What is the one crucial element that guarantees your success in long term sobriety?
Is there even such a thing that you can count on to insure your continuous sobriety in recovery?
In some ways I believe this to be true. There is on crucial element that rises above all others and is far more important. One common element that ties everything together and drives all of your actions in recovery.
Think for a moment about what the newcomer must go through in early recovery. If you have ever been to addiction treatment then you know what I am talking about when I say that it is a bit like “information overload.” There are so many suggestions that it is difficult for the newcomer to keep it all straight. By the time the person leaves rehab they have a list of things that they need to try to do in order to remain sober. Lots of different suggestions like: Get a sponsor, go to meetings every day, go to their outpatient or aftercare, see a therapist, start eating healthier foods, exercise every day, meditate every day, pray, connect with their peers in recovery, get phone numbers of their peers in recovery and call them on a regular basis, work through the steps, read the recovery literature, and so on. This is just a partial list by the way, in reality there are actually many more suggestions for the newcomer than just what I have listed here!
With so many different actions given to the person, what are they to focus on? You still have to prioritize. Someone might say “do it all” but obviously there are only so many hours in a day with which to do these things. You have to pick and choose. You cannot simply do every single suggestion every single day because there simply isn’t enough time.
Therefore, you need to prioritize.
When I first got into recovery and was living in long term rehab, I could not accept the idea that I was just supposed to do what I was told in recovery. I could not accept this because I realized that there was this problem I outlined above: that you could not possibly do everything that was suggested and so you really had to prioritize your recovery. In the end you still had to make decisions about what actions you were going to take each day. You can try to outsource your decision making to others but at some point you will realize that you are still ultimately in the driver’s seat and therefore the final decisions are falling onto you. And you will realize that you need a way to decide, a way to prioritize, and if you really want to stay clean and sober then you are going to need a strategy in order to guide you.
Let’s define “recovery strategy” as your overall plan and philosophy in recovery.
When you ask for suggestions from people in recovery, they usually give you advice in the form of tactics. So instead of giving you a strategy they will say something like “well, I think you should go to 90 meetings in 90 days.” That is a tactic. You have a specific action and you either do it or you do not do it. This can be helpful but if all you do is get feedback from other people in the form of tactics then your recovery will not be that strong. Your sobriety will be hanging on to the thread that is based entirely on other people’s suggestions for you. Without an overall strategy to guide your actions (and the tactics that you use) your recovery will not be as strong.
So when I talk about “the one crucial element that guarantees long term sobriety” I am not talking about a tactic. I am referring instead to a strategy. A tactic would be something like “go to an AA meeting every single day.” A strategy would be something like “find support from others in recovery.” The strategy is more broad and allows for more than one solution.
Now then, what strategy can we use that will help to insure long term sobriety?
What do recovery programs have in common?
When I was first getting sober I wanted to know why recovery worked. And I wanted to know HOW it worked.
And to be honest these were not answered for me in traditional recovery programs.
If you read “How it works” from the Big Book it actually sort of dodges the question a little bit of how it really works. At best it describes how AA works (somewhat) but it does not describe how recovery works, or which principles and concepts from AA really create success in recovery. What it tells you when you read “how it works” is really just a proof that it DOES work. It is saying “we are amazed at how well this works if the person is only willing to do what we tell them!” I suppose that this indicates that willingness is one concept that is vital, and I would agree with that regardless of which recovery program you are trying to use. But there is more to recovery than just willingness. And I wanted to know how it all worked, how recovery really worked to keep someone sober.
In truth I wanted to deconstruct successful recovery so that I did not have to rely on a black box.
What do I mean by “black box?”
When you are in AA and you keep asking questions about how it all works, eventually you encounter the “black box” phenomenon. Keep asking “how” and “why” and eventually the people in AA will tell you “stop asking these questions, can’t you see that AA works if you just work it?” They tell you not to try to figure it all out, and that trying to do so will only get you in trouble. In the end their answer is a black box. We don’t know everything about how it really works, so just work it and shut up and be happy to be sober.
