Yesterday we looked at some of the common mistakes that people might make in early recovery. Today we want to look at how to conquer your alcoholism triggers and finally move past them for good.
The old school method for dealing with alcohol cravings and triggers
The old approach to dealing with a trigger or a craving for alcohol or drugs is to:
1) Allow the trigger or the urge to appear (you cannot prevent them anyway, right?)
2) Use a reactionary tactic to deal with the trigger or urge as best you can. For example, calling your sponsor and talking about it, or going to an AA meeting and sharing about the urge.
That’s it. That is the traditional approach in a nutshell. You wait for triggers or urges to appear, then you deal with them.
There are a few problems with this old school approach and frankly I see a lot more flaws in it than I used to. One such flaw is that you are creating dependencies on other things when you deal with triggers and urges in this way. So perhaps you get into the habit of calling your sponsor whenever you have an urge to use drugs or drink–this may work for a while, and it may even work nearly indefinitely for several years. But eventually you will likely face a situation where suddenly you do not have access to your sponsor. Or perhaps you will not have access to a phone. Or maybe you will be in a location where there are no phones or cell towers at all. The random nature of life sort of suggests that at some point you will have to face the weak link in your setup. Everything gets tested eventually. So if you are relying on things that are outside of yourself in order to deal with triggers and urges then this can be a weakness in your program. There is a stronger approach which we will explore in a moment.
Another problem with the old school approach is that it attempts to treat the symptoms of something rather than the cause. This is a second rate solution at best.
So you are going through your recovery and maybe you frequently encounter a situation that makes you want to self medicate. With a traditional approach you do not necessarily seek to change that situation or that environment. Instead, you merely try to treat the trigger or the urge by seeking help and support or through spiritual means. But this sort of reactionary approach does not always dig into the heart of a problem, or attempt to remedy things at the root cause. Instead you just scramble to deal with the symptoms of problems by calling someone for support, venting at a meeting, or praying for guidance, wisdom, patience, tolerance, etc.
The problem with the old school approach is that the root cause remains because all you did was to react to the symptom of a problem, rather than addressing the root cause of the problem itself. If you could find a way to change your entire life and your entire situation, perhaps you could avoid certain triggers or urges altogether. Which approach do you think is more powerful and effective in the long run? The approach that simply medicates the symptoms of a problem? Or the approach that seeks to eradicate problems entirely?
The new approach to overcoming triggers
The new relapse prevention is proactive. It’s about taking action and redesigning your life from the ground up.
Let’s face it: preventing triggers and urges is the same thing as relapse prevention. They are just labels that point to the same idea. If you could eliminate every possible trigger and urge in your life, this is the same objective as preventing relapse.
You might be wondering if this is even a realistic goal, to seek to eliminate triggers and urges. For example, don’t they tell us in AA and NA that we will always face temptation, that the urge to use drugs and alcohol will never completely leave us, and that we will always be somewhat vulnerable to relapse?
Those are fair concerns, and I will admit that you will never really be “cured” of your addiction. There will always be some potential for relapse. Addiction and alcoholism are, in fact, permanent conditions. I truly believe that to this day and I still have the occasional thought of drinking or using to prove it. I am not denying this and I fully understand that recovering addicts and alcoholics will never be 100 percent free from all triggers and urges.
However, this does not mean that we should use the wrong approach in dealing with them. So we are always going to have triggers, urges, and thoughts of drinking. So what? Does that mean we just accept them and then deal with them in a passive way for the rest of our lives? This approach does not make sense to me.
Instead, we can become proactive. We can seek to eliminate the majority of our triggers and urges before they ever happen. This is a superior approach for several reasons:
1) You overcome 100 percent of the triggers and urges that never exist to begin with. Therefore prevention is superior to the old school approach where you just react to the trigger or urge after it occurs. Prevention is more effective than scrambling around to deal with existing symptoms.
2) The proactive approach to relapse prevention improves the quality of your life in ways that the passive approach to recovery does not. For example, with a proactive approach you are seeking to make positive changes on a regular basis in order to incrementally improve your life. With a reactive approach, you only make such positive changes as a last resort, and just do the bare minimum that you need to do in order to maintain sobriety. Personal growth is an afterthought with the old school approach, a chore that you engage with only if pressed by the need to stay sober. With the new approach, personal growth is a goal unto itself, something worth pursuing before pain and misery forces you to do so. Therefore you can prevent the negative stuff by taking positive action as a daily matter of course.
