How to Avoid Complacency in Long Term Recovery

How to Avoid Complacency in Long Term Recovery


Yesterday we looked at how to establish healthy habits in recovery (and why it is important to do so).

Now we need to take a look at the silent killer: complacency.

It used to be that the biggest threat to sobriety was learning how to deal with anger. Resentment was the biggest trigger for relapse and so this is one of the big things that AA sought to remedy. But as recovery has evolved over the decades, a new problem has emerged, one that was never really anticipated when AA was forming, and that problem is complacency.

Traditional recovery programs are naturally weak on fighting complacency

Think about it:

When AA was first getting started, complacency was a non-issue. They were too young, everyone was just getting started in recovery, and no one knew about this “creeper” threat of complacency. How could they? They were early in recovery and were still struggling with with more immediate problems: How to detox safely, how to deal with their anger, how to handle stress and frustration without relapsing, and so on. They had immediate problems and so they laid out the 12 steps and wrote the literature in an attempt to overcome the basic problems of early recovery.

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Of course the Big Book has been revised but they missed out on an opportunity to improve their program and address this loophole, this omission. Complacency is the new killer among long term recovering addicts and alcoholics. Not that it screws up every person in long term recovery, but for anyone who has several years sober and they end up relapsing, the reason is complacency. This is what got to them in the end.

So what is complacency?

It is when you get lazy in your recovery. When you get stuck in a pattern of just doing the same old things, expecting to stay clean and sober because those same old things have always worked for you. Recovery is a process of change and when you stop changing you are inviting the possibility of complacency into your life.

Someone might be going to AA meetings every day for years and years, and suddenly they will sort of mentally “check out” of the meetings. Maybe they still show up to them and perhaps they even speak and listen to others, but they are still stuck in a rut. They are no longer challenged, they are no longer pursuing growth in their life, and they are becoming more and more restless over time.

The twelve step program could not have anticipated this tendency when they first designed the program, because complacency does not set in until later on. It is a long term problem, not a short term problem. So there is very little protection built into the 12 steps that can help to address the problem. At best, there is step twelve, which is meant to be an ongoing process, one of working with other struggling alcoholics and addicts.

This is one possible solution for overcoming complacency, if that works for you. If you throw yourself into “twelve step work” and make it your life mission to work with others in recovery on a daily basis, then this actually can help you to overcome complacency.

But this is not realistic for the entire recovery population. Such a one dimensional approach does not make sense because it is so limited. There are many different areas of life in which a person could grow. There are many different ways that a recovering alcoholic can find meaning and purpose other than just working with others in recovery. There is more than one way to overcome complacency rather than just recruiting more people for AA.

So what is the answer?

We start to lay the foundation in early recovery when we shift from our unhealthy habits of addiction to more healthy habits in recovery. We stop abusing drugs and alcohol. We start working on our relationships. We quit smoking and start exercising and eating healthier. We begin to nurture our spirit. And we start to pursue our dreams.

All of this stuff is helpful and necessary, but it is not always going to be enough to keep a person clean and sober forever.

Recovery is process, not an event, so simply doing these healthy things is not going to give us a complete solution for “lifelong recovery.”

We need more than that.

Healthy habits can lay a foundation, but we need more than that

If you are like most recovering addicts and alcoholics then early recovery is a time of great change for you. They say that you have to change one thing and that is “everything.” If you have ever been through the process then you know that this feels like the truth: you really are scrambling around to change everything in your life, seemingly all at once. This is because our addiction defined nearly everything that we did in life. We self medicated for any and every occasion–so now we have to relearn how to handle nearly every situation in life, sober. It’s a lot to take on all at once!

So most people who are successful in early recovery use a strong approach. Either they go to an inpatient rehab, or they attend tons of meetings, or some combination of the two. It may seem like they are dedicating their life to recovery, because this is really what it takes in early recovery in order to overcome an addiction. In traditional recovery they say “half measures availed us nothing.” They are absolutely right in that sense. Early recovery requires a 100 percent effort, no doubt about it.

Healthy habits are then established as part of the early recovery process. For the majority of people who follow a traditional path in recovery, one of the main healthy habits will naturally be attending AA meetings.

What has happened though over the years is that we have changed our relationship with AA meetings. This is part of why I sought another path in recovery and this is also how I tackled the problem of complacency.

