It is a fair question: “What does going to alcohol rehab actually do to help a person?”
If you have never been to rehab yourself then it can be sort of a mystery as to what actually goes on there. And even if you know what goes on at rehab it can be difficult to understand how that is going to help someone remain sober in some cases. So let’s take a closer look.
What does rehab actually do for you?
The recovery process is much bigger than just rehab. This is because recovering from alcoholism is stretched out over a lifetime, while rehab is usually only a 28 day endeavor. Therefore what you experience at rehab is actually very compressed. They are trying to give you lots of information that you need right now, but also information that you will need down the road.
For example, you may go to rehab and they might have a groups session about nutrition. Believe it or not you do not need a class on nutrition in order to make it through 4 weeks of sobriety. The nutrition part is irrelevant to short term sobriety. However, it makes a difference in long term sobriety as it is part of a more holistic approach. So the rehab has to do a bit of a balancing act in that they need to give you the information that you need in order to make it through short term sobriety, but also the information that you will need down the road. It is not an easy balance to strike.
The recovery process is basically made up of:
1) Surrender, or breaking through denial.
2) Asking for help.
3) Learning a new way of life.
4) Getting support and identification from peers.
5) Following through and living this new way of life.
6) Pursuing and achieving personal growth.
This is the recovery process as I see it.
Going to rehab does not actually help you with surrender. You have to do that first.
Going to rehab also does not really help you when it comes to asking for help. You have to generate that willingness yourself. So you might say that surrender and willingness are pre-rehab concepts. Don’t expect to get them by checking into rehab.
Now as for learning a new way of life and getting support from your peers, this is really what being in rehab facilitates. Every day they will be trying to teach you this new way of life and you will also benefit from the support of your peers while you are there. It is likely that you will be introduced to AA meetings as well. This is basically the point of treatment and inpatient rehab.
There is one more critical reason to go to rehab and that is the idea of the “safe environment” and guaranteed sobriety. When you check into a 28 day program you are entering a safe environment where there are no temptations, and it is also medically staffed (generally speaking). This is the easiest way to get 28 days sober. You simply check into inpatient rehab, and before you know it you have a month of sobriety under your belt. It is easy to stay sober while you are in rehab, and that is basically the point. Anyone can go to rehab and stay sober while being there. The key is in being able to continue that sobriety after you leave. And therein lies the real challenge.
It’s about the willingness to go to rehab in the first place
If you need a lot of help in convincing yourself to go to rehab then that is generally not a good sign.
The first two times I went to treatment I needed a lot of convincing and neither attempt was successful. I relapsed both times.
The reason that I relapsed was not because the treatment center failed. The reason I failed was because I was not ready to embrace recovery. I was not fully surrendered to my disease yet. I was still in denial.
Now the second time that I went to rehab I definitely knew that I was alcoholic. But that doesn’t mean that I was not in denial, because I definitely was. I was in denial of the solution. I did not believe (or want) AA to work for me. And that seemed to be the only solution I was being offered. So I resisted this and I stayed in denial.
On the other hand if you are willing to go to treatment then that is a good sign. If you are desperate to go to rehab then that is an even better sign. Your willingness is a reflection of your level of surrender. The more you have surrendered, the more willing you will be to take action. And it is this action that rebuilds your life in recovery. No surrender, no willingness, no action. It is a process.
Going to rehab will, unfortunately, not give you any additional willingness. You have to generate that for yourself out of sheer desperation. If you are not desperate enough then you simply won’t be willing enough to go to rehab and change your life. It takes a great deal of energy and commitment to turn your life around from alcoholism and so the main barrier to entry is your level of surrender.
If you are not yet at the point of surrender then it is very likely that you will not remain sober. And ultimately this will lead to more out of control drinking and more consequences. And eventually you will experience enough misery and pain in your life that it will force you to surrender. This is the path to recovery, unfortunately. Alcoholics do not surrender when things are going good in their life, they surrender when they are completely miserable. It is pain that motivates change. You have to experience this desperation before you get to rehab if you want the rehab experience to really help you.
