One of the problems in alcoholism recovery is always going to be the temptation to relapse. The temptation to drink will never go away entirely. The threat is always going to be there.
So the question is, how can the recovering alcoholic deal with this threat effectively? How can they deal with temptation on a daily basis, day in and day out, for several years or even decades? How can they overcome these seemingly overwhelming odds against them?
Let’s take a closer look.
The tactical approach to beating alcohol temptations is generally flawed
My opinion is that the tactical approach to overcoming alcohol temptations is generally flawed. When I say “tactics” I am talking about the list of suggestions that you will hear about in traditional recovery, such as “go to a meeting,” “call your sponsor,” “write in the steps,” and so on. These are all things that you can do if you are feeling tempted to drink.
The problem with this approach is that these tactics are always a reaction to the problem. So they don’t necessarily prevent the problem from occurring, they are just a way to deal with it when it pops up. Wouldn’t it be better to try to fix this problem at its core, or eliminate it entirely somehow?
Of course every alcoholic is going to have cravings and temptations from time to time, especially in early recovery. There is no getting around this fact; you cannot eliminate every single temptation. But I still believe that it is a mistake to use the idea of reactionary tactics as your entire relapse prevention strategy.
If all you ever do is wait for a temptation and then react to it by “using your tools of recovery,” then I believe you are in a weak position and are leaving yourself vulnerable. This is not the best way to approach relapse prevention. The “tools of recovery” may help you in a pinch, but I don’t think that this is the best overall approach.
We need to dig deeper.
How to use a strategy to overcome alcoholic cravings
Instead of relying on tactics to help you overcome cravings, I believe that you need to develop a strategy for living sober.
In other words, we need to develop a life philosophy that guides us away from the temptations to begin with. We need to be proactive. We need to work towards eliminating the cravings and temptations right at the source.
In order to do that we need more than just a handful of tactics. We need an overall strategy of recovery.
Now in order to get a strategy and apply it you could actually follow a number of different programs. Some will probably work better for you than others so you may have to search and experiment a bit. For example, when I was in the AA program I found that the tactics and suggestions were helpful but overall the strategy was not coming together for me. In other words, people were telling me what to do and they explained the tactics to me very well but no one could piece it all together and tell me why. No one could give me the overall puzzle and how it all fits together, showing me what was really important. It was just a big mash-up of suggestions and things that “I had to do to stay sober.” But I wanted a more cohesive strategy that would better help me make day to day decisions.
In time, I developed my own strategy. I based this on a number of things, one of which was studying many other recovery programs that are out there (that are not widely popular). None of these programs had these exact ideas in them but the variety of recovery programs shows me the validity of developing a recovery strategy. There is more than one path to sobriety.
My strategy is as follows:
1) Holistic health is a priority. The currency of recovery is good health. I must improve my health every day in the following areas: Physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, social. This is a holistic approach because it includes the “whole” person.
2) Personal growth is the measuring stick for relapse prevention. If you are experiencing the opposite of personal growth then you are moving closer to relapse. Personal growth is relapse prevention. You must consider both the internal and the external when it comes to personal growth and making positive changes.
This is my two part strategy and it has served me well over the last 13 years. Personal growth is the strategy and holistic health is the direction of that strategy. Every potential decision is judged by whether or not it will improve my overall health or make it worse.
In the short run this strategy is not any better or worse than a tactical approach, because it takes time for the rewards of this strategy to fully kick in. You can’t just experience a bunch of personal growth overnight that has a hugely positive impact on your sobriety. It takes time for these changes to really sink in and pay off.
Because it is a holistic strategy the benefits and rewards tend to multiply over time. So you are pushing yourself to achieve growth in various areas of your life, and the rewards of doing so will have a positive effect on other areas. This is known as “synergy” and it is really awesome once you start to experience the multiplying effect. For example, say that you are working out to get into shape and you also are trying to quit smoking cigarettes. The two goals enhance each other and if you master them both then you will experience a multiplicative effect from having done so. It is as if one plus one equals five in terms of the benefits. This is because your two goals were in alignment with each other, they complimented each other.
