How can you best stay focused in your efforts to remain clean and sober? In some ways this is the number one problem that faces any struggling addict or alcoholic who has just left a treatment center.
It is fairly easy to stop drinking or using drugs–the trick is in how to stay stopped. And to do that you need a plan. Then you need to execute on that plan. And that requires focus.
So let’s start from the top–why do you need a plan in order to recover?
The first time that anyone gets clean and sober, they are in a for a rude awakening. We all would like to believe that we are slightly smarter than average, right? But by definition, we are not all smarter than average, we can’t be! Only some of us are. And to be honest, being “smart” doesn’t really help much when it comes to addiction and recovery. In fact, being really smart seems to be a liability when it comes to the surrender process.
So what exactly is this rude awakening? It is the fact that all of your life you have probably done fairly well in terms of figuring things out without having to put too much effort into them. In other words, you were able to put forth a modest effort in life (in most things) and get a modest or even great return as a result. You didn’t have to try too hard in order to be moderately successful in life.
Recovery from alcoholism is not like that.
I want you to imagine for a moment what kind of focus and determination it takes to run a full marathon–26 miles. Also, think for a moment what kind of motivation and determination it would take to get yourself into that kind of shape if you were starting from scratch–a complete couch potato. Think about the level of dedication it would take to get into that kind of shape, where you could eventually run 26 miles in one single exercise session.
That is the kind of determination, the kind of drive, the kind of commitment–that we are talking about when we talk about getting sober. That is the kind of focus it takes to succeed in sobriety. I’m not kidding, nor am I exaggerating for effect here. In fact, I had the experience of training for a marathon and then successfully running it, so I know exactly how much focus it took to achieve that. And I also went through the surrender and recovery process when it comes to alcoholism, so I know exactly how the two goals match up.
Consider this–the marathon training took a few months, maybe a year or more if you really take into account the foundation jogging that took place in the beginning.
Now consider this–I went to treatment three times over a period of about 3 years, and the third time I went to rehab I ended up living in long term treatment for a period of 20 months. That is some serious focus. After leaving that treatment center and going out on my own, my life has always had a major part of it focused on recovery. I built a website about addiction, I work in a rehab center, and I continue to interact with other people in recovery on a daily basis. My life revolves around the recovery process.
In the meantime, I watched a number of my peers in recovery who did not make it. None of them had as much focus as what I have applied. I have a few peers in mind who actually did remain clean and sober, and still are to this day. And guess what? They have an insane amount of focus and dedication in their lives. For example, one of my peers is in AA and he started his own chapter out of his basement and continues to sponsor multiple people in early recovery. His life revolves around 12 step work and reaching out to others. Another example of someone who is successful in recovery would be my NA sponsor, who remains clean and sober to this day. Again, we are talking about someone who works on recovery on a daily basis, works a holistic program of improving his health, and continues to interact with newcomers on a nearly daily basis, even after over two decades of continuous clean time.
So just compare this level of focus with someone who is completely naive and hopes to check into rehab, leave after two weeks, and maybe go to one AA meeting per week or so in order to maintain their recovery. That is not the right approach, nor is it the right attitude. You have to have a massive amount of determination and focus.
So getting back to the idea that you need a plan….why do we need a plan in sobriety? Why can’t we just live our lives sober, and do the next right thing?
The reason is because we are addicts and alcoholics, and our natural solution in nearly any situation is to self medicate. So in effect, you have a plan all the time, and that plan is to relapse. That is always going to be the number one plan that your brain wants you to engage in. So you need a way to over ride that natural tendency. Your mind has a disease and it wants you to relapse. Therefore you need a plan, you need an alternative to this, each and every day.
In the beginning of your recovery, you cannot come up with your own plan.
That won’t work. Your plan will fail. Why? Because you are an addict. You are alcoholic. Your brain wants you to fail so that it can self medicate again.
The only way around this is to use someone else’s plan. And that requires surrender. You have to figure out how to get out of your own way, and let someone tell you how to live your life for a while.
Getting focused in early recovery by going to rehab
So how do you get focused? How do you maintain that focus?
