Don’t Make these 5 Critical Mistakes in Your Long Term Sobriety

Don’t Make these 5 Critical Mistakes in Your Long Term Sobriety

Pose lake Minnesota

Yesterday we looked at 7 little known factors that could affect your sobriety. Today we want to look at 5 critical mistakes that people can potentially make in long term recovery.

Mistake #1: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”–how to stubbornly resist change in recovery.

I see this one happen over and over again, and it happens in early recovery too.

People have far too much faith in a program to work for them simply based on the fact that it has worked for others in the past. To me this is unacceptable to just go along with being told what to do when you see people failing all around you.

What I am referring to here is the relatively dismal success rate that tend to observe in typical recovery programs such as AA or NA. I cannot believe how people defend these programs as being infallible when so many people in them end up relapsing.

You see there is a double standard that occurs within the 12 step program and it just never sat well with me because I could never put my finger on it. Now that I have left the 12 step program and forged my own path in long term sobriety I can clearly look back and see this double standard. It is this:

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If you are successful in AA they will nod politely and then remind you that all of the credit for your sobriety goes to “the program” and to these miraculous 12 steps that saved your life. But on the other hand if anyone ever fails in AA and relapses, we do not blame “the program” or the “the steps,” (because they are so perfect!) and instead we blame the individual. We say “oh that’s too bad, he relapsed, he must have taken back his self will.” All of the blame gets placed squarely on the individual if he ends up relapsing, but that same person cannot get credit for success in the event that they remain sober. In that case the credit goes to AA.

Am I just bitter? Not at all! I guess I just had to leave AA and stay sober on my own for about ten years in order to really see where credit is due in this world. I think sobriety is probably a tough road whether you are in AA or out of it–and therefore anyone who is “making it” in recovery deserves kudos, whether they are following a formal program or not.

And at the same time, I also believe that a good program of recovery should be held accountable for its relapse rate, and that we should probably be measuring and refining our methods based on real feedback. Are we not allowed to make progress and improve things? What is with this attitude in AA that the program is utterly perfect and no one should ever dare question it?

Honestly I think the program is fairly out of date and does very little to inspire people to take positive action. I believe it could be refined and improved if enough people realized just how lacking it is.

I do realize there is never going to be a “cure” or a perfect success rate with any recovery program, but I think it is a mistake to stay stuck in the past and hold on tight to the idea that “this 12 step program has worked for others, so why change it at all?” Shoot, just look at the resources that AA has in terms of reach and data. Shouldn’t they be using this vast reach and data set to be improving their program strategy, developing new tactics, measuring what works and what does not?

The 12 steps don’t work because they are magical, they work simply because there is an implied assumption of absolute abstinence. This is no different, really, than a two step program that says: “Step one, don’t drink no matter what. Step two, take positive action, help others, be a good person.” So the details are a bit different, so what? The reason that either program works is because of the implication of “don’t drink no matter what.” The rest is just window dressing and the meetings where revolutionary in that alcoholics could come together and help each other for once.

What drives me insane is that people get stuck in this archaic program and then they defend it. They defend it so ruthlessly based on the fact that it has worked for others in the past, and it may be working for them as well. At the same time they refuse to consider the idea of changing the program, of updating it, of refining it, of modifying it. Such ideas are blasphemous because then we would only screw it all up, right? It’s like they admit that the program has some quirks and that it is not perfect, but for heaven’s sake don’t try to change anything or the magic formula might be thrown out of whack!

For some reason, they cannot see that it is the implied idea of total abstinence that “works all the magic,” and the rest of the program is just a lot of suggested positive actions to take.

In my opinion this qualifies as a potential mistake in long term recovery because you are shutting yourself off to new avenues of growth. For example, I may never have started exercising or built a business if I had stayed stuck in a program that focused exclusively on spiritual growth at the expense of all other holistic growth. Luckily I was able to break free from this outdated way of thinking and was able to expand my horizons a bit.

I should have had a clue in my early recovery when I was still in the 12 step program and was attending sponsorship meetings. My clue was that we were talking about personal growth at our sponsorship meetups, but we were not hammering the recovery concepts out of the book or anything. Instead, we were talking about “real life” and “real world recovery.” You know–relationships, getting jobs, going back to school, setting and achieving goals, that sort of stuff. I should have realized that this was the real path forward in recovery–a path of personal growth, and a path that did not rely on having such unwavering faith in a 12 step program.

