What is the best strategy to use when you are trying to deal with alcoholism?
Is there one recovery program that is better than the others for implementing a good strategy?
What should your path in recovery consist of?
Let’s take a deeper look at how successful sobriety comes about.
Disruption is the baseline and is your most basic strategy in early recovery
The first part of your recovery strategy should include the idea of “disruption.”
Recovery is all about change. You are trying to change your life in a major way, so the key is to disrupt your patterns of living.
They have a saying in traditional recovery circles: “If nothing changes, nothing changes.” Sounds pretty profound, right? But it speaks to a common problem that alcoholics face in recovery: If they don’t get busy trying to change things, then they find themselves struggling with their disease, getting nowhere. It is all about change.
And what do you have to change, exactly? Most people will answer this by saying “everything!” You have to change everything.
The reality is that nothing changes, and at the same time, everything changes. How can that be possible? Yet if you ask people who are recovering from alcoholism, they will agree that this paradoxical statement seems true. It is as if everything changed for them, and yet many things really stayed the same.
What is going on here is this:
Everything changed because the way that the person reacts to life has changed. Therefore they have found a new way of thinking, a new way of solving problems, and a new way of dealing with everyday life. So the same things keep happening in their lives for the most part; nothing really has changed on the outside. They may still get up and go to work, for example. They probably still have families, friends, and so on. Yet the way that they deal with life on an everyday basis has changed completely.
Their old method was to self medicate with alcohol. So whatever drove them to drink, they let it eat away at them until they released it all by getting drunk. Now that they are in recovery, they can’t do this any more. They have eliminated this coping strategy. Therefore they have to replace that strategy with a new way to cope. If they used to walk around all day with resentment and anger in their lives, then in recovery they have to find a new way to deal with that anger. If they don’t then they relapse, plain and simple.
In finding a new way to deal with their everyday anger, this creates a huge shift in their attitude and their mindset. This is why people in recovery will tell you that “everything changes.” Because their actual thinking has changed completely.
Disruption happens on at least two different levels. It happens physically when you go to detox and stop drinking alcohol and putting drugs into your body. You disrupt your pattern of drinking from a physical standpoint.
But it also happens on a mental level. Your thoughts have to be disrupted or they are just going to drive you back to your drug of choice.
This happened for me when I figured out that I was using self pity in order to justify my drinking. I was living in long term rehab and I had a few week sober and I realized that my brain was trying to convince me to go take a drink. I had to figure out what was going on in my mind in order to be able to disrupt the process.
Many alcoholics thrive on resentment and anger and this is what fuels their addiction. For me it was a little different, it was self pity that was driving my drinking. So when I finally got sober I realized that my brain was still playing this little game, the self pity game, in order to justify more alcohol consumption. But the problem was, I had quit drinking, and I did not want to relapse. Therefore I had to find a way to fix this little subroutine that my brain continued to run. It was doing “the self pity thing” and believing that it was doing me a favor by justifying alcohol use. But I wanted to quit drinking, so I needed a way to make my brain stop doing the self pity thing.
So how do you disrupt a mental process like this? How do you overcome self pity, or deal with resentments, or get over shame and guilt? How do you disrupt a mental process?
I learned how to do so by asking for help and talking with others in recovery. It turns out that if you go to traditional recovery venues (such as AA meetings) then you will find other people in recovery who have dealt with your very issue before.
In other words, you can easily find someone who has had the very same problems that you are having. And they have figured out how to conquer those problems and get over them.
So if you want to remain sober, you should take advantage of this “shortcut” and ask for advice and direction. Ask from people who are living clean and sober today. Ask them how they got past the specific problem you are having. Many of them will give advice on how they were able to do it. Your job is to take that advice and then apply it in your life. This is how you disrupt a mental process that is dragging you down.
In my case with the self pity, the prescription was pretty simple. I had to practice gratitude. It turns out that you cannot be both sorry for yourself and grateful at the same time. It is impossible. The two things are polar opposites.
