Every single day in recovery you are faced with a choice:
Should I continue to stay clean and sober, or should I get drunk or high?
In fact, this is the same basic choice that you are facing every moment of every day. The choice itself is never going to go away. It will always be there for you to consider.
Popular wisdom urges us to make this choice “a day at a time” in our recovery journey. The theory is that each day is just about as much as each of us can handle at a given time, and we should simply take each day as a separate decision. So the thinking goes: “I am not going to use drugs or alcohol today no matter what.” Not a bad plan at all, to live a day at a time, and I am not necessarily suggesting anything different. But I think there is still a discussion here worth having about the decision itself, and what all it should entail for the recovering addict or alcoholic.
Making the decision to change your life
Before you can make the daily choice to avoid drug or alcohol use on a daily basis, you have to surrender entirely to your disease and thus “gain entry to recovery itself.”
I tend to harp on the concept of surrender because it is one of the few critical mistakes that so many people miss in early recovery. If you fail to surrender completely then you recovery journey is already set up for failure, regardless of what other steps you might take to help you succeed. For example, it matters little which rehab center you choose to go to in comparison to whether or not you have fully surrendered.
Surrender is a very tricky thing. For years or even decades an addict or alcoholic will struggle for control, and then suddenly they will give up this struggle and decide to ask for help. This is the moment of surrender and it is very difficult to predict it or even to influence when it occurs. Perhaps the biggest question I still have about the recovery process is this one:
“Can an addict or an alcoholic choose to surrender? Is total surrender to addiction a choice within our own control?”
I am still not sure of the answer to this because I cannot tell what happened in my own recovery process. For years I hung on to the idea that I had to have drugs and alcohol in order to be happy, and that some day I would figure out how to control my drug intake and still be happy. Then suddenly I gave up the struggle and asked for help. I surrendered suddenly through no apparent choice or initiative of my own. It was not something I had been thinking about doing much. It was not a goal that I had that I had been working towards or anything. It just happened. It was very sudden, with no build up or warning signs. Surrender came for me out of the blue, and it did not seem to be something of my own choosing. It just happened.
So I am not so sure that the struggling addict can choose to surrender. I am not so sure that they are in full control of their decision to seek a path of recovery. I guess I have to assume that anyone who is struggling with addiction and is reading this can at least grasp the idea of surrender and will hopefully be able to recognize it when it happens. The moment should basically feel like “I don’t want to keep doing drugs and alcohol any more, I am sick of it all.” Once that happens then you need to seize the moment and ask for help.
It is critical that you ask for help because if you do not then you will end up using drugs or alcohol as your solution, or your answer to whatever problems you face after you surrender. This is only natural and this is what addicts and alcoholics do: we self medicate. So naturally if you try to design your own path in early recovery it is probably going to fail and you will end up returning to what you know so well and what works so well for you: using drugs and alcohol. Therefore it is extremely important that you ask for help from someone else and then take their advice and direction.
It is not worth fretting over who you ask for help, what advice they give you, or where you go to rehab, and so on. All of those are mere details in the face of true surrender. Either you have surrendered to your disease or you have not. There is no grey area, no in-between. If you have fully surrendered then it will all work out for the good regardless of who you ask for help or where you end up getting treatment services. One place is generally as good as the next, given that you have fully surrendered 100 percent.
If you have not fully surrendered then it does not much matter who you ask for help or where you go to get help either. It will all turn out rather badly because you are not fully surrendered and therefore you are not yet done using drugs or alcohol. Regardless of who you ask or where you get help you are destined to relapse.
In either case, it is the level of surrender that determines success, not the details of who you ask for help or where you go to rehab and so on. Those details do not matter as much as the fact that you have either fully surrendered to your disease or you have not.
After you have found that critical level of total surrender, now you are faced with a daily decision that you have to make over and over again:
Do you want to continue on in recovery, or do you want to return to active addiction? The choice is eternal and never goes away.
