How can we insure that we do not relapse on drugs and alcohol in recovery? What is the secret to successful relapse prevention?
When I first got into recovery I was obsessed with such questions. I wanted to know for sure that I could avoid relapse by taking certain steps.
And I attended inpatient treatment (as well as AA) but I did not necessarily believe that any single person had all of the answers. One of the reasons for this was because I was getting so many different suggestions, some of which were even slightly conflicting! So I wanted to nail down the truth, and figure out what it really took in order to insure my sobriety. I did not want to relapse.
Fast forward over ten years and I am still on that same journey, still refining what I am learning about sobriety. But I believe that I have discovered some things, things that were not necessarily taught to me when I first got clean and sober.
Of course, I agree that the basic fundamentals that they teach you in early recovery are sound, that they do, in fact, work. If you go to rehab or AA and you do exactly what they tell you to do, you will stay sober. There is no doubting that. But that does not mean that such solutions are the only way, or that they are even the best way in recovery. I tend to believe that there is much progress yet to be made over the traditional solutions.
Commitment and early sobriety
The most important thing that can be done to insure your continued sobriety has to do with the beginning of your journey. The depth of your surrender determines the strength of your commitment. This is very important. We point to someone who relapsed and say “They just weren’t ready yet.” Well, why weren’t they ready? It is because they had not yet surrendered.
This begs the question–surrendered to whom? The answer is two fold, which was never really explained fully to me either:
1) You must surrender to the fact that you are alcoholic. Everyone knows this.
2) You must surrender your ego and embrace a new solution in your life. You must listen to someone other than yourself. No one explained this to me very well (at first).
The problem is that most alcoholics who try to sober are not yet ready to take this full leap of faith. They may be miserable in their addiction but that is not enough by itself to produce true surrender. The pain and misery in your life is part of the equation but it does not tell the entire story.
On the other side of your pain and misery is this fear of sobriety, fear of recovery, fear of the unknown. Your pain and misery from addiction must become larger than this fear is that is keeping you trapped. You have to become so disgusted with the pain and misery in your life that you become willing to overlook the fear. If you reach this point then you will have broken through your denial and you can then take action. This is the turning point. But in order to reach this you have to admit to yourself that you are miserable and that your alcoholism is causing it. Then you must go one step further and become willing to face your greatest fear and gamble that getting sober might actually result in happiness. For the struggling alcoholic, this is a major risk. They would much rather keep drinking and be miserable and at least know what they are in for rather than to face this massive fear of the unknown.
So if you have a struggling alcoholic who is going to attempt sobriety, you have to look carefully at their moment of surrender. Look at their decision. Have the come to terms with the pain and misery in their life? Do they admit that it is entirely caused by addiction? In other words, have they stopped blaming others for their problems? That is the first level of denial.
The second level is just as important, and that is the solution. Is the alcoholic willing to accept a new solution into their life? Are they willing to listen to other people, take advice, and generally not try to screw up their own recovery process? If an alcoholic wants to be in control in early recovery there is a reason for it: They are not done drinking yet. That is the only reason that they would ever need to hang on to control.
Successful early sobriety is about letting go of control. You have to let go of everything, in fact. If an alcoholic is still struggling for control and is trying to manipulate the situation then they are probably not done drinking yet. They have more pain and misery to endure in addiction before they can be ready to be sober.
So that is the first fundamental principle of successful recovery: Strength of commitment based on surrender. If you are still in denial then you don’t have a chance. You must move past denial and accept a new solution in your life.
There is no 100 percent foolproof solution for recovery yet
Second of all, when you make a decision to get sober you have to realize that there is no 100 percent foolproof solution yet for recovery. Every single recovering alcoholic and drug addict is at risk for relapse. It can never be eliminated entirely.
The success rate of AA dictates that maybe one out of ten people or so who attempt sobriety will stay sober for 5 continuous years or more. If you look at statistics you will find variation in the data and that is because it is very difficult to get reliable and accurate recovery data. But ultimately the success rate shows us that if 100 people go to rehab you are not going to have 100 sober people after a year. You might have ten or so. Maybe even five or less, depending on who you are sampling.