Therefore, when I asked for help from others in recovery, they told me the solution to my problem. They told me how to disrupt my thinking, my self pity. They told me to practice gratitude.
It worked, of course. There are many different ways to practice gratitude. I just had to take action and actually follow through with the advice.
The other negative aspects of your addiction may need to be disrupted as well. For example, if you are in a toxic relationship that tends to cause you to self medicate, you may need to disrupt that in order to recover. In every case with disruption you are replacing one behavior with another. From resentment to forgiveness. From self pity to gratitude. And so on. You will probably need to ask for help though in order to figure out the best path of disruption given your exact circumstances.
Next technique is to immerse yourself in a recovery program
Once you disrupt your physical addiction with detox, your job is to learn how to live a new life in sobriety. My suggestion for this is that you immerse yourself fully in a recovery program. AA is the obvious answer for this because it is widespread and offers nearly instant support from the meetings. Of course there are other programs out there as well and there are also other supportive communities that can help you besides AA (for example, a religious community). While AA is the easy answer that is available to most people, there are other paths in recovery as well.
But the key is that you find a path and then immerse yourself fully in it. When I finally became clean and sober I was living in a rehab center for almost two full years, going to meetings every day, going to therapy, doing groups twice a week, and generally immersed in recovery 24/7. It took what it took. For me, that meant living in recovery for several years before I could branch out and pay attention to other aspects of my life.
The longer you were addicted to your drug of choice, the more important it is that you immerse yourself fully in a recovery program. I basically drank and used drugs very heavily for about a decade before I finally got sober, and those ten years were very intensive. I basically abused drugs and alcohol every single day with almost no breaks in between. My life was dominated by addiction.
So when it came time for me to sober up, I couldn’t just hit a few meetings here and there and expect for it to work. The solution did not fit the scope of my problem, to just dip my toes into recovery and expect for things to change overnight.
When your life is dominated by addiction you have to take massive action in order to recover. The extent to which you are addicted determines the amount of change that is going to be necessary to turn your life around. I was completely stuck in alcoholism and drug addiction. It was my entire life. So getting sober demanded a serious amount of change and action on my part. I had to go live in rehab and eat, breathe, and sleep recovery for a few years straight.
Disrupt your addiction physically and mentally. Then you need to establish a new pattern of living. One way to do this is to dive head first into a recovery program. You must replace your old life with something new. What are you going to replace it with? No alcoholic or drug addict has a good answer for this on their own. If they did then they would not be alcoholic. Therefore they need to find a new replacement in their life when they get sober and this means immersing themselves into a recovery program or some sort of framework.
In early recovery, structure is good.
Personal growth and positive action as a long term recovery strategy
Disruption and immersion are the first two strategies.
The third strategy is personal growth. I think that this is really the most important strategy in recovery because it is needed for the rest of your life. In other words, you just need disruption and immersion in early recovery for the first year or two. But after that, you need a long term strategy in order to remain clean and sober for the rest of your life. That long term strategy is essentially “personal growth.”
There are various labels that we can use to describe the long term path that a recovering alcoholic takes in sobriety, but “personal growth” seems to be the most accurate. It is also a fairly broad term that can encompass a lot of different ideas. This is important though because recovery is holistic and can encompass many different themes.
Let’s say that you take ten people who are going to make it to ten years sober and you interview them all when they have just 30 days of sobriety. You ask them what they think their life might be like when they get to ten years sober. Do they have any idea? Do they have any clue?
Let them answer that for you:
No, they have no clue. Not in their wildest dreams could they predict what their life will be like when they reach ten years of sobriety.
If you want proof of this, just find a few people in recovery who have ten years + clean time and ask them if they ever could have predicted that their life and their recovery would end up the way that it has. They will laugh and say “no way, I never could have imagined this life when I was drinking!”
And that is the miracle of recovery. That is the gift of sobriety, that you are given this amazing new life that you never could have predicted.
And this is also why the long term strategy for success is such a broad concept like “personal growth.”
