What is the path to successful recovery after leaving an alcoholic treatment facility?
What is the secret to long term sobriety?
How do you unlock your best possible life after leaving treatment?
These are the sort of questions that you should be asking yourself if you are in the process of early recovery.
First of all, it is very common for people to relapse after leaving rehab. If you look at the data I believe about half will relapse within the first 30 days. Another 30 percent or so will relapse within the next two months following that. So within 90 days of leaving treatment only 1 out of 5 is still sober. Those numbers may be slightly off but they are pretty close to what I have read in my past research.
So when I was going through early recovery, my question was always:
“What is the 1 out of 5 who remains sober doing differently?”
What is that person doing that the other 4 who relapse are missing out on?
I wanted to learn what the answer to that was so that I could be sure that I would remain clean and sober.
I found my solution and I was able to maintain sobriety through my early recovery while watching many of my peers slowly relapse one by one. Some of them even died! This was because I was living in a long term treatment center for several months and so I had exposure to lots and lots of people in recovery. The greater the numbers you are dealing with, the more horror stories you get exposed to.
What I did after leaving treatment was probably not perfect. But it worked for me at a time when I saw so many other people fail. Therefore I believe my experience has at least some value.
So here is what I did.
What your best course of action is when leaving a rehab center
My story is a little convoluted because I actually left rehab twice.
I went to detox and residential treatment like a lot of people do in early recovery. This was over with in less than 3 weeks. So on the one hand I had to leave this rehab center and make a decision as to how I was going to survive in early recovery.
In a way I sort of “cheated” with this decision, because I decided to go into a long term rehab center. So after leaving short term treatment I went to a long term facility and I lived there for 20 months.
This is still important. It is sort of “cheating” in the sense that I did not go home after my 2 weeks of detox and short term treatment, but on the other hand this is what finally worked for me.
In the past I went through short term rehab twice and relapsed immediately. So obviously I needed more help than what I had been getting.
So what is the lesson here?
In my opinion the lesson is “massive action.”
When you leave short term rehab you need to take massive action for your recovery.
Let me tell you about how I used to work in that same short term rehab, years later.
I worked in the detox unit for 5 years. I also had the chance to run a few groups in the residential unit as well. I did this full time for 5 years during my sobriety.
During that time I got to watch hundreds (actually thousands) of clients come through treatment and attempt to stay sober. This is not a huge town that I was living in and many of the people who would relapse would come back to try again later. So it was very easy to get a sense of who was staying sober and who was struggling. The stories unfolded before your very eyes, over time. You just had to watch and see what people did.
Most people relapsed, to be honest. A few made it work in the long run. Some of them even came back and got a job at the rehab, like I did.
But what was interesting to me was that the secret was not their conviction. Nor was it their attitude.
I mean, some of these people I met in rehab had the best attitude in the world. My heart was full of hope for them because they just seemed to have the right attitude, the right approach. And yet still they would relapse!
So I learned that it was not all about the attitude. People always say in recovery “You have to really, really want it to work.”
Sometimes that is not enough. I learned that while working in rehab. Just wanting it really badly and having a great attitude and appearing to be very willing is NOT enough.
Instead, it is all about follow through. It is about taking action.
This is why I think going to long term rehab was such an important part of my own story. I was not necessarily the most willing guy in the group. And I did not necessarily have the best attitude out of the whole group.
But I took massive action. That is what I did. I followed through with massive action. I went and lived in long term rehab and I attended meetings and groups and so on.
So many people who come to recovery do NOT follow through like this. “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” I watched so many people in detox who had the right attitude and I just knew that they were going to make it. But they relapsed. And so I slowly had to learn what recovery was all about, and how it really worked.
The secret is not willingness. The secret is follow through. Who actually steps up to the plate and takes massive action?
But let me get back to my story here. I mentioned that I actually left rehab twice. The first time I went from short term into long term rehab. This was a smart move on my part because I was a total mess and I needed all of that extra support (your situation may be different).
But then eventually it came time to leave long term rehab as well, and truly cut myself adrift into the big bad world.
What was my course of action at that point, when I was truly leaving behind a ton of extra support? I mean, when you live in a treatment center you really have no excuse if you relapse, other than “I just really wanted to get drunk.” Because at that point you have every advantage available to you. There is no reason to relapse if you are truly trying to remain sober (while living in rehab anyway).