3) The reactionary (old) approach creates dependency. The new approach is a more self-reliant path.
So what exactly is this “new” modern approach to relapse prevention?
The idea is to use a different strategy for your recovery right from the outset. Instead of collecting a bunch of tactics to fight your triggers–such as going to meetings, calling your sponsor, etc.–you seek instead to engage in personal growth. There are at least a few key principles behind this approach that are bound to help anyone. They are:
1) Seek to take positive action every day in order to incrementally improve your life. This is about improving your life situation.
2) Seek to become healthier from a holistic standpoint. This would include exercise but also emotional health, eliminating toxic relationships, lowering stress, spirituality, and so on. Push to become a healthier person on many different levels (not just physical health).
3) Seek to learn and to grow as a person in recovery. Ask yourself: “How can I become a better person today?” Start setting personal goals for yourself and then pushing to achieve them.
4) Seek to boost self esteem through personal achievement, reaching personal goals, etc. If you build genuine self esteem in recovery then relapse is much less likely to occur. Of course we are referring to genuine self esteem where you build up positive energy in your life through achievement and positive action. This is the self esteem that results from action and results, not from passive and positive self talk.
Thus, the new approach to relapse prevention is all about personal growth and development. In order to overcome triggers and urges you use a proactive approach that seeks to eliminate the source of such triggers altogether.
At the moment of relapse, self esteem is very low or non-existent. Therefore a big part of this plan is to feel good about yourself based on the actions that you take each day. If you do not feel good about yourself or your actions then you increase your risk of relapse.
It is important to realize the cumulative nature of recovery. Most people miss this fundamental concept, especially when they are relying on others to help prevent their own relapse. The idea is based on the concepts outlined above, especially on taking positive action every day.
In recovery, the “day” becomes your multiplier. Each day is a gift, an opportunity for growth. If you live passively in recovery and rely on reactions to prevent relapse, then you are missing out on a huge opportunity.
Instead, flip the equation around for a moment. Ask yourself “What if I could not choose to live passively, and just react to triggers and urges by calling my sponsor or going to a meeting? What if those options were no longer available, and I had to maintain my sobriety without depending on these various lifelines? How would I have to live my life in order to become strong enough to not need the lifelines?”
Imagine yourself suddenly in a world where you are cut off from those various lifelines. Kind of scary at first, right? Use that fear to spark yourself into action! Imagine that this is real, that you really do have to prevent relapse through your own devices. What kind of approach would that situation demand?
I can tell you what it demands. It demands that you start taking positive action every single day, not wasting your time and energy by living passively in recovery. It demands that you become stronger as a person in your recovery through learning and growth experiences. It demands that you push yourself a bit in ways that might seem uncomfortable at first. It demands that you seek to improve your life and your life situation through taking action.
And more than anything else it demands action. Active living. Most people in recovery are passive. Look around at the AA meetings. Really look at people and listen to their stories and think carefully about how passive or active they are in their recovery. Most people are passive, and only react to life. They react to triggers. They may stay clean and sober this way, but they are depending on a handful of tactics in order to overcome things that pop up in their life.
Creative recovery is this proactive approach to relapse prevention. Creative Recovery is about taking control of your personal growth and building your self esteem up to a point where you are stronger than you were a year ago. If all you do in your recovery program is learn how to depend on others to prevent relapse, what good is that? You have nothing but time, years stretched out in front of you, with which to become stronger in your recovery. More independent. Able to overcome triggers and urges on your own, rather than by relying on others to help you.
I am not saying that you should not seek help in recovery, or that the newcomer should go it alone. What I am saying is that you can become stronger in your recovery if your long term relapse prevention plan is based on a proactive approach that is founded on personal growth. The alternative to such an approach is to live passively.
Why most people fail to prevent relapse
Most people fail to prevent relapse based on a lack of action.
To be fair, most people who relapse are not even yet in the realm of “relapse prevention.” In fact, most people who relapse are not really stable yet in recovery to begin with. Those who do become stable and make it out of early recovery are then going to have to come up with some sort of system in order to prevent relapse while moving forward.
