Learning to Deal with the Laws of Relapse and Sobriety

Learning to Deal with the Laws of Relapse and Sobriety

drinking relapse

There are certain laws that govern sobriety, alcoholism, and relapse.

Let’s take a look at some of these so that we can get a better idea of how we might remain clean and sober.

I also like to think of these concepts as being “fundamental principles.” So in other words, if you go to a religious based recovery program, or if you go to AA or NA, it doesn’t really matter because these concepts are immutable, they don’t change, they are present in everyone’s recovery journey regardless of how they get sober. These laws exist outside of AA, they are above that, they apply to sobriety in general rather than to a specific recovery program.

Law #1: If nothing changes, nothing changes

This is a common saying that you hear around the tables of AA.

It makes perfect sense and it sounds profound. And in reality, it is profound, because I think we all assume that the random nature of life can potentially save us.

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Think about that for a moment.

The alcoholic is desperate for change, yet they are afraid to do it. They live in fear, in denial. And I think they are secretly hoping that one day their alcoholism might just fade away. Or that one day they might be able to suddenly enjoy their alcohol while also controlling it. This is the ultimate fantasy of the alcoholic, that their disease will just magically melt away one day.

But of course that is fantasy. And this law becomes like a wake up call, like a smack in the face. Of course nothing is going to change unless you make a huge effort. But we want to avoid that responsibility if we can, we would rather that the universe just somehow give us a free gift: “Here, have some easy sobriety, without having to work for it at all!” No, that is not realistic. The alcoholic doesn’t just wake up one day and feel like they want to get sober suddenly.

This is really the fantasy, this is the secret hope, that getting sober will suddenly become easier for some reason. That is what the alcoholic is hoping for. Right now, getting sober is too hard, too difficult. Maybe some day in the future they will wake up and it will suddenly be more attractive to get sober, it will be easy and fun.

No, that is not realistic. It is not going to get any easier. What will happen is that, over time, the alcoholic will become more and more miserable in their addiction. But they will still have that same level of fear when it comes to sobriety. It won’t get easier to sober up, but the motivation to do so may increase, only because they will become more and more miserable over time.

This law also applies to long term sobriety.

Let’s say that you are clean and sober and have been for several years.

But maybe now you are complacent and lazy. You have stopped working so hard on your recovery program. Maybe you attend AA meetings, maybe you do something else to remain sober, but basically you have “gone soft.” You no longer push yourself for positive change.

In this case, you are complacent. You run the risk of relapse if nothing changes.

Think of your sobriety as riding a bike up a hill. If you fall over, you relapse. So the key is to keep pedaling up that hill. If you stop pedaling, what happens? You fall over and relapse. The only way to stay sober in the long run is to keep pedaling, forever.

That is continuous personal growth. If you stop growing, if you stop learning, if you stop pushing yourself to improve your life then you have stopped pedaling, and your bike is in danger of falling over.

This can happen to people who have years or even decades of sobriety under their belt. If you stop taking positive action in recovery then you run the risk of relapse.

So essentially you have to keep making changes in your life. Positive changes. This is how you maintain sobriety.

If nothing changes then nothing changes. It actually applies to every stage of your recovery journey.

Law #2: Without surrender there can be no meaningful recovery

Nearly all of addiction and recovery can be explained in terms of surrender.

If you look at various people in recovery who have relapsed, you can point out in each and every case how that person had failed to surrender fully.

We surrender to two things: We surrender to the fact that we have a disease, and we surrender to a new solution in our life.

If someone tries to get sober and then they fail, it is always because they failed to surrender completely.

Sometimes what happens is that they surrendered to their disease, but they failed to surrender to AA (for example).

I did this twice before I finally got it. I surrendered to the fact that I was a real alcoholic. And when I did that, I went to rehab and sought out help. But in doing so I also failed to surrender to a solution. I did not embrace the solution. I thought that I could figure it out for myself instead. And so what happened is that I relapsed, I had to go back out there and drink some more and find some more misery in my life. I wasn’t ready to get sober because I was not yet ready to embrace a new solution in my life. I had only surrendered halfway.

