You may be wondering: “How exactly does rehab work to cure alcoholism or drug addiction?”
This is a fair question because alcoholism treatment is by no means cheap. In fact the monetary and time investment (not to mention a possible lifetime of AA meetings) is certainly not trivial. The “cost” of treatment is significant so it is understandable that you want to know what you are getting for your investment into recovery.
Well before we can dive and really look at the costs and benefits of treatment, we have to first tackle the issue of a “cure” and decide if that is even the right terminology to be using.
Is there such a thing as a cure for alcoholism or drug addiction?
There really is no such thing as a permanent cure for alcoholism or drug addiction.
What we have is a daily reprieve that is contingent on continuous action. In other words, you can certainly arrest the disease of alcoholism and start living sober, but you have to put forth a great deal of effort in order to maintain that new lifestyle. It does not come automatically for the alcoholic.
Why is this? Because alcoholism is a pattern. It is a habit. It is lifestyle. And we have lived it for so long that it becomes an ingrained way of life.
So you can take any alcoholic and spin them dry in detox (or in jail if that is how it works out instead), but have you really caused them to be sober? Not just yet. They have to take additional action in order to maintain that sobriety and adapt it into their everyday lives. In short, their task is actually pretty monumental: They must reinvent themselves in recovery, each and every day. And they must keep doing this over and over again until personal growth becomes like second nature to them–as much “second nature” as reaching for a drink when they were stressed out in the past.
The idea of a “cure” implies that once we do a certain thing, we will no longer have that same problem (or disease) again in our lives, ever. A cure is permanent. What we get when we “cure” addiction is not a permanent solution. It is only permanent if the alcoholic continues to work at it and put forth a great deal of effort.
Is this effort really worth it? Most definitely! It is the greatest thing that I have ever discovered in my life, both in and out of recovery. Personal growth and this path of learning in recovery has been the greatest gift that I have received in my life. It is the one positive thing that sprang from my addiction, in that it forced me to adopt a path of personal growth. It forced me to get honest with myself in a way that never would have happened if I was not an alcoholic. I would have just coasted through life without looking deeper and asking myself the really tough questions and figuring out who I really was (or what I really wanted in life). In that sense, my alcoholism was a gift in itself because it led me to recovery.
So while there is no actual “cure” for alcoholism, that does not mean that there is no solution available. You can still change your life for the better and experience happiness, joy, and bliss without having to self medicate all the time. This is the promise of recovery and to be honest I never believed that I could be happy again without alcohol in my life. Luckily I became miserable enough at some point that I was willing to try it out anyway.
What addiction treatment centers try to teach you
Addiction rehab centers try to teach you a few basic principles:
2) Learning about recovery (coping skills, 12 step therapy, etc.).
3) Support systems (daily meetings, outpatient therapy, counseling, etc.).
Like I said before these things do not actually cure anyone. Instead, if you follow the directions then you will be able to arrest your disease and start to rebuild your life without drugs and alcohol. This is in many ways just as good as “curing” alcoholism and in some ways it is even better.
How can it be better, you ask? Because in having to constantly reinvent yourself in order to maintain sobriety, you are also essentially on a path of personal growth that will never end. So not only do you get to remain clean and sober, but your life just keeps getting better and better in recovery.
Think about it: If this were not true, then your life would actually be getting worse and worse. And in that case you would relapse eventually. So the only way to maintain sobriety in the long run is through continuous self improvement. Your life and your life situation must continuously improve.
Now obviously there will be dips. Recovery can be a roller coaster, especially during early recovery. I realize that. But on the whole your life will gradually get better and better if you remain clean and sober. If this is not the case then you are doing something wrong and you should seek additional help (more on that below).
Recovery is about accumulation of benefits. Things keep getting better and better. You experience success in one area of your recovery and it will allow you and encourage you to experience success in other areas as well. Thus the positive actions that you are taking in recovery will start to build on themselves. Things get better and better over time and your level of personal growth continues to rise.
