The Final and Never Ending Challenge: Complacency

The Final and Never Ending Challenge: Complacency

overcoming alcoholism and complacency in long term sobriety

The final challenge in overcoming any addiction is in beating complacency.

The challenge never ends. The threat of relapse will persist until you die. Thus, it is a battle that you must always keep fighting.

Believe it or not, that actually has some benefit to you though, as we will see below.

How long term sobriety differs from early recovery

I like to think of recovering from alcoholism or addiction in at least two stages.

The first stage is early recovery. This is very distinct and if you have ever been in a residential treatment center then you have a good idea of what early recovery looks like. Everyone there is automatically a newcomer. No one goes to detox if they have several years sober, obviously! So in rehab you are definitely seeing what “early recovery” looks like.

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Then we can also look at someone who has several years of sobriety, someone who is stable in their recovery and who is not worrying every second of the day about relapse. This is someone who is well established in their recovery and who has built a very solid foundation. They have built up a positive life for themselves. Clearly, this person is living in long term sobriety. They are no longer in early recovery.

Those are the two distinct stages of recovery that I like to think about, and obviously there must be some sort of transitional stage in between the two as well. I believe that I went through this transitional stage when I was leaving the long term rehab center that I was living in and had to figure out how to stay clean and sober “in the real world.” I had been living in a rehab center for almost two full years, and to be perfectly honest, I think it is pretty easy to stay sober when you are living in treatment. Don’t get me wrong, many of my peers did relapse while I was living there, but if you wanted sobriety then it was pretty darn easy to get the support you needed while living in treatment.

On the other hand, as soon as you leave the treatment center and enter the “real world,” suddenly you have to start creating your own success in recovery without any real accountability. In rehab it was easier because if you relapsed then they threw you out on the street! This provided a great deal of incentive. But then when you go get your own apartment you obviously no longer have that same incentive hanging over your head–that incentive of: if I drink alcohol then I become homeless!

Short term sobriety has an obvious goal to it: You are trying desperately to make it through each day without taking a drink. Typically you ask for help and go to rehab. You go through detox. Your goal is very obvious. You do everything that you can in order to avoid drinking each day. This is short term recovery.

In long term sobriety that sense of immediacy is no longer there. In long term sobriety you have already become fairly stable in NOT drinking. So you start to take it for granted that you are sober. And this is the real challenge and this is where the threat of complacency comes in. If you forget that you are alcoholic then it becomes possible to relapse.

Now you might think that this sounds ridiculous, that you might forget that you are alcoholic. But the way it happens is very tricky. Obviously you never actually “totally” forget that you were alcoholic. But if your brain forgets it for a split second then what will happen is that your mind will entertain the thought of relapse.

This is very important. You can witness this happening if you go to AA meetings every single day and then you suddenly stop going. When you are going every day to the meetings you will not tend to have cravings or think about drinking very much. Then if you stop going suddenly you will notice that your brain “entertains the thought” of taking a drink for just that much longer. For a split second longer. And if you pay really close attention then you will realize that this extra split second of fantasizing about getting drunk will actually make you miserable.


Because you are denying yourself the fantasy. You are dreaming of the “good times” in getting drunk again, but then you are stuck in sobriety, denying yourself that relapse. So your brain is unhappy.

Now if you are going to AA meetings every single day, then you will notice that when this little craving or trigger pops up, your brain will quickly shut it down. You will instantly say to yourself when such thoughts arise “nope, I am in recovery now, so I am not even going to let my mind go there” and you will redirect your thoughts.

Now you might think that I am suggesting that you need to go to AA meetings every day in order to get over your cravings. This is not necessarily true. What you need to do is to become aware of those thoughts (the start of a fantasy about drinking or using drugs) and then have the awareness and the fortitude to redirect your mind very quickly. You can do this without going to meetings every day. It just so happens that most people never really think about this at all, they just go to AA meetings every day and this sort of helps them to deal with the cravings as described above. They don’t really have to think about it too much.

When I stopped attending daily meetings, I noticed that this was how my mind worked, and thus how my disease was trying to get me to fantasize about getting drunk again. So I had to actively fight against this and learn how to shut it down.

Now in early sobriety, you know that this is how everything works. It is obvious that you are battling for your sobriety every day. Maybe you have two weeks sober and so you know what it is like to fight through cravings. And you are quick to ask for help at that point.

