobriety. You might think that having been sober for many years or decades would buy them sanity if and when they go back to drinking, but this is apparently not the case. The alcohol takes over quickly and it brings them down to the old level of chaos and misery right away. Relapse is therefore quite devastating to the alcoholic.
In fact, many alcoholics who have relapsed will note that they did not just “pick up where they had left off” when they relapse, but in fact things got much worse over time even while they had been sober. In other words, the alcoholic could tell that their disease had progressed a great deal while they had been sober and in recovery. This is astounding when you think about it. Even while you are clean and sober and working on improving your life in recovery, your disease of addiction is in the background getting stronger and stronger all the time. In many AA meetings they have a saying that “your disease is doing push-ups all the time,” even while you are sober. It is always trying to get stronger.
As such, you cannot just get into recovery and then coast along and expect for things to work out well. If you do that then your disease will eventually overtake you and drive you back to a relapse. This is because your disease is always progressing, even if only “in the background.” The only way to overcome this problem is to counter it directly through continuous growth and progress. If you are actively working on your recovery on a consistent basis then you can stay one step ahead of your disease. But if you let up for too long and get lazy then your addiction will have a chance to force a relapse. They call this “complacency” when someone gets lazy for too long in recovery. You want to avoid complacency in long term sobriety so that you can avoid relapse.
You can build an amazing new life in recovery but the threat of relapse will always be lurking
No matter what you do in order to recover from addiction the threat of relapse will always be present. All you can really do is diminish the chances of a relapse by being proactive about your recovery.
The amazing thing is that some people in recovery have relapsed when they seem to have everything going for them. Things are not necessarily bad and they are not down or depressed, but they can actually relapse when things are going quite well. What is going on when this happens, and how can it be prevented?
In my experience there are really two layers in every person’s recovery from addiction. One layer is their “life” and the other layer is their “life situation.”
You might also think of these two different layers of recovery as being “internal” and “external.” The internal layer is about what is going on inside of your mind each day, and the external layers is about your day to day life and the situations you are in.
Most people in recovery make the mistake of only focusing on one of these layers at the expense of the other. For example if you go to AA then they tend to focus heavily on the internal layer and fixing that stuff through the 12 steps. On the other hand if you went to see a therapist they might tend to focus more on fixing the external stuff and changing your life situation instead.
Now when someone relapses and they seem to have “everything going for them” then you know that their relapsed was caused by a lack of internal growth. Obviously on the outside they seemed to be doing well and they had made lots of positive changes to their life situation (external). But on the inside something was still wrong, maybe they had anger or guilt or shame or self pity going on and this eventually led them to relapse.
And the opposite can occur as well. You can do the work on the internal stuff but neglect to make changes to your (external) world. You can work through the steps and straighten out your emotional life but then still have all sorts of challenges in the “real world.” Maybe you have a stressful job and an unhealthy relationship. And perhaps neglecting to fix either of those situations will eventually push you back over the edge. It doesn’t matter how well you straighten out the “internal” and fix all of that negative stuff inside if you don’t fix your external world and get some relief from the chaos.
In other words you have to work on both of these “layers” of recovery. You can’t just work the steps and not change your external world. And on the other hand, you can’t just change your job, move to a new city, get a new set of friends, and expect to stay sober forever without doing some of that “internal work” and fixing the emotional stuff on the inside.
You have to do both in order to fully recover from alcoholism. And even then, you still have the threat of relapse hanging over your head if you become complacent or lazy in the future. You are never fully cured.
What happens when you finally believe that you have it all figured out
In my experience, when you think that you finally have it all figured out, life throws you a massive curve ball and teaches you that you really don’t know anything yet.
That is why we must always keep ourselves in check and practice humility. Every day when you are experiencing things in life you should ask yourself “where is the lesson in this?” Because if you stop learning lessons from your everyday experiences then that is when the disease starts to look for a foothold again.
If you think that you have figured out recovery then you will set yourself up for failure. As soon as you decide that there is nothing more to learn about sobriety, that is when a new way to relapse will slowly creep into your life. You have to stay vigilant if you want to stay sober for years or decades.
I knew a guy in AA who had been sober for approximately 15 years (at the time I think I had about 5 years sober). He came to an AA meeting one day and said that he was basically starting over from scratch in recovery. He had not drank any alcohol, but he had still felt like he relapsed. What had happened was that he injured his arm and ended up at the emergency room. They gave him painkillers and he started taking them. Well, you can guess where this is headed. He liked the pills a lot, and he started abusing them before he even realized what was happening to him. It spiraled out of control and he realized that what he was doing was no different from self medicating with alcohol.
This is why we talk about vigilance. We don’t know where or how our disease will try to strike back at us, to get us to relapse. All we know is that if we live long enough we can be sure that there will be situations like this in the future, where our addiction tries very hard to trip us up.
If you believe that you are invincible in recovery then you become ten times more vulnerable to situations like the one described above. The key is to keep learning new things about recovery and always be defensive about the possibility of relapse. You have to realize that anyone can relapse and that you are blessed if you can make it another day sober. Never take your sobriety for granted. Always stay vigilant. All it takes is one drink, and sometimes it even takes less than that (in the form of drugs that you may not realize are addictive!).
