How Your Decisions in Early Recovery Will Impact Your Long Term Sobriety

How Your Decisions in Early Recovery Will Impact Your Long Term Sobriety


We have already seen how important it can be to seek more treatment in early recovery and to have the right attitude towards rehab to begin with.

But what are some of the other decisions in early recovery that can have an impact on our long term sobriety?

What else can we focus on in order to help insure success?

Learning from successful people in AA and NA

When I was going through my first year of recovery, I was sort of torn on this decision. I really thought about it a lot because so much was at stake.

I wanted so badly to remain clean and sober for the long haul. I was surrounded by so many other recovering addicts and alcoholics, and I was just astounded at how many of them would relapse.

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But obviously there were also some examples of people with significant sobriety. Ten years, fifteen years, twenty two years sober. I wanted what these rare individuals had. I wanted “permanent” sobriety.

But I could easily see that achieving decades of continuous sobriety was no easy task. I could tell at a glance, without really studying the numbers or anything, that getting ten or twenty years of continuous sobriety was very rare and obviously required a whole lot of dedication.

I also believed that it must certainly involve using the “perfect approach” to recovery.

Part of my problem was that I actually listened in AA and NA meetings. This is not a big deal if you just show up and sort of listen for the supportive stuff and then speak your mind and share your issues or whatever. But if you actually listen to everyone at the meetings and try to learn from what they are saying, you will find all sorts of conflicting information. Even if what people are saying is not in outright conflict, many times you will find that people are advocating following unique paths to recovery. What works for some people does not work for everyone.

So what I was doing in my own recovery was to seek this perfect path of recovery, and I started ignoring people who had very little clean time. I focused on studying people who had accumulated multiple years of recovery. They have a saying in NA I believe: “Stick with the winners.” So I was watching these people carefully and listening to them closely and in some cases asking them about how they designed their recovery program.

I ran into some people who tried to claim that there is no such thing as a personal program of recovery, but only THE program of NA or AA. These hard core individuals would argue that the path to relapse is to modify the program to suit your own life, and that those who stayed clean and sober are the people who followed THE program very strictly, without trying to adapt to the program to their own life.

The hard core people who were advocating this approach made some sense with it, and they also had the clean time to back it up.

On the other hand, I found several “winners” in recovery who were not so hard core about their 12 step program, and they tended to lean toward a more flexible approach, a more holistic approach. They would be the people who might say something like “Yeah, you should definitely start exercising in your recovery because it will really help you to stay clean and sober in the long run.” Whereas the hard core 12 stepper would ignore exercise, dismiss it as being unimportant to sobriety, and instead focus only on the spiritual transformation from working the steps.

So there were these two paths that I was identifying, one seemed to be the hard core 12 step path that was very focused and narrow and serious, and the other path seemed to be this more holistic, more laid back, more flexible “take positive action” approach to recovery.

I was finding that there were “winners” in recovery who had significant clean time who followed either approach. So ultimately I had to decide at some point what path I was going to follow for myself. For many years, I straddled both paths, and sporadically attended 12 step meetings.

Eventually I found a sponsor, one who tended toward the “laid back, holistic approach” to recovery rather than the hard core 12 step approach.

His influence on my decision making certainly changed my life in recovery. Instead of “hard core immersion in AA” I was gently pushed towards exercise, education, and entrepreneurship. This definitely changed the outcome of what my life is like 10 years later in recovery.

Deciding to approach recovery from an holistic standpoint

At some point I committed fully to the holistic approach. It was a very scary decision and I delayed it for as long as I could.

I know some people will take issue with this point because they will inevitably argue that I could have easily combined the two paths….that I could have stayed in AA while still pursuing this holistic approach to life. That it was not an either/or decision, but that I could have easily combined the two approaches and arrived at a workable recovery.

But in my mind that option felt wrong. It felt weak. I did not believe that I could really give myself fully to the 12 step program and still advocate this holistic idea at the same time. For one thing, I did not really know which path was better for me, or indeed if I would remain clean and sober taking either path to recovery. I was still genuinely afraid that I might relapse if I abandoned AA and followed this more holistic path to recovery.

