When I was working my way through early sobriety I wanted to know exactly what was most pertinent when it came to maintaining sobriety.
Quite honestly, I was overwhelmed by the information that I received in early recovery. I went to rehab, I lived in long term treatment, and I was attending AA meetings every day. In addition to this I lived with a number of other recovering alcoholics and I discussed this stuff with them every single day for 20 months straight. And at some point I picked up a sponsor, worked through the steps with that person, and also attended monthly sponsorship meetings. On top of all this I saw a therapist once a week and had group therapy twice a week for the first 20 months.
That’s a whole lot to take in. And when I was going through all of it, there was actually some conflicting information in there. I would get some suggestions that may have contradicted other suggestions–sometimes indirectly and sometimes they were outright contradictions (though usually they were more lateral and not direct and outright contradictions to be honest). But still, it was all very confusing, and certainly overwhelming. So much information, so many suggestions, and it was tough to know what to make of it all.
I definitely needed information in order to recover, but it was hard to know what to focus in on.
The result of what I have learned about addiction and recovery over the last 13 years is largely what you read here at this website. The information that I have found to be most important to recovery is what I try to pass on through these articles. The things that are not as relevant or important (to me anyway) I simply don’t mention. This is what works for me. And really, that is all you can ever tell anyone who is struggling with sobriety anyway–“This is what I did to get sober, maybe it will work for you too.” That is the basic idea behind AA. One alcoholic helping another. If it works for you, great. If not, move on and try something else. The only tragedy is if you quit trying, if you give up on yourself. I did not get sober the first time I tried. It took some persistence. In the end it was worth it.
Why you need information at all to overcome drug or alcohol addiction
When an alcoholic finally reaches the point of surrender they have almost zero information as far as recovery is concerned.
I know this because of two things:
1) One, I experienced this first hand, getting to the point of surrender myself, and being completely lost as to how to even approach sobriety.
2) Two, I worked in the treatment industry for years, and helped thousands of people try to get sober. They were all, in the beginning, totally lost as well. Bewildered. Mystified as to how to even try to get sober.
I can distinctly remember this feeling because it was a very depressing and hopeless feeling. I had no real hope that treatment was going to be able to “fix” me. I wasn’t really sure that it was even possible for me to recover. I think that I actually believed at the time that I was special, that I was unique, and that I was the only person in history who had ever loved alcohol and drugs this much. Therefore I could not possibly recover, right?
Later I learned that every alcoholic and drug addict has that same feeling–that they are unique, that no one can relate to them, that if others loved alcohol as much as they did then they would never stop drinking.
In a sense, this is the first piece of information that you need to gain in order to get sober. You have to learn that it is possible. Or rather, you have to accept the idea that it might be possible for you to get sober and build a new life, one in which you are not miserable.
In short, you need to break through your own denial. And this is new information. For me, it was a dawning realization that if I continued to drink alcohol and try to self medicate that I would never truly be happy. I don’t know why this hit me suddenly one day, but it finally did. And that was all I needed to ask for help and start getting the help that I needed.
When every alcoholic reaches the point of surrender they know nothing. They don’t know how to get sober, they don’t know what a life of happiness and peace and joy would even look like, and they certainly don’t know how to go about creating it for themselves. No alcoholic starts out in sobriety with this knowledge. If they had that knowledge then they would not be alcoholic!
So we all start out from scratch, more or less. Even if you were sober in the past (and then relapsed) you still don’t fully understand the concepts, you missed some key piece of information, or you would have remained sober. But you relapsed and so you have lessons yet to be learned.
Recovery is about learning. It’s about doing something different. It’s about changing your behavior and in doing so, building a new life. This requires learning, it requires an open mind, and it ultimately requires new information.
You can’t get sober with what you know, right now, in this instant. You don’t have the keys to sobriety! If you did, then you would be sober already.
So you have to go find those keys. Those “keys” are actually bits of knowledge, they are the ways and means of staying sober on a day to day basis. You need help and support and new knowledge to pull that off. You need help. You need wisdom.
You need to learn some things.
How to learn the basics of recovery
The basics of sobriety are pretty simple really.
