Yesterday we looked at how taking massive action can help you to stay inspired in recovery. Today we are going to look at an extension of that idea and consider how the threat of complacency can be overcome in long term recovery.
Why the default in recovery is to relapse
Every addict and alcoholic who attempts to get clean and sober is stuck in a trap–they are stuck in a cycle of drug or alcohol abuse. Their default response to the world and everything in it is to self medicate with drugs and alcohol.
True alcoholics and drug addicts did not really need an excuse to indulge in their drug of choice. They used for any or every reason you could think of. Things going bad lately? Let’s get drunk/high. Need to celebrate something good? Let’s get drunk/high. Typically when they are early in their addiction they are sort of playing with these “excuses” to over indulge in their drug of choice, but at some point when their disease is fully developed they have to sort of drop the idea that they are celebrating every single day. Some may turn sour with extreme denial and maintain the idea that “if you had my problems, you would use drugs/alcohol too!” Of course this is just another excuse and it works well for the addict or alcoholic because they can always use it no matter how badly they screw their life up with due to their addiction. Denial is used to separate the misery from their addiction, so that the addict does not allow themselves to realize that their addiction is what is making them miserable. Their denial convinces them that using their drug of choice is the only tiny shred of happiness that they get anymore in life, and if you took that high away then they would be 100 percent miserable all of the time. In fact they have this quite backwards but this is besides the point; the point is that they are miserable and they are stuck in denial and they believe that the only happiness that they can ever have in life comes from their drug of choice.
So over years or even decades this pattern of abuse leads to a very established pattern, one which becomes “the default.” This is now the default behavior of the addict or alcoholic, which is that they will use their drug of choice in order to deal with life. Name your excuse–good or bad, it doesn’t matter, and the addict or alcoholic needs to use their drug of choice in order to deal with it and feel comfortable.
Lost a job? They want to get drunk/high. Nice day out today? They will feel best if they can get drunk/high. Friends or family out of town for a while? The addict wants to self medicate.
Every situation in life has become an excuse to use or self medicate. Even just waking up and going through an everyday routine will require some addicts and alcoholics to self medicate.
So when someone says to an alcoholic or an addict: “Just don’t drink or use drugs anymore, how hard is that?” it can be a little ridiculous.
The addict or alcoholic can say back to this: “Well yes, that makes sense….don’t put any more chemicals into my body. Sure. But then how I am supposed to make toast?”
It’s not the making of toast that is the problem here…..it’s the fact that the typical addict or alcoholic has defined their entire life with their addiction, and they expect to self medicate in nearly every situation. This points to the real challenge of recovery and what the struggling alcoholic or addict is truly facing: that they must learn how to live again.
In popular recovery programs they call this “learning how to live on life’s terms.” When we lived on our own terms in active addiction, our solution was always the same thing: let’s get drunk/high. In recovery we have deliberately removed this solution from our bag of tricks and so therefore nearly everything in our lives becomes a challenge once again.
Showing up for work totally clean and sober? Totally foreign.
Watching a movie without getting smashed? Really weird.
Feeling emotions without covering them up with chemicals? Horribly awkward.
This list of examples could stretch out to several miles long, because our lives are quite varied, and our addiction affected us so deeply.
And this is what makes recovery so difficult–it is not just a single decision to quit using chemicals–instead it is a million tiny decisions each and every day to do something different in your life, when the default used to be “let’s get drunk/high.”
That is what the addict is trying to overcome–their default response to life.
For years, they have responded to nearly everything in life with a single solution–getting wasted. It worked for everything (while it still worked).
So in recovery, there is this enormous tendency to remember what this default solution is, and there is also a tendency to want to use this solution all the time.
This is why the idea of “cravings” makes very little sense to some people in early recovery. For them, the entire ride is one big craving! Everything is a trigger! This is because they used their drug of choice for every possible situation in life. So if they were just sitting around and were bored, they would get high. If there was drama in their life, they would get high. So now that they are in recovery, pretty much every possible situation is also a trigger for them. Why sit around and be bored, when we could be getting high? This response is automatic and this is because it has become the default. It has become highly conditioned over time for the addict in question to seek drugs for nearly any given situation.