But in long term sobriety, this is not so obvious. We may still need help, we may still need to push ourselves to take action, or to learn something deeper about ourselves, but the incentive is not so obvious. We may have several years sober and therefore we are no longer fighting for our sobriety on a daily basis. The battle is no longer as obvious.

And that is the tricky part. Because the battle of recovery (and sobriety) is always there, until you die.

And if you get lazy, if you let up too much in your quest to overcome addiction, it will get you in the end.

This is how complacency destroys people in recovery. The disease simply waits for you to get comfortable and lazy.

Why many people relapse after they get comfortable in their routine

The key to long term sobriety is personal growth.

Personal growth implies positive action. It also implies learning more about yourself.

Early recovery is a little different from this. Obviously those things are important in early recovery as well, but in early sobriety it is a bit more obvious. You are taking massive action every day in order to disrupt your pattern of addiction. So in early recovery you go to rehab. You go to detox. You go to meetings every day. You change everything. It is massive action.

In long term sobriety you don’t have all of that massive change. You have already made much of the changes in early recovery. So in a sense you “run out of steam.” This is dangerous.

People relapse in long term recovery because they stop growing, they stop learning, and they stop challenging themselves to grow.

Some people do this in AA. Some people do it outside of AA. The program of AA does not necessarily have anything to do specifically with complacency, other than the fact that you can still become complacent while you are in any recovery program.

So some people who are in AA are doing it wrong. They use it to great effect when they are in early recovery, but then as they enter long term sobriety they get lazy. Maybe they still go to meetings every day but they are not really “doing the work” in their everyday life. They are not pushing themselves to grow. It can be very easy to fall into the trap of “passive recovery” when you are going to daily meetings.

For example, you get in the habit of attending AA meetings every day. You show up and get your “dose of recovery” for the day. Maybe you talk and participate, but then when you are outside of the meetings you are not really living the recovery program. You may not be working the steps or applying the recovery principles in your daily life. Or maybe you do so, but just barely enough to get by, without really pushing yourself towards personal growth. So it can be very easy to get lazy while in a recovery program. You know that each day you are going to go to that AA meeting and that this will “carry you through” in terms of your sobriety.

One way to illustrate complacency to yourself is to take away the daily meetings. What if you just stopped going to them entirely? Would you remain clean and sober? If they answer is “maybe not” then you are complacent!

In other words, if you are depending on something like daily meetings to keep you sober, then this is showing you that there is a huge weakness in your recovery. You should be taking action every day in your REAL life, the life outside of the meetings, so that you can grow stronger in your battle against addiction.

I have heard people in meetings say “these meetings are like my medicine! If I quit going to meetings I know that I will relapse….”

When I first heard that, I knew there was something wrong with it. I knew that there was a problem there, but I was too early in my recovery journey to figure out what it was. Later on I was able to figure out the underlying issue: The person who said that was dependent on daily meetings, and therefore they were complacent. If they pushed themselves to learn and to grow to the point that they were no longer dependent on daily meetings, then that would eliminate the complacency and it would make them stronger in their recovery.

If you get too comfortable in your daily routine then you can become complacent in your recovery. If this happens then relapse cannot be far behind.

The reason for this is simple: Our default mode of living is to drink and use drugs.

Don’t deny this simple truth or it could cost you your life. Think about it:

Your natural state is to drink alcohol or use drugs. This is what you do. It is what feels right and natural to you. Accept your alcoholism or your addiction. This is part of who you are. You like to drink and use drugs. Is this not true?

Of course it is true, that is what drives our disease. We like to drink and use drugs.

And if you “let yourself go” for long enough, eventually you will drink or use drugs again. This should be obvious. We are addicted and therefore we gravitate towards self medicating.

The only way to prevent this relapse from happening is to constantly be pushing in another direction.

And that other direction is best labeled as being “personal growth.”

They have a saying in traditional recovery that is appropriate:

“You are either working towards recovery or you are working on a relapse.”

Working towards recovery = personal growth.
Working on a relapse = complacency.

Those are the two options. If you think that there is a third option in the middle of those two, then you are mistaken. The third option that tricks people is that they think they can split the middle, but if you do that then you will become complacent. The middle road is actually a trap. It is complacency. Therefore the only way to overcome that trap is to deliberately embrace a strategy of positive action and personal growth.

