How to Follow through in Early Alcoholism Treatment and Stay Sober

How to Follow through in Early Alcoholism Treatment and Stay Sober


So you have reached a point of surrender. You decide to do something about your problem with alcohol and make a serious change.

Maybe you ask for help and end up in treatment.

The question is: What happens next? How do you follow through from here?

I think there are really only a few key stages in anyone’s recovery. For example, there is:

* The surrender phase, where they realize they need serious help.
* The disruption phase, where they break out of their old patterns of abuse (such as by attending rehab).
* The learning phase, where they learn how to live a new life.
* The support phase, where they identify with other people so that they feel good about themselves in recovery.
* The personal growth phase, where they overcome complacency in long term sobriety and remain sober through constant progress.

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The first phase is pretty clear to most people because it is the entry point into recovery. Without surrender you cannot even get a foothold to attempt to get sober. Without surrender, you are just spinning your wheels and continuing to stay stuck in addiction.

And after you are firmly established in your recovery, everything eventually becomes about complacency. Maybe you have six months sober or a few years sober, and it doesn’t really matter. At this point you are stable enough that you do not HAVE to drink today if you choose not to. The question is, how do you consistently keep choosing not to? The thing that trips people up in long term recovery is complacency, and so that is where the solution of “personal growth” comes in. Either you are pursuing personal growth in your life or you are headed for relapse. It really is one or the other.

So those are the “end caps” of recovery: Surrender at the beginning, and personal growth at the end. But what about all of that stuff in the middle?

That is what people are talking about when they refer to “follow through.”

You go to detox and residential treatment. Do you follow through with it? Some people don’t. Some alcoholics cannot make it through 28 days. They sabotage their own recovery effort and break the rules in rehab and get thrown out. Then they have the perfect excuse to drink, because someone treated them badly. In fact, they brought it all on themselves, but you will never convince them of this when they are stuck in denial.

Or perhaps you go to rehab and you follow the rules and you “graduate.” (What a joke! The real battle in recovery begins when you first walk out of treatment, not when you walk in!). Not that going to rehab is not recommended, because it absolutely could be the start of your new life. But only if you continue to take direction and follow through.

The next phase is the learning phase. You started this while in rehab, no doubt, but you cannot learn everything that you need to know in a mere 28 days. In fact, I lived in rehab for 20 months and I did not learn a lot of critical lessons. This is because many of those lessons could only be learned once I was outside of that semi-protected environment. Some of those lessons were about how I would overcome addiction when no one was watching me, and when I had to hold my own self accountable rather than relying on others to do that for me.

Many recovering alcoholics get to this phase and they give up. Or they simply relapse. Maybe they lack humility. Maybe they think that deep down they have all of the answers, and that no one can really teach them a thing. At any rate, there is much to learn in early recovery, and if you are not in a position to learn it then you are going to be struggling.

Finally there is the idea of support. Some people just flat our reject getting help from others, and they insist on doing everything themselves.

In very early recovery this is not possible. If it is possible then you are not alcoholic. The very fact that you need help in order to get sober is what defines your alcoholism. Think very carefully about that for a moment because it is a subtle truth that I tried to avoid for many years (and failed to do so). In the end I had to realize that I needed help, and I had to be willing to get help and support from others.

Not that you have to live this way for the rest of your life necessarily. But in early recovery you definitely need to be OK with seeking out support. You can’t do it alone. If you could then there would be no problem at all.

And finally you have to learn how to push yourself to grow in recovery. You must learn to constantly improve your life and your life situation. Even at this point, some alcoholics finally give up and relapse for whatever reason. I am not sure exactly how complacency creeps in at this point, and that is why I am always trying to take a proactive approach to my recovery. This is the only way that I know to prevent a lack of action: Keep taking action! Complacency is a lack of growth. Therefore, we must keep growing in recovery. Improve your life, improve your life situation. Rinse and repeat. Stop doing this and you just might relapse. Simple as that.

So after you surrender and decide to take on all of this stuff (disruption, learning, support, and personal growth) then any time that you slack off on any of these processes you are in danger of “not following through” with your recovery.