Just take a look at someone who has a decade of sobriety and ask them what kind of personal growth they have been working on lately. Then compare their answers to someone who only has one week sober. Look at the vast difference and see how much progress is being made over the years.
In early sobriety you are basically at rock bottom and hanging on for dear life. Your life is in the crapper and you may not even be real excited about living at all. You will most likely be miserable at this point.
After ten years of successful sobriety things will be much different. Your “problems” in recovery at ten years sober will be much different than what they were in early recovery. My problems today are trivial. They are first world problems. They are opportunities for growth.
When I first got sober I did not know if I was even going to live to see my next birthday because my drinking was so out of control and my life was a total train wreck. After ten years plus in recovery I am delighted to have the “problems” that I have today and in fact my life has never been better.
So what changed over those ten years?
Personal growth. I put one foot in front of the other and I started pushing myself to make personal growth in recovery. Positive action. Taking suggestions from peers in recovery, from therapists, from sponsors. I took action. Over and over again. I took positive action even when I did not feel like doing so. I took positive action even when I thought that it would not get me the results that I wanted.
Consistency is critical. If you relapse then you start over from day one again and all progress is instantly erased. This is the price that you pay for relapse. It destroys everything.
On the other hand if you remain sober over the years and you keep taking positive action then good things will happen. These things start very slowly and in fact you will probably get discouraged at first and not even recognize that anything is changing. Other people will see the changes in your life before you do. They will tell you annoying things like “just hang on, it gets greater, later!” You will be annoyed because you are too close to your own situation and you cannot see it happening. But your peers in recovery and your family will see the change and they will encourage you to keep taking positive action. Do it. Follow through. Even when you are sick and tired of recovery, of going through the motions, of taking positive action….keep doing it. Because the rewards will come in spades and you will be truly blessed.
This happened to me at some point and I realized that a miracle had occurred. I was maybe six months sober at the time and I had been struggling with depression and I was frustrated and I imagined that some day I would probably relapse. I was living in long term rehab at the time.
Suddenly a day came and I have no idea how that day arrived but I realized that I was laying down to go bed at night and I had not thought about drinking or using drugs all day long.
And this was an incredible miracle for me. In fact, I had told many counselors and therapists that I was different, and that this day would never come. That I would always crave alcohol and drugs.
But I was proven wrong. I had reached my miracle day where I had no cravings at all. And I had to recognize that and wonder if I was on to something.
Things were getting better.
The missing elements of recovery that you must provide for yourself. In other words, what you cannot “learn” from rehab
I learned a great deal in rehab. They disrupted my pattern of drinking, first of all.
Second they taught me the basics of recovery. They taught me how to communicate my feelings with other people. They taught me how to go to meetings and find support in early recovery.
But at some point I realized that there were still some missing elements.
I could not learn everything that I needed to learn at rehab. I realized that this was the case while I was living in a long term treatment center. Because many of my peers were relapsing on a regular basis, and many of them were “working a better program” of recovery than I was. I compared myself to them and I realized that many of them were more serious about recovery than I seemed to be, and yet they relapsed. So I was scared.
I realized that just going to meetings every day and following my sponsor’s advice was not necessarily going to insure permanent sobriety like I wanted.
If I wanted to create more stability in my recovery then I was going to have to go above and beyond what they were teaching my in rehab and find a path that truly worked for myself.
I wanted to build a new life in recovery but I did not necessarily want to build the life that was being suggested to me from other people. So I had to pick and choose and I had to dig deeper. I had to take suggestions from people both in and outside of AA. I had to look at my overall health in life and realize that there were more categories than just spirituality (which AA seemed to focus on).
What I realize now looking back is that rehab can teach you many things, but it cannot really teach you about long term sobriety. This is basically impossible because you cannot learn how to live your real life in recovery while you are in the safety of an inpatient rehab. At some point you must leave the nest and fly on your own, and I promise you that this is where a whole bunch of learning will occur. This learning cannot happen while you are still in the safety of rehab.
