Assuming that you go to treatment in order to get help for your alcoholism, what exactly can you learn from drinking rehab centers?
Quite a bit, actually. I am a strong advocate of treatment because it saved my life. Of course, I am not necessarily a fast learner and I am rather stubborn. So I actually had to go to rehab a few times before I really “got it.” My problem was me, not the rehabs I attended. I lacked surrender the first two times around.
After I went to three rehabs and finally stuck it out in recovery I also started working at a rehab center. This went on for over five years and I learned a great deal over the course of this journey. So all in total I:
* Went to three rehabs and relapsed after two of them.
* Stayed sober after living in long term treatment for 20 months.
* Took a job at a detox and residential rehab facility and worked there for over five years, watching and observing thousands of people try to get sober.
After that I started writing about my experiences here on Spiritual River. It has been a long journey and I have learned a great deal. And I continue to learn more and more.
Lesson number one: disruption is critical to early recovery
The first and perhaps most important thing about rehab is that it is a form of disruption.
The alcoholic is stuck in a cycle of abuse. They are trapped. They are a victim of their own making and they do not know how to escape.
So ultimately they need a way to disrupt this pattern. Rehab is one way to do it.
There are other ways to disrupt the pattern of addiction. I believe that none of them are quite as effective as inpatient treatment. For example, you might detox on someone’s couch and then start going to AA meetings every day. While this may be hugely beneficial after a visit to treatment, you may find it to be lacking if you have not yet gone through residential treatment yet. It is tough to get sober while “on the outside,” even if you are going to AA meetings every day. Life has a way of stressing us all out. Sobriety is hard.
There is a tricky thing about recovery that took me a long time to figure out and learn about. This same phenomenon happened to me again when I tried to quit smoking cigarettes. Here is what happens.
You are living your life and using your drug of choice (whether that drug is alcohol or something else) and you are basically managing your daily stress through self medicating all the time.
So then what happens is that you decide to try to quit for once. You sober up. You quit smoking cigarettes. Whatever.
And suddenly your whole world flips upside down. Crazy crap starts happening in your life. And you are blown away. You are just taken aback, like “whaaa? Why is all this stuff happening all of a sudden? I am trying to quit drinking here people!”
Relax. The world is not out to get you. In fact, nothing crazy is really going on. It just seems like a coincidence. It only seems like the crap hits the fan when you are trying to sober up, quit drugs, or quit smoking. In reality you are experiencing this strange phenomenon of withdrawal. When you are going through withdrawal from just about any drug, it sort of turns up the volume knob on all of the stress in your life. In reality nothing has really changed–it’s all just the same old crap that you normally deal with. But because you are going through withdrawal, it is suddenly amplified. Suddenly, everything is a crisis. This is the nature of addiction. Of course your drug of choice wants to pull you back into the disease!
This is why disruption is so critical. You need to do something so radical and gain such an incredible amount of support that this sudden increase in stress will not throw you for a loop.
Going into inpatient rehab is like being in a safety cocoon. It is a protected and controlled environment. As long as you follow the rules in rehab you are gonna be OK. Just hang on and things will get better. But there are no temptations “on the inside” like there are if you are walking around in your everyday life, what will all the liquor stores and drug dealing friends and whatnot.
Going to rehab for 28 days (or more, or less, or whatever) is a way to seriously disrupt your addiction.
Sure, it is still possible that you will get out of rehab and relapse immediately. That is always a possibility for any addict or alcoholic. Once you have your “freedom” back, you are free to choose whatever path you want. No one has a gun to your head. This is what makes addiction such a tough nut to crack.
But at least while you are in rehab you have a fighting chance. At least when you go to a 28 day program and go through detox you are giving yourself a platform from which you might succeed. If you do nothing, stay on the outside, and try to get clean and sober without any resources then you are just fighting an uphill battle.
So lesson number one is: Rehab can disrupt your pattern of addiction. Is that a cure? Of course not. But it is really, really important.
If you can’t break out of your pattern then you are just stuck in a downward spiral.
Disruption is critical.
Lesson number two: new information must be learned in order to change
A struggling alcoholic walks into rehab. They fail to pay attention and leave a few weeks later.
Question: Do they stay sober?
Of course they don’t. They did not learn anything and therefore they have no means to change their life.
Recovery is learning. You have to learn in order to recovery from an addiction.
