For the most part, sobriety gets easier over time. It does.
But in some ways it doesn’t. And so the path to long term sobriety and happiness can be a tricky one at times.
Let’s look at how the challenge will evolve over time, and what you may need to do differently in order to anticipate these evolving challenges.
“It gets greater, later”
They have a saying in AA: “It gets greater, later.”
I believe this. I experienced this.
There was a time when I had a few weeks sober and I can remember throwing myself down on my bed and just sort of crying into a pillow for a while. I was very discouraged. In that moment, I had no great hope that I would remain sober. I had no confidence in myself, in my recovery, or in anything. I was trying to care, I was trying to force myself to care about life and about sobriety and to get excited, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I was overwhelmed with emotion because I had left all of my friends, all of my drinking buddies, and my girlfriend at the time who was addicted as well.
And so I went into long term treatment and I felt like my life was over. How would I ever be happy again? I was devastated and overrun with emotion. I felt hopeless.
And they told me in the meetings “don’t worry, it gets greater, later.”
I didn’t really believe them.
It was easier to just feel miserable for a while than to have any kind of false hope for myself.
Little did I realize that they were right, that it does, in fact, get better over time.
What exactly gets better?
How you feel each day while you are clean and sober. How you deal with life and deal with reality without reaching for your drug of choice. That gets a whole lot better as you stay sober and do the work. Now if you are not “doing the work” in recovery then of course that will not, in fact, get any better at all. This is why people relapse. They get sober but then they fail to do the work, and life smacks them in the face eventually, and so they deal with it the only way that they know how. If you are “doing the work” in recovery then you are constantly learning new ways to deal with reality, new ways to deal with life, new ways to overcome stress without resorting to your drug of choice.
It actually gets better on a whole bunch of different levels, but the most basic level is the fact that you finally get relief from the obsession and the compulsion to use drugs and alcohol. At some point in sobriety you are granted freedom from that obsession.
This doesn’t happen overnight, of course. For example, when I had two weeks sober I was not yet free. I was still obsessed over the idea of getting drunk or high again. I thought about it many times throughout the day. It was like an annoying fly, buzzing around your head, that would never go away completely no matter how many times you swatted at it. That obsessive thought about drinking was always there, lurking in the background of your mind.
And then suddenly it was gone. I never believed that this miracle was even possible for me, that I might one day be totally free of the obsession to drink and use drugs. But somewhere around the 3 to 6 month point in sobriety that obsession was lifted. Amazing! And to think, I used to drink huge amounts of liquor and take illegal drugs every day of my life, and here I was with less than 6 months sober, and I was totally free all of a sudden.
But yes, you do have to put in the work for this miracle to occur. It doesn’t just happen. You have to sober up, make a decision, make a real commitment, and do the work. You have to take action, follow through, make a serious effort. Not a small deal.
It will be, in fact, the biggest deal of your entire life thus far. That is a good gauge for how hard you should try in recovery. Try harder than you ever have before, at anything. That’s kind of the big secret. Recovery is a big challenge, but you can do it if you just try harder than you ever have in your life. Sounds ridiculous, but it is actually really good advice.
Out of day to day cravings and into the stability of long term sobriety
In early recovery you are going to have thoughts of drinking or using your drug of choice at least once every single day.
Eventually that goes away, if you are doing the work.
So what happens next? How does your life proceed from there if you are no longer fighting against daily cravings?
In early recovery you seek out support. You ask for help. You get immediate relief for those intense cravings by going to AA meetings every day, by attending therapy or counseling, by going to treatment, by talking with a sponsor, by drinking coffee with people after the AA meeting, and so on.
Early recovery is mostly about support. You interact with others in recovery and you get direct support from them.
This is slightly different in long term recovery. There is a shift at some point, a transition of sorts.
And not everyone makes it through this transition. Some people want to stay in the world of early recovery. They want to stay in the land of daily support forever. They don’t want to evolve.
If you evolve then the next logical step is one of personal growth. You can still interact with others, to be sure. But now the burden in recovery is one of personal growth, it is a burden of taking positive action.
Because the final enemy in addiction recovery is one of complacency, this means that you never really get to prop your feet up and become lazy in your recovery journey. If you do then you run the risk of relapse. Therefore the real challenge in recovery is to engage in personal growth on a continuous basis.
The challenge of personal growth on a continuous basis
How do you engage in personal growth on a continuous basis?
Doesn’t that sound a bit extreme anyway? How is someone supposed to even make continuous progress? Isn’t it enough to just make some positive changes and then be done with it, to move on with your life at some point?
Well, I have given these sorts of questions a lot of thought over the years. Because I really wanted to know the secret of recovery, I wanted to know the exact mechanics of how people remained clean and sober (and why certain people relapsed even though they appeared to be doing all the right things).
Here is what I believe to be important about personal growth, and why it has to be a continuous process that is always unfolding:
1) Internal work. You have do the work in order to recover. From the perspective of traditional recovery (AA and such) you need to work the 12 steps. Now in the real world you do not necessarily have to work those exact 12 steps, but you have do some of the internal soul searching that those 12 steps are driving at. In other words, you have to get really honest with yourself and figure out all of the negative crap that is floating around in your brain and find a way to deal with it, to eliminate it. Maybe it is resentments, maybe it is anger and guilt, maybe it is shame and remorse, maybe it is self pity. Or maybe it is none of those things and you need a special sponsor or therapist to help you figure it out. But that is what I mean by doing “internal work.” It is work that has to happen up between your two ears, you have to get your mind straightened out, you have to get back to healthy thinking and a healthy attitude.