I tried to make this transition as smoothly as possible. I did so by living in long term rehab before I went back out into the real world. But at some point I still had to go out and live on my own, and I had to figure out how to stay sober for myself. I could no longer rely on the constant accountability of rehab in order to keep my sober.
I also realized at this point that I did not want to depend on meetings every day in order to stay sober. I wanted to find another path in recovery that could sustain my recovery and give me the freedom and stability that I desired.
This is when I started forming the idea of “creative recovery.” Building a new life for myself in recovery based on daily positive action. I just did not want to do it through the AA program any more. I wanted to do it on my own, and prove to myself that the real answer in recovery is based on personal growth.
Establishing the healthy habits that will take you through a lifetime of sobriety
Over time, each person becomes what they do every day.
If you drink alcohol every single day for a long time then this will dictate what happens to your life. If you abuse chemicals every day then it will affect the quality of your life five years from now. You will be unhealthy, dependent on chemicals, probably not in the job that you want to be at, perhaps not even able to work any more due to your disease, and so on. Your relationships with others will be worse. Maybe you will have been in legal trouble over that time period. And so on.
We become what we do every day. Our actions dictate our future. Pretty simple stuff. And yet how many alcoholics try to deny this simple fact by imagining that alcohol is not even the problem, and that they are just unlucky, and that other people are out to get them, and if things would just go right for once then they could drink and be happy and not have all of these problems and consequences? That is known as denial because the alcoholic is trying to reason that their daily actions should not dictate their future. They want a free pass, they want a happy life and no worries without having to actually work for it. They want to drink every day but still be happy and joyous. This is not realistic at all.
This same relationship exists in recovery. Your daily actions determine where you will end up in the next five years. In the next ten years. In the next 90 days. What you do every day determines your outcomes.
Consistency is key. Recovery is pass/fail. If you relapse after 6 months of sobriety then you are back to square one. You start all over from scratch. In many cases the relapse will cause your disease to progress even further and you will be in much worse shape.
Therefore your goal in recovery is to establish healthy habits. You must do so in order to rebuild your life.
This can be done by considering all of the areas of your overall health: Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, and so on.
Now you might say: “What does my physical health really have to do with my sobriety? I need to focus on my spirituality right now so that I can avoid that next drink!”
If you believe that will work then you are free to try that approach (many others will do exactly that in fact).
But I have watched enough people in recovery who have relapsed because their physical health failed in a way that they had not anticipated.
Let me give you two examples:
1) A close friend who was an overweight smoker had been sober for 5 years or so and he developed congestive heart failure. The doctors told him that it was treatable if he managed to clean everything up, quit smoking, and start living a healthier lifestyle. Instead he was overwhelmed with these potential changes and he relapsed as a result. Had he been more conscious of his physical health in recovery then he may have avoided this downward spiral.
2) One of my peers in AA was not really aware of “cross addiction” or the power of opiate based pain medication. After suffering an injury to his arm he found himself addicted to painkillers after 13 years of sobriety. This eventually led to a relapse and then later he made it back to rehab again. His physical health led him into a situation where he found himself putting addictive chemicals back into his body.
Now these are just two examples from my own past that are based on one aspect of holistic recovery: that of physical health.
But there are many areas in recovery where your health could start slipping and this could result in relapse.
For example, if you start to isolate and your social health goes downhill then this could lead to relapse as well.
Any of the various aspects of your holistic health could pose a threat to your recovery.
Therefore you must focus on improving your health in ALL areas. This is the holistic approach.
And the way to do this is by adopting healthy habits that occur on regular basis. Improve your health and you protect yourself from relapse.
In the long run it is all up to you and your level of personal growth
Ultimately it is all up to you and your level of personal growth.
You need to look at your overall health in recovery and constantly ask yourself: “What could I improve in my life today? What area of my life have I been neglecting lately?”
Then you make an effort to improve your health in that one area, and by doing so hopefully learn something about yourself in the process.
This is the most powerful form of relapse prevention in long term recovery: continuous reinvention of the self through personal growth.