You can do that in AA, or outside of AA.

You can fall into a complacency trap in AA, or you can overcome that trap in AA.

The program itself has no real bearing on complacency. In the end it is all up to YOU, taking positive action. Or not.

The key to reinventing yourself in long term sobriety

I like the term “reinventing.”

It sounds a little new-agey, I admit.

As in, we need to “reinvent ourselves” on a regular basis in order to become the best person that we can be!

But even though it sounds like a cheesy cliche, it is a really important concept.

And I believe it is accurate.

When you “reinvent yourself,” what you are really doing is you are making a huge change in your life.

And there is an understanding that this is obviously going to be a positive change, not a negative one. I mean, you don’t want to reinvent yourself by falling into the gutter, trying a new destructive drug, or becoming homeless, right? You want to make positive changes, move forward, make progress.

This is really just another “lens” through which you can view your recovery journey. In the end it is all learning and trying new things and making positive changes. But we use different language in order to describe this process in a way that makes sense to different people.

If you have ever been a cigarette smoker who has quit smoking, then you know what it means to “reinvent yourself.” When you quit smoking, everything changes. It is so much more than just simply avoiding a cigarette.

The same is obviously true with alcohol or other drugs. You don’t just change one thing. You change everything.

But I want you to take this concept a step further and realize that even after you have established a foundation in recovery, you still have to keep reinventing yourself.

When you first got sober, everything changed. It was obvious. It was very immediate. You went to detox. You started going to meetings every day. Everything changed.

Now when you have 5 years sober, 10 years sober, and beyond–guess what? You still need to be making changes in your life.

Of course you have already made the obvious changes. You quit drinking alcohol. You stopped abusing drugs.

But, if you want to overcome complacency, you need to find a way to keep reinventing yourself.

When you do this in early recovery, you have some obvious problems to address. So you make a positive change in your life and things get better. Noticeably better.

In long term sobriety the rate of change slows down. Because you have already made so much progress. There are still positive changes that you can make (if you are willing to be honest with yourself), but they will no longer be huge victories. It will be more incremental.

And yet, pushing yourself to learn and to grow and to be honest with yourself is the whole key. Pushing yourself to make those positive changes is what overcomes complacency.

Personal growth is the key to long term sobriety.

Incremental improvement and continuous growth

When you have 30 days sober, every change that you make in life will probably be massive. It will have hugely positive effects. When you are cleaning up a train wreck (that was your life), you tend to clean up the bigger messes first.

After you have 5 years sober, the big messes are all gone. Yet you have to keep pushing yourself to make positive changes.

So how do you do that?

One way that you can do this is to simply follow through on the AA program. If you find a good sponsor who is willing to actively take you through the steps then this process will be something that you go through. You will be shown how to grow in your recovery and how to keep learning more about yourself.

Now if you want to do it on your own, here are the main principles and the concepts that allow you to stay sober and fight against complacency:

1) Self assessment and honesty – in order to overcome your addiction in the long run you must do some soul searching. In other words you have to figure out what negative stuff is going on in your mind every day and then do the work to eliminate it. This is what I would refer to as “doing the work” in recovery. You may have to ask for help in order to do this, even if you are not in AA.

For example, many people in sobriety have a problem with resentment. Me, I had a problem with self pity. You need to be able to identify such problems and figure out what is really holding you back. What did your brain used to do in order to justify your drug or alcohol use? What was your thought pattern? You need to be able to identify that pattern and then figure out how to prevent it.

For me it was pretty simple: Self pity was directly overcome through gratitude. So I became very good at practicing gratitude in my life, because that was the obvious solution for me. Obvious, but not easy! It took work. It takes work. I still work at it, every day.

2) Holistic health – in order to prevent relapse for the rest of your life, you should be pushing yourself to become healthier in every possible way. In AA, they instruct you to do this in the spiritual realm only. In real life, you have to become healthier spiritually, but also mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially. If you are pushing yourself to become healthier in all of those areas then this will help to bullet-proof your recovery.

Overcoming complacency takes real work. It is a job that never ends. You must assume that you are always becoming complacent, and then adopt a workable strategy. The concepts laid out above are the strategy that I use in my own life.

What has worked for you in overcoming complacency? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!

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