Recovering Alcoholics Who Relapse Fail to Commit Fully to Total Abstinence

Recovering Alcoholics Who Relapse Fail to Commit Fully to Total Abstinence


Another reason that addicts and alcoholics typically relapse is because they fail to commit to 100 percent total abstinence.

This may sound like an obvious truth, but it needs special emphasis here because there is so much “wisdom” and advice thrown around traditional recovery that many people lose sight of this simple truth.

Ask yourself: “What is the most important thing in your recovery?”

If you go to a dozen AA meetings in dozen different cities you will likely here at least a hundred different answers to this question (what is the most important thing in your recovery?).

If you actually go do this experiment you are going to hear people answer with things like:

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* My higher power.
* Working the steps of AA or NA.
* My sponsor and the guidance he gives me.
* Going to AA or NA meetings every day
* Staying “plugged in” to the program.
* The big book of AA.
* My religion.
* My faith.

Very rarely will you hear people give this answer, which I believe is much more powerful and useful than all of the other typical answers that people give:

* My commitment to total abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances.

It is so simple that many people overlook it.

But I think it is an important concept because when I first got clean and sober, I saw direct evidence that many people did not follow this advice. They put all sorts of things in front of their abstinence in terms of importance. Their intentions were good but they had their priorities mixed up.

If you go to AA and NA meetings and immerse yourself fully in “traditional” recovery you will find that almost no one puts this sort of emphasis on total and complete abstinence. Sure, it is always implied in some sort of vague assumption, but no one seems to give it the full credit that it deserves.

Maybe I just tend to keep things more simple than traditional recovery, but my opinion is that the first step of the 12 step program should be:

“I committed to not drinking alcohol or taking addictive drugs.”

In my opinion that should have been the first step of AA. In reality, in my eleven plus years of sobriety, that has been far more important than the rest of the 12 steps have been. It was sort of “the forgotten step” that no one told me about, and I had to figure it out for myself.

I managed to figure this out within the first year or so of my recovery by watching other people relapse.

I just wish someone would have sat me down at my first AA meeting and said “look, dude, ignore most of this other stuff people are yammering on about, and just make sure that you focus 100 percent on staying totally abstinent from all addictive drugs and alcohol. You will figure out the rest as you go along. But never forget the importance of maintaining perfect abstinence.”

Learning from other people’s mistakes

As I said I watched a lot of people relapse in early recovery. Many of these people were focusing on the wrong thing and none of them talked seriously about the idea that total abstinence is the most important thing by far.

The reason that this was so enlightening for me over time was because I looked up to many of these people in the meetings because I thought they had all the answers. Many of them had multiple years of sobriety and this was something that I looked up to. If they could maintain sobriety for several years on end then they had what I wanted, they knew how to accomplish something that I really wanted to learn for myself.

Therefore I put certain people on a pedestal in recovery, so to speak. If they were smooth talkers in AA or NA meetings and they had several years clean and sober then I tended to listen very closely to what they had to say in meetings. I could not help myself; they had the result that I wanted (long term sobriety) and what they were saying sounded intelligent and seemed to make a lot of sense to me at the time. So I could not help myself but to take what they were saying to heart.

Needless to say, this turned out to be a shocking experience when such people would then relapse suddenly. At first this happened to someone that I admired and respected in AA and I sort of dismissed it as a fluke. But as I continued on in my own recovery I could not help but notice that more and more of these “role models” of mine were all relapsing. It happened more and more and no one seemed to be immune to it.

After a certain point I was confronted with the reality that just talking a good game in AA meetings was not the secret to a successful recovery. To be honest I really thought that it was in the first year of my recovery because the people who I looked up to in AA all had lots of clean time and they seemed to have a good message when they spoke. I thought that this was therefore my goal, to keep attending AA, to learn how to give a good speech and share openly and honestly in the meetings, and this would then lead me to have a good recovery.

So what I had discovered via watching some of these “winners” relapse was that just talking the talk was clearly not enough. Nor was it even necessary. This was the shocking discovery that led to my own little “revolution” in recovery. Eventually I would sort of break away from traditional recovery values and forge my own path in recovery, and that path has carried me to over a decade of continuous recovery now. But in the beginning I was still trying to figure everything out and to find my own path in recovery, and it was very tricky because so many people were cautioning against “doing your own thing in recovery.” This was heralded as a recipe for death and relapse.

After watching several of my role models in recovery relapse over the first two years of my journey, I learned something very valuable: the only thing that mattered was my own abstinence from drugs and alcohol. This had to be my number one value in life and I could not afford to become confused about what my primary focus was.

Secretly I made an internal commitment to my own recovery. Secretly, I told people what they wanted to hear while I told myself that the only thing that really mattered was that I not use a drink or a drug today.

This was nothing new or inventive really, it was just a shift in priority that no one really told me about. No one told me to focus on physical abstinence from drugs as my highest value above all other things in life. But that is the decision that I had to make for myself and that was the internal, mental commitment that I had to make.

As I watched others relapse in recovery, in nearly every case I could say “that person lost sight of their priorities. They put something higher on their list of values other than physical abstinence. How foolish of them….”

