Most people who are recovering from drug addiction or alcoholism are interested in the idea of preventing relapse. It is fairly easy to sober up, at least for a weekend or so, and many alcoholics unwittingly will do so against their will at some point (most of us have spent a night or two in jail, for example). Or, you just get burned out to the point where you can no longer function and you take a day or two off from heavy drinking. At any rate, many of us have stopped.
As they say in traditional recovery, however, the problem is not stopping. The problem is in staying stopped.
The real problem is in how to live your life so that you don’t go absolutely crazy when you are sober.
The problem is in learning how to deal with reality every day without reaching for the bottle (or for your drug of choice).
Once you figure out how to live in such a way, then you have effectively stopped relapse dead in its tracks. The question is, how do we get there?
Let’s take a closer look at relapse prevention.
Typical relapse prevention strategies for traditional recovery programs
What does relapse prevention traditionally consist of?
Usually what is suggested is a list of tactics that you can employ to help you overcome relapse.
For example, people will suggest things like this for relapse prevention:
* Go to AA meetings.
* Call a sponsor and talk to them when you feel the urge to drink.
* Call your peers in recovery.
* Read recovery literature.
* Write in a journal.
And so on. Those are the typical suggestions that you might hear about when traditional recovery programs attempt to deal with relapse prevention.
The idea here is simple: Wait for a problem to occur (urge or trigger to drink or use drugs) and then react to that problem by using one of those tactics listed above.
This is a tactical approach. First you notice a problem, then you choose one of those tactics to deal with the problem. It is a pretty simple and straightforward approach.
The problem is that it doesn’t always work.
Strategy versus tactics
There are really two ways that you might approach relapse prevention. Actually there are probably a lot more than just two, but for the purposes of our discussion we want to separate all of those methods into two broad groups: Strategic versus tactical.
The traditional path outlined above is the tactical approach. It is a reactionary approach. You wait for the trigger to happen, then you react to it.
How is a strategic approach any different than this?
When you use a strategic approach to relapse prevention what you are really doing is designing your life in such a way so as to prevent relapse right from the start.
So instead of just waiting for triggers and then reacting to them, you would actually take a much more proactive approach and start to:
1) Live your life in a way to minimize or eliminate triggers.
2) Engage in a daily practice that helps to overcome urges to drink or use drugs (such as exercise for example).
3) Engage in a pattern of preventive measures that help to prevent relapse while also helping to enhance your personal growth in recovery.
This third one is a mouthful and requires some clarification. What I mean by that is the idea of “synergy” or having a “web of goals” such that you are not fighting against yourself in recovery. For example, you may have the following goals in your day to day life:
* Quitting smoking.
* Exercise and distance running.
* Eating healthier foods each day.
* Healthy sleep patterns.
* Emotional stability.
Notice that most (or all) of these goals compliment each other perfectly. They are not in competition with each other and therefore you will not be “fighting against yourself” if these are your list of goals in life.
This is really important because most people, especially when they first get into recovery, are “at odds” with themselves in at least some way. In other words, they have at least two or more goals that conflict with each other and cause them to waste energy and effort.
The idea of having “synergy” in your life means that all of your goals and all of your daily practice works together, you are not creating useless friction, and everything that you are trying to accomplish is in alignment with the rest of your goals. Most of us do not start out at this ideal, we have to work towards it.
This requires strategy. So you may have to take a step back and say to yourself: OK, what do I really want in life, and in recovery? What are my priorities?
There are some things which I consider to be fundamental to successful recovery. So your goals may be different than mine but our strategies should probably be based on some of the same principles, because those principles are fundamental. For example, no one really experiences success in sobriety without the concept of surrender. If you fail to surrender then you fail to get sober, period. It is vital to success in recovery.
There are other fundamental principles as well that are critical to the recovery process. You may ask yourself at some point: What is the point of getting clean and sober only to be unhealthy? What is the point of being sober if you get sick and pass away? These may sound like strange questions, but they point out a fundamental truth: Sobriety is about being healthier. That’s part of getting clean and sober. If you don’t care about your life or your health then you may as well keep drinking or taking drugs, right? Recovery is about being healthy. It’s about changing your life for the better, and that includes getting healthier and taking better care of yourself.
In order to take better care of yourself you have to embrace the idea of self improvement. Most of us are pretty unhealthy when we first get to recovery. Drinking and taking drugs has a tendency to do that. So the decision to get clean and sober is really a decision to change our lives, to become healthier, and to attempt to become happier as a result. You can’t be happy and joyful if you are unhealthy. Sobriety presupposes good health (in my opinion, I believe that to be a fundamental concept).
So you can see how this would start to form the basis of a strategy for recovery. You don’t just put down the alcohol and then go on to live this perfect life because you quit drinking booze all of a sudden. If it were only that simple! Instead, recovery takes work. You have to put in an effort if you want to live a good life in recovery. And the reason for this is that without building this new life in recovery you will not be able to prevent relapse.
Preventing relapse requires a lot of major changes in life, such as:
1) Learning new ways to deal with stress, with reality, with problems that pop up in life.
2) Learning new ways to master your own inner demons, such as shame, guilt, fear, anger, self pity, and resentment. If you never master this inner change then you will always be vulnerable to relapse. This is why people work through the 12 steps in AA, so that they can master this inner change.
3) Making environmental changes so that you can avoid the people, places, and things that are no good for you in terms of creating triggers in your life.
That’s a lot of major changes to make, and I am not sure that it can be done just by following a to-do list and checking a few items off each day. Recovery doesn’t work like that. In order to restructure and rebuild your life you need a completely new strategy and a new way of living.
