There are many mistakes that can be made in early recovery from addiction, and all of us are undoubtedly going to make some of them.
But some mistakes are worse than others. And some of them you can’t really get away with making at all if you want to remain sober.
So these are the three that I suggest you avoid at all costs. You should design your recovery program around avoiding these mistakes in fact.
Mistake #1: Thinking you can do it alone and not asking for help
I suffered from this mistake myself for several years before I finally figured out that it wasn’t working.
You can’t do it alone. This is what defines addiction itself. If you could stop on your own then you wouldn’t have a problem and it wouldn’t even be an issue. The fact that your addiction is an issue is a big enough sign on its own. Or as I like to say “If there is no problem then there is no problem!” Sounds obvious, but this is exactly the sort of thing that is obscured by denial. I could talk myself into anything (or out of anything!).
I watched this over and over again when I was finally sober and I was trying to help others to recover. People just can’t do it by themselves. Again, this is a selection bias I believe. The people who CAN do it by themselves have already done so. They don’t have a problem. They are off in the world, solving their own problem with drinking or drugs, and they don’t need anyone’s help. I believe that those people probably do exist, you just don’t see them or hear about them because they have no need to talk to anyone. They solved their own problem and they are going on about their business.
The people that show up in detox, the people who show up at rehab, the people who show up at AA meetings, the people who end up on this website…..those people are more likely to have a real problem. And by “real problem” I mean that they cannot stop on their own; they need help. This defines addiction. OK so maybe it doesn’t define addiction but it certainly defines clearly who needs help and who doesn’t! Some people can (theoretically) recover on their own without programs or meetings or treatment. Good for them. I was not one of those people. I needed help. And so I had to eventually ask for that help.
In the end it comes down to self honesty.
And this is where the dreaded mistake comes in.
I wish there were some way to make this easier for you. I wish I could somehow wave a magic wand and make it so that alcoholics did not have to face the truth; to face themselves. Because it is really hard to do so and it is massively uncomfortable. I don’t like it. You won’t like it.
But this is the mistake that people make. They are stuck in addiction and they don’t want to face the truth. The truth that they are miserable all the time and that their life is total chaos. The truth that they are living in pain and misery because of alcohol or drugs. Instead they are lying to themselves and telling themselves that their drug of choice is the tiny bit of happiness that they get in a world of chaos. In fact, the drug of choice is what is creating most of the chaos. They tell themselves that they are a victim and that their life is a total mess for reasons beyond their control, but in fact they bring most of the chaos on themselves due to their drinking or drug use.
So mistake number one is in not admitting this to yourself. Mistake number one is staying stuck in denial.
I made this mistake for a long time. Several years, in fact. And that is the really tragic thing about this particular mistake, that you can keep making it for so very long. Some people keep making this same mistake until their disease kills them. They stay stuck in denial and they never get any help and their addiction kills them. Very tragic, very unfortunate.
Don’t make this mistake! Your happiness, your serenity, and your life itself depends on it.
Mistake #2: Getting help of some kind but then bailing out early or not following through
This one really caught me by surprise.
I never would have learned this one unless I had to worked in a treatment center for several years.
While I was working in an alcoholism treatment center I watched thousands of people come into a typical detox and residential program and try to become clean and sober.
Before they got to rehab they called and had it all set up. It was determined before they arrived how long they could stay and exactly how much treatment they would be getting.
This is important. The length of your stay is important. Not because a few days difference is going to make or break your sobriety, of course. It doesn’t matter if you stay for 26 days in rehab or 28 days. That should not really have an impact on your long term chances for sobriety.
But it matters for a different reason. It matters how long you stay in terms of how long you were allowed to stay. What do I mean by that?
In other words, if you come into treatment and they tell you that you are allowed to stay for 14 days, and you leave after 10 days, this is a huge red flag and the chances that you will relapse as a result of leaving early absolutely skyrocket.
This is subjective evidence I am talking about here. I don’t actually have the data on hand to back this up, though I am sure you could go dig that data up off the web. I worked full time in a rehab for over five years and I simply watched this happen with my own eyes. People who left treatment early always, always, always relapsed. Every single time. It was a certainty.
