In my opinion, the only way to avoid relapse is by deliberately creating the future that you actually want in your recovery. Doing this requires a concentrated effort and continuous growth on your part.
To be honest, I think that most people want an easier route. They don’t want to invest the time and energy to be pushing themselves towards continuous growth. They would rather kick their feet up and simply try to enjoy life without always striving to make changes.
But the problem is that I don’t believe that people can remain clean and sober unless they are pushing themselves to keep making positive changes. Eventually the lure of relapse becomes too great for someone who is not engaged in personal growth.
Continuous growth in recovery as a means of relapse prevention
What do you think is the best form of relapse prevention? Some people believe that it is a combination of tactics that they have learned either from a treatment center or in AA. While this may work for some, those tactics are probably too specific to apply to everyone’s situation.
Therefore I think it is important to have the right strategy in addiction recovery. A good strategy will allow you to be flexible enough that you can adapt new tactics to your life as you remain clean and sober. One of the things that I see happening with newcomers in recovery is that they tend to cling to the tactics that they were introduced to in very early recovery. For some people this will work indefinitely, but for other people they need to learn how to evolve as they grow in recovery. In other words, the tactics that work for you when you had two weeks sober will likely not work for you when you have two years sober– and certainly will not work for you when you had two decades sober. What I mean is that you are going to evolve and change over time.
There is nothing wrong with this, is just the way that recovery works. We don’t stay the same forever. We change, we learn, and we grow. Therefore it is a mistake to simply learn a few relapse prevention tactics in early recovery, and then try to apply those principles throughout the rest of your life. This is not likely to work, and you will just make things harder on yourself.
So what is the solution? If our relapse prevention tactics need to evolve in order to keep up with our changing life, then we must have a strategy that can adapt to a lifetime of change and growth.
That strategy does not have to be complicated, and ultimately I do not think that it is. I think the answer lies in the simple strategy of personal growth and holistic health. Those who try to improve their lives on a consistent basis will continue to do well in addiction recovery. Those who stop striving for growth will find themselves trending towards relapse.
Creating a new life for yourself by improving your situation incrementally
When I was in treatment for the first time ever, I heard a man in AA speak about incremental improvement in his life. He was running the AA meeting and he had significant clean time. You mentioned that his life just kept getting better and better as he continued to follow the principles and concepts in AA.
At the time, I was not ready yet to get clean and sober. I had not yet surrendered to my disease. But I never forgot what this man said, because it was a message of hope and that message seemed to connect with me. What he was saying at least seemed possible to me in that you could continuously improve your life if you chose to do so.
Years later, I surrendered fully to my disease and was able to give recovery a fair chance to work in my life. What that man had said started to come true for me in my own journey. What I discovered after my first few years in recovery is that the real secret to continuous sobriety is actually continuous growth. This took me years to figure out and was not a trivial matter. I studied my peers in recovery very closely to try to discern exactly what was keeping people clean and sober. I wanted to know the secret of recovery for myself.
For me, there is this concept of accumulation in recovery. They have a saying in the meetings that “it gets greater, later.” What this really means to me is that if you continue to take positive action that your life will get better and better. But this takes quite a bit of time in order to start seeing significant results. This is also what makes early recovery so difficult for so many people.
When you first start out in recovery, almost everything is painful. The detoxification process itself is rarely comfortable. While in early recovery you are likely to be going through the emotional loss of giving up your drug of choice. None of this is much fun at first, and so it takes time to relearn how to appreciate and enjoy life again.
When I first was introduced to treatment, I did not think that this was even possible for me– that I could learn how to enjoy life again while being sober. Ultimately what I had to do was to give myself a chance in recovery and wait a few months before I could realize that I might actually be happy again without drugs and alcohol. But going into it, I did not even believe that this was possible.
Now that I am living in long-term sobriety, I realize that the life I am enjoying today was slowly built up over the last 12 years– simply by taking positive action, day in and day out, on a regular basis. I can see how the concept of accumulation has worked in my life. It all started with those baby steps that I first took an early recovery, and all of the positive changes that I continued to try to make on a daily basis throughout the last 12 years. You have to add all of those changes together to get to where I am at today. This is not a trivial amount of effort. If you push yourself to make positive growth over a long period of time then you are going to get some amazing results. I have accomplished some things in my life today that could not have been done in a single year. The fact that I am in recovery and that I am able to make it consistent effort towards personal growth has opened up a new world of possibilities for me. For example, today it is possible for me to run a marathon or to start a successful business. Those were not things that I could even consider trying to do when I first got clean and sober. I had to start taking positive action and allowed the benefits of a life well lived to accumulate over time. In doing so, my life just continued to get better and better, and my freedom and choices today are numerous.
How the benefits of recovery multiply in the long run…i.e., “It gets greater, later”
I believe that your health should increase over time in recovery. I also believe that this should be a fundamental principle of everyone’s recovery effort– whether they are in AA or not.
When I talk about the idea of holistic health, what I really mean is that your health in recovery should improve in a number of different areas: physical health, mental health, emotional health, spirituality, and even your finances.
When we think of health, we tend to focus on physical health. While that is important, there are many different aspects of your overall health that can be improved during your recovery journey.
Holistic health is the lens through which you should view personal growth.
In other words, when you are considering how you might achieve personal growth, the question you should ask yourself is: “how does this improve my health in recovery?”
Most obvious is physical health, and I do think that this is extremely important. Regular exercise has been a game changer for me in my own journey. I would imagine that most addicts and alcoholics would benefit a great deal from regular exercise. But this is just one aspect of your health that you might focus on.
You might also make an effort in recovery to improve your emotional health. Some people in AA address this by working through the 12 steps. There are other ways to improve your emotional health as well, outside of AA. The key is not necessarily in the method, but simply in that you take deliberate action and work diligently on creating these positive changes.