In order to follow through, you must keep pushing yourself to walk this path of growth. It is a path of positive action.

Keep taking action.

How to get out of your own way in early recovery

What I suggest for most people in early recovery is that they “get out of their own way.”

This is what I had to do with myself in early recovery.

I had to make a deal with myself. I had to make a mental agreement.

Actually I ended up making a series of mental agreements. This was just the first of several.

My agreement was that I would not make any of my OWN decisions during the first year of my recovery. This was just what I told myself so that I would be sure not to sabotage my own efforts.

Because I listened to the stories and I heard people who had relapsed in the past and they always thought that they were on the right track, but all they were doing is following their own bad advice, instead of listening to their peers in AA (or their counselor, or therapist, or sponsor, etc.).

So I made the decision that I would not listen to myself, at all, during the first year of my sobriety. Instead I would always defer to other people who would advise me and give me direction. People I trusted to be helping me.

This worked out really, really well. I highly recommend doing it.

Once you start doing it for a few weeks you will realize that you are still 100 percent in control of your own life. And you will see that even though you are deferring to others for all your decisions, things are still going very well for you. Better than ever, actually. And you will be amazed.

This is how to “get out of your own way” in recovery.

Just for the record, the other two agreements that I made with myself were:

1) A zero tolerance policy for self pity. This was my biggest character defect, my biggest mental obsession, was feeling sorry for myself. So I made an agreement with myself (mentally) that I would not tolerate this at all, and if I noticed my brain engaging in self pity, I would shut it down immediately. This worked really well. I highly recommend doing this with your mental garbage, obsessions, resentments, self pity, etc.

2) Secretly I made an agreement with myself that I never told anyone about. I was going to AA meetings and everyone said the most important thing was your higher power and that you always had to put that first in your life or you would relapse and die. I ignored this advice (secretly) and instead decided that the most important thing in my life was not taking a drink or a drug. This became my highest truth and I put it in front of my spiritual work, my higher power, and everything else. And I never told anyone because the people in the AA meetings sounded like they would crucify you if you ever said something like that out loud. And yet this is what worked for me, and many of my peers ended up relapsing.

Why most people relapse within the first 30 days of leaving treatment

As you can probably guess, when people leave rehab and relapse right away, it is because they don’t follow through.

There are so many ways to screw up your recovery. And there are a few different ways that you can succeed. But ultimately I think there are many more paths to failure.

This means that you should take extra precaution when you first leave rehab. The first 30 days is the most dangerous and in particular many people also relapse within the first 90 days. If you can make it to a year then you are off to a rip roaring start. Push hard to make it to one year sober. This is the foundation of your long term sobriety. You gotta get that first year in!

Of course they will all tell you to take it “one day at a time” and I am not necessarily disagreeing with that here. I am merely suggesting that you need to plan for a really tough recovery, because the odds are firmly stacked against you.

Me, I left residential treatment and then I lived in a long term rehab for almost two years straight! Then I moved in with another recovering alcoholic and continued to live with someone in recovery for the next 5 years or so. Finally I moved out and lived by myself but I still spend over an hour of every day directly reading or writing about recovery. Not to mention the fact that I have tried to develop healthy and positive habits in my life that benefit my effort in sobriety.

If your plan is to leave rehab and maybe hit a few AA meetings then I would predict you are going to relapse.

First of all you definitely want to have a plan. If you have no plan then relapse is inevitable.

Second of all you want to have a really intense plan. As I have said before, you don’t just want to take action, you want to take massive action. This is because the momentum that you need to overcome a lifestyle of addiction is truly massive. You can’t just hit a few meetings after your 28 days and expect for your life to just straighten right out.

Most people relapse after treatment because they don’t take massive action. They usually take some action, they just don’t take enough. They don’t commit fully. They don’t dive in head first and really get into recovery like they are told to. Instead they think that they can just sort of tip-toe around in recovery and maybe get lucky and stay sober without really doing much work or putting forth much effort.