This has to do with the strength of your commitment. And it might be a chicken or the egg problem. In other words, if someone leaves rehab early then they tend to relapse. But let’s say that you really want to leave treatment early but you are forced to stay for some reason. In that case you are probably going to relapse as well. It has to do with your internal commitment.
Those who “stick and stay” in treatment and see it through all the way have a much better chance of achieving long term sobriety. Not because they stay in treatment and learn more stuff, though that may be a small factor. It is because they are showing that they have that internal commitment, that willingness to do whatever it takes.
If you leave rehab early then it doesn’t really matter what your reason is or what you are telling yourself. It doesn’t matter how you justify leaving rehab early. It doesn’t matter what your excuse is or how you rationalize it. You are almost certainly doomed to relapse at that point.
So just stop and think about that if you are headed for rehab any time soon. The follow through matters. The commitment matters. Go to rehab, see it through to the end, and take suggestions and advice while you are there. Do what they tell you to do. Follow directions. Follow through. Because if you don’t do this then your chances of achieving long term sobriety drop to near zero in a big hurry.
Mistake #3: Letting complacency set in
I suppose length of time is all relative in sobriety. If you ask someone who has 40 years sober what defines “early recovery” they might say up to the first ten years!
Of course if you ask someone who has five years sober what defines “early recovery” they will probably tell you the first year.
Now that I am at 13 years of sobriety I look back and I think that the first 2 or 3 years of my journey were “early recovery” for me.
At any rate, it doesn’t necessarily matter how you define early recovery and when you transition to long term sobriety, what matters is that you keep doing the work and that you remain sober. We are interested in results. We want to be sober and happy and moving forward. We don’t want to relapse. These are the basic goals of recovery.
So what is complacency? This is what happens when you get lazy. When you stop pushing yourself to make personal growth, and the disease finds a way to sneak back into your life.
So you can become complacent at nearly any time in your recovery after you become somewhat stable.
So maybe you have 90 days sober and you have been going to AA meetings every day after leaving rehab but you slowly slack off and you don’t do anything else to replace that positive action. You become complacent and you relapse.
Or maybe you have 2 years sober and the same thing happens but in a slightly different way. And you stop doing the things that you need to do in order to take care of yourself and it eventually leads you to relapse.
In either case this is all about complacency, about not doing what you need to do, about letting yourself get lazy.
I know that people can become complacent pretty early in the recovery process because I lived in a long term rehab for the first 20 months of my recovery journey. So I had the chance to watch many of my peers who, for one reason or another, just stopped doing the work. They got lazy. They felt stable in recovery and the felt pretty good about themselves so they let other things become a priority in their life.
Jobs. Relationships. Even education. People find all sorts of things to distract themselves from “doing the work.” And doing the work in recovery is not necessarily about doing work that is strenuous, it is about getting honest with yourself. It is about asking yourself the uncomfortable questions. Most people don’t want to do this. Of course when you first get into recovery you are forced to do this on some level (Why am I drinking or using drugs so much?) but eventually it is very easy to start coasting in recovery and avoid the tough questions.
Anyone can dry out in detox, start sitting through AA meetings every day, and never really ask themselves the tough questions that result in personal growth. But this is not the path to sustainable recovery, nor is it the path to peace and contentment. If you never face your inner demons then you will always have those inner demons. Again: If there is no problem then there is no problem! Recovery can be simple, but often we make it hard because we don’t want to face the truth about ourselves. I am certainly guilty of this to some degree, which is how I know about the tendency!
The solution to these mistakes and others
The solution to these three mistakes can be summarized as follows:
1) Break through your denial and ask for help.
2) Follow through and do what you are told in treatment.
3) Push for personal growth and adopt a healthy daily practice.
These are the solutions that I have found to work for me in my own life.
At one point I asked for help and I went to rehab. I had already been to rehab twice before, mind you, but those efforts were skewed by the fact that I had not yet surrendered. It was honestly different this time because I was at my breaking point. I was at my bottom. I had finally surrendered.