Why it is all about the follow through
The results that you get from going to rehab are based on three things:
2) Asking for help.
3) Following directions.
Does the person follow directions when they leave rehab? In other words, do they follow through?
Do they take the suggestions that they are given in treatment about going to meetings every day? Do they take the suggestion they are given about finding a sponsor and calling them every day? Do they follow through with all of these actions and get serious about their path in recovery?
You would be amazed at how often the answer is “or not.” Many, many alcoholics who leave rehab simply don’t understand the magnitude of the task in front of them. They don’t take massive action like they need to and eventually they relapse.
There is a saying about what needs to change in early recovery, and they joke about it, and the answer is always “everything!” You have to change everything. And if you ask someone who has a year or more sober what changed in early sobriety for them, they will laugh and say “everything changed!”
Because it really feels that way. It felt that way for me. Everything in my life changed. I mean everything.
And this is a clue to your recovery post-treatment. The idea that everything changes is a huge clue about just how much effort and action you need to put into sobriety. The answer is: “A lot.” You need to put a lot of effort into your recovery. Basically, you have to try harder at sobriety than you have ever tried before regarding anything in your life, ever.
Put in your best effort. Try harder at recovery than you have ever tried before at anything. This is the level of intensity, focus, and action that you need to take in early sobriety.
Don’t just take action. Take massive action.
Don’t just go to an AA meeting here or there. Go to one every day for 90 days straight. Or, go to more than that even. Take massive action. Get involved deeply in your recovery.
This is about priorities. Most people who leave rehab are not prioritizing correctly. You need to put your sobriety first in life, before anything else. It needs to be number one. People talk the talk when it comes to this, but are they really walking the walk? That is what will make or break their sobriety.
Your number one goal each and every day is to remain sober. You need to rearrange your life around meeting that goal each and every day. No exceptions. If you put something else in front of your recovery you are going to lose it. Meaning, you will lose your sobriety and you will also lose whatever you put in front of your sobriety. Let me say that again to make sure everyone understands the concept:
* If you put something in front of your sobriety you are going to lose it.
So if you put a relationship in front of your sobriety then eventually you will lose that relationship. Don’t bother to test this as it is far too painful. Better to trust me when I tell you this basic truth. Anything you put in front of your sobriety will be gone. You will lose it. You must put your sobriety first, above everything else in this world.
Each and every day that you wake up in recovery you need to tell yourself “My number on goal today is to remain sober. What actions am I going to take to accomplish that?” And if you don’t have a good answer for that question, then you need to ask for more help. Go to a meeting, call your sponsor, take positive action. If you don’t have a plan then you will relapse. Get yourself a plan. Take massive action.
Setting yourself up for success in long term recovery
In my opinion the long term guide to beating alcoholism is all about personal growth and overcoming complacency.
Let’s say that you have been sober for two years. What is the biggest threat to your sobriety?
At this point it is complacency. You need to overcome complacency in long term recovery or it will cause you to relapse.
Now in your first year of so of recovery this is not an issue. During the first year you are taking massive action and you are overcoming immediate urges and cravings that would cause you to relapse. The threat of relapse is immediate.
But after the first year or so the disease becomes a bit more sneaky. Now it is not a struggle to stay sober on a daily basis. Instead, your disease will try to find new and sneaky ways to attack you.
For example, I have known several people in long term sobriety who fell ill or were injured suddenly and got hooked on prescription painkillers. In some cases this led the person back to alcohol. In other cases the addiction to the painkillers was worse than the alcoholism ever was. In any case, this is not an outcome we want to experience and therefore we need a way to prevent this.
But how can you protect against a sneaky threat like this? How can you live your life so that relapse cannot sneak in and trick you like this?