I know people who are living in long term sobriety who go to AA meetings every day still. In fact, I know one who has started his own chapter of AA meetings, and he is heavily involved in AA and in sponsoring newcomers. He has over a decade of sobriety.
I know another person in recovery who also has ten years sober. They never go to AA meetings. Instead, they exercise all the time and this exercise is the foundation of their sobriety. I am sure that you could find at least a thousand newcomers in recovery who would tell this person that they are doing it wrong, and that they are in danger of relapse because they don’t attend enough meetings, but it doesn’t matter. This person has found what works for them. They are engaged in personal growth. They push themselves to improve on a regular basis. And they have found a path in sobriety that works for them. (Meanwhile, if you look at those thousand people who have one day of sobriety, less than 10 of them will stay clean and sober for ten years straight).
Once someone achieves long term sobriety, there is nothing “traditional” about their path any more. They have had to adapt the suggestions in recovery to fit their life. They have had to mold and sculpt a recovery program to fit their situation and their personality.
Day to day living and the daily practice
Perhaps the most important technique in recovery is the idea of the daily practice.
Some days you wake up and you just don’t feel like doing anything. If you have too many days like this in a row then you will inevitably relapse at some point.
Some days you may get into trouble based on your distorted thinking or your old behavior patterns that are left over from your addiction. If you have too many days like this, again, you will relapse.
Some days in recovery you will be tempted. At some point, you will come face to face with your drug of choice, and no one will be looking. You could drink or use drugs and no one would ever know. This temptation will happen at some point in your future, and you have to be strong enough on that day in order to be able to say “no” to a relapse and “yes” to the life that you are building in recovery.
So in all of these cases you are going through your life in recovery and random chance will cause there to be opportunities for relapse. So the question is, how can you be prepared to deal with these variations that occur in your life, and how can you prevent relapse from happening?
You do so by having, and living, a daily practice.
If you go to rehab and you start taking positive actions then everything is fine for a while. Maybe you are still in treatment and you are going to groups and talking with a therapist. You are healthy. Nothing bad is happening and you are not going to relapse. Even though you are in a protected environment, you are still taking positive action and you are preventing yourself from relapse.
When you get out of rehab maybe you go to a meeting the first day. Maybe you take some other positive action as well. You are doing what you need to do in order to prevent relapse.
Later on you stop doing things. You get lazy. You relapse.
The solution here is that you need to find a daily practice. You need to establish healthy habits in your life that you engage in every single day. Actions that help you to prevent relapse.
Part of my daily practice is exercise. Even when I don’t feel like it, I force myself to go run six miles every day. When I get done with my exercise, I always feel better than when I started. Doing this always makes me stronger in my recovery. I am far less likely to relapse after I get done running six miles. On the other hand, if I stop exercising every day, then the chances that I would take a drink go up dramatically. Forcing myself to do the exercise helps to protect me from relapse.
Now this is just one example. Exercise is just one component of the daily practice, and for some people it might not be part of their routine at all. It all depends on who you are and what your specific situation demands from you. For me, daily exercise is too helpful to ignore. It is far too powerful and it makes me feel really good about myself. Therefore it is a major part of my relapse prevention, and so I have made it into a daily habit.
You might find other daily habits that help you to prevent relapse. Things like prayer, meditation, gratitude, exercise, healthy eating, good sleep patterns, just to name a few.
How to overcome complacency in the long run
The way to overcome complacency in the long run is to use a long term strategy of personal growth.
Think about it. How can you become complacent if your goal every day is to push yourself to learn more, to grow, and to improve your life?
Of course, the key is to go beyond just having these goals, and to actually take action and apply these concepts in the real world.
I had to find the daily habits and the positive actions to take that would lead me to a better life in recovery. In order to do this I had to listen to other people and take their suggestions. I had to apply what they were telling me. Then I rejected the ideas that did not seem to help me much, and I retained the ideas that made a big difference for me. And I continue to look for that next level, that next improvement that I can make in life. This is personal growth. It is also relapse prevention.
And it should become your long term strategy for recovery.