So how do we get into alignment? How do we choose goals that enhance and compliment each other? We do so by following a strategy. The strategy will guide our decisions so that they match up well with each other. This is why you need a strategy in recovery, so that you are not just chasing after random goals that, while they may all be positive, may not work so well together.
As stated above, my strategy for relapse prevention is personal growth. I have to be making progress and moving forward in life in order to fend off temptation. And it works. If I am excited about life and excited about growth opportunities then I am not going to just throw everything away on a relapse. It won’t happen. I am too excited about the positive changes that I am engaged in. So personal growth must become a theme of my life.
Think of your strategy as a theme. It is not really a goal. A goal is something you reach and then stop. Personal growth is your theme. You want to keep improving.
Think of holistic health as the direction of your theme. Think of it as the measuring stick for if a potential action is worthy or not. Does it improve your health in one of the five areas (physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual) or not? If not, then it is probably not a worthy goal for you. Find a different suggestion.
You may think that you have to figure out all kinds of stuff in order to live this way.
You don’t. You just need to take some suggestions.
While I would maintain that a sponsor in AA can only help you so much, you can still get valuable feedback from people in recovery and they can get you started in the right direction. You just have to be sure that the suggestions you take from people are in alignment with your strategy.
Building up the daily habits that will prevent relapse in the long run
Recovery is all about change, right? And one of the most important principles that I noticed in early recovery was the concept of consistency.
Take the idea of positive change and add in consistency and what do you have? You have a new habit.
Daily habits are one of the keys to unlocking successful sobriety.
Daily habits are powerful because they introduce the idea of consistency.
Just look at how important consistency is. Look at how we behaved in our addiction and how consistent we were! Then look at someone who has ten years sober and look at how consistent they are. Not just in the area of not drinking, but in their everyday life. Ask them if they have established new habits in their recovery. Ask them what their daily routine is that helps them to remain sober.
That is a fantastic suggestion in itself. Go to AA and ask everyone who has several years sober what their daily routine is that helps them to remain sober. Ask ten people in recovery this question and listen carefully to what they tell you. Their answers are very important.
Now you will notice if you do this that their answers will include some tactics, as we discussed above. So someone might say “I go to an AA meeting every day.” Or another person might say “I pray and meditate every single day.” This is a bit different than just using these ideas as a reaction. Instead, they are using them as a daily practice in order to prevent relapse. They are being proactive with the tactics. How? Because they are consistent with them. They do them every single day.
There is great power in consistency, in developing daily habits.
In recovery you are trading in an old set of habits for a new set of habits.
So how do you know which habits to establish, and what will really help you to remain sober?
1) One, you need to test and experiment. You need to create a new life for yourself in recovery, not just take random suggestions from people and accept them as truth. In other words, take lots of suggestions and use them if they match up with your strategy, then test them for effectiveness. Are they really helping you? If not, ditch the new suggestion and move on to something else. But keep testing new ideas in your life. You need new information, you need to take suggestions, you need to try things out. Test, test, test.
2) Establish a strategy and then follow it. As indicated, my strategy was one of personal growth with the direction of improving my overall health. So when you are looking for new habits to establish in your life, you would judge the habits based on how much they improve your overall health. If they don’t improve it much then you might move on and find a different habit.
I will give you a good example, that of meditation. For me, I tested out the idea of seated meditation for a few weeks and it helped a little but not a lot. Then I tested out the suggestion of distance running and this worked much better for me than meditation, giving all of the same benefits. So I switched to running and established that as my new habit.
My daily habits help to prevent relapse both directly and indirectly. For example, the exercise makes me feel good immediately and prevents relapse and temptation in a very direct sort of way. Another daily habit that I have of writing about recovery is much less direct, but it still helps to prevent temptation in the long run. As a daily practice it still builds positive benefits in the long run, even though the effects are not always immediate.
