Maintaining Sobriety is a Recovery Process that Evolves Over Time

Maintaining Sobriety is a Recovery Process that Evolves Over Time


We have firmly established that recovery from addiction and alcoholism a process, not an event.

Attending rehab may be a great starting point but it is far from being an actual cure.

Many people in recovery understand the idea that it is an ongoing process.

But how many people in recovery realize that the tactics can (and should) change over time?

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That what they do to stay clean at 30 days of sobriety will differ from what they do at 3 years of sobriety….and these will both differ from what they do to stay sober at 13 years of recovery.

Sometimes people beat themselves up because they may drift away from meetings or stray away from “the basics” of recovery.

Don’t kid yourself though–your learning process is meant to evolve and change in recovery. What you do at 30 days clean should be very different from what you do at ten years sober. Accept this idea and then forgive yourself and keep taking positive action.

Recovery tactics for very early recovery

When people are first getting clean and sober, they need to use certain tactics in order to be successful in early recovery.

I would argue that these tactics are fairly universal. This is why most rehabs and treatment centers are set up pretty much the same, especially when it comes to the detox process and the basic layout and the rules and such. Every addict and alcoholic pretty much has to go through the same exact process in order to try to get clean and sober and get started on the recovery journey.

You want to detox the body physically from all mood and mind altering substances. You want to put the addict in a safe environment where they will not be tempted to relapse, so no drugs or alcohol can be accessible. And of course you want to keep the person medically stable and as comfortable as possible.

Therefore every detox unit in every rehab uses much of the same basic setup. There is not much deviation because the procedure is very similar for nearly every addict and alcoholic.

This gives us a hint at the process of very early recovery. The tactics for detox are going to be pretty much universal. Likewise, the tactics for getting people through the first 28 days of their recovery are going to be similar as well. Put them in a controlled environment so there is no access to drugs or booze, have them attend groups and lectures so that they can learn about the recovery process, expose them to 12 step meetings so that they have a support system for after they leave treatment, and so on.

Typically short term rehabs attempt to teach and educate the recovering addict and alcoholic a variety of tactics for staying clean and sober. Obviously the rehab is genuinely trying to help people to maintain their sobriety after they leave treatment. This is the whole point. So they will teach things such as “relapse prevention” and they will strongly encourage participation and involvement in 12 step programs and so on. These are tactical approaches to staying clean and sober in early recovery.

So if you attend 12 step meetings that are full of newcomers you will hear an emphasis on these tactics as being the whole solution to recovery. “If I just keep coming to these meetings then I know I will be OK.” The rehabs teach that meeting attendance is critical because they know that if an addict or an alcoholic leaves their treatment center and does not follow up with any meetings at all then their chances of staying clean and sober drop to almost zero.

So perhaps you are in very early recovery and you just got clean and sober within the last year or so and maybe you even left rehab recently. As such, you have some tactics for staying clean and sober and you have some things that you have been told to do in order to prevent relapse and you are going to do them in order to try to maintain your sobriety.

The key point here is that you have to realize that these tactics are going to change over time. “Meeting makers make it” only makes sense for the first year or so. After that you will start to realize that meeting makers actually do relapse, and the real reason for the slogan was to simply give you the support that you needed during that first delicate year of sobriety. But when you have six years of sobriety under your belt is your time really best spent at daily meetings, every single day? Probably not, as recovery tactics should change and evolve over time. Rather, what should really happen is that you should eventually trade in your recovery tactics from early recovery for more of a life strategy that you adopt in long term sobriety.

Recovery tactics for transitioning to long term sobriety

Early recovery is all about support. You need overwhelming amounts of support because you are constantly questioning yourself and you feel like you are out of your mind and possibly going crazy all at the same time. Early recovery is a struggle and you second guess yourself so you need the support of other people who are making the transition into sobriety with you. You also need to talk to others who have been through the feelings of emotional loss over giving up your drug of choice so that you can relate to them and get hope from their success. All of these needs are satisfied fairly well by simply tactics such as “going to lots of 12 step meetings” or “living in long term rehab” etc.

But after you make it through this early stage of recovery, which could be anywhere from three months to about two or three years depending on the person, you will start to transition away from these early recovery tactics.