2) External work. You may have heard the phrase at AA meetings that you “need to change people, places, and things.” So every one of us is, to some extent, a product of our environment. Now obviously that is only a partial truth because we can also choose to alter our environment, to leave certain relationships, to find a new place to live, to seek out a new job, and so on. We don’t have to stay stuck in a negative space necessarily. Now some people make the mistake of thinking that this is the entire solution for sobriety, but obviously it is not. The internal work is probably even more important than your external circumstances, though obviously they are both a factor. So when we talk about “doing the work” in recovery we are referring to both the internal work and getting your mind straight, but also the external world and getting your environment and your relationships straightened out. One can certainly affect the other.
For example, say that you work in a bar for a living, yet you are want to sober up. Bad combination. If you are seeing that every day then it will make it that much harder for you to break free, to surround yourself with sober people, to get your mind and your attitude to align to a new reality. Don’t make it harder on yourself just because you think you should be up for the challenge, or that you should be a stronger person.
3) “Spirituality.” It is one thing to get your thoughts straight in recovery. You want to eliminate negativity, resentment, fear, anger, and so on. But it is another thing entirely to have a shift in your attitude, to be able to react to events in your world differently and in a healthy way. This is where spirituality comes into play. When bad things happen in your world, how do you deal with them, how do you react, how do you find a way to cope without reaching for the bottle?
The answer, for me, has been in gratitude. Spirituality can mean many things to different people (prayer, meditation, higher powers, faith, hope, love, etc.) but if we assign the practice of gratitude to the word “spirituality” then that creates a platform that seems to really help people.
When you are grateful, when you are truly grateful for your existence, then this makes everything so much better. You open up to learning. You can find the silver lining in things. You realize that a tragedy can teach you a lesson, or reveal a hidden bonus of sorts. You start to see the positive in things rather than the negative. And this gives you immense protection against the threat of relapse.
No person who is truly grateful could ever relapse. It is not possible. The only person who relapses and reaches for their drug of choice is someone who is 100 percent NOT grateful in that moment. They are the exact opposite of grateful when they relapse. They are pure selfishness. They are saying to the universe: “I don’t like what you are giving me right now, so much so that I am going to change it, I am going to dump this poison back into my system and accept all of the negative consequences that come along with that, rather than to trust in the divine flow of the universe, and to trust that everything is working out for the greater good.” That is how you selfishly take back your will and relapse. It is anti-gratitude. It is the opposite of being grateful.
4) Building momentum. When you seek continuous self improvement you build momentum. You feel powerful. The benefits of a life well lived start to accumulate, to build up over time. This is amazing and I highly recommend it.
In order to experience this you have to put in the work, consistently, for a long time. You have to inventory your life and figure out different ways that you could improve yourself and your life. Then you have to focus on big goals, figure out what your priorities should be, and ask for help so that you can make a real impact on your life in a short period of time.
Ask yourself: “What is the one goal that, if achieved today, would make the rest of the details in my life irrelevant?” That is how you prioritize. Figure out where the biggest impact is, where the biggest positive change is at. Then chase after that and focus on it with laser precision.
Then, do it again.
Keep doing this every day for a month. For a year. For ten years.
Keep pushing yourself to improve, to reach that next level, to improve yourself over and over again.
If your life improves 1 percent each week then over the long run you will be amazed at your results.
Consistency is the key though. You have to be willing to put in a continuous effort. Just making a one time effort is not going to cut it, that won’t produce the results that we all desire. It must be a continuous push for self improvement.
The constant threat of complacency and how you might deal with it
Assume that you are complacent.
Right now, do this. Assume that you have become lazy in your recovery journey.
Assume that you are not pushing yourself hard enough, that you are not examining your life deeply enough, that you are not asking for help enough and seeking direction for your life.
Make an assumption right now that you could be doing more work in order to improve your life in recovery.
Now that you have made that assumption, what is the result?
Can that assumption hurt you in any way?
My answer is “no, it cannot hurt you.”
It can only help you.
Because when you assume you are complacent, you automatically fight back against complacency. When you assume that you are not examining your life closely enough, you instantly start to correct that problem.
And even if you are wrong about your assumption, the result is still a positive outcome: You still push yourself harder to become a better person in recovery.
One of the 12 steps of AA speaks to this idea as well, it is step ten that talks about how we need to “Continue to take personal inventory….”
Think about how that is worded, that we “continue to take…”
Obviously this is something that is done on a continuous basis. Every day. Over and over again. We continue to do this, we continue to examine our lives, we continue to push ourselves to make those positive changes.
You can work the 12 steps of AA if you like, or you can simply work a program of holistic recovery outside of AA. Regardless of what you do though, the basic concepts remain the same. You have to keep pushing yourself to grow in recovery, you have to stay vigilant to fight against complacency, and you have to keep trying to improve your life on a daily basis. Failing these things will only lead you to (potential) relapse.
Building on your previous success in recovery
So in one way, sobriety does NOT get easier over time. That would be the issue of complacency. In fact, it actually gets trickier, because we are lulled into a false sense of security by our own stability in sobriety.
But we are not stable unless we continue to do the work. Unless we continue to build on our previous success in recovery.
At one point in my sobriety journey I gained a new level of discipline. That took some hard work and dedication to achieve, and I did it through daily exercise.
Later on I realized that this same discipline that I had gained could be channeled into other projects. It did not have to be used for fitness or physical activity. I could use that discipline that I had gained and put it into something entirely different. I did this later by training for a marathon and by building a business.
This is how the benefits of recovery can multiply over time, because we take our previous success in recovery and then we build upon it.
What about you, has your recovery gotten easier over time, or does the difficultly level seem to remain about the same? Do you think there is anything that you can suggest to make things easier for others who may be struggling in early recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!