No, the solution when it comes to alcoholism and drug addiction is always going to be the same: Total and complete surrender. Partial surrender is not good enough. Partial surrender will always result in eventual relapse. And remember that you must surrender not only to the problem, but also to the solution. You must embrace a new way of life, a new path in recovery.

Essentially what this means in real terms is that you have to listen to someone tell you what to do. This is very tough for most people to do and, quite frankly, most people don’t want to do it. Period. They don’t want to listen to others, they don’t want to take direction, and they want to believe that they have all of the answers. We would all like to think that we can figure out our own happiness. But real surrender means that you figured out at one point that you are no longer happy, that this is all your own fault, and that in order to fix it you may have to take advice from someone else.

That is what real surrender means in practical terms. I had to surrender to the fact that I was unhappy, that I had screwed up my own life, that it was all my own fault, and that I needed serious help and advice if I was going to fix it. I could not solve my own problem of unhappiness. I could not figure out how to be happy again in life, because my answer was always to get drunk and high (which no longer worked in terms of making me happy). In order to break through denial, I had to admit that my drug of choice was no longer making me happy. Even doing that was a stretch for me at the time.

Law #3: Massive action is required for success in sobriety

I like to think of recovery in terms of massive action.

I used to work in a drug and alcohol treatment center. While I was there I would watch people come into treatment as they tried to sober up. This was very interesting to watch and over the years I got to watch over a thousand people.

When you work in this environment for a long time you start to get predictive powers. Not that I was cynical necessarily, but I was able to see when certain people were almost certainly headed for relapse. I got to the point where it was very, very easy to see if someone was just not going to make it.

Now realize that I was there once too–I was, at one time, in rehab, and I was one of these people who did not have a chance in the world at staying sober. I just wasn’t ready yet. But that did not mean that it was all for nothing. I just wasn’t ready yet at that time. I went back out, drank more, got some more misery, and eventually found the path to sobriety.

What does this have to do with “massive action?”


If you are willing to take massive action then there is a chance that you might stay clean and sober.

Let me repeat that concept because it is of vital importance:

If you are at least willing to take massive action in recovery, if you are willing to go above and beyond in order to stay sober, then it is possible that you will overcome your addiction.

Note that this does not insure success. But at least it becomes possible if you are willing to take massive action.

Here is what I learned while working in rehab and watching people try to sober up:

If someone is not even willing to take massive action, then they don’t have a chance at sobriety. None whatsoever. Their chances are exactly zero.

That probably sounds a bit bold, arrogant, maybe even cynical. But I worked in the field for long enough that I did not really need to see any more data to understand this concept.

Massive action is important. You cannot just be a “somewhat willing” and expect to recover. You can’t just dip your big toe into the pool of recovery and expect to make it work.

You cannot attend one AA meeting per week as your entire plan of recovery and expect to stay sober.

Think about this carefully. It is not about going to AA meetings or not. That is not the point. In fact, you can recover without ever setting foot in an AA meeting if you want. I am not arguing for or against AA.

What I am talking about here is intensity, and willingness.

If you do choose to use AA to help you recover, then you must dive into AA head first. Don’t just go to one meeting. Don’t just go to 3 meetings a week.

That is not the right intensity to overcome an addiction.

Let me ask you this: How often did you use your drug of choice, and how often did you think about it if you weren’t using it?

That is the intensity level with which you should approach your recovery solution.

If you want to succeed in recovery then you need to take massive action. In order to do that you have to have a lot of willingness.

It takes a lot of positive momentum in order to overcome the negativity of addiction. You can’t do it just by getting lucky. It takes deliberate action on your part. Massive action. Consistent action. And in order to get there you have to be willing.

Law #4: Selfishness is poison; gratitude is the cure

Many people believe that spirituality is the solution for beating an addiction.