The idea is that you stop putting alcohol and addictive drugs into your body. Total and complete abstinence. You may need professional help in order to get started on this. I certainly needed that help. I went to detox, then to residential treatment, then to long term rehab. I had a lot of help in the beginning, and it worked well for me. It doesn’t work well for everyone though because not everyone is truly at the point of surrender when they walk into treatment. Hopefully you will be.
So you stop putting chemicals into your body. Is that all? Well, no. That’s not good enough. If all you do is to physically sober up then you will be left with the same old problems, triggers, and behaviors that led you to self medicate in the first place. You have to rebuild yourself and also rebuild your life in order to truly conquer your addiction.
What exactly does that mean, to “rebuild yourself and rebuild your life?”
Rebuild yourself = do the work in terms of your inner demons. Eliminate shame, guilt, anger, self pity, resentment, fear, and so on. Have a system for being able to work on those problems and talk them out and not let them dominate your life.
Rebuild your life = change your external world so that you are not exposing yourself to additional risk. Changing people, places, and things to make sobriety easier for yourself. Don’t live in the bad neighborhood. Don’t make a living as a bartender. Don’t hang out with toxic people who sap your energy or put you in a bad mood.
That’s a lot of work to do, and it won’t all happen overnight. So they key is to get sober and start working on things with some sort of priority.
I like to ask myself: “What is the one thing that I could change next in my life that would give me the greatest amount of relief?”
In other words, look at your life and find the biggest negative. The biggest problem. The worst sore spot in your life right now. Your biggest worry. Your greatest fear. Your biggest source of anxiety.
That should become your second priority in life. Your first priority? Staying clean and sober.
This is a powerful way to work through your recovery. But in order to do it, you have to get honest with yourself. Every day. And you have to keep asking yourself the question: “What most needs to be fixed in my life right now?” And then you have to take action, make a plan, ask for help, ask for guidance and suggestions, and put your plan into action.
One way to do all of this is to go to AA and get a sponsor. That person will help you to work through the 12 steps of AA, and you will likely do a lot of the same work that I just outlined above. You will figure out what those “inner demons” are and then you will do the work that is necessary to eliminate them. And if you are paying attention in AA meetings and pushing yourself to improve your life then you will probably also make changes to your life situation–changing the people, places, and things that are necessary to support a new life in recovery.
But I think it is important to realize that it takes both–both internal as well as external changes. Not just your inner problems, but also the people, places, and things that make up our lives in recovery. You have to work on both.
This is how you build a foundation. Get sober, then start doing the work. Get sober, then start making positive changes in your life. Prioritize and find the biggest impact that you can make. Focus on one major change at a time. Don’t stop. Keep making positive changes. Before you know it, you will look back and realize that you are living in long term sobriety, and you will have found real stability (the immediate threat of relapse will be gone).
You need new information in order to sustain ongoing sobriety
Now in long term sobriety there is still a threat that people can relapse.
Why is this? Why can’t we just figure out sobriety and be done with it all?
The problem is that we can get lazy. We can stop pushing ourselves to learn and to grow in our recovery journey, and if we become complacent for long enough then this can lead us to relapse.
What is interesting about long term recovery is how our addiction evolves, even when we are sober.
You would not think that this would be a real threat. But it is. And you need to be aware of it.
So understand this: Even while you are sober, your addiction is continuously getting stronger and finding new ways to try to get you to relapse. Does that sound bizarre? Even though it is a little weird, this is exactly what happens over the long run. Your addiction will try to find new ways to throw you off of your square, how to trip you up and get you to relapse.
Because of this, it is not enough to just do the basics. Sure, you went to rehab perhaps, learned how to get stable in recovery, started to build a new life without alcohol and drugs, and now you appear to be doing just fine. Several years later, and there are no problems to report. As far as relapse is concerned, you should be home free, right?
Wrong. Remember that your addiction is in the corner doing push-ups. It wants you to relapse, and it is constantly finding new ways to trip you up. Therefore you need to keep finding new ways to fight back against your addiction.
How do you do this?