This is another important point that you might want to consider: Not every habit can be evaluated in a week or even a month. Some daily habits may have to have a longer trial period before you can give it fair evaluation. Exercise is a good example of this–if you exercise for 90 days then you may still be struggling and miserable at the end of the 90 days! But if you stick with it and are very consistent for say, six months, then you would probably feel differently about exercise and come to view it as a real gift. It takes longer for some daily habits to produce results. Knowing this may be the result of getting good suggestions and feedback from others in recovery.
Improving your life situation to eliminate triggers
My recovery strategy is about eliminating triggers more than it is about dealing with them. I would rather avoid them entirely.
There are two categories of personal growth that you can explore in recovery. One is working on your life internally (reducing shame, guilt, resentment, fear, etc.) and the other is working on your life externally (improving your relationships, getting into shape, improving nutrition, eliminating toxic people from your life, getting a better job, etc.).
Most people in recovery tend to focus only on the internal changes. How can I overcome resentment? How can I deal with my fears? And so on.
I think it is very important to focus also on the external stuff. Because our environment can lead to temptation and triggers if we are not careful.
They mention this in traditional recovery programs when they talk about “changing people, places, and things.” But they don’t really make a big point of it. They sort of leave it at that and then go back to the internal stuff (which the 12 steps do a good job of addressing).
The internal stuff is “your life.” The external stuff is “your life situation.” I believe that your life situation is very important in terms of avoiding temptation.
So what can you do?
In early recovery it is easy to get overwhelmed. There are so many challenges facing you when you first get clean and sober. There are so many suggestions about how to change, what actions to take, you need a strategy, and so on.
Therefore you have to prioritize. Over my last 13 years in sobriety I have made many, many changes. I never could have done all of these changes in a single year. There is no way that I could have squeezed all of that personal growth into one year.
Hence, prioritization. You have to decide what is most important to change first, and then make that first change in your life.
My suggestion is that you arrange potential changes in terms of the positive impact they will have. You must measure in order to do this. Or at the very least you must guess about the impact a given change will have in your life.
The other tip that I have about prioritizing has to do with “positive and negative goals.”
You may have some goals that are “eliminating a negative thing from your life,” while other goals may be “pursuing something positive.”
Now this is very counter-intuitive, but you want to prioritize by eliminating negatives first.
Why? Because if you have negative stuff that is holding you back in life, then you will never be happy, no matter how many “positive” goals you achieve.
In other words, the best bang for your buck in terms of producing happiness and peace in early recovery has to do with elimination. You want to identify your problems and negative issues, then eliminate them one by one.
Now you may argue that this is not very fun or exciting. Doesn’t matter. You will have real happiness and contentment in your life if you do this hard work. And it is work.
Now if you have trouble identifying what your negative issues are in life then you should ask for help. Get a sponsor and ask them to help you work through your issues. Identify what is making you unhappy and holding you back in recovery, then make a plan to tackle those issues one at a time.
Don’t tackle everything at once, either. Focus. Choose your biggest problem in life and then work hard to eliminate it. Focus all of your energy on it at once until it is resolved. Then move on to your next goal.
This is how you build up a successful life in early recovery. You must eliminate the negatives, the problems, the issues, one at a time. This gives you space to grow and experience real freedom. Without laying this foundation and doing the hard work first, you will never experience peace and contentment later on–because you will always have the negative issues hanging over your life! First things first. Repair first, happiness later. If you try to skirt around this natural order you will find only unhappiness and probably relapse as well.
What to do if you slip up
If you happen to slip up then there is only one possible response that makes any sort of sense. Stop immediately, ask for help, and seek professional treatment. Everything else is a distraction at this point.
The other thing that you have to do is to forgive yourself. Not in the sense that you can go drink again without shame, but in the sense that you made a mistake and now you need to go fix it. Go right the wrong. You are worth it and your life is worth it, especially if you have the willingness to walk a path of recovery. Go get back up on the horse and ask for help. That is your only sensible option following a relapse. Don’t let shame or guilt keep you stuck. You deserve to be happy, so go claim your happiness by getting professional help!
What about you, have you been able to overcome temptation in recovery? What has your strategy been for doing so? What are your tips for avoiding relapse? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!