Everyone who comes to the AA program wants to ensure that they remain clean and sober forever. But how can we do that, and what steps can we take to make sure that we do not go back to our old lifestyle?
Obviously one way is for you to work the 12 step program of AA and attend meetings regularly. That is the traditional path in recovery and that certainly works for some people.
However, it should be noted that this traditional path may not work for every single person, and also, this traditional path has a very tricky trap involved in it that can cause you to relapse when you least suspect it.
That trap is complacency.
Some people who have been in AA for years or even decades have relapsed, seemingly out of nowhere, for no apparent reason at all. What actually happened in such cases is that the person became complacent, very slowly over a long period of time, and this complacency led them to boredom, frustration, and apathy. They eventually relapsed because they were so stuck in their recovery journey and it was honestly boring them to death. Drinking alcohol, even with all of the misery that comes along with it for alcoholics, became a more attractive option than the path that this person was on.
So if you want to ensure that you stay sober, you need to look at the two basic phases of your recovery journey, and make sure that you are handling each phase correctly.
The first phase would be that of early recovery. This might last for anywhere from about 6 months up to maybe 2 years or so. Those are just ballpark estimates. The basic idea is that when you first get clean and sober it is very difficult to make it through an entire day of your life without being triggered to want to drink or use drugs. In other words, during this early recovery phase, you are still quite vulnerable and susceptible to relapse. This is why they advise you to go to rehab, to go to AA meetings every day, and to work closely with sponsors, therapists, counselors, and so on.
In early recovery you need to dive head first into recovery related activities and completely dedicate your life to them. This includes rehab, counseling, therapy, IOP, AA and NA, sponsorship, and so on.
At some point, however, your recovery will begin to shift. It will no longer be a huge struggle to make it through the day sober. In fact, you will experience a day in which you never even think about drinking or taking drugs–not even once! That may seem like a miracle now, but everyone who sticks with it makes it to that point eventually.
And once you make it to this point, in which you are going entire days without a single craving or thought of drinking, you are entering into that second phase of recovery. Call it “long term sobriety.” So at this point, you are fairly stable in your recovery. You are not going to suddenly relapse on a whim, no matter what happens.
Now here is the key point: You are stable in recovery and nothing could make you relapse suddenly. However, people still relapse after reaching this point. But how?
They do so because they relapse slowly. Very slowly. They become complacent, and every day they get closer and closer to a point at which they mentally declare “screw everything, I am just going to get drunk or high.”
This takes a long time to unravel. And it happens because the person has become complacent in their recovery program.
So how do we avoid this? How do you fix it? How do you prevent complacency?
There are a couple of things to note here. One is that complacency often includes denial along with it. So if someone is becoming complacent, and a friend or a peer points that out to them, they will often get defensive about it and argue back about how and why they are not really complacent. They will say “yeah, sure, but I do this here, and I got to that meeting, and I work with these people who are newcomers, and therefore I am not, in fact, complacent in my recovery. So there!”
Complacency is a lack of personal growth.
If you are complacent in your recovery journey then it means that you are no longer learning and making positive changes and growing as a person.
If you think back to your early recovery you will remember that you felt like you were vulnerable and you were learning so much about this new life and you were doing everything that you could to make progress. And at the time you probably felt as if you were floundering and not getting anywhere. But other people could see that you were doing well, that you were progressing, and they encouraged you further. And eventually you could look back at that struggle and see that you were, in fact, right where you needed to be at that time. You had been doing the hard work of recovery, and you had been learning and growing.
That was early recovery. Everyone is like a rocket ship of success during early recovery because we are growing by leaps and bounds. That is how some people find themselves “floating on a pink cloud” in which everything is coming up roses in their early recovery.
After a few years in sobriety you may lose that enthusiasm, you may lose that eagerness to learn and to grow.
If you lose it completely then you are fully complacent, and that can lead to relapse.
So the key is to make an assumption right now, here today, as you are reading this. And that assumption is very simple:
Assume that you are complacent right now. Period.
Now act accordingly. The assumption is that you are complacent. Now what are you going to do about it?
If you are smart then it means you will start looking for opportunities for personal growth.
If you are smart then it means you will ask a therapist, a counselor, a sponsor, or a peer in recovery what you can do to take that next critical step in your own personal growth.
What is the one thing in your life today that, if you changed it, would make a huge impact in terms of improving your life?
What is the one thing you could change about yourself that would eliminate the most pain, frustration, or anxiety in your life?
Figure out what that thing is, then tackle the problem and fix it.
Then, rinse and repeat. Keep doing that and you will continuously improve yourself and your life, to the point that you are no longer complacent, because you keep looking for the next self improvement project. You stay in the process and you stay humble and you keep learning about yourself. This is how you avoid complacency. This is how you remain sober forever–by doing the work of recovery forever. You have to stay plugged into the process, and if you let yourself get lazy and just pretend by sitting in meetings every day without really doing the work, then you can trip yourself up.
Instead, ask for help. Ask for feedback. Find your biggest stumbling block, and tackle it. Then move on and find the next one.