You have to learn all sorts of things. You have to learn how to:
* Deal with everyday life without getting drunk or high.
* Deal with your fears and anxieties without self medicating.
* Deal with your feelings and emotions (especially anger, hurt, and fear) without resorting to your drug of choice.
* Deal with relationships in your life and eliminate the people who are no good for you.
* Spend your time differently so that you are not tempted to get drunk or high.
* Become excited about things in life other than drugs and alcohol.
* Find people who can help you to learn and who will set a good example for you to follow.
* Find support systems that will help you when times are tough.
* Find mentors and teachers who can help you to work through your personal issues.
I could go on and on. This is really just the tip of the iceberg. In all reality, there is a LOT more than just this list that has to be learned. These are the just some of the more basic things that flew off the top of my head.
I am not saying these things to intimidate anyone. Really I am not. Recovery is very doable. Anyone can learn to live the sober life. But you obviously have to be willing to learn.
And this is the whole key. Are you willing to learn a new way of life? Because it doesn’t actually matter how smart you are (or think you are) if you are not willing to embrace a new lifestyle.
I had to dumb myself down for a while in early recovery. I was too darn stubborn and too darn smart for my own good. So I put my little brain on house arrest for a while. I told myself to chill out for a few months. And the way I did it was this:
I told myself that I was not going to make any decisions for myself for the first year of my recovery. I made a commitment to myself that I would always defer to my peers, my sponsor, or my therapist in recovery rather than to rely on my own ideas.
Because my own ideas got me drunk. My own ideas kept me drunk. My own ideas did not work.
So I had to do this. I had to tell myself that I was not so smart after all, and that I had to get out of my own way for my own good and just let other people tell me what to do.
Stop and say that a moment: LET OTHER PEOPLE TELL YOU WHAT TO DO.
How does that feel? To think that you are going to let other people run your life for a while. To make decisions for you for a while. To tell you what to do and how to live.
How does that feel inside?
To me it felt awful. I did not want to give up this control.
But after my third trip into rehab I was out of options. I was miserable and it was all my own fault. Once I finally admitted that to myself, I was able to start learning from other people.
It’s all about learning. If you can’t become open to new ideas in recovery then you will just keep repeating your old patterns. And we know where that leads to.
So you have to take in new information.
You have to say to yourself: “OK, I don’t really see how this rehab will help me, or how AA will help me, or how getting a sponsor will help me, but I am gonna do it anyway because nothing else has worked for me and I am completely miserable.”
That is the point where you surrender. Total and complete surrender. Get out of your own way, let someone else tell you how to live. It is crushing to the ego. So if your ego is still intact and you are still trying to control everything then sobriety will not happen for you yet. It comes later. It comes after you have finally admitted to yourself (deep down) that you really do not know how to live anymore. You must start over. Reset. Disruption. Go to rehab, get detoxed, and start following directions.
You may think that if you do this you will lose your sense of self. You may think that if you let others tell you how to live that you will become a robot. Or like “the hole in the middle of a donut.” But in reality this will lead you to total and complete freedom.
I have never been so free in my life. I used to think that I was free when I was getting drunk every day. But now I can look back and see that I was in chains of my own making. Today I am free to do what I want. I am free to learn more. I am free to be grateful. I am free to experience joy today.
But I had to start somewhere. And that starting point involved letting others tell me what to do.
So this lesson is: Go to rehab, follow directions. They will tell you what to do. Do it!
Lesson number three: relapse rates and the lack of follow through
I mentioned that I worked in a drinking rehab facility for over 5 years. Before that I lived in a long term rehab for almost two years. That is a whole lot of observing.
So this is one thing that I learned:
If you don’t follow through, you relapse. And most people simply do not follow through.
Even of all of the people who lived in long term rehab with me, the vast majority of them (at least 80 percent) did not follow through in the long run. In the end, most don’t follow through.
They may start out strong and they are taking directions and doing what they are told to do, but eventually they cave. They stop following through. They “take their will back” if you prefer. And this leads to relapse. Every time.
They try to teach you this while you are in residential treatment. They say to you “look, the success rates of people who leave here are not so good. They are not good anywhere, at any rehab. So for every 10 people who leave here, maybe 2 will still be sober in a year if they are lucky. More likely just one will though. And after 5 years? It is more like 2 or 3 out of 100 will still be sober.”