How to overcome the threat of constant relapse
So if the threat of relapse is ever present, what can a recovering alcoholic do about it?
First, you must acknowledge that the threat exists. Do not try to pretend that your recovery is bulletproof, or that you could never possibly relapse on alcohol. You must admit that you are always in potential danger if you want to realistically deal with the threat.
Second of all you must develop a strategy for living. It is not enough to just repeat recovery tactics such as “go to an AA meeting when you get a craving.” Those tactics are useful to an extent but in the long run they still have the potential to fail you. They can fail you when a perfect storm finally occurs and relapse is staring you in the face from an unknown situation. In other words, eventually an “unknown unknown” has the power to dodge any of the potential recovery tactics that you may care to employ. For example, you may find yourself in a town with no AA meetings. Or you may find yourself immobilized for whatever reason and cannot get to meetings. Or whatever the case may be. I am not talking about a problem that happens every day, I am talking about a once in a lifetime perfect storm that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Given enough time in your life, this will happen. It is all but certain and so therefore you must have a strategy that can deal with “unknown unknowns.”
How do you create such a strategy?
You do so through holistic health and personal growth.
It is possible to barely stay sober by doing very little of those two things. In other words, let’s say you get clean and sober and you want to remain sober as long as possible. But you don’t really want to put forth a lot of effort. So you do the bare minimum. Maybe you go to an AA meeting every week. And maybe you work through the 12 steps but you don’t really think about them much or implement the concepts in your life that often. And maybe you thought about personal growth during your first year of sobriety and you made a few changes but after that it really trailed off quite a bit. You stay sober but just barely. You do the bare minimum to hold onto your sobriety.
This is a poor strategy. If you live this way in recovery then you are always “one drink away from a drunk.” Now someone could say the same thing about me, that I am one drink away, but I would argue back that such a situation would require a great deal of build up to be a real possibility. In other words, you can bring on a really chaotic day for me and put a drink in front of me and I won’t have a problem with it. Not today anyway. Because I have been doing the things I need to do, I have been living my daily practice, I have built a powerful “moat” around my recovery in the form of positive action. I have not been lazy lately. I have been pushing myself to grow.
So you could create a perfect storm today in my life, and you could tempt me with the perfect situation to sneak a drink of alcohol in, and I would still shoot it down.
Today, I am strong enough to do that. I am strong enough in my recovery today, right now, to overcome a perfect storm.
It is not always like this though.
I will admit that in the last 12+ years of my recovery, there have been times when I was not this strong. There were probably times when a perfect storm might have pushed me over the edge. I am not really sure. But I can tell you for sure that there were periods of time in my past when I was weaker in terms of “relapse resistance” than I am today.
And this is normal. This is natural. This will happen with everyone throughout their recovery, and throughout their life. You will go through ups and downs. You will get stronger, and you may have some periods of weakness.
Ask yourself: “If a perfect storm happened in my life today, would I relapse as a result?”
If your honest answer is “yes, probably” then you still have work to do.
The work that you need to do is to develop a strategy for living and a daily practice that can strengthen your sobriety. You need to live in such a way that your answer to that question above becomes “no, I would not relapse, even in a perfect storm.”
The way to do this work is to take action.
Positive action. On a consistent basis.
Improve your life, and your life situation.
Always be in the process of working on both the internal and the external layer of your recovery.
If you are making these changes and you are excited about those changes then it will help to “build a moat around your recovery.” The threat of relapse becomes greatly diminished if you are taking daily action that is positive.
I call this “the daily practice.”
What it means to be living a life of personal growth in recovery
So how do you live and pursue personal growth every day of your life? How do you adopt this as a life strategy?
It is a process. It is day to day action.
In my opinion you should seek out the positive habits that can help to improve your life.
This requires experimentation and testing.
Start this process by taking suggestions from other people in recovery. Ask them what they think you should be doing each day. Ask them what their habits are.
Find people who have decades of sobriety. Ask them what they do each day. Ask them how they live their life. Find out the details.
Do they exercise? Do they pray and meditate? Do they work with other alcoholics in recovery?
Then start emulating their ideas. Start copying them.
And with each idea that you copy, make sure that you give it a fair chance to work in your life. Give it time. I like the 30 day trial for this.
And then the key is that you never stop doing this. You never stop evaluating new ideas in your life. Always be pushing yourself to learn and try new things.
Remember that your disease is evolving in the background, always doing those push-ups to get stronger.
If you want to have a chance at “curing” your alcoholism, then you have to be in the present moment, always getting stronger against the disease.
The only way to do that is by taking continuous action.
Therefore you don’t need tactics that are really just one off solutions to a potential relapse trigger. Instead, you need a strategy for life that will encourage you to keep pushing yourself towards personal growth all the time.
Continuous action. Find a daily practice that works for you, that moves you forward in life, that encourages personal growth. If you are always improving your life and your life situation then there is little room for relapse.
This is what has worked for me, at any rate. What has worked for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!