Let’s start at the beginning.
We have to assume one thing here: That you have surrendered completely. If you haven’t yet surrendered completely, meaning that you are willing to let someone else tell you how to live your life, then you need to get to that place where you are miserable enough that you finally surrender. There is no magic formula for achieving surrender, because some people are killed by their addiction or end up in prison before they hit their bottom, which is very unfortunate. The idea is that you have to be at least somewhat free and healthy when you hit bottom so that you can make the decision to go get help. Not everyone gets that luxury. Hopefully you and your loved ones do get the chance to surrender.
So you surrender, you break through the last of your denial, and you agree to get help. What do you do? Hopefully you ask your friends and family members for help and they arrange for you to go to an inpatient rehab center. This is really the best way to get started in recovery for most people. There are alternatives to inpatient treatment. I don’t recommend them though. Rehab is the strongest path forward.
Keep in mind that going to inpatient treatment is by no means a cure. There is a lot of work to do in order to maintain focus and determination in your recovery, and just checking into rehab is not going to necessarily give that to you. The real work is still up to the individual. There is no magic wand. You still have to do the work. Going to rehab just gives you a foundation to be able to do so. It gives you a platform, a framework. They teach you tools to help you maintain sobriety. Rehab will educate you about addiction and recovery. And it will give you a safe place during the most dangerous time in your recovery, which is the first 30 days or so.
You could possibly get sober without rehab, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The journey will be so much more challenging if you don’t take advantage of inpatient treatment as your first stepping stone to a new life in recovery.
Give yourself a break. Go to treatment.
Another way to look at it, which I truly believe in: If you are not willing to check into a 28 day program, then you lack the willingness needed to get clean and sober, period.
That is an interesting argument, but I believe it to be true for the most part. It takes a huge amount of willingness to make it in recovery. And that amount of willingness is actually far greater than the willingness required to check into rehab for 28 days. You probably won’t make it anyway if you are fighting hard against the idea of inpatient treatment. That may sound a bit negative and cynical but I really believe it to be true in most cases. Out of all of the people who said “I want to quit drinking, but I am not willing to check into rehab to do so,” I don’t believe any of those people are sober today. They lack willingness. They think they have a better solution, they think they know what is best for themselves instead of going to inpatient treatment, and therefore they are going to figure out their own path in early sobriety. Well, that doesn’t work. I’ve never seen it work. Maybe it will work for you, but I work in the field of trying to help people sober up every day, and I never see evidence that you can make it work on your own. All evidence points to the fact that we need real help in order to stop and then stay stopped.
To clarify: Get to inpatient treatment if you are struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction. That is the starting point of your journey, a way to start building focus and determination.
How to develop focus after you leave treatment
Once you are in treatment it is pretty darn easy to remain sober while you are there. No real challenge. It is a safe and clean environment. There is no threat of relapse, at least not an immediate threat. Sure, you could leave and go get drunk or high, anyone could do that. But while you are checked in it is pretty easy to maintain sobriety for that initial 28 days.
The real challenge starts when you walk out of those doors, back into the real world. That is when you regain total freedom and control of your life. That is when you have access to all of your old people, places, and things that dominated your life during your addiction. If there were triggers before, those triggers will still be there now (most likely). And so again, you need a plan in order to deal with this new life that you are trying to build.
Think of the amount of focus that it takes to put up a new skyscraper. That takes a whole lot of sustained effort by a lot of people. In a similar way, building your new life in sobriety takes a whole lot of sustained effort and focus.
The problem is that if you slack off for a few days you will most likely relapse. So you can’t just work on recovery for a month, take a week off, hit the recovery stuff again for a few weeks, then take a few days off again, and so on. That doesn’t work. Recovery requires a sustained effort. A consistent effort. We have to build new habits in order to build a new life.
So one way to create this new focus and determination is to make commitments to change. They often suggest “90 in 90,” meaning that you agree to go to 90 AA meetings over the next 90 days without skipping a single day. That is a really good suggestion for people who have just left rehab. If you start skipping days here and there then it is pretty easy for your commitment to slide and your whole recovery can fall apart. While AA meetings may not be the answer for everyone out there, it would be hard to argue that doing 90 in 90 after leaving rehab is not a good strategy. I highly recommend it.