This was not good enough for me. To be honest I sort of resented sitting in the meetings every day and I did not believe that this was vital to my long term recovery. Or at least, I hoped that it was not vital to my long term recovery because I did not like doing it every day. So I wanted to find out if I could deconstruct recovery so that I could find out what was really vital for keeping people sober, so I could just do THAT.
I started to look at other recovery programs outside of AA. I also started to look the “winners” in recovery to see what they were actually doing in their everyday life in order to stay sober (not just what they said in AA meetings but what their real actions were).
I noticed that there were alternative recovery programs out there. For example, there were many different programs of recovery that were based on religion. And there were a few programs that were based on a behavioral approach. And there were even a few recovery programs that were based on physical exercise. Now these alternative programs were nowhere near as popular or widespread as AA, but they still existed and they all had examples of successful recovery in them. So what was going on here? I was always told in traditional recovery that the AA program was the only way and my only real hope. I was slowly finding out that this wasn’t true.
But beyond that, I wanted to know what the common thread was in these other programs that made them work. Something must be tying them all together if there were successful examples from each program. Sure, some people relapsed from every program. But there were also examples of people from each who were doing well in their recovery. So this was a clue for how to deconstruct the process of recovery. Find the common thread.
After much study and reading and talking with people it all started to come together. I began to realize more and more what the real underlying principles were that helped people to stay sober, regardless of which program they were following.
One way that I discovered those exact principles was by talking with other people in recovery and also by observing their actions. This went for both people in traditional recovery (12 step programs) but also people who were not into AA and NA. And so I started to deconstruct what the “winners” in recovery were actually doing in order to stay sober.
What do successful people in sobriety have in common with each other?
People who are successful at recovery have a number of traits in common.
If you watch and study the “winners” in recovery for long enough then you start to see an overall pattern emerge.
Of course it can be misleading if you just look at one or two people because the tactics can differ so greatly.
For example, take someone who is in AA and they are successful in their sobriety. They may do certain things (like sponsorship, daily meetings, step work, etc.). Then compare that person to someone who is successful in a program such as Racing for Recovery. The person in Racing for Recovery is not going to meetings or doing sponsorship or anything like that. And yet both of these individuals are successful in staying sober. So what are the similarities?
There are a number of factors that jump to mind when comparing two individuals like this from different recovery programs:
1) Both had to surrender in the beginning.
2) Both are highly motivated to take action. They are not passive in recovery. They are action takers.
3) Both are pushing themselves. They are seekers. They are learning more about themselves every day, which is hard work. It takes courage to do this. To be honest with yourself, to look for your flaws, to try to improve yourself over time. It is uncomfortable work. This is what I mean by “pushing yourself.” You have to push yourself a bit because otherwise you will be “lazy” and not do the hard work. It is not that the work is “hard” necessarily, but it is uncomfortable. No one wants to admit to shortcomings and then work at fixing them.
4) Both people are constantly reinventing themselves. They have a vision for what they want their life to become, then they work towards that vision until they achieve it. For the person in AA this might have to do with fixing character defects, working with others in recovery (12 step work, sponsorship, etc.). For the person in “Racing for Recovery” this might have to do with personal achievement, achieving a high level of fitness through specific training or race goals, and so on. In both cases the person has essentially “reinvented themselves” after they achieve the vision that they are pushing themselves towards.
5) In both cases relapse prevention is the result of a personal growth strategy rather than an arbitrary list of tactics. You don’t stay sober just by taking orders and filling a certain AA meeting quota. This can work in the short run but it fails in the long run. The reason it fails is because you still need a strategy for recovery that is flexible and powerful enough to adapt to the changing conditions of your life. When you reinvent yourself you move forward. What kept you sober at the 6 month mark might not work at the 6 year mark. This is just as true for the person in AA as it is for someone working an alternative program of recovery.
So what is the common element here?
The one crucial element to long term sobriety is personal growth.
This is true if you are in AA. This is also true if you are working some other program of recovery.
And it is true if you abandon all structured programs and decide to create your own recovery path for yourself.
In the end it always comes back to personal growth.