Making the daily decision in early recovery
You have to have some level of faith in very early recovery that things are going to get better. This is especially true during the detox process when your body is in withdrawal and is screaming out for you to self medicate.
If you are in detox in a rehab center then this process is actually fairly painless. It may not be perfect but most detox units keep people fairly comfortable these days. I know this because I have been to a few different rehabs and I also worked in a detox for several years. They are all pretty much the same now and nearly all of them give medications that help to keep people in withdrawal fairly comfortable.
If you choose to go to residential treatment after detox then I believe you are giving yourself a huge advantage. Of course some people do get clean and sober without rehab but it is a much tougher road to take. One of the nice things about being in short term treatment is that you are with a group of your peers. Each person in the group is making the same daily decision that you are making: Not to use drugs or alcohol that day. Sometimes a person in treatment will decide to leave early and in some cases the writing is on the wall that they are throwing in the towel to go use drugs or alcohol. But then the group remains and they stay unified in their decision to continue on in sobriety. Thus, the daily decision to stay in recovery can be enhanced by the group aspect. Having others to go through the recovery process with makes it easier.
Now if you are in very early recovery from addiction then you have to do a lot more in order to maintain your daily decision not to use drugs and alcohol. In fact you may have to rearrange large parts of your life in order to support this decision. For example, you may have to say goodbye to old friends or old drinking buddies. You may have to quit a job if you used drugs and alcohol there frequently. You may have to find new friends in recovery who are supportive of what you are doing rather than trying to tempt you or tear you down. You may have to leave a relationship if the partner refuses to get clean and sober. You may have to change your living situation, such as by living in long term treatment for several months in order to get the stability in early recovery that you need so that you do not relapse.
All of these decisions are part of recovery, part of sobriety, part of what you might have to do in order to stay sober. We all have our own list of unique challenges. Just recognize that the decision to not use drugs and alcohol each and every day may also involve these other, tougher life decisions that might be necessary in order to shape and sculpt your recovery so that it will be successful.
One way to do that is to fully commit to your recovery by putting it first in your life. The decision to not use drugs or alcohol each day takes priority over everything else. It is like saying to yourself:
“My decision not to use drugs or alcohol each day is my highest truth and my ultimate goal. Every choice that I make in life from this moment forward must support that decision. Every positive change in my life that I make must support the idea of daily abstinence from drugs and alcohol.”
Another way to think of this is in terms of a “personal policy for yourself.” You must mentally create a zero tolerance policy in your own mind that you will not use drugs or alcohol today no matter what, period. Then everything that you do in life should support that decision and seek to make everything work out around that one truth.
In other words:
Step one: “I will not use drugs or alcohol today no matter what.”
Step two: “What positive changes can I make in my life that will help me to deal with sobriety?”
So the supporting decisions and the supporting positive changes that you make are very important, because they are what will allow you to remain sober when chaos happens in your life. Recovery is not going to be all smooth sailing; there are bound to be some rough patches for everyone–it is all just a matter of when it happens. So we need to make positive changes in our lives so that we have the stability and the foundation and the tools to be able to deal with life in recovery without resorting to self medicating.
Thus, relapse prevention is about taking action, about making positive changes, about empowering ourselves to be strong in sobriety based on the healthy choices that we make for ourselves. Each decision that we make in recovery must support our ultimate decision for abstinence.
How to make the decision to stay sober automatic
If you have reached a point of full surrender then the thought of using drugs or alcohol should appear to you like placing your hand on a hot stove burner–the thought of relapse should make you recoil in horror. After full surrender this type of mindset is pretty easy to come by. Initially we are scared, fearful, and leery of the idea of using drugs and alcohol ever again. It is a real turn off.
The problem comes in when we get comfortable in our recovery and we start living our life in recovery and that memory of how miserable we were in addiction starts to fade. Our brains are wired to forget the bad memories and hang on to the good ones. Therefore we tend to focus on the good times that we had with our drug of choice and not dwell on the negative stuff. They call this “romanticizing” our addiction, when we just remember the good times but forget about the misery and the chaos.