Or rather, you will notice that you are entering your next phase of growth in recovery. Stable sobriety will have been achieved by now. You are not clinging to your sobriety by a mere thread anymore, fighting tooth and nail just to avoid daily relapse. You are past that stage by now and you are much more stable in your recovery. If a crisis occurs it does not send you into a total panic with overwhelming urges to relapse. You have learned how to deal with life sober, how to cope, and how to draw on support systems if you really need them. This should happen sometime within the first few years of your recovery journey. You are transitioning out of the “very fragile stage of early recovery.”

What does this transitional stage of recovery consist of? In my experience it was all about personal growth and development.

I had gotten to this point in my early recovery where I sort of said “OK, this is all there is, right? I am not missing anything about the recovery journey here, I have the basics down pretty good, I have been sober for over a year now, and I think I get it.”

And then I started to examine what the “winners” in recovery were really doing with their lives, and I noticed that they all had very active lives of real growth outside of AA and NA. They were people who pushed themselves to make real growth in their life outside of recovery. Thus they did not necessarily depend on sitting in 12 step meetings every day just to maintain their sobriety. They were creating their own recovery and this awesome life experience outside of recovery.

How were they doing this? By challenging themselves to grow, to smash bad habits, to achieve positive goals, and so on. They were really living life, the way it was meant to be lived, by pushing themselves to achieve meaningful things outside of the AA fellowship. Of course this strengthened their recovery a great deal because then they could share about their achievements and their personal growth in AA meetings as well.

So I personally got to this point in my early recovery and I said to myself “going to meetings every day has been helpful, but as a recovery tactic, there has to be more to life than this.” I don’t know if I actually put that thought process into words or not, but I realized that I did not just want to depend on coming to a daily meeting every day just to maintain my recovery. And I realized that these “winners” in the AA meetings were not really depending on the meetings for their recovery, these people really “had it going on,” as they were pursuing positive growth experiences outside in their everyday lives, outside of AA, and therefore they were not really dependent on AA as the core of their recovery.

I wanted what these people had, I wanted this “stronger” version of recovery, this more self reliant version of recovery, and at the same time I wanted to reduce my dependency on the fellowship and on the daily meetings.

I saw so many people in early recovery who got addicted to meetings, they fell into this pattern where they went to meetings every single day and if they missed a meeting they felt like they were in danger of relapsing. And the scary thing was that these people would talk about this meeting dependence as if it were a good thing. They would say “these meetings are like my medicine, I can’t afford to miss any of these meetings or it is like a diabetic not taking their insulin, these meetings keep me alive” and so on.

And so I started to transition away from early recovery tactics in my own life. This was very difficult to do for two main reasons:

1) I did not have the self confidence to know for certain that what I was doing was the right thing. I refused to be cocky or arrogant about my ideas in recovery and I was so nervous that I was going to relapse if I deviated from what people had told me to do in my recovery journey. So it took me a few years to really make this transition because I lacked the confidence to know that I was on the right path.

2) People in AA and NA preached constantly about the importance of continuing daily meeting attendance forever. They were constantly saying that people who drifted away from meetings would relapse and die. As I started to drift away from the meetings, people in the program who knew me begged me to come back, “What is going on with you lately?” etc. This made it very difficult to try to reduce the dependency on meetings and find a new path in recovery. It also made it tough to build the self confidence necessary to make the transition, as I was always second guessing myself.

In the end, I made the transition anyway–away from daily meeting dependency to self motivated personal growth.

The reason that I was able to do this was because I could not accept the absurdity of sitting in AA meetings and hearing the same stuff over and over again, when I could be spending that time engaged in some form of personal growth for myself.

As I started to push myself away from meetings and was exploring personal growth on my own, I still attempted to go back and hit a few meetings here and there. When I did I could not help but realize that it was a total waste of my time. I was no longer getting anything new out of the meetings. I had learned what these people had to offer me. I am a quick study and I learn fast and I had already gone to about 500 meetings in my first 500 days of recovery. Things had started to repeat long ago and it was very rare that I picked up something new that would actually help me in my recovery.

On the flip side, I was exploring personal growth and development as an alternative path in recovery, and I was making new connections and making some huge strides in my recovery based on these new activities. For example, starting a recovery website and connecting with people in the online format was unique and refreshing compared to the grind of daily meetings that I was used to.