We prevent relapse by reinventing ourselves, over and over again, with incremental improvements. Sometimes the improvements and breakthroughs are not incremental, but in long term sobriety they almost always become incremental. This is because you make your biggest leaps forward in the first few years of your recovery journey. Later on there is less big leaps to make, but there is always the potential for more growth. You never finish learning and growing, but the advances get smaller and smaller over time. This is why you must stay positive and focus on the growth that you DO make in recovery, always celebrating each tiny victory. A positive attitude goes a long way.
How can you best model the success of others in recovery?
Especially in early recovery, modeling the success of others is a very powerful technique.
Much of traditional recovery is based on this idea. Sponsorship in AA is based on the concept of modeling. If you see someone in the program who “has what you want,” then start modeling that person and you will eventually “have what they have.”
So the best way to model someone is pretty simple:
1) Find someone who has the same sort of life that you want.
2) Ask this person questions about how they work their recovery. Specifically, ask them what they think you should be doing in your life right now. Then, do it.
3) Continue to watch this person to see what their daily actions are. Try modeling their routines. For example, maybe they exercise every day. Or maybe the meditate. Emulate this and see if it works for you. Give these changes time in order to see if they have positive long term results (in other words, give the tactics a fair chance to work in your life).
One idea is the 30 day trial. Do something for 30 days and commit to seeing it through for at least that long before you pass judgement on the tactic. For something like exercise I would recommend extending that 30 days to six months. The reason I say this is because when I exercised for 2 months continuously in my early recovery I never really “got it.” 60 days was not long enough for me to have the breakthrough that I needed. A few years later I came back to the idea of exercise and after following through with it for several months something finally “clicked.”
So the 30 day trial is not necessarily long enough for every new tactic that you may try in recovery. One way to determine this is to ask for feedback and advice from multiple people. This is what happened with me in terms of the exercise idea. I dismissed it once (because I did not see the benefits quickly enough) but enough people kept recommending it to me so I had to take another look at the idea, and in particular, I had to give it a better chance to work in my life.
How to reinvent yourself on a regular basis
My belief is that it is not enough in recovery to just reinvent yourself once.
Certainly you are doing this when you go to detox, go through residential treatment, and then go back out into the world. If you can maintain sobriety for even a short while then you have, in effect, “reinvented yourself”–at least in the short run.
Of course, relapse is still possible at this point, and in fact if you look at that data it is quite likely at this point (just after leaving treatment).
So what is the solution?
The solution is that you must reinvent yourself all over again.
And you have to keep doing this. Over and over.
Does that sound like hard work? It’s not any harder than using your drug of choice, really. Both paths take a certain amount of effort to sustain them. It is tough work trying to self medicate every day and not be so miserable while you are drinking.
And so what you will come to realize in long term sobriety is that this “reinventing of yourself” is really a process, not a series of events. It is really a mindset shift. It is saying to yourself on a regular basis “OK, what part of my life needs a touch-up next?”
It may seem a little counter-intuitive to look at the negative stuff in your life. Why not focus on only positive things, right? But in reality, you can get a whole lot of mileage in recovery by simply fixing the flaws. By seeing what sort of things drag you down, trip you up, and bring out the worst in you. And if you keep looking at that stuff over and over and trying to fix it, your life will get better and better.
When you do this hard work for a long time eventually your life smooths out a great deal and you have quite a bit of serenity. Early in recovery you will not “be there” right away and this place of serenity will be separated by a lot of work and effort that you need to put into it. All of that work and effort is you, looking at the negative stuff in your life, and then taking action in order to fix it. This is how you reinvent yourself.
In order to do this you must engage in the process. You must be willing to be honest with yourself, to keep looking at yourself and your life, and maybe even to seek feedback from the people you trust on what you should be doing. This is hard to do. Fairly simple, but still hard to do. Which is why most people avoid it. It’s work!
The one crucial principle in recovery that keeps you sober in the long run is personal growth. So your job is to find a way to keep growing, to enjoy the process, and to reinvent yourself over and over again, to keep becoming a better person. This is the highest form of relapse prevention.