The rehab will go on and say: “So here is the thing. We recommend aftercare. We recommend follow up care. We recommend that you do this, that you do that, that you go to meetings, that you see a therapist, that you go to outpatient, that you live in long term rehab,” or whatever. If you do all of those things, then you have a chance at recovery. If you do none of those things, then you probably don’t have a prayer. Because 5 years after leaving short term rehab maybe 2 or 3 percent are still sober. The other 98 percent have relapsed.
What can you do to avoid being in that 97 or 98 percent who relapse in the first five years?
Anything and everything.
You can dive into recovery and take massive action. You can commit fully to recovery like you have never committed to anything before in your life. You can try harder than you ever imagined possible. You can dedicate your entire life and existence to the path of recovery. You can embrace recovery with every molecule in your body.
And to be honest, you still might relapse.
On the other hand, you might remain sober too. Many people do. It may be a numbers game, and the data might be awful, but there are still people who do make it in recovery. I am one of them so far at over 12+ years and counting. I followed through when they told me what to do. And in many ways I am still following through, still trying to learn that next lesson.
Look at the data. Most everybody relapses. What can you do in order to be one of the “winners” in recovery?
For starters, you might listen to the existing winners that you find. People who are “walking the talk” and have multiple years sober. Listen to them and do what they tell you to do.
You could certainly do worse than this. You could follow your own ideas, which was the mistake that I kept making in early recovery. Until I became so miserable that I told myself to shut up for a while.
Lesson number four: overcoming complacency in long term recovery
This is a tricky one.
You don’t learn this one until you have been in recovery for a while. Or maybe you are smarter than me, and you can take my advice right here and now.
I have lived in recovery for 12+ years now. I have watched a lot of friends relapse and die. Others just relapsed.
And the shocking thing is that it is not just people with 90 days sober, six months sober, two years sober.
I have watched it happen to people with 10 years sober, 13 years, 17 years. Crazy stuff. I thought these people were bulletproof. My mistake.
It is a mistake that I won’t make again. I hope that I never make the mistake with my own recovery.
No one is bulletproof.
I am talking about complacency here.
Someone in AA with several years sober who just up and relapses (even though it was coming for a while, you can bet on that).
The problem is not that they abandoned AA, or the program, or their spirituality, or any of that.
The problem is that they stopped growing. They stopped learning. (Same thing really).
So when you stop reinventing yourself in recovery, what happens?
Your old self starts to shine through. And that old self is the one who drinks and uses drugs.
Given a lack of growth and learning, every alcoholic and drug addict will eventually revert to their former self. Every time. This is a fact. You cannot escape your addiction, it is a part of the root.
So the solution is to continuously reinvent yourself in recovery. You must keep learning. You must keep growing.
Ask 5 people who are close to you what the one thing that they think you should work on changing is.
Seriously. Do it (if you are well established in your sobriety now).
Ask 5 people who love you what they believe you should be working on right now in your life. What needs fixing. What needs attention.
If they compliment you instead, then ask them dig deeper and find a problem area.
So you do this with 5 people and now you have some stuff to work on.
Don’t just brush it off. Do the soul searching. Something that was said may have pissed you off more than the other things. Focus on that. There is your growth opportunity.
Push yourself to change for the better. Dig deeper.
If you work through the steps of AA you will be doing the same basic thing.
If you stop doing this permanently and declare yourself to be “good enough” then you are setting yourself up for relapse in the future.
We are never finished with recovery. There is always more to learn. Always another layer.
Learning and applying the daily practice
One last thing that most rehabs just barely touch on, but the concept is there.
The daily practice. What do you do each and every day that helps to keep you clean and sober and growing in your recovery?
This is where the holistic approach comes in. You cannot neglect certain areas of your life.
Your physical health. Your relationships. Your emotional health. Your spirituality. All of it is important.
If you neglect one aspect for too long then you run the risk of becoming unbalanced.
We all must learn what our daily practice is. The best ideas in my current lifestyle were not revealed to me during the first few years of my recovery necessarily. I had to keep digging, keep taking suggestions, keep learning from others.
Yes, you can learn this from rehab. The roots of this lesson started for me when I was in treatment. But I did not understand how to truly apply the daily practice (positive habits) until several years later.
Always learning more.