If that is you approach to recovery then your doomed to relapse. The only way you are going to stay sober is if you are really serious about working hard for it. It does not come easy. So you have to go into being prepared for battle. This is it! Fight for you life. Anything less will lead to relapse.

Many people believe that rehab should “cure” them. OK, I went to a 28 day program, now I can go back to my old life and just not drink, right? Wrong. It doesn’t work that way.

In order to stay sober you have to redesign your life from the ground up.

There is a saying in recovery: “The only thing you have to change is EVERYTHING.”

This is very true. In fact, many things in your life may not actually change, but your attitude and your perception of absolutely everything DOES change, if you remain sober. So in that sense the saying is absolutely true. Everything changes. Or you go back to drinking. It really is like that.

How to assess your life and take action post-treatment

After you leave treatment you should be trying your best to follow through.

This means taking suggestions. As many of them as possible. This can be difficult because you will tend to be overwhelmed with suggestions in early recovery.

Find people you can trust and then focus on their suggestions. Find someone who is living the sort of life that you want and then ask them for suggestions. This will help cut down on the barrage of suggestions that you are getting.

But then you still have to follow through. You still have to listen to someone’s suggestions and take real action based on the advice.

After you get out of rehab, find someone you can trust and ask them for these suggestions.

After you feel like you are actually “following through” and becoming stable in your recovery, it is time to do some assessment. You need to take stock of your life and figure out what else needs fixing. What needs work.

Everything in your life that is negative, or that is holding you back, or that is dragging you down must be addressed.

Key point: Don’t try to do everything at once. This is one reason why you need a sponsor, or something who you trust that can give you feedback. So they can help you to prioritize what you are trying to do in recovery.

This is all about personal growth. In order to make growth you need to eliminate negative stuff. Yeah, sure, you could also try to chase some positive goals that do not have to do with fixing problems in your life, but honestly that is almost always a waste of time in early recovery.


Because you don’t want to waste your time and energy. It is not that you would not benefit from chasing after positive goals, but what I am telling you is to put your energy where it will have the biggest impact. And in early recovery you are going to have negative stuff in your life that needs to be fixed. It wasn’t ONLY about the drinking or the drugs. There is other negative stuff in your life like resentment, self pity, shame, guilt, toxic relationships, and so on. If you can eliminate your most negative thing in your life, that is a HUGE win. If you can then move on and eliminate more negative stuff, you are well on your way to healing. At some point if you keep doing this recovery thing then you will fix all of that garbage, and at that point you will truly be free. This is what you are working towards. This is what “working the steps” of AA seeks to accomplish. Quite honestly I found another path and did not use the steps in order to do this work that I am speaking of, but it doesn’t really matter. However you can get there, get there. Just do the work. Figure out what is toxic in your life, what is dragging you down, and figure out how to get rid of it. If you can’t do it alone then ask someone else to help you. This is sponsorship in action. Simple as that.

Seeking feedback and modeling others in recovery

One way to follow through when you leave rehab is to do what I suggested above: Get yourself a sponsor and start taking their suggestions directly. Go to several different meetings (outside of the rehab center) and find someone who seems to have the life you want. Then model what they are doing. Ask them for advice directly. They may or may not offer to take you through the 12 steps. If that works for you, great. If not, find another way to process through the negative stuff and get it out of your life. This goes for both the internal stuff (resentment, self pity, shame, guilt, etc.) as well as the external stuff (bad job, toxic people in your life, poor health, poor nutrition, etc.).

Your long term solution to sobriety

Eventually you have to try to fix it all.

And it will never be finished. This is the whole point of recovery. That you never “arrive.” There is always another layer to learn about, to uncover, to expose. Then you find the dirt or the negativity and you deal with it. And in doing so you become stronger in your journey.

You have to follow through in order to get these rewards. You must embrace the basics of recovery, then you have to stick with it. Surrender, go to treatment, and then embrace learning and support. At some point you must learn to push yourself to grow as a human being. This is a learning process. You must never stop learning about yourself.

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