My strategy for recovery has to do with personal growth and holistic health. In fact, that is really the entire strategy right there: Try to improve myself and my life each day, both in terms of my “inner demons” but also in terms of my external environment. I think both are important to long term recovery.
How to live your life in such a way to prevent relapse
So how do you implement a strategy like this and actually use it as a guide for living your life?
How does someone transition into a life like this?
There are a few methods that might be helpful to you. Some are traditional and some are non-traditional.
One of the traditional methods is modeling. So you would go to an AA meeting and find yourself a sponsor, someone that you would like to guide you through the 12 steps of AA. This person can, in theory, lead you through the steps so that you have a spiritual experience. They define that as having had a personality change that is sufficient enough to remove the obsession over alcohol. It is a shift away from self centeredness. I do think that this shift in personality is vital to long term sobriety, but I also acknowledge that people can achieve that shift outside of programs such as AA. A word of warning: there are some people in AA who would have you believe that the ONLY way to achieve this shift in personality is through AA and the 12 steps. This is definitely not true, as there are other paths that can accomplish much the same goals. AA does not have a monopoly on sobriety, though the program might be helpful to some.
Another traditional method is to go to rehab. I actually lived in a long term rehab center for a fairly long time period (20 months) and this allowed me to get over the hump in early recovery, so to speak. I am not sure how (or if) I would have remained sober without staying in treatment for all that time. I needed a whole lot of help and support during those early days of my sobriety and I am grateful that I was able to be in treatment.
In long term sobriety you will need to shift your priorities away from structured programs and more towards personal growth. This is my opinion and it may very well be wrong, but it seems to work for me.
I noticed that when I was living in rehab for almost two years that many people who had significant time in sobriety still ended up relapsing. And I also noted that some people who seemed very dedicated to AA and the daily meetings ended up relapsing as well. This troubled me greatly because I was assuming that there was this sure-fire way to insure your sobriety, perhaps if you simply went to AA meetings every day as instructed. But I was slowly finding out that this wasn’t true. Many people who attended meetings religiously ended up relapsing. So my theory was no good and I realized that each individual is fully responsible for their own sobriety.
This was both liberating and terrifying to me at the same time. It was as if I had finally learned that AA was really just a helpful program but definitely not a “cure.” And I also realized that you had to do the work either way, whether you were in AA or not. People got complacent and relapsed all the time when they were in AA. The program itself did not have any special magic to it.
Not that there is anything wrong with AA. The program certainly works, if you work it. (Just like they say in the meetings, “it works if you work it.”).
But this is no great revelation. Of course it works if you work it. Any program that I make up myself that is based on abstinence (no drinking whatsoever) will work just great, so long as you follow it. So what though? That’s not magical. There is nothing inherent in the AA program that makes doing this work easier. There are no shortcuts based on the 12 steps. You can build a new life of sobriety and take positive action outside of AA as well.
And so at some point I had this revelation. I realized that AA was just this helpful program, but not necessarily a cure. It couldn’t actually keep anyone sober. It might help a bit, but it wasn’t really a solution.
Let me repeat that, because I am sure it will be misinterpreted:
The program of AA points to the solution….but it is not THE solution.
And that opened up a new world to me. Because now I could figure out how to employ a healthy strategy, without just getting it dictated to me from my sponsor in AA.
Now I could figure out how to be healthy in a variety of ways, not just spiritually.
Because in AA, the solution is spiritual. They tell you that explicitly. They actually say “The solution is spiritual.”
But in the real world, the solution is bigger than that. The solution is holistic. It includes spirituality, but it doesn’t stop there. Anyone who limits themselves to a spiritual solution is doing themselves a disservice. The real solution is bigger than just spiritual growth. It is about personal growth, taking care of your entire self, holistic health, and so on.
Can you react to triggers on a day to day basis and overcome the urge to relapse?
It is possible to live a reactionary life in sobriety and do OK. I know people who do this. They call their sponsors often. They go to meetings and talk about specific problems or issues they are having lately. They find problems in their life and then they solve them. They reach out for help and react to their issues that pop up.
This is not my preferred method of living in recovery. I have chosen a different path. I chose to live proactively, which is more work up front, but it pays greater dividends in the long run.
A friend asked me “how so? How can you claim that your way is better?”
I don’t know that it is better necessarily. I just works better for me. I like the idea of preventing problems rather than running around in a panic later and trying to put out fires. I like the idea of living a healthier life every day and working consistently towards personal growth.
I think that you can use a tactical approach to relapse prevention and do just fine, but you always have to be ready to scramble for your recovery. You have to be ready to react. Because you are not necessarily living your life in a way that minimizes triggers and urges.
It almost seems like you could use one of two approaches in recovery, which can both be broken down into a daily routine:
1) React to triggers daily and use tactics to overcome urges to drink. Call your sponsor, call your peers, etc.
2) Push yourself daily to implement a healthy strategy for living. Prevent triggers in advance and strengthen your resolve. Admittedly this is more work up front, but my argument is that it creates more rewards and a stronger recovery.
Defeating complacency in long term recovery
Long term sobriety is all about overcoming complacency.
Once you are clean and sober, the first part of the challenge is done. You made it. You are stable in sobriety. The immediate threat of drinking is, for the moment, long gone.
But the long term threat remains. Anyone can relapse at any time.
And in long term recovery, it sneaks up on you. How else could it possibly happen? You are stable, you are not vulnerable to instant relapse. It takes you by surprise. So you have to employ a strategy to defeat this. You cannot just react to complacency, if you do then it will be too late.
The strategy to defeat complacency is one of personal growth. The only way to overcome stagnation is to get into action, to learn, to grow, to evolve. We do this by initiating positive change, by seeking personal growth.
What do you think? What are your suggestions for avoiding relapse in long term sobriety? What about in early recovery? What has worked for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!