Now this is very obvious in early recovery because the desire to use drugs is very high at this point. This is why inpatient treatment gives such an advantage, because it can separate you from the threat of relapse for a set period of time (28 days, etc.) and at least give you a chance to get your bearings without relapsing right away.
What is not so obvious to many people is that the threat of relapse continues on forever, and must be dealt with in a very proactive way.
Long term recovery has a huge threat, one that we can label as “complacency,” and if an addict or alcoholic has made it through early recovery and is living a life of sobriety and they end up relapsing at some point, we can be sure that they got lazy and complacent in order for this to have happened.
The reason that complacency is a threat is because the default response is so strong, and may never go away entirely. Remember that the default response to life is to get drunk/high. This is automatic.
In recovery, we try to change that response and use better solutions, and so we can do so and slowly start to shift our response. But this can be a long hard road to overcome, and even after decades of sobriety a person still has that tendency to hit an old situation and have their brain instantly say to them: “Just get high, that’s the solution!”
In other words, we can still be triggered even after decades of successful recovery, and if we are not “on top of our game” so to speak, we are vulnerable to relapse.
We know this is possible because we have witnessed hundreds of people who have relapsed after having multiple years (or even decades) of sober time.
And in nearly every example where someone like this has relapsed, they try to explain what happened and why they fell back into their drug of choice, and the answer is always along the lines of “I got complacent.”
They may say that they “stopped going to meetings” or that they “stopped doing what they needed to do” or that they “drifted away from their program of recovery” but it all points to the same idea: they got complacent. They stopped taking positive action in order to maintain recovery.
Therefore we have a clear task in long term recovery: we have to find a way to keep taking positive action. If we fail to do this for a long enough period of time, we will relapse and our lives will fall apart again.
In order to be successful with this we have to have a “proactive approach” to overcoming complacency rather than a reactive approach. There is a very important reason for this.
Why a proactive approach to beating complacency is the only one that works
If you are in recovery from addiction and you decide that you are going to deal with any new problems as they come up, and not try to think about any potential problems in advance, this may work out for a while. You will be living a reactive life, one where you experience certain problems and then attempt to scramble to come up with a solution for them. No worries, right? If a problem comes up then you can just deal with it then.
The problem with this approach in addiction recovery is that “the problem” of relapse can nearly destroy your entire life, and may possibly kill you.
The second issue with this reactive approach is that relapse is subtle and is triggered well in advance. In other words, you relapse before you actually pick up the drink or the drug, and seldom realize it or care at this point.
In other words, people who relapse in recovery have had it brewing in them for quite some time. They don’t just snap one day and decide to drink or use drugs. Instead, the relapse builds over time. They can look back and realize that, as they were triggered more and more in their life, they somehow made a decision to stop handling or dealing with it so well, and this allowed the problem to just keep compounding. It is almost like they made an unconscious decision to handle their stress poorly, because they knew it would keep building and building until they had their excuse to go relapse. This can take place over weeks or months before it actually results in a physical relapse.
The key though is that no one can realize when they are in this state of mind. No one who has slipped into this “relapse mode” can really become aware of it and correct their own course, not in any sort of reactive way. They are too close to their own problem to realize that they are sabotaging their recovery.
What they need to do is to deal with their stress and their problems, but instead they are overwhelmed and headed toward relapse. Nothing can help them because in fact they “snapped” a while back and the actual relapse is inevitable at this point, they just haven’t picked up the drink or the drug yet. They may not realize it fully, but what they are doing is biding their time and letting the chaos and stress build up in their life so that they can feel justified when they finally pick up their drug of choice again.
This is the reactive way to live. The person is letting stress, chaos, and life events that are beyond their control dictate their recovery.
Such a person has assumed that they can deal with problems as they arise in recovery, rather than having to try to use any sort of proactive approach instead.
The only way to avoid this reactive way of living in recovery is to instead shift to a more proactive approach.
This means that instead of letting problems arise and dictate your reactions, you are going to plan in advance to take positive action instead, so that you are better equipped to handle stress and adversity in the future.