The same thing is true of spiritual growth. Some people achieve this sort of growth in AA, while others may seek it from an external source. Some people may have their own personal spirituality, and some may attend organized religions. Ultimately this is another category of health that can be improved in your recovery.
One of the reasons that they say that it gets greater later is due to a phenomenon known as synergy. This concept is based on the idea that one plus one will equal more than two when it comes to your personal growth in recovery. I have found this to be true in my own experience, and here’s how it works.
The growth that you make in one area of your life can have a huge impact on the growth that you may be trying to make in another area of your life. The biggest example of this that I have found in my own life has to do with the discipline that I learned from becoming a distance runner. After I had built up considerable distance in my exercise, I found that I had a new level of discipline and strength to be able to tackle new goals in other areas of my personal growth and development. For example, I was able to set much more aggressive goals for myself when it came to building a business after I had trained myself to be able to run a marathon. The discipline that I learned from the training could be directly applied to other areas of my life.
I also found this to be true when it came to smoking cessation. I struggled for years to quit smoking cigarettes, and when I finally figured out the level of commitment that was needed to overcome this particular addiction, it opened up a new world of possibility for me. Because it was so challenging, and I had to put in so much effort and discipline, I gained a great deal of strength when I finally realized just how much commitment it really took. I gained strength from this because I realized that this discipline could be applied in other areas of my life.
If you are just starting out in recovery then you have already made one significant change in your life by becoming abstinent from drugs and alcohol. But this is just the starting point, and you need to push yourself to keep making positive changes in order to maintain sobriety. If you want to experience the sort of joy and hope that I first heard from that man in the AA meeting who said that life keeps getting better and better, then you must push yourself to keep making positive changes in your life every single day. You have to do this for a long time in order for all of the benefits to accumulate and fully reward you.
Even if you are taking positive action every day, you are not going to see results as quickly as you first hope. This is why the saying exists, that it gets greater later. They are not teasing you when they say this, because it actually does get better. But you have to give yourself a chance in order to give the positive growth enough time to fully kick in and reward you.
Why people get frustrated and relapse in their recovery
People get frustrated and relapse in early recovery because they want results much more quickly than what they are experiencing. In their addiction, they got used to a system of instant gratification. When they use their drug of choice, they got instant results. This immediate gratification fueled their addiction.
In recovery we have to learn to think a little more long-term. Of course everyone will tell you that you must live “just for today.” But when you are experiencing early recovery, it is important to keep in mind that most of the benefits will take a bit of time to fully kick in. Thus, the depth of your surrender is really important.
If you have not surrendered fully to your addiction then it is likely that you will struggle in early recovery. The reason for this is that you will be antsy and demanding instant results from the changes you are making. Those who have reached a true bottom will be much more patient and less demanding of instant results. How badly has your addiction beat you up? If you have been thoroughly destroyed by your disease then you are more likely to be patient with the recovery process. This is based on your level of desperation, which in turn is based on the level of misery you are experiencing from your addiction.
In other words, if you are still having fun in your addiction then you are not about to embrace the concepts that will keep you clean and sober. They are too difficult to embrace and require too much commitment or someone who is not fully surrendered. If you have not reached your bottom yet, then you will end up being frustrated with the slow growth that you experience in early recovery.
What the cure for complacency in long term sobriety is
Why is it that some people relapse who have been sober for years or decades? The reason this happens is due to a concept known as complacency.
What this really means is that the person gets lazy and stops pushing themselves to take positive action. At first they will have no problem maintaining sobriety under these conditions, but eventually their lack of positive action will start to erode their desire to stay clean and sober.
The solution for this is to adopt the strategy that we talked about in the beginning of this article. Personal growth and holistic health are the solution to overcoming complacency in long-term sobriety.
One of the challenges with complacency is that you cannot have a reactive strategy in order to overcome it. If you try to react to complacency you will be too late, and you will relapse. The problem sneaks up on you when you are not watching for it. Therefore you must adopt a proactive strategy of personal growth so that you can defend against the ongoing threat of idleness in your recovery.
One way that you might do this is by eliminating any negative habits in your life. Believe it or not, this is probably your most important mission during early recovery. It is the negative habits that carry over from our addiction that threaten to destroy us even while we remain sober. For example, I have peers in recovery who have passed away early because they were overweight and continued to smoke cigarettes. In addition to this, people who maintain these negative habits are more likely to relapse based on statistical analysis. You improve your chances of staying sober when you make positive changes and eliminate these pitfalls from your life.
If you are not creating the reality that you truly want, what are you doing instead? Living according to someone else’s reality?
The strategy that I suggest for you in recovery is that you make a deliberate effort to create the life that you really want to live. This may sound like a selfish desire at first, but consider for a moment what the alternative might be.
If you are not creating the life that you want, then what are you really doing with your life? Are you living according to someone else’s design? Are you striving for someone else’s goals?
If you are living in recovery and maintaining sobriety then you are expending a certain amount of effort and energy anyway. It takes effort to stay clean and sober. So you might as well direct that effort into creating the best experience possible for yourself. If you want freedom and options in your life, then work hard to create those. If you want to be joyous and healthy, then strive to create that reality. There is no reason to accept anything less while you are living in recovery.
The kicker here is that living this way is also the most powerful form of relapse prevention. Striving to make positive changes on a daily basis is the best insurance against relapse. Those who push themselves to keep taking positive action will have the most confidence in their recovery. People who are idle, on the other hand, will be in danger of relapse.
If you want to overcome addiction you have to take action.
If you want to maintain sobriety, you have to take continuous action.
Ultimately, relapse prevention comes down to your actions rather than your intentions. What have you actually done lately? Get out there and make positive changes and your life will get better and better.