So I left long term treatment. And so my plan at that time was to go to lots of meetings. My sponsor at the time had me “chairing” one meeting each week for people who were in a detox center. And I also had a few other unique meetings that I attended. One of them was a “midnight AA meeting.” That one was always interesting at least.
So I made a point to start going to lots of extra meetings when I left out of treatment. This is what they tell you to do anyway. They tell you to go to meetings every single day and not to drink in between those meetings. Pretty simple advice. I followed it for a while. Until I didn’t.
Shortly after leaving treatment I started to develop my own ideas about recovery. This was part of my own personal transition into what I would call “creative recovery.” Instead of letting the 12 step program dictate what my recovery was going to be like, I started to create my own path in sobriety. I did this by replacing the positive actions that I was taking in AA with positive actions that I was taking in my own life and through my own motivation.
So instead of going to meetings every day I started to exercise every day. This had a dual purpose because the exercise was also a form of meditation (distance running).
Instead of going to meetings I was doing things with online recovery (such as this website you are reading here). Instead of talking with a sponsor I was reaching out to new people in online recovery. Instead of writing in the steps I was writing in a journal and I was writing about recovery online. Instead of working through the 12 steps of AA I was pushing myself to improve my life and my life situation. And so on.
I started pursuing this more personal and holistic path of recovery. I shunned the idea that recovery was based only on spirituality. I thought that the real solution was much more holistic than this.
At the time my peers in recovery thought I was foolish for doing this. They told me that I was going to relapse and “come crawling back to AA.” Well, that was over 10 years ago, and I have yet to go crawling back to anyone. On the other hand, I have reached out to many people online and learned and explored much about recovery in that venue.
The key was that I continued to take action in my life, even though I may have stopped doing the things that people do in traditional recovery programs.
Some people are so ingrained in traditional recovery that they really believe that certain recovery programs are the only hope in this world, that there is no other path to sobriety that could possibly work for someone. This is simply not true. I have been on an “alternative path” for over a decade now, and it seems to be working just fine for me.
Why most people relapse after treatment
There are a number of ways that you can label the problem that most people encounter after treatment. There are a number of ways you can frame the argument.
They don’t take massive action.
They are not willing to do the work.
They don’t follow through on what they need to do to stay sober.
They don’t change the people, places, and things in their life.
They don’t go to meetings or get a sponsor or call their peers in recovery.
They don’t write in the steps or explore their defects of character or work on themselves.
These are all the same thing, really. They are all the same argument. They all point to the exact same problem.
There is this idea that people talk about in meetings. They talk about being “around AA” instead of being “in AA.” If you just come “around the meetings” then you are not going to stay sober.
While I don’t believe that AA is the only path in recovery, I most definitely agree with the concept that they are expressing here.
You cannot just “work recovery on the side” and expect to stay sober. You cannot just tack your recovery on to your life as an afterthought and expect for it to work.
Sobriety is an uphill battle for the first few months/years. It is tough. Most people underestimate just how tough it is going to be. So they think that they have things under control, they believe that they can get by with less effort, they don’t think that they have to dedicate their entire life to recovery.
This is a mistake.
If you are in early recovery then the solution is this:
Dedicate your entire life to recovery. Right now, this very second, you have a decision to make. This is true whether you want to do this or not, it will still be true for you even if you try to ignore it. Your decision is this:
Do you want to dedicate your entire life to recovery, and spend every waking second engaged in the act of pursuing sobriety? Or do you want to take the road that leads to certain relapse?
That may sound like a very polarizing statement. It probably sounds like I am exaggerating for dramatic effect. But I assure you that I am not. This really is the choice that everyone is facing in early recovery. They just don’t know it yet.
So what most people do is that they try to recover and they relapse. They fail at sobriety because they fail to make that decision I just mentioned. They try to take the “lazy way out” and they just ignore the idea that they might have to put in some serious work, to take massive action. It is easy to kick your feet up and coast.
Such people relapse and then they go through more pain and misery. I know this because I did it twice. I went to rehab 3 times in my life. The first two times I was facing that same decision:
“Do I really want to dedicate my entire life to sobriety?”