So given that you have to realize that there is definitely not a foolproof plan at this point. And even if there is a perfect solution, just the knowledge of that solution is completely useless unless a person is willing to apply it in their lives. In other words, recovery is not about knowing secret information (there are no secrets really!), but instead about the application of some basic principles.
What I discovered in my quest for the ultimate truth was that there are a handful of fundamental principles in the recovery process. For example, one of these principles is surrender. You can’t get clean and sober without surrender. Doesn’t matter what recovery program you may be working in your life. Surrender is universal. It is fundamental. It is a requirement for sobriety, period.
Furthermore, I believe that there are certain fundamental principles that apply to successful recovery. One thing that I started doing in my early journey was to look at the “winners” in recovery. They had a saying at AA meetings that points to this concept, they say “stick with the winners.” And that means that certain people in recovery and certain people at AA meetings are doing better than others. Those people are the “winners.” So you have to make a judgment and figure out who is worth modeling and who you should ignore. The saying “stick with the winners” is really a nice way of pointing this out, that you don’t want to just take advice from anyone at an AA meeting. You want to listen to people who are successful, who are living the sort of life that you want to live. Therefore you must judge others.
So this idea leads to the concept of modeling. If you ask 20 people in AA for advice you will get 20 different answers and a certain amount of overlap. In other words, some people will suggest the same things but there is bound to be conflicting information. So who do you believe? Who do you trust? You trust the winners. You find people that are living the sort of life you want and then you model your recovery after them. Then you ignore the noise. Stick with the winners.
This principle is just as true outside of AA as it is inside of the program. Everyone should practice this sort of judgment against others, finding people who are successful and then modeling them. The guy who just relapsed can still teach you something of course (what not to do) but you don’t want to model your actions after that person–they have nothing to offer you. You want to find a “winner” in recovery and model your actions after them.
If you do this then there is close to a 100 percent chance that you stay sober. However, it will never be 100 percent, and that is because of your own follow through. It is not because you might be following the wrong directions or something. There are no secrets! The information that you need to remain sober is very basic. Don’t drink. Take positive action. These are simple ideas. It is the application of these ideas on a continual basis that rebuilds your life in recovery.
How do you build up a new life in recovery? You do it one day at a time through consistent action. Stop taking consistent action in recovery and you risk relapse. Stop moving forward and you risk relapse.
But you must realize that you do not need a secret bit of information in order to remain sober. What you need is to apply yourself each and every day. That is what builds a successful life in recovery. It is the action, not the knowledge. Don’t confuse this issue like so many people in early recovery end up doing. They cling to the big book of AA like it contains secrets that they have to dig up, when in fact they just have to apply the basic principles. It’s not rocket science, but you do have to do the work!
How to structure your life to help prevent relapse
There are two basic approaches that you might use to prevent relapse in recovery. One is by using tactics and the other is by using a strategy.
A tactical approach would be using a reactionary approach. So if you feel like you are triggered to drink, you would employ a tactic such as calling your sponsor or going to an AA meeting. These are tactics in reaction to a trigger. You are reacting.
A strategic approach would be using a proactive approach instead. So instead of reacting you would be taking action every day to prevent relapse. Your strategy might involve a daily practice, a set of actions that you take that help to protect you. So you might exercise, eat healthy, interact with a certain group of people, try to improve yourself, and so on. These are strategies or themes that you live by that help to prevent relapse. You are not reacting to triggers, instead you are living so that you minimize them to begin with. It is proactive rather than reactive.
My suggestion is that you focus on a strategic approach rather than a tactical approach to recovery. If you rely on reactionary tactics then at some point it might be too late to react and you will have relapsed already.
So how do you develop a strategy? How do you build up these themes that can help to protect you?
In order to do this you must explore in recovery. My suggestion is to explore based on the feedback and suggestions of others. Your goal is not to accumulate tactics but to build up a daily practice that leads you to a healthier life. Everything that you add to your routine should either be about personal growth or improving your overall health.