Again, the solution to problem number one was to break through denial. This is not necessarily something that you can choose to do just on a whim, but it is something that you can choose to do if you cultivate the idea over time. You have to get honest with yourself, start writing down your feelings every day during addiction, start writing down how happy you are in addiction (not very). This will force your mind to start working through your denial. It is a process. Getting through your denial is a process. You can start that process by focusing on the misery and the chaos that your addiction is causing you. Like I said before, these things are not always comfortable for people, which is why they don’t want to do them.
Second of all you must follow through. It is not enough to break through denial and ask for help, you must also accept whatever help is offered and then follow through with it.
This means action. This means putting your pride on the shelf and doing things that might not fit in perfectly with your own ideas. You might have to “get out of the driver’s seat” for a while and let someone else “drive your bus” for a while.
I had to do that in early recovery. I had to get out of my own way, because my own ideas always seemed to lead me into trouble. So I had to listen to other people for a while. My way wasn’t working. I had to follow directions. This is humbling but necessary. Without this critical piece of it you may as well just get sober on your own (which you have already tried to do and failed at, right? If there is no problem then there is no problem…..).
And finally you have to live this thing in long term sobriety. You don’t just slap a patch on your problem and then go back to “life as usual” again after rehab. That isn’t how recovery works. This is not a quick fix.
Instead, this is likely going to be the biggest change you have ever made in your entire life. Things will be quite different if you manage to “stick and stay” in recovery. Your life will never be the same again.
I have been sober now for over 13 years and I would say that every single day during that time I thought about recovery at some point during the day. Every single day! This is a continuous effort. You never really go back to any sort of “normal life.” This is the new normal. Recovery is the new normal. Personal growth and challenging yourself to grow and make progress is the new normal.
What is your daily practice now that you are stable in recovery? How do you take care of yourself every day? How do you love yourself each day and give yourself a healthier life in recovery? These are the questions that will shape your daily practice.
Health is the currency of recovery. If you want most recovery then what you really want is more “health.” So take that concept and run with it. How can you live a healthy life in recovery?
I have had friends and peers who were sober but they died quite young. What is the point of being sober if you are dead? I am not trying to be funny or insulting with that question. Being sober is of very little value if you don’t exist.
This is why health is so vital to recovery. And not just your physical health either. All areas of your health: Physical, social, mental, emotional, spiritual. If you are taking care of yourself in all of those ways each day then your life will continue to get better and better.
And this is the secret to beating complacency. This is the solution for long term success in recovery. Keep growing, keep pushing yourself towards greater health in recovery. In all of these different areas. Don’t you think that is enough to keep yourself busy in life? To keep refining, keep finding the anxiety source and eliminating it, keep pushing yourself to take better care of yourself? These are things that build a foundation in recovery. These are the practices that allow you to find real peace and contentment.
Because you cannot be at peace if you are sick. Not just physically sick, but you could be spiritually, emotionally, or mentally sick. You could be isolated and socially sick. And so on. If you are sick in any of those ways then you will not be happy and peaceful and content. So regardless of what you achieve in life you will still be upset because you will have some form of “sickness.”
The solution for this is the daily practice. To find those negative anxieties and eliminate them every day. To work on yourself in such a way that you are always looking for the next stage of growth, for the next positive change to make.
What you can do if you feel yourself sliding back towards relapse
Get into action.
Talk to people. Ask for help and feedback and advice. Find people that you trust in recovery and ask them what you should do with yourself.
People will offer suggestions.
Take them. Run with them. Experiment with them. Try different things in recovery and see what works for you. It took me a few years before I started exercising. It took me a few years before I really started writing down my feelings in recovery every day. It took me a few years before I quit smoking cigarettes.
I did not do it all at once. I had to take suggestions one at a time, test them out, and see if they worked for me or not.
Keep moving forward and experimenting. Always be willing to learn more about yourself and to take action. This is how you avoid the big mistakes in early recovery. Be willing to take action and learn from it.
What about you, have you managed to avoid these mistakes in early sobriety? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!