Second of all they will likely suggest that you go to these outside AA meetings (meaning that the AA meetings are outside of a treatment center, out there in the real world) and that you find a sponsor and you start working with that sponsor. Try to find a sponsor who is going to require you to call him every day for the first 30 days. Again, commitment. Built right into the process. So now you are committed to going to an AA meeting every single day for the first 90 days, and you also pick up a sponsor who is demanding that you call him every day for the first 30 days. This is important. This is building commitment, it is building focus, it is creating discipline in your life where there used to be none. These suggestions are a powerful part of the recovery process because they are training you in how to be focused.
I would go so far as to suggest two other ideas at least: One is to write in a journal every single day. Write down your thoughts. If nothing else, answer the question: “How do I feel today, and why?” If you write down the answer to that every single day in your early sobriety, then one day you will look back at that journal, read it, and realize just how much amazing progress you have made. Because you will see how much you have grown, how you are now able to overlook the little things, how you have learned new skills and tools for dealing with stress and chaos in your recovery. Also, writing in a journal every day is a great way to do a “brain dump” and free up your mind from obsessive thinking. In other words, if you write down your anxieties and frustrations in life, you let them go. You give yourself permission to stop worrying about them. This is very powerful, especially when you do it consistently every day.
Second suggestion: Start exercising every day. Make a commitment. In fact, get a wall calendar and make a big “X” on the day you are on after you exercise. Then force yourself fill up a whole month with big X’s so that you can see visually that you are exercising every single day. Make this habit a part of your lifestyle. I don’t think I really need to get into all of the benefits that daily exercise will bring to your sobriety, and quite honestly, it is difficult to really do it justice with a simple explanation. This is because the benefits that you will get from daily exercise are quite deep and complex, and they will affect all parts of your being. For example, exercising every single day will increase your gratitude and give you a spiritual benefit that most people do not anticipate. There are other benefits as well, including emotional, mental, and social benefits too. It’s not just working out so that you are physically healthier. It is so much more than that.
So that is 4 suggestions total for you in order to build more focus in early recovery:
1) Do 90 meetings in 90 days.
2) Get a sponsor and call them every single day.
3) Write in a journal every single day.
4) Exercise every single day.
If you do all of these things over the first 90 days of your sobriety then you will be building a tremendous amount of focus, determination, and discipline in your life.
When most people relapse: the transition from early to long term sobriety
Many people never make the jump from early to long term sobriety.
Why not? What trips them up in this process?
To be honest, I think it is because they don’t follow through. They don’t do the work.
For example, most people in AA who stick around end up doing a fourth and fifth step. This can be a grueling process where you dig into your past, do a full moral inventory, and then share it with another human being.
I don’t think you can necessarily expect someone to do this the first week that they get clean and sober. If they do, are they really going to have the drive and determination to do a searching and fearless inventory like they are supposed to? I doubt it. I wasn’t ready when I had one week sober. Nor was I ready when I had one month sober.
No, I had to build up to it. I had to learn how to be focused and disciplined. I didn’t run a marathon the first year I got sober. I had to learn how to focus first. I had to build up my “focus muscle” and improve my discipline. This was a bit by by process. It started by establishing those habits in early recovery and then sticking with them for a long time. That was how I slowly changed my life for the better–one day at a time and with consistent effort. It doesn’t happen overnight because it can’t possibly happen that quickly. It takes time to build something real. It takes time to build up consistency.
People relapse because they stop. They stop doing what they need to do in order to maintain sobriety. They stop the process of learning how to focus. They stop exercising their focus muscle, their discipline muscle.
If you want to remain clean and sober in the long run then you have to commit to consistent action.
The best way to do that is through habits. Commitments. Do the 90 in 90. Get a sponsor. Start making promises about changing your daily habits, and then follow through with those promises.
Do the work and the results will come to you. It really is that simple!