It all started when I noticed that the whole “meeting makers make it” slogan was proving to be a bit misleading. In general I could agree with the idea (more support is good, right?) but as I stayed sober for longer I was noticing more and more exceptions to this rule. Particularly, I saw a lot of people relapse who kept coming to meetings, and on the other side of the coin I met several people who had long since left the meetings but remained sober.

And so I started to question myself and my own plan for long term sobriety. To be honest, at that point my plan had been something along the lines of “I guess I will keep going to these meetings until I die.” But I was forced to start revising that plan when I realized that meetings were not necessarily a magic bullet to recovery. I slowly realized that they were not the “insurance” that I was looking for in terms of avoiding relapse. I had slipped into the false belief that if I just continued to attend these meetings for the rest of my life that I would be OK. But the evidence kept mounting all around me that this was simply not true. Many meeting makers relapsed, and many who did not attend meetings were doing just fine.

This pushed me to look deeper at my own recovery process and try to figure out what really drove success in recovery. My mind sort of had this illusion that if you were “Mr. AA” and you were fully immersed in the program then that would be the most secure you could be in recovery. Those who attended daily meetings, sponsored other people, spoke at length during meetings–I thought those people had the most secure recovery. But it turned out that people like that (the “Mr. AA’s of the world”) frequently relapsed. They were not bullet-proof and they often would relapse, but still come back to the meetings later on and talk our ears off about “what they had learned.” These were not the people who I wanted to emulate, so I found it annoying that I had to listen to them talk so much during meetings.

If lifetime meeting attendance was not the solution to recovery, then what was?

To answer this question I set out on a journey of exploration, and I started to watch carefully what people were focusing on that were doing well in recovery. This included people both in and out of AA.

One thing that I found was that the people who were successful in AA always had a great deal of depth to their approach. If you stopped them and really talked with them about their recovery process, it was always deeper than just the steps. It always went further than that. They always seemed to have something more going on than to work on their recovery. When I talked with one of “the winners” in recovery, their approach to recovery was never one-dimensional. It was never strictly limited to just AA ideas.

When I spoke with recovering alcoholics outside of AA, I found this to be true as well. These people were movers and shakers. They did not sit still and hope that their recovery would work out. And their approach to recovery was definitely not one-dimensional either.

And so I came to a decision that terrified me, because I found myself leaning towards the idea that I should, in fact, leave the AA meetings. They had become a poor use of my time, because I actually paid attention in the meetings and gave my full attention to each person speaking. The problem was that each person who was speaking was repeating 99 percent of the stuff I had already heard, and had fully processed already. Sure there was that 1 percent of new ideas that I might find, but I was already getting that 1 percent and more through other avenues (online recovery).

But I felt like I could not just walk away from the meetings, because I had been told over and over again via “the group” that anyone who left the meetings would eventually relapse and die. Seriously, this is the message that you get from meetings–that to abandon them and seek another path would cause you to relapse and die. I heard this over and over again during the first year when I attended daily meetings, and so I was terrified of the idea that I was about to screw up my entire life.

So what did I do? Two things:

1) First of all, I hesitated. I am not sure how many months I stayed in limbo, knowing that I was essentially wasting my time at the meetings, knowing that meeting attendance was not a magic formula for long term sobriety, knowing that I could make better use of my time. I hesitated for months before making the leap because I was so scared of being wrong. I did not want to be the guy who came crawling back to meetings where everyone says “we told you so. You need these meetings just like we do, they are your medicine, etc.”

So I waited for quite a while, trying to get up the courage to make the leap into a new path of recovery.

2) I started to form my new plan, to plot my new path in recovery. It was to be one of growth, I knew that much. Through all of my observation, I had learned that personal growth was a key to recovery. People who took action stayed sober. People who were passive in recovery tended to relapse, then complain about everything. Their problem is not that the program failed them, their problem was that they were lazy. They did not do the work required to stay sober.

I realized that it was the action, not the program, that kept people clean and sober.

Really, this was a huge breakthrough in my thought process. I started to be amazed at people who really believed that the 12 steps had some sort of magic to them. This made no sense to me at all and intuitively I had reasoned the truth long ago–that it is the positive action and the commitment that keeps people sober, not the mystical journey through the steps.

Seriously, imagine a two step program of recovery that everyone follows just like AA, and they still show up to meetings every day to support each other:

1) Made a commitment to ourselves not to use alcohol or addictive drugs, no matter what.
2) Took positive action every day to pursue greater health and personal growth.