In order to be successful in long term recovery we have to remind ourselves that this romantic vision of our drug or alcohol use is a lie. One way to do this is to quickly remind ourselves every time we find ourselves remembering the good times is that it eventually turned into chaos and misery. They call this “playing the tape all the way through” because we have to remember that after we get high and enjoy our buzz for a while, eventually it all turns sour and we become miserable again. Isn’t that why we got clean and sober in the first place, because we were miserable? If we were to relapse it would be fun for about one day, maybe for one week, and then we would face a lifetime of chaos and misery again.
The amazing thing is that it is very easy to forget that and it is easy to lose sight of that and therefore people still end up relapsing.
The way to make sobriety automatic is to keep moving away from your addiction through consistent personal growth.
Think about the reaction to relapse: you recoil in horror at the idea, like putting your hand in a flame.
The way to hold on to that level of intensity is to continuously make positive changes in your life. People do not relapse when things are going well and they have hope for the future. People relapse when things are going badly and they have no hope and they are experiencing negative things.
Therefore your task in recovery is quite clear: you must always be pushing yourself to make positive changes in your life. Recovery is a process of continuous growth. Relapse happens when you make the decision to stop growing and you want to throw it all away, everything that you have worked for and built in your recovery.
The more progress you make and the more positive changes you make in life, the more insulated you will be from the threat of relapse. This is how you make the decision to remain sober an automatic decision. Keep making positive changes in your life that are all contingent on your sobriety.
For example, I am now a distance runner, and so I jog on a regular basis. This is hugely important to me and I cannot imagine my life without regular exercise. I know full well that if I relapsed I would not make jogging a priority. Therefore this positive change is part of my relapse prevention. Jogging is one more thing that I would not want to throw away on a relapse. It is a positive change in my life that I would not want to sacrifice in order to return to addiction.
Does this mean that you should become a runner? Not necessarily. What it means is that you need to find your own positive changes in recovery, and then keep making them and build up a new life such that you value your life much more than you valued your addiction. This is pro-active relapse prevention. Build a life worth living, build a positive life for yourself, and then you will not want to throw it away on a relapse. This is how to make the daily decision automatic. Make it unthinkable that you would throw away your progress on a relapse! To do this you must keep making positive changes, over and over again. The threat will always be there, and your positive growth will never be finished. Anyone can stop growing and become vulnerable again…..
A trap to watch out for: complacency
How does someone with 20 years sober end up relapsing? What could possibly go wrong that someone with that much experience and growth in recovery ends up relapsing?
What happens is that they stop growing. They stop making positive changes in their life, and they get lazy. This has to happen for a fairly long time, unchecked, until it builds up into a relapse. They have to “let things go” for a very long time, and their life will slowly deteriorate, until the option of using drugs or alcohol again starts to seem attractive. Their life has to get boring and uninspired for a long time, but eventually they will turn to what used to work in the past to get them excited and happy again.
It is said that complacency is the new number one killer in recovery. So how can we avoid becoming too comfortable in our recovery routine, such that we protect ourselves from relapse?
It is exactly as described above–you have to make the decision not to use drugs automatic by constantly making positive changes in your life. We get complacent when we stop growing and stop learning and stop challenging ourselves.
In the 12 step program they suggest having a daily review to see how you did each day in your recovery, but I would suggest that you do either a monthly or a semi-annual review of your life in order to avoid the threat of complacency. If you just look at each day’s tally sheet you cannot see the bigger picture and think carefully about your long term goals. At some point though we need to back up and ask ourselves:
“What is the one goal that I could achieve in my life that would change everything, that would have the greatest positive impact?”
If we ask ourselves this question every few months and continue to push hard and make positive changes in pursuit of such a goal, then we will be well protected against the threat of complacency. Daily decisions to stay positive and remain abstinent will come easier if you have greater ambitions like this that require massive action and huge positive changes.
Push yourself to make positive changes. Keep evaluating and adjusting course. Rinse and repeat. Stay sober.