Our health in recovery is holistic. It has many dimensions. Your actions might improve your physical health, but they might also help you emotionally, spiritually, socially, or mentally. Every day you should be living so that your health is improving in these areas. Sickness of any kind can lead to relapse. Health in all of these areas is protection against relapse. The healthier you are in all of these areas, the less likely you are to relapse.
Therefore you should structure your life in recovery by pursuing improved health in a holistic sense. You should also structure your life so that you are pursuing personal growth on a regular basis. Growth should be a theme in your life.
If someone is experiencing genuine growth then they are almost completely protected from relapse at that time. If you have not made any progress in your life in a long time and you are even starting to slide backwards in certain areas then you are at a greater risk of relapse. Therefore, your strategy for living should reflect this basic truth. We want to make progress and move forward in order to help insure our sobriety.
Why personal growth is your greatest protection against relapse
A great deal of alcoholics and drug addicts relapse in early recovery. How can you avoid this?
Your goal in recovery could be split into two categories:
1) Improving your life from an internal standpoint. Removing anger, guilt, fear, shame, and self pity. Doing internal work to improve your self.
2) Improving your life from an external standpoint. Improving career, relationships, physical health, and so on. Working on all of the stuff that you can actually see with your eyes.
These are two completely different categories of potential changes. Some are internal and some are external.
The truth is that you need to pay attention to both of these areas in your life. Both offer huge potential for personal growth.
So the question becomes, how do you prioritize this growth? How do you know what to focus on in early recovery? What is the most important action you can take right now?
I believe that there is a simple formula for discovering this. It involves a bit of soul searching and you may have to ask for feedback from others as well.
At any given time in your life you may have two sets of goals. The first set are things that you want to pursue in life; your dreams. Going back to college, traveling to a distant country, and so on.
The other set of goals are about stuff in your life that you want to fix. Stuff that needs to change. The problems and issues that you may have, both internal and external. A bad relationship. A job that is killing you. Self pity that threatens to destroy you. Resentment. Guilt. Anger. Problems that take away your energy or threaten your serenity.
It is this second set of goals that you want to focus on. For the first few years of your sobriety, forget about chasing your dreams. There is a better path to happiness, and that path involves this second set of goals, these problems. All of this negative stuff.
What you want to do is to attack this pile of negativity. You want to eliminate it.
Here is how you prioritize. Make a life of all of these problems and issues in your life, and then try to imagine which one would bring you the most relief if you were to eliminate or overcome it.
You may want to get feedback from others in regards to this. Say to one of the “winners” in recovery: “I have a few problems right now in my life. Would you mind telling me which one I should focus on fixing first?”
There will be a tendency to want to say “just fix all of it at once!” This will lead to disaster or at the very least, lack of progress. You must focus on one issue at a time and resolve it before moving on to the next. Focus is an important concept in making personal growth. If you do not have to focus your energy and attention then the problems you are facing are not very big or challenging, and therefore the rewards will be minimal. We want big rewards so therefore you will need to focus your attention and energy on your biggest problem first.
If you identify a problem but you don’t know how to go about eliminating it, then you need to ask for help. Simply ask for advice and then follow through and take action. Focus your energy on one problem at a time.
If you do this over and over again in early recovery then your life will get better in a hurry. In fact, this is the fastest path to peace and contentment that you could possibly attain. This is the best way to rebuild your life in recovery. Identify your problems and issues, then tackle them one at a time until they are overcome. Your life will get better and better, and you will experience real peace and contentment. This is the gift of recovery. This is what you are working towards.
There is no 100 percent solution that prevents relapse. But you can obviously take a strategic approach and a pro-active role that will minimize the chances of relapse. No one is completely immune, but you can do your part to help protect yourself. I know today that I am never going to be completely protected from the threat of relapse. But that is OK because in working towards a solution my life keeps getting better and better.
What about you, have you found a bullet-proof path to successful sobriety? How has it worked out for you so far? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!