Mistake #2: “Drugs/alcohol are my only problem.”

Another common problem in recovery. This one can come from all sorts of different angles.

One of the biggest angles where I noticed this problem was in terms of mental illness. When I first got into recovery, I was under the (false) impression that addiction and alcoholism are always going to be the biggest problem that a person could possibly have in their life. My assumption was that you could not possibly have another problem that is more serious or which demands more attention. I was wrong.

There are times when mental illness is a bigger problem than addiction. How do I know this? Because sometimes the consequences of mental illness turn out to be more severe than that of an addiction. Obviously, both conditions could be potentially fatal. But I did not realize this when I first got clean and sober. Some people have problems that go beyond addiction, and sometimes those problems hold them back from recovery as well.

Mental illness is not the only possible “alternative problem” that someone might face in recovery. I know a lot of people who have become tripped up in their recovery because of their health issues. Meanwhile, they are focusing so hard on their drug or alcohol problem and so they are sort of ignoring any physical health issues that may pop up. This is a very common thing in recovery because we do not typically notice many health problems while we are still using or drinking.

Your health is a big issue and I have watched people ignore it because they were on a spiritual quest for sobriety. Meanwhile they may have been overweight and addicted to cigarettes, but they will push such issues aside because they are so focused on the “more important goal” of staying clean and sober. Such people can (and sometimes do) end up dying due to poor health. Realize that the number one killer of recovering alcoholics is lung cancer, which is a mostly preventable disease. Could our priorities be that far off? I think they can be, at times, because we are far too focused on a narrow approach, rather than on a holistic approach.

Really if drugs and alcohol were your only problem then you would do well to simply stop taking them, no positive action or program would be required. I do, however, agree with NA on the idea that “the drugs were just a symptom of a deeper problem.” That deeper problem is what we really need to address in recovery and the solution (in my opinion) is personal growth. Spiritual growth is a part of that but it is only one small part. As you can see this problem also combines with the previous one (“AA is not broke so don’t try to change it!”) and therefore the people who are stuck in traditional recovery can not see past any solution that does not fit into their prescribed program.

In the world of AA, every problem is traced back to a lack of spirituality. When you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Therefore the solution in traditional recovery is always going to fit a problem of “spiritual lack.” This is because that is the solution they are offering–one of finding a spiritual experience. It is a mistake to frame your problem in these terms only, and therefore it is a mistake to only pursue one line of growth in recovery (spiritual). More on this later.

Mistake #3: Getting “back to basics” in recovery.

I have witnessed some 12 step groups that label themselves as “back to basics.” In my opinion this is cringe-inducing, backwards sort of thinking.

Why not look forward to “advanced recovery strategies?” Can’t we dare to dream a little bigger in our recovery? Can’t we have hope for future progress? Is the best that we can really do is to try to revert back to the techniques that worked on us when we were 7 days sober and just out of detox? Is that really what we want to go back to? How is this really helpful?

Maybe we need to define “the basics.” When I first got clean and sober, I needed to be locked away in a safe environment and then be told exactly what to do. If it had been up to me I may have wandered down to the corner store to buy a few drinks. This is what “the basics” thus consisted of for me. The basics meant that I had to finally come to grips with surrender. I had to give up the struggle with my disease.

I realize that we can still struggle in our long term recovery and thus benefit from “surrender” even later in our life, but I don’t buy into this language. I don’t buy into the constant putting down of ourselves in recovery. Getting “back to the basics” in recovery reminds me of the people who are constantly warning of the imminent relapse threats and doing too much original thinking on your own. These are the same people who say “AA is brainwashing? Well my brain needs washing! Yuk yuk!” Frankly I am a bit put off by this attitude and I would like to think that after I built a foundation of stability in recovery that I could eventually move on and start to use some more advanced strategies.