The answer is that you need to embrace the holistic approach to recovery. That means seeking greater health in all these areas of your life on a daily basis:
In order to really protect yourself from the threat of complacency you need to keep taking positive action. You must challenge yourself to keep growing and making progress. And in order to do that you need some sort of direction.
These 5 areas are the direction that you want to go in. You want to improve your health in all of these 5 areas on a regular basis. Specifically, if you completely neglect one of these areas for too long then it can open the door so that relapse can sneak back into your life.
Traditional recovery focuses entirely on spiritual growth, and uses that as the only form of “protective moat” against relapse. But in reality you can be stronger than that if you take a look at all 5 of these areas in your life, which also include spirituality as well. This is the holistic approach and it is more comprehensive than the strictly spiritual approach.
The way to set yourself up for success in long term recovery is to be mindful of each of these 5 areas in your life. If you really want to kick your growth into high gear then the secret to doing that is to ask for feedback and suggestions from your peers and/or sponsor in recovery. Ask people what you need to work on in your life. Ask for their advice. Ask them what helped them to stay sober when they were at the point you are at.
Then, take action. Test their ideas. Take their suggestions and run with them for a while. Figure out what works for you and what does not. Keep testing ideas. When you run out of ideas, go talk to your sponsor or your therapist or a counselor or the people at AA and ask them for more advice. Say to them “I’ve done this, this, and this, and it seems to be helping. What else can I do to improve my life and my recovery?” If they don’t have answers for you then go ask different people. Find people who also have significant amounts of clean time what you should be doing. Their answers are important because their advice has been tested in the real world and it did not lead them to relapse.
Your recovery will never really be finished and this is the growth process that will help you to prevent becoming complacent. If you keep taking suggestions and testing new ideas in your life then you will never be stagnant to the point where you relapse. Always be looking for that next positive change that you can make in your life. Always be open to suggestions and feedback about what direction you should go next.
Defeating complacency in long term recovery
The key to overcoming complacency is personal growth.
Some people think that relying on AA meetings every day is what leads to complacency. This is a misunderstanding. Going to meetings doesn’t make you complacent. Being complacent makes you complacent. And this can happen either with or without daily AA meetings in your life.
If you genuinely worried about complacency then I would have a few suggestions for how to counter it:
1) Strive to improve your life from an internal standpoint. This means eliminating anger, fear, guilt, shame, self pity, resentment, and so on. You may need to work with another person on a regular basis in order to identify these things.
2) Strive to improve your life situation from an external standpoint. This means changing the people, places, and things in your life. The external stuff. Seek to improve it. Take positive action.
3) Take advice and suggestions from other people, especially people who have more sober time than you do. They are further in the journey (theoretically) and can help to warn you against the pitfalls. But don’t just blindly take anyone’s advice (including mine!), instead, test the ideas for yourself. Always be testing ideas and evaluating if they help you or not.
The goal of rehab is pretty simple: Keep the alcoholic sober for 28 days and teach them a few tools regarding staying sober in the real world. Give them a support system. This is the idea behind going to rehab. If you can establish a foundation in sobriety from going to treatment then you can build on this foundation and create a new life in recovery. The key is that you must be willing to take action and follow through, and in order to do that you must first surrender and break through your denial.
Therefore the whole recovery process, including treatment, should look like this:
1) Experience pain and misery from alcoholism.
2) Break through denial and surrender. Admit fully that you need serious help and that you do not have the answers.
3) Ask for help. Either call up a rehab or let a family member hook you up with rehab.
4) Take action. Go to treatment. Become humble and learn everything you can.
5) Follow through. Leave rehab and take massive action. Dive into recovery head first. Try harder than you ever have before in your life, at anything.
6) Embrace a life of personal growth. Overcome complacency by staying open to positive changes.
This is the recovery process as I understand it for myself. Going to rehab, for me, was a critical part of at least 3 of those 6 steps.
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