One, you keep learning new things. You will never be entirely done learning about yourself. Even the day before you die you may still be learning new things about yourself. And some of those things that you learn about yourself will be things that help you to maintain sobriety. It is when we turn off our ability to learn, when we become too proud, when we are no longer humble that we get into dangerous territory.
Two, you keep reaching out to others in recovery and interacting with them. Think of it this way: You can either learn about recovery, or you could teach people about recovery. In essence you are really doing both if you do it right. Because by teaching the newcomer you are actually going to be learning those same lessons again on a deeper level.
For example, when I talk about surrender on this website I normally talk about how the struggling alcoholic has to finally throw in the towel, break through their denial, and ask for help. Hopefully they ask for help and someone directs them to AA, to rehab, or whatever. This is the surrender process, right?
But in teaching this process to others, I have realized a much deeper understanding of the concept. Today, even after 13 years sober, I can realize how the concept of surrender applies in my own life, and I can have a new revelation about the concept in which I learn something new about myself. Even though I am sober today I can still be in denial about other things. And I can still use the concept of surrender to ask for help and to move past those challenges in my life. So in teaching others about a concept like surrender I can gain a deeper understanding of it for myself. The teacher becomes the student.
And so it is with all of recovery. This is talked about over and over again in AA, as the typical sponsor will explain in an AA meeting that they learn as much from the people they sponsor as they sponsor learns from them. So the circle of knowledge is complete. We learn things best by teaching them in some cases. This is how you gain deeper understanding for yourself.
The threat is not that I am going to walk past the liquor store today and suddenly relapse. I have 13 years sober and I am more stable than that now. But the fact remains that I could still relapse, and in order to prevent this I need to keep digging, to keep learning, to gain that deeper understanding.
And this is what we have to keep learning…that complacency is a silent and patient killer. We don’t just relapse one day because the liquor store happened to be in our path. It happens slowly, our sobriety unravels one bit at a time, and we don’t even notice it happening because we may have become too comfortable. We may not be surrendering to something simple in our lives, we may need to open our eyes to something that our peers might see, or we might need to get past a bit of denial that we have about one of our fears. Whatever the case may be, we must never close down to the idea of learning new things, to the idea of getting honest with ourselves. Even after a decade of sobriety, we still need to keep learning about ourselves in order to be protected from relapse.
How to continuously reinvent yourself and keep learning new things
I like the concept of “reinventing yourself.”
The term implies that you are making a positive change so that you become a better version of yourself. That is what recovery is all about. You are making changes. Stop drinking, start working on self improvement. These are simple concepts but they can be challenging to implement.
So how do you reinvent yourself? Basically you make a decision, then you follow through with it.
Another way to say that is to set a goal, and then push yourself to meet that goal.
I did a lot of this sort of reinventing over the years in my recovery journey. First I got clean and sober, which was fairly significant in itself. Then I went back to college and finished up a degree. I got a new job helping people in treatment. I took a suggestion to start exercising, and I stuck to that new lifestyle decision and got into shape.
Those are the kinds of things that you can do to reinvent yourself. Positive goals, healthy changes. Take a look at your overall health in sobriety, and figure out how to improve it. Figure out how to make a big impact change, all at once. Stretch yourself a bit (for example, I ran a marathon, something I wasn’t sure I could quite pull off).
Defining complacency: “I have enough information now, thanks.”
If you decide at some point that you have enough information to stay sober forever, then I think that is a pretty good definition of complacency.
Because now you are lazy. Now you no longer have to learn anything new, you no longer have to look at yourself and get honest.
Now you can just coast. Prop your feet up and relax, no more hard work to do. You have arrived! You are sober forever now, no more worries.
That doesn’t work. That only leads to relapse. Complacency kills.
So the solution is to stay vigilant. To assume that you are always a bit complacent. To let yourself worry just a bit that you might be too lazy lately.
And use that fear, that anxiety about relapse and complacency to push yourself to the next level. To make more positive changes in your life. To reach out and help others, to keep learning, hopefully to the point that you can teach others too, and in doing so, start to learn on a whole new level for yourself. Figure out how to become a teacher to someone, because then the teacher becomes the student, and you are learning on a whole new level.
What about you, have you found the information that you need to be sober? Are you still on a journey of learning and self honesty? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!