Think of this proactive approach in recovery as “building a buffer against relapse.” You are going to be taking positive actions in your life in order to build this buffer zone against the threat of relapse. The alternative is to simply let relapse sneak up on you in recovery and then hope that you can somehow deal with it at the last moment before it ruins your life.
How to be proactive in addiction recovery
So how do you build a buffer against relapse?
How do you take proactive action in your recovery that can protect against relapse?
How can you avoid complacency through a deliberate course of action?
In my opinion the key is that you must keep changing, keep growing, and keep challenging yourself.
Change is key.
Consider the fact that a person in long term recovery may think to themselves:
“I know! If I am working with other addicts in recovery, that will help protect me from relapse. Therefore I will chair this meeting every Tuesday, and also work with this sponsee of mine on a regular basis. That will help me to stay clean and sober and I can avoid being complacent.”
Now consider the fact that many people following such a path have relapsed after several years or even decades of recovery.
Even though the person was taking some positive action in their recovery, it was not enough. They still ended up relapsing even though they were taking positive actions on a regular basis.
What I have come to conclude over the years while observing others in recovery is that we have to do more than this. It is not enough to just get into a rhythm of going to meetings, going to a sponsorship meeting once a month, doing a book study every other week, or whatever. This is what defines complacency, actually. You fall into a routine and then you get sort of lazy and before you know it you have become vulnerable to relapse. You get lazy and maybe even a little cocky. You believe that you are already doing “what you need to do” for recovery, and that you are protected from relapse. Such a pattern is highly reactive, even though it involves taking positive action on a regular basis.
The alternative to this is to be proactive by challenging yourself to grow in recovery.
I have this mental picture in my mind when I think of complacency. It is an image of an AA meeting I used to attend years ago in a basement somewhere, and everyone was sitting around this huge square table (about 25 to 30 people) and every single one of them would light up a cigarette after the readings and the meeting started. Because there was a non smoking meeting upstairs, everyone down here was a smoker (obviously I was still a smoker at the time!). Many of these people had been attending this exact meeting in this exact basement for over a decade straight, coming nearly every day. And right after the readings finish and the meeting starts, about 90 percent of these people all light up a cigarette in unison.
Now I realize I am sort of painting a negative picture here due to the cigarette smoking, but still. (The cigarette smoking is part of the complacency though!)
Looking back now, that mental image just sort of smacks me in the face. If I could go back to that meeting and to myself at that time, I would slap me in the face and say “wake up! Get out of this dungeon and go find your next challenge. Go grab life by the tail! Go create something amazing! And quit smoking already!”
I am lucky enough to say that at some point, I did exactly that. I took my own (future) advice and I started pursuing personal growth as a recovery strategy.
This is different than simply taking positive actions. I could have kept going in AA and attending meetings like that every day and talking about my problems and so on. But instead I decided to get proactive. I started by setting a single goal and then tackling it with all of my energy.
I realized that when I left AA that I was being pinned as someone who was destined to relapse, and this terrified me. I have never been one to defy conventional wisdom and come out ahead while doing so…my track record in that department is not good.
So in response to this idea, I decided to kick my recovery into high gear and really push myself to make positive changes. Not just to take positive action (attend meetings, work with newcomers in recovery, talk with sponsor, etc.) but to actually challenge myself to grow (quit smoking, start exercising, build a business, etc.).
This turned out to be the best path for me, and I continue on this same path today, over ten years later.
Meanwhile, many of my friends who stuck with the traditional recovery path have since relapsed. In fact, all but about two of them have relapsed at least once in the last decade.
I attribute my own success in recovery with this idea of a proactive approach to overcoming complacency. It is all about challenging yourself to make personal growth.
Using holistic health as a focal point for future growth
One final idea that I want to put out there is this:
Your personal growth attempts should focus mostly on your health.
In other words, when you are trying to figure out what personal growth challenge you should pursue in your life, start with the idea that you want to improve your overall health.
This can be physical health, emotional health, social health, mental health, etc.
This has the added side effect of boosting your self esteem. If you challenge yourself to pursue greater health in your life (and succeed at it!) then you will naturally feel better about yourself a person.
It is this cycle of challenging yourself to grow and improve that will protect you from relapse in the long run. You avoid complacency by constantly seeking new challenges and ways to improve your life.