Do you really believe that the 12 step program has a better success rate than this hypothetical two step program would have? Given the same support structure, the rehabs, the daily meetings, the sponsorship, all of that other stuff that goes along with it?

I realized that such a two step program was just as effective as the existing 12 step program. It was all about the commitment. Those who made a full commitment to recovery did well, those who took “half measures” were doomed to fail.

Realizing this fully for the first time, I vowed to take positive action every day, and to keep pushing myself to make personal growth in my recovery.

Thus my plan finally took shape: I would leave the AA meetings, but I would deliberately push myself to take positive action every day, and I would be highly conscious of my own personal growth journey.

My plan was to recover by becoming a better person. By becoming a healthier person. By making growth.

How to find your cycle of personal growth and reflection

Later on in my recovery I discovered that my fears about relapse were unfounded. In fact, many of the people that I knew from AA had told me that I was going to relapse when I quit the meetings, and unbelievably (to me) these same people have since relapsed themselves! One of these people use to tell me all the time that I was setting myself up for failure. Since he has relapsed (and I did not) at least he no longer says this to me. He has a new respect for my path, for my personal journey that does not depend on AA meetings.

And so as I moved deeper and deeper into long term sobriety, I realized that the real answer was a cycle of personal growth.

Obviously you can not wake up every day and just push push push until you have squeezed every last ounce of personal achievement and learning out of your day. This is no way to live and at some point you have to pause long enough to enjoy life for a bit. Smell the roses and all that.

And so this is exactly what I find myself doing in recovery: cycling between growth and enjoyment phases.

One phase is clearly “growth.” I decide on a goal and then I push myself hard to achieve it. This is a huge part of what keeps me sober and this also prevents me from becoming complacent. We need to face our fears and growth through them. Find your next challenge and then tackle it.

Ask yourself:

“What is the one goal in your life that, if achieved, would change everything?”

Figure that out, and then go do it. Take action. Seek personal growth.

Don’t just say “Oh, I am going to try to read my daily reading each day, that will be a challenge for me.”

No it won’t. That’s way too passive. Find a challenge. Find the one thing that would really change your life, make things a lot better. Find your highest impact change.

And then, once you figure out which goal is the most important for you to pursue, lock on to that goal with the raw determination of an angry pit bull.

Figure out what you most want in life, and then pursue it relentlessly. Don’t take “no” for an answer. Push like your recovery depends on it.

And when you achieve one of these life changing goals, allow yourself time to reflect. To breathe. To evaluate.

Why it is important to pause and reflect

If you don’t pause and reflect after achieving some measure of growth, then you run the risk of:

1) Pushing yourself too hard and too often in recovery, thus burning out and giving up.
2) Not learning from your growth and applying the lessons to future growth experiences.

This is an important part of the cycle and it is also important for overcoming complacency.

Recovery is about living. You are supposed to enjoy it. So if you are not enjoying it, then give yourself a break and figure out how to slow down for a bit.

If you cannot slow down and enjoy your recovery then what is the point of it all?

So it is important to pause and reflect after you have met a goal.

But you also want to learn from this. Analyze your goal and the benefits it has brought to you. Think carefully about what the goal really cost you.

And most importantly, start thinking about your next big challenge. Your next focus for personal growth.

In order to do this, you may want to seek advice from others.

Why it is important to seek advice about growth from others

If you rely only on your own ideas in recovery you will miss out on some amazing growth opportunities.

To be honest I have only had about 3 or 4 really major changes that I have made in my recovery. Out of those changes, at least 2 of them were ideas from OTHER people. They were not my own ideas and I can not claim credit for them, yet they were hugely important steps in my recovery that definitely changed my life for the better.

Examples of this include:

* A therapist (and my dad) suggested that I start exercising on a regular basis.
* A sponsor in recovery suggested that I go back to school and finish my education.

Neither of those were my idea, and to be honest I did not think either of them would make that much of a positive impact. But I was willing to seek out the advice from others, and then I was willing to take action.

To summarize

Overcoming complacency in long term recovery:

1) Focus on personal growth and improving your health.
2) Embrace the cycle between growth and enjoyment/reflection.
3) Always be planning your next big challenge in life. Never sit completely idle. Reflect and enjoy life, but have your next idea for growth in the back of your mind.


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