How secure are you in your sobriety today?
Do you imagine that after more time in your recovery that you will be more secure than what you are now? Can you “bank” recovery for good behavior, to help you get through the rough times when you may be tempted in the future?
The truth is that you can never really do that. This is why you see the occasional person who has a decade or more of sobriety who relapses all of a sudden (hint: It is never really all of a sudden though, even though it may seem like it).
Any alcoholic, no matter how long they have been sober, are just one drink away from their next drunk. After many years in recovery it can be pretty easy to forget that.
Doing the things that you are supposed to be doing…is that enough?
When I first got into recovery I was living in a long term treatment program and I was following all of the advice that I was being given.
People made suggestions for me and I took them. They told me to live in long term treatment so I lived in long term treatment. They told me to go to meetings every day so I went to meetings every day. They told me to get a sponsor and work the steps…..you get the idea. I was taking suggestions and doing what I was told to do.
And I admit–my life got better and better. This is absolutely the best path in early recovery. Surrender to your disease and then get out of your own way so that other people can tell you what to do and how to live. It may sound like a blow to the ego, and it is. You have to be ready to put your faith in something other than yourself. You start doing that by taking suggestions from the people in your life who would try to help you.
But at some point in my recovery journey I started to notice something. People around me in recovery were relapsing. A lot. And this was peculiar because I was living in a long term rehab center, and all of us were basically jumping through the same hoops. We all had to do 90 in 90 (go to 90 AA meetings for 90 days straight). We all had to get a sponsor and work through the steps. We all had to read recovery literature. And so on.
But it wasn’t necessarily working. It worked for some of the people, some of the time, but then even later on I realized that most of those “success stories” ended up relapsing as well. In fact, after living with roughly 25 to 30 different recovering alcoholics over a period of two years or so, I only know of 3 people other than myself out of that group who is still sober. Those are not very good odds. Of course it has been over a decade since we all left treatment but still. It is frightening to see how bad the numbers can be over the long run.
So when I started to notice this trend (of people who were working a program of recovery but then failing to stay sober) I was worried that I might be “missing something.” After all, I was watching some of my peers in recovery who I really looked up to and they were relapsing. What was going on? If they could relapse while working this recovery program, then certainly I could to, no? My confidence in the “traditional recovery path” was shattered.
So I started to dig deeper. I started asking questions. What really kept people sober? How did recovery really work? Were the 12 steps really a magic formula like people were telling me? Or was there something more going on there as far as the underlying principles and concepts?
What I found was that your sobriety is probably not secure if you are depending on daily meetings in order to keep you clean and sober.
That is probably going to make some people upset, or they may argue against. What I am saying is that if you quit going to AA meetings and then you relapse as a result, then your recovery is weak in the first place and you were not really doing the things you were supposed to be doing to create secure sobriety.
Think about it. If you quit going to 12 step meetings cold turkey and you relapse, then what does that say about your recovery? You are dependent on daily meetings.
I am not bashing AA here at all. Go back and look at the founders of the program and read the history about AA. It was never intended to be a daily session so that people could vent and talk about their first world problems. Seriously. When AA first got started it was very much focused on the basics and meetings were few and far between. You would be lucky to go to more than one each week in most towns. Today it has morphed into this crazy animal because we have meetings going at nearly all hours and nearly every day in big cities and so you can effectively start to depend on them in order to maintain sobriety. It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
I point this out because during my first year or two of sobriety I slowly realized that many of the people who relapsed around me where people who went to meetings every day.
So why did they relapse?
One, because they started skipping meetings. Obviously they were dependent on them!
Two, they lacked a real program of recovery in their life outside of meetings. They were missing out on some crucial element to sobriety in their daily lives. That crucial element is personal growth and what they are missing out on in terms of action could be called the “daily practice.” This means that they should be working on various aspects of improving their health each and every day (such as spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially, and so on).
So if you do what you are told and go through the motions then you might end up becoming dependent on a recovery program that is not really serving you well. Of course it really depends on how much action you take in your daily life. Are you on a path of personal growth? Does AA help you to achieve that? If so then great, keep going to AA. But if you suddenly quit going to AA meetings and you are in danger of relapsing, then you are missing the boat on recovery. You have fallen into a very common trap that I see over and over again. Someone starts going to AA, they show up every day and they talk about their problems, and it is just enough for them to avoid relapse so long as they keep showing up each day at meetings and venting their frustrations.
This is not the path in recovery that you want to be on. You want to go beyond “daily meetings as maintenance.”
If you really want to be secure in your sobriety, then you will need to find a way to kick things up to that next level and really focus on personal growth.
You don’t need recovery programs or meetings in order to do this. You can do it all on your own if you want. But you have to do it. And that means taking action.
How to go from dependency on programs to working your own program of recovery
The way I broke my dependency on meetings was this:
1) I started reducing the number of meetings that I went to each week.
2) I made a plan to actively work on personal growth every single day. This included growth in different areas of my life. I focused on improving my overall health. This meant things like taking up exercise, experimenting with meditation, quitting cigarettes, and so on. The key is that I was taking action and pushing myself to do this.
3) I started writing about recovery, a lot. I wrote a daily journal so that I could see where I was at over time (we often do not see a relapse coming until it is too late). I started connecting with people in recovery through other methods (mostly online in forums).
4) I pushed myself to set a number of goals in my life in order to improve my life situation. So in other words, I was trying to change myself and my defects, but I was also trying to change my life and improve it. Both internal and external improvements. Because they often play off each other (if your life is a mess then you will feel stress and frustration inside, etc.).
While I was doing all of this I simply stopped going to meetings at some point. I tapered down to nothing. My peers in recovery were worried about this but after a year or two of having left the meetings it was no longer an issue. Many of my peers in AA at the time have relapsed since I left the daily meetings.