I felt at the time like I had to choose a path in recovery and follow it. I had to pick one or the other and then fully commit to the path and see what results I got in the long run. At least then I would learn something. As it was, I was sort of straddling both paths, with one foot in AA and one foot out of AA. This was not a good place to be in recovery and if I were to relapse then I really would have learned nothing. If I fully committed to one path or the other than I would clearly know what did not work for me.

So I made the decision that I was going to dive into this holistic approach to recovery. I would abandon AA and I would pursue this other path whole heartedly. I was scared to do it because I was terrified that I would relapse and all of the people in AA who warned me not to leave would be proved right. I would look like a fool if I relapsed and I was terrified of doing so.

But I was sick of straddling the fence, so I committed to this new path fully.

Decisions in early recovery

Because I had made this decision to sort of put 12 step recovery on the way back burner, I had plenty of time to do various things in my life. My sponsor at the time suggested heavily that I go back to college, so I signed up for a few classes at the local community college. I had already accumulated half of a degree before my addiction derailed me, so I was not starting from scratch.

This decision led to many changes in my life, perhaps the least of which was actually earning the college degree. What is more significant is that I met a professor who steered me into marketing (my true passion) and this led to the creation of a successful business (which has already changed my life forever) and also the creation of The Spiritual River website, which has definitely made a long term impact on things. Not only did a small community form here in the discussion forums, but this website continues to reach a new audience.

Going back to college was something that I initially resisted in early recovery. I thought that it was too great a distraction, and that it might even lead me to relapse, because I really believed that I had to focus all of my energy on spiritual transformation instead. Certain people in recovery (including my sponsor) convinced me that this was positive action to take, even if it did not specifically help me to stay clean and sober. Pursuing education was part of the holistic approach, not the “hard core 12 step approach.”

A lifetime of exercise

While I was living in long term rehab in very early recovery, the therapist who ran the place encouraged me to start exercising. To be honest I thought that this was a waste of time, because again, I believed that I needed to be 100 percent focused on the 12 steps and achieving this spiritual transformation. I tried to take the suggestion and start exercising but my heart was not really into it at the time.

Later on though I returned to the idea and started running with my dad, who has been a lifelong runner. Suddenly the idea of “exercise” took hold with me and I started running on a regular basis.

No one could have convinced me of the positive effects that regular exercise might have had on my recovery. Before I had actually done it and become a runner myself, I did not think anything special of the idea that exercise might help your recovery, or help you to stay clean and sober. It sounded like a weak idea, to be honest. “Here, go run every day, you will feel better.” Yeah right! Nobody talks about that in the meetings as being crucial, for the most part. Only the occasional “holistic approach” type person in AA would mention exercise in passing as being important. Surely it could not be a significant part of anyone’s recovery, right?

I turned out to be shocked by the impact that exercise had on me. It was such a powerful tool for my well being in recovery. Exercising on a regular basis absolutely changed my life, and it took me by total surprise. I never could have predicted the impact that exercise would have on me.

It is not really a benefit that you can explain clearly to someone. That is why you may just hear a casual mention in AA and NA meetings of how it is beneficial, but you are never really sold on the idea unless you do it yourself.

It is only through the actual application of regular exercise that you will fully realize the benefits of it.

Once you actually get into shape from doing regular exercise, then suddenly your eyes are wide open. You get a huge boost in your recovery from your new positive habit, but it is difficult to express to others exactly how this benefits your recovery.

One way it does so is through teaching you discipline. If you can manage to get into shape, you can manage to do a lot of other positive things in your recovery. This is because getting into shape via regular exercise is relatively difficult and requires real discipline. Once you’ve done it and built up that discipline, you realize that you can accomplish other things that require discipline too. So there is a confidence element involved in this and you cannot really describe it to someone accurately. Instead, they simply have to find out for themselves by doing the work, getting into shape, and then seeing how this empowers their own life.

Living in long term treatment

One of my major decisions in early recovery was to live in long term rehab. I stayed there for 20 months and obviously it was a good decision on my part. I am still clean and sober over a decade later.

Living in long term rehab has had a few far-reaching effects on my recovery. One of them is the foundation of people that you meet while living in treatment with them. These are not just casual acquaintances of course, these are “brothers in recovery” that you actually lived with. As such, I still know a few of these people today, even over ten years later.