These “advanced recovery strategies” have included things such as:

* Making deliberate growth in order to be able to help others better in the future.
* Seeking growth in new avenues of life other than just the spiritual realm.
* Challenging yourself to figure out what is really important to you and then moving towards growth and learning in that area.
* Zeroing in on your unique strengths and talents, then figuring out ways to leverage those strengths to help others.
* Defining your purpose in life and then pursuing it.

Some of these strategies may have some overlap with traditional recovery programs, but I honestly did not notice much of it when I was still in AA. People were too busy getting “back to basics” and trying to cling to the old ways which they claimed to have worked so well.

Mistake #4: “The solution is spiritual.”

Yes, the solution is spiritual. But it is also holistic.

The solution may include learning. It may include exercise. It may include seeking emotional balance in your life. It may include education. It may include some hard financial lessons.

So in reality the solution is not spiritual. The solution is holistic.

Addiction is a holistic disease. It affects every part of your life, does it not?

Addiction and alcoholism can ravage the person physically. So why would you ignore the physical aspect of your health in recovery? Just look at the smokers in recovery, many of whom are also overweight. Such people can justify nearly anything while claiming to be “on a spiritual path.” I believe such people have missed the point.

In some ways we can get hung up on the words themselves. But the term “spiritual” is sort of overloaded with meaning anyway. It should really include something like exercise, which can double as extremely effective meditation, but in the real world it clearly does NOT. Most people do not think of exercise as being spiritual. Perhaps they should, many of them would be much healthier, and probably do better in sobriety as well.

This is why the term “holistic” is so important. Because that is ultimately what the solution is. Perhaps people do not want to accept this because it introduces so much complexity. It can be overwhelming to think that you have to make personal growth not just in one area of your life (spirituality) but in many areas of your life (spirituality, emotional, physical health, etc.).

I watched many people during my early recovery who clung to the idea that the entire solution was spiritual, and they ended up relapsing anyway. I also was very careful to note the various people in recovery and at the meetings who I thought to be the most “spiritual,” and I slowly started to notice that all of these people relapsed. Perhaps this was because the people I noticed only “talked a good game” rather than actually “walking the walk.” But I started to learn that the secret of recovery was NOT who could convince everyone at the AA meeting that they were mister spirituality. This was getting folks nowhere and the people who sounded the best (or talked the most?) in meetings always seemed to end up relapsing.

This is what drove me to investigate a new solution during my journey. It had been so drilled into me that “the solution is spiritual” that I was terrified to go against conventional wisdom. On the other hand, as I watched several hundred peers in the 12 step programs, I realized that I had nothing to lose by forging my own path in recovery, and everything to gain. There was nothing bulletproof about nearly 90 percent of my peers relapsing in recovery, all of whom were dead set on this “spiritual solution.” If it worked so well, then why was I the only one still sober after 18 months? I could count at least 20 close peers who had relapsed by that time. Something wasn’t working (at least not for everyone) and I so I did not see the point in putting all of my faith and effort into a failed philosophy.

Again, I probably sound bitter….but the truth is, I was happy to experiment with my own path in recovery (even though I was scared). I broadened my own solution to include “holistic growth” rather than just the spiritual, and this has been working well for me ever since.

Mistake #5: Complacency and lack of growth.

This is the big one and this is why most people relapse in long term sobriety. If you look at the other classic mistakes here many of them point to this same problem in the long run. For example, if you are narrowly focused on spirituality as your only recovery solution then it is much easier to fall into complacency (compared to being on a holistic path of growth instead). The reason is because with holistic growth as your guiding principle, you are not likely to run out of projects or opportunities any time soon. The upgrade path is infinite.

Some people notice that their life moves in cycles anyway. They may focus on their physical health for a while, and start exercising. After establishing such a habit, they might move on to work on their relationships more. They may not make these choices deliberately, but notice that their growth is sort of moving in cycles anyway.

There is nothing wrong with this, so long as you keep making positive growth, and keep taking positive action. Complacency occurs when you stop, when you stagnate. That is the danger zone where relapse become possible and even more likely.

My suggestion for people to combat this potential mistake is to simply embrace the cycle of growth. Gear yourself into the idea that you want to keep making continuous growth from this point on. If you “settle” for your current results in life then you run the risk of no longer moving forward, and thus you may slide back toward relapse.

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