One of the key things I would caution you about is that if you slowly start to taper off your daily AA meetings then you should really pay close attention to if you are having thoughts or cravings to drink. If that is the case then you should immediately go back to your old level of daily meeting attendance.
This doesn’t mean that you can never leave the daily meetings. It just means that you have not yet done the work that is necessary in order for you to be able to break that dependency.
My whole point of this article is to say that if you have that dependency to daily AA meetings and you go through the process of breaking that dependency then your sobriety will be more secure as a result. At that point you can feel free to attend meetings as much or as little as you want and attending them less will NOT threaten your sobriety. This is certainly more secure than the people who will relapse if they suddenly stop attending meetings every day.
Learning to build the life that you need to be living in recovery
In order to learn how to break this sort of dependency you need to get stronger in your life.
You do that by becoming healthier. Not just physically healthier or even spiritually healthier, but in all areas of potential health.
So that means mental, emotional, social, and so on.
You have to take action every day in order to improve some area of your health. If you are not checking off these ideas each and every day then you open the door for relapse to creep back into your life.
When I was in traditional recovery this was not the message that I heard at all. Instead, I was told to focus exclusively on spiritual health at the expense of all other forms of growth. You may argue with that concept but this is what the focus is on in traditional recovery. They focus on spiritual growth and while that can be helpful to some people it is not a truly holistic solution.
A good example of this is based on daily exercise. I have learned that if I exercise every single day then my strength in recovery is multiplied a great deal. This does so much for me in terms of securing my sobriety that it is unreal. The sad thing is that no one ever mentioned this as a suggestion in AA. It is not in the literature. They focus on spiritual health at the expense of all other forms of health. This may also be why you see so many people smoking cigarettes outside of AA meetings. The holistic approach looks to improve your health in all areas as a means of helping you to stay sober.
The daily practice and habits that lead to a better life
The key to sobriety is a daily practice.
Every single day is another opportunity. Your addiction looks at it the same way. Every single day is another chance for alcohol to trip you up and get you to drink. That may seem like a silly way to think about it but it will not seem silly if you have recently relapsed yourself. If that is the case then it will make perfect sense to you.
So how do you fend off the daily threat of relapse?
You take action each and every day.
Your mission in recovery is to constantly be reinventing yourself. What does that mean?
It means that you need to evaluate your life and then make changes. You will never stop doing this. If you stop doing this then your addiction will say “OK, time to get you drunk again, you have stopped working on recovery so it is prime time for me to move in and force you to relapse!”
You look at your life. You evaluate your life both internally and externally. Then you prioritize and decide what you are going to work on changing in order to make it better.
For example, when I first got clean and sober I was stuck in self pity all of the time and I also had no job. One of these is an internal problem (self pity) and the other is an external problem (no job).
Now it is true that neither of these things by itself could force anyone to take a drink of alcohol against their own will. You can still be stuck in self pity and manage to hang on to your sobriety. And even if you have no job and your life is chaotic and bad things keep happening, none of that actually forces you to take a drink of alcohol.
But my question to you is this:
“Why would you want to make it hard on yourself?”
Sure, you could stay stuck in self pity. And you could stay stuck being without a job (even though your circumstances might dictate that you really need one).
But if you stay stuck in those problems then eventually something even worse will come along and you will reach a breaking point. That breaking point is when you declare that you no longer care about sobriety and you are going to just go ahead and drink anyway. So you relapse.
We want to avoid reaching that breaking point. So in order to do that we need to take action.
Specifically, you need to:
1) Always be evaluating your life and potential problems and negativity, both internal and external sources.
2) Prioritize what would bring you the most relief or happiness if you were to fix the problem.
3) Take action and do it. Change your life.
4) Go back to number 1 and start evaluating again. Thus, incremental and continuous life improvement. Reinvent yourself over and over again in recovery.
This is how to prevent relapse in the long run. It takes work. But it is work that is worth doing, because you do so much more than just prevent relapse. Preventing relapse is just a by-product of this system. It happens naturally if you are doing this work. But the work itself gets you so much more benefit than just sobriety. You get to learn and to grow and improve your life. You become happier and more joyful. You learn to be grateful.
So when I was living in long term rehab I was struggling to try to figure this stuff out. My peers in AA were telling me “just go to meetings and listen and things will get better.” But I had several peers in recovery with me were doing exactly that but they still relapsed. So I got nervous and I decided to dig a little deeper to find out what was really going on.
And it turns out that some people are just showing up to meetings but they are not really doing the work. And it also turns out that you don’t really need a specific program laid out for you in order to “do the work.” All it takes is rigorous self honesty.
If you are truly lost as to how to improve your life (both internally and externally) then you need to talk to other people and get feedback. The nice thing about recovery is that if you don’t know what is wrong with your life, someone else will surely tell you! Just ask. Seriously. Seeking this sort of feedback may sound like a drag but it is actually extremely helpful.
Ask people you trust in recovery:
“What should I be doing in my life right now?” (Don’t let them answer with “program-speak” like attending meetings every day, etc. Force them to get specific and give real advice).
“What do I need to change about myself?
“What do you see as my biggest character flaw or weakness?
It is not easy to get honest with yourself and start digging for those answers. If you do this work and you take action to correct the negative stuff that comes up then your life will get better by several orders of magnitude. Not just a little better, but a LOT better. Your whole life will change. And your perspective will shift. And you will be grateful. (If you are not grateful then you still have a lot more work to do internally and possibly externally as well!)
In fact you can do a spot check right now:
Ask yourself how grateful you are today. Are you truly grateful?
The answer to that question is a strong indicator for how secure your sobriety is.
Worth thinking about.
Worth working towards…..