What is shocking is that nearly all of the people that I met and lived with in long term rehab have either relapsed or passed away (or both). The long term success rate from that sort of treatment is not really all that great. But the few friends that I do have that I met in long term rehab are people that I would definitely “go to bat for.”

I have to believe that much of the therapy that I received in this long term rehab center has had a major impact on my life. For example, one therapist there constantly harped on the idea that we had to learn to communicate our feelings to each other, and that this was the most important thing in our recovery, that we learn how to identify our true emotions and then communicate them.

At the time, I hated this, and I think the other guys in rehab hated it too. We did not want to examine our feelings. We did not want to communicate to others that we were hurt, or angry, or upset. But looking back I can see that this was extremely valuable, and I also know that I have used this sort of analysis in my real life recovery since leaving treatment. It was hugely beneficial for me and this was not the sort of thing that you can learn in a 28 day program. It literally took several months of therapy for the guys in long term rehab (including myself) to break down these barriers and really learn how to communicate our feelings and emotions.

So in a way, I think the quality of my recovery is reflected in the fact that I spent almost two full years in rehab, learning how to recover and how to communicate with others and so on.

Choosing what to focus on in early recovery

Let me ask you a very serious question:

“What is the most important thing in your life today?”

My answer to this question is:

“Not using alcohol or addictive drugs.”

Simple? Sure.

But if you go to an AA or an NA meeting and you ask the people there this question, you are going to get a whole lot of different answers. People will talk about their higher power, about the program of AA, about all sorts of things. But very few people will identify physical abstinence from chemicals as their number one priority in life.

I made it my number one priority.

Very early in my recovery, during the first 90 days of my sobriety, I studied the people in rehab and in AA meetings, and I figured out that nearly all of them were missing this critical component. It was all about physical abstinence, and yet so many of them got distracted from this simple fact.

Simply by watching people relapse, I was able to deduce that most people in recovery lost focus on what was really important. If they had maintained their focus on the most important thing (physical abstinence from drugs and alcohol) then they would not have relapsed.

But these people who relapsed were the same ones who were telling me how important it was to find a higher power, to read the big book, to work the steps, to get a sponsor, to come to meetings every day, and on and on and on. They preached a solution but then they went out and relapsed.

I watched this happen over and over again, with many different people in recovery, just in the first few months of my recovery!

So I made a decision, right then when I had less than 90 days sober, that I was NOT going to get confused or distracted.

My priority in recovery would never waver. My priority in recovery would always be the same most important truth, the one single unwavering point that would take precedence over all others. And that was physical abstinence from drugs and alcohol. I called it my “zero tolerance policy.” I would not allow myself to use alcohol or addictive drugs, and I would not even allow my mind the luxury of fantasizing about doing so. As soon as I noticed myself starting to romanticize the idea of getting drunk or high, I shut it down immediately. This was done with a simple decision to redirect my thoughts.

And so this simple decision was made and I started to test it over and over again as I moved through my first year of sobriety.

My fear was that I had it all wrong, and that there were other things in recovery that were more important than this.

But as I watched people from the meetings relapse (people who preached about the importance of step work, of sponsorship, of higher powers, etc.) I realized more and more that I had it right.

I was remaining sober, and others were relapsing. I had my singular focus in recovery (not picking up a drink or a drug no matter what) and they seemed to be struggling with abstinence while focusing on faith, on sponsorship, on stepwork, on spiritual transformation, on meeting attendance, and so on.

This mindset that I chose, this adoption of the “zero tolerance policy” turned out to be one of the most important decisions that I ever made.

It allowed me to get really clear on what I wanted in my life, and what I wanted for my recovery. It helped me to learn what was really important.


My recovery was formed based on a few key decisions. They were:

* Attending long term rehab.
* Adopting a “zero tolerance policy” in early recovery, and sticking to it.
* Choosing an holistic path in recovery, to include things such as exercise and education rather than a strict 12 step focus.

These were the choices that worked for me, though I am sure others have done well using other paths.

Ultimately, I think each individual has to find the path that works for them.


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