I am in partial agreement with this. But I tend to believe that spirituality is just one slice of the pie, and that you really need a holistic approach in order to live the good life in recovery. So you need emotional health, physical health, mental health, and social health as well. Spirituality is important too but it is not the entire pie, in my opinion. It is just one slice of the pie.

Having said that, what does “spirituality” really mean in terms of sobriety? It is a big question. We can talk about faith, hope, higher powers, prayer, meditation, and so on. But what I have found in my own experience is that gratitude is the most important part of spirituality, by far.

In fact, the concept of gratitude is so powerful that it actually encompasses a lot of other spiritual concepts as well. For example, I believe that if you are truly grateful in the moment, then you are also experiencing a deep faith in the universe as well. It is not a direct faith but it is still a form of faith. And if you are grateful in the moment then you are also experiencing a genuine humility.

Why? How? Because when you are grateful it allows you to learn. It helps you to learn, because you are taking whatever shows up in your life and you are trying to find the silver lining in it, no matter how good or bad that new event may be. And when you try to find the silver lining in things you are forcing yourself to try to learn new lessons. This is powerful.

So all of these spiritual concepts are rolled up into the concept of gratitude. It sort of encompasses all of them and the practice of gratitude can have a huge impact on your life.

The big book of AA talks about how selfishness is at the core of our addiction. We act for ourselves, by ourselves, in order to seek out our own happiness. When we are trapped in our addiction all we care about is ourselves, about our own “happiness” (even though we are miserable all the time). So a big part of the AA philosophy is in overcoming this selfishness.

If selfishness is the problem then gratitude is the cure. You may think that service of others would be important, and it is, but the spiritual concept that can help lead you to that is the idea of gratitude. By practicing gratitude every day you will naturally want to help and serve others.

Perhaps this is why they declare some meetings to be “gratitude meetings” in AA, and they focus on gratitude entirely for an hour, instead of talking about other things. It is that important, it is that powerful. Gratitude is the cure to many of our problems.

Law #5: Complacency is the number one threat in long term sobriety

In early recovery the number one threat is resentment. Nearly everyone comes into recovery with some form of anger in their heart. Resentments can kill alcoholics. They cause us to drink, they give us the excuses that we need in order to justify relapse.

But if you do the work in early recovery then you will take care of these resentments. Yes, that is possible. In fact, it is necessary. If you are going to maintain long term sobriety then you have to get past those resentments. If you want to stay sober in the long run then you have to release that anger. And once you do that you will no longer be under the constant threat of relapse due to resentments.

This is known as “doing the work” and, quite honestly, not everyone in recovery does it! Some people avoid it, because it is uncomfortable to get honest with ourselves. So they prefer to live in denial, they prefer not to get honest with themselves, and they leave those traps buried for themselves. Many of those people will eventually relapse, and then they might come back to recovery later on and realize that they need to do the work if they actually want to remain sober this time.

The other group of people in recovery will have done the hard work and eliminated those resentments. What of these people? Are they magically cured forever?

No, they are not. There is one more threat in long term sobriety, and that is complacency.

When we get complacent in our recovery it means that we get lazy. We stop doing the work. We stop pushing ourselves to be learn, to grow, to improve our lives.

In a very sneaky way, this can eventually lead us to relapse.

The way to avoid this, of course, is to assume that we have a problem with complacency. If you make that assumption then it will cause you to take positive action, to look carefully at your life, and to push yourself to make more and more positive changes. This is the path to success in long term sobriety. If you want to remain clean and sober then you must take an active role in your recovery journey. This means constant personal growth and continuous self improvement.

And is that really such a terrible price to pay? Some people object to this law, and believe that after they work through the 12 steps, they should be magically sober forever without any additional effort. They want to be fully cured. But the reality is that our addiction is always trying to find new ways to trip us up, to sneak back into our lives. That threat never goes away complete and in fact it continues to grow over time. Because the threat of addiction continues to evolve and grow, we must do the same thing in our sobriety efforts. We must continue to evolve and grow ourselves if we want to have a fighting chance at sobriety.

What about you, have you found these laws of recovery to be true for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!

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