No, I did not. Those first two times around in rehab, I did not want to dive in with this level of dedication. It was too much work. It was too overwhelming. I could not see that this is what it really took to stay sober. I mean, really? You have to dedicate your entire life to recovery? Why can’t you just do an AA meeting every other day and call it good or something?
Nope. That doesn’t work. You are either all in, or all out.
Recovery is pass/fail. This should be a revelation to everyone who is struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction.
You cannot get a C+ in recovery and stay sober. You will relapse.
In fact, you cannot get a B+ in recovery and stay sober. You will still relapse.
You either get an A+ or you get an F-. There is absolutely no room in between those two extremes for any other outcome.
Think about this carefully for a moment and realize the truth of it.
There are no outcomes in between relapse and success in recovery. You either pass or you fail. There is no such thing as “a little relapse.” You are either drunk or sober. There is no in between. Our disease, by definition, removes the possibility of any in between.
And so you have a choice to make, just as every alcoholic has to make, every single day of their lives…whether they are in recovery or not.
And the choice is:
Are you going to dedicate your entire life to recovery, or not?
That’s the choice. I am sorry that it has to be so darn polarizing, so darn extreme, but that is the truth.
Most people want a different life. They are miserable and they want for things to be different. But they are not always at the point where they are willing to dedicate their entire life to recovery. And so they relapse. Hopefully they go through enough pain and misery after that relapse to come back to the decision later and say “yes, now I am ready to really dedicate my entire life and all of my effort to staying clean and sober.”
How to avoid becoming a statistic
I think I explained it pretty well up above.
You become a statistic when you fall short of following through. When you fail to take massive action. When you say to yourself:
“OK, I got this recovery thing. A few meetings a week and talk with this sponsor dude every once in a while and I should be good to go.”
You are setting yourself up for failure.
It takes more than that.
What was our solution in active addiction? It was always MORE. We wanted more alcohol, more drugs, more money. More, more, more. This was our addiction.
Recovery is the same way. Just think of how hard you have to try in recovery, how hard you must push yourself, how many meetings you should go to.
Your answer should be the same as in addiction. The answer is “more.”
This is a fancy way of saying that you need to be passionate about your recovery.
Every alcoholic was at one time passionate about their drinking. They had a love for alcohol and they probably still do. So what you need to ask yourself in recovery is this:
“Do I have a love and passion for recovery that is equal to my passion for alcohol?”
Because if you don’t, then eventually you will get bored with recovery. And when that happens, what is your answer going to be? How will you create passion and excitement in your life? Relapse will lure you back in out of sheer boredom.
The solution is to take action. Massive action. Get busy making positive changes in your life.
Willingness is just a precursor to action. But without the action you will not get anywhere in recovery. You must follow through. You have to change things up. You have to do something different in your life in order to get different results from your past.
Taking massive action and gaining momentum in early recovery
Action leads to momentum.
Taking positive action is actually pretty boring at first. Why? Because nothing will happen.
Or rather, you will not notice anything happening. This is because your growth in sobriety will be too slow. And you will be too close to your progress to realize that you are growing.
So your recovery may be disappointing at times. You will feel like you are not making much progress.
But keep going. It does’t matter. “It gets greater, later.” If you can push yourself to keep taking positive action in early recovery, then guess what will happen?
Your whole world will change. It will take time. There will be a huge delay.
This is why they talk of faith.
You must have faith that things will get better. Because there is no way you will see it at first. Recovery will be slow and boring for a few months.
But if you stick it out and keep taking positive action, then suddenly you will wake up one day and realize that you are living the dream. You will have “arrived.” You will realize that you are happy and you are no longer craving alcohol.
The way to get to this point is by building momentum over time. It is a slow process.
This is why you must dedicate your life to recovery. If you fail to do so then you will never make it up this long hill.
It may take 3 months before you reach this magical tipping point. It may take 18 months. It is naturally going to vary depending on the person. So you have to have faith. You have to stick it out and force yourself to keep taking positive action.
Make positive changes in your life, every single day.
This is the whole secret to recovery.
You just have to have the guts to keep doing it for long enough. And then suddenly everything changes.