The default plan for this is to immerse yourself in the 12 step program. This actually works just fine so long as you actually “work it.” I do not necessarily insist that people use the 12 step program but it is certainly an option.
And here is the thing: you can use a proactive approach to relapse prevention whether you are in AA or not. Being in a formal recovery program does not necessarily dictate your approach, or your success.
Most people in AA are fairly passive. But there are a handful of “winners” in AA who use a much more proactive approach. They are taking action. They are the movers and shakers. They are the people who are constantly asked to sponsor others. Instead of just talking a good game at the meetings, these people are actually walking the walk. They take action.
As I said, most people in AA are not like this. Most are passive. Thus, most people relapse eventually and the statistics certainly bear this out. If you want to succeed in recovery then you have to go way above and beyond what you think is necessary.
And this is why most people fail to prevent relapse–they don’t go all out. They do not put in the maximum effort. If they are going to AA, do they really immerse themselves fully in the program? If you are going to do it, you may as well do it right. That is the only way you are going to succeed in recovery, is by applying overwhelming force. This is true whether you are in AA or just doing your own thing in recovery.
So the key is not “go to AA” or “don’t go to AA.” That has nothing to do with your success, actually. The 12 step program is just a framework, it is a backdrop to your actual life in recovery. You can succeed or fail in AA, just as you can succeed or fail outside of it. Don’t give magical credit to a program that is basically a framework of support. And on the other hand, don’t think that you can just recover on your own without putting in serious effort as well.
Recovery–both in and outside of AA–demands overwhelming force. You have to try harder than anything you have ever done before in your life. That is the real secret of recovery. That is the only magic to be found in the process. Commitment and dedication. This works both in and out of AA.
The only caution is that many people in 12 step programs end up with a passive approach to relapse prevention. If you choose to abandon AA, it sort of forces you to realize that your relapse prevention plan has to be proactive, it has to come from within yourself, and that it has to be founded in daily action.
Ask yourself: “What can I do today in order to help grow as a person?” This is the incremental and cumulative approach to relapse prevention. Every day you get a little stronger, your situation improves a bit more. Sure, there will always be setbacks and random events. Life happens. It always will. But that does not mean that you have to live passively, or have a reactive approach to relapse prevention. You can still take positive action every day.
Why a proactive approach to relapse prevention makes sense
The reason that this makes so much sense is because it is an active approach, not a passive one.
So this moves you into action. Instead of sitting around and praying or hoping that your situation improves, you seek to go improve it yourself.
We have plenty of time in recovery. You would not believe how much time, energy, and opportunity you have in recovery after you quit drinking and drugging. The world is now your playground. What do you want to create with your life? You have unlimited potential and if you can take positive action every day then this will help to insure that you do not relapse.
You should use a proactive approach not only to prevent relapse, but rather because it will improve your life in general. People who live passively just let stuff happen to them and then they complain about it. What is the point of living this way? What is the fun in doing so? When you live passively you are always a victim of what the world has lined up for you. You are at the mercy of the whims of other people around you.
Flip that around. Stop being passive. Decide what you want to create, decide how you want to improve your life, decide who you want to help in this world or how you want to grow. Decide what you want to learn. And then DO IT. Take action. Take reckless action. Don’t just poke your toe into something, dive all the way in and create something amazing in your life. Shake things up. This is your life, this is it, there is probably no redo, so what are you waiting for?
No one gives you permission to suddenly do awesome stuff in life. No one comes along one day and taps you on the shoulder and says “OK, it is time for you to dream a little and then take action and realize those dreams, so ummm…..go ahead. You have permission to be awesome now.”
That ain’t gonna happen. People who do neat stuff in this world don’t get permission from anyone. They just do it. They figure out what they want in life, and they go after it like a maniac.
This option is available to you, too. And the amazing thing is that living in such a way prevents relapse! You cannot really “move away from addiction.” All you can do is to “move towards recovery.”
In order to do that you must define recovery. Figure out what you want to create in life. Figure out what recovery means to YOU. Then go chase it down and make it a reality.
Every day is an opportunity. Don’t waste yours. Set your goals and start moving towards them, every day. This is relapse prevention done right.