And I started to realize while watching many of my friends and peers in recovery that many of them were relapsing. In fact almost all of them relapsed and it made me think of the “winners” that I had observed in recovery that seemed to have lots of personal growth outside of AA.

And so I knew what the answer was and I knew what I needed to do. I had to push myself to grow outside of AA. I was especially motivated to do this because I was so terrified to leave the daily meetings because everyone said that I would surely relapse if I did so.

I am sure that this growth process will differ depending on the person and their personal goals in life. For me, this growth process while leaving the dependence of daily AA meetings looked like this:

* Quit smoking cigarettes.
* Start exercising and getting into shape.
* Finish up a college degree.
* Start a successful business.

Those were my goals and those were the things that I pushed myself to achieve so that I would not just be sitting around watching television and waiting to relapse. I made this transitional leap right around the 18 month or two year mark of my recovery journey, and I now have over eleven years of continuous sobriety.

My current belief and my current understanding is that a person could start on this path of personal growth while continuing to attend AA or NA meetings. I personally wanted to break my dependence on the meetings entirely and so that was part of my goal. But I see nothing wrong with someone who wants the best of both of these worlds, and indeed that is what I see as being the “winners” who have been attending 12 step meetings for multiple years and who have a great message of recovery. Those are the people who are doing both of these strategies, they are attending meetings regularly but they are also doing what I am suggesting here: they are pursuing personal growth and development outside of AA as well. Those are the real “winners” in AA and if you want to keep attending meetings you could certainly do so.

For my purposes, meetings were an “early recovery tactic” that offered massive amounts of support and I did not see that as being critical to my continued success in recovery. In fact I saw many people relapse after a year or two of sobriety who seemed to be depending on the meetings. I am not suggesting that everyone needs to leave AA or NA meetings eventually, only that the dependence on them seemed to be holding me back in my own recovery. I had to find a way to push myself to grow outside of AA, and the only way I could really do that was to leave the daily meetings. That was just what I had to do, your path may be different. It may include long term AA involvement, and if so that is fine. The question is: “Are you still growing in your recovery, or are you stuck?”

Living in long term sobriety requires strategy, not tactics

As I am indicating here in the discussion, the focus in long term sobriety is less on the tactics (meetings, treatment, support groups, therapy) and more on life strategy (goal achievement, purposeful living, personal growth, etc.).

Once you have established a foundation in your recovery, avoiding relapse is no longer an immediate goal that must be dealt with on a day to day basis like it is when you have 20 days sober.

Sure, it is still possible to relapse in long term recovery, and some people do suffer that fate. But the threat is not as immediate, because now you are established in your sobriety and have some level of stability. A slide into a full blown relapse may take months or even years at this point.

Therefore, the individual tactics that you might use for your recovery become far less important, and it is the overall strategy in your life that matters more.

For example, you may have several long term goals in your long term recovery such as:

* Education or career advancement.
* Physical fitness and becoming physically healthier.
* Pursuing better nutrition and healthier eating habits.
* Eliminating additional bad habits such as cigarette smoking.
* Creating something with more meaning or purpose in your life, such as a business or pursuing the creative arts.
* Finding specific outlets for helping people using your unique talents and gifts, and possibly finding a way to get paid to do so.
* Deepening your relationship with your higher power through either introspection or external studies or both.

And so on.

Notice that all of these taken together could be called a “holistic strategy” for recovery rather than just a group of tactics. In fact if you look even more closely you can see that most of these goals compliment and enhance each other rather than working against each other.

This is the “web of goals” idea where your overall strategy in recovery is unified in pushing you towards better health. Pursuing “wellness” or “wholeness” with this sort of holistic approach is not just fancy terminology or jargon, but you are actually pursuing real objectives in the different areas of your life.

When you first get clean and sober, you are not anywhere close to being able to take on that entire list up above. You need to focus on the basics, on the tactics, on hitting meetings and getting enough support to make it through early recovery.

At some point though you need to evolve and start looking at a strategy for life and for recovery.

Thus, the process of staying clean and sober changes over time. What you do at 30 days sober is not what you will do at 3 years sober.

Short term tactics will give way to (hopefully) a holistic strategy towards better health in all areas of your life. This is the path to true success in long term recovery.


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