Abstinence or spirituality?

What is the most important thing in your life today? If you are recovering from drug or alcohol addiction, your answer should be “sobriety.”

Physical abstinence from mood and mind altering substances needs to be the thing that you value the MOST in life. It should become your highest value.

I can remember one close friend that I had in early recovery who inspired awe and admiration from me because he was so spiritual. We had a lot of discussions about spirituality and in how to live a spiritual life. He was older than I was, more experienced in many ways, and his spiritual knowledge had me captivated. Plus, he was a nice guy in general and very smart as well. Great sense of humor too.

Well, after we moved on and parted ways from the long term treatment center, I later found out that he had relapsed. It was a subtle thing that happened in my mind and I do not even think that I thought about it consciously at the time, but at some point I made the connection:

“Hey wait a minute….I thought it was all about spiritual growth and the spiritual experience. How did this friend of mine end up relapsing, when he was clearly much more spiritual than I was?”

I think a lot of it has to do with how we define “spiritual.”

A lot of people pay lip service to the idea that they are truly open minded about what spirituality really is, but when you get right down to it, they have a closed mind. People tend to think of spirituality along relatively rigid lines, such as in terms of higher powers, how you interact with a higher power (prayer, meditation, traditions, etc.), and so on. People also tend to look heavily to their past to help define what exactly is “spiritual” and what is not.

What I found in my own recovery journey is that spiritual growth found me in the most unusual ways. For example, one of the biggest leaps that I made spiritually was through meditation, and that meditation was part of regular exercise. Running, to be exact. Many people who claim to be spiritually open would never think of such a possibility, but regular exercise has become a cornerstone of my recovery today.

The surprising thing to me is how spiritual it turned out to be. I never would have suspected that running long distances on a regular basis could be part of a spiritual experience. I never would have guessed that this habit would help to keep me more emotionally centered than any sort of therapy I had encountered in the past. I just took the advice of my father and started running, just to run. For the health of it, so to speak. For the physical benefits. But it absolutely had a transforming effect on me both emotionally and spiritually as well.

For me, physical abstinence set the foundation for me to find a real, sustainable spiritual experience in my life….not this hollow make believe spirituality that seemed to be causing my friends in recovery to relapse.

People relapse when they stop valuing their sobriety

There is a saying in recovery circles that rings true to me:

“Whatever you put in front of your recovery you are going to lose.”

What does this saying mean?

It means that if you put something in your life in front of your recovery (in terms of priorities) then you are eventually going to screw up your recovery, and in doing so you will ultimately lose whatever it is that you were trying to put in front of your recovery anyway.

So if you put a new relationship in front of your sobriety, then (the saying goes) that you will eventually lose your sobriety and then subsequently lose your relationship as well.

Although I am not usually one to endorse many of the cliches and sayings that are taught as conventional wisdom in traditional recovery circles, I have to agree that this one seems to hold true for the most part.

You have to put your sobriety first. Physical abstinence has to be the most important thing in your life, period. If it is not then you will eventually relapse and in turn you will lose everything.

People who end up in rehab after hitting rock bottom have lost everything. Not everyone who checks into treatment are at this point, but many people are. They have lost everything and they feel like they have nothing left to live for. They have lost possessions, they have lost their place to live, they have lost vehicles, they have lost the trust of people they loved, they have lost relationships, and they have lost their self esteem. What’s worse, many people who have hit bottom tend to leave most of this stuff all the same time, and it all sort of hits them after they finally check into rehab and let their world stop spinning for a moment.

So then in recovery, as you stay clean and sober and start to accumulate success and build healthy self esteem, you start to value your sobriety and your life again. After losing everything to addiction, you start to rebuild your life from scratch and you start to experience positive things once more.

Obviously, your sobriety, your abstinence from drugs and alcohol has a certain value to you. It has led you to all of these other positive experiences.

But over time so many people start to drift. They point to other things that have value, and they mistake the forest for the trees. They point to programs, spiritual traditions, religious experiences, and so on that they place enormous value on. They find a new relationship in recovery, maybe even a very positive and healthy relationship, and they put enormous value on that. They start accumulating positive things in their lives and they forget what the most important thing is, the one value that they have that holds it all together: abstinence from drugs and alcohol.

A recovering addict or alcoholic who is completely grateful for sobriety itself is unlikely to relapse.

Someone who values their sobriety above all other things in life is unlikely to relapse.

It is only when we start placing other things above our abstinence that we get into trouble. It only when we stop putting abstinence as our highest value that we become vulnerable to relapse.

How to keep your sobriety as your highest value in life

The key is to make sure that you value your sobriety and your physical abstinence more so than anything else in your life.

There are several ways to go about doing this and helping to make sure that you keep this priority straight in your life:

* Make a mental commitment with yourself that you will not allow yourself to fantasize or romanticize about the idea of using drugs or alcohol. If you have a drinking dream, simply dismiss it. If you are daydreaming about using drugs or alcohol, shut it down the second you notice it. Do not allow yourself the “luxury” of thinking about what it would be like to get high, drunk, or use drugs or alcohol.

* Use negative visualization. Do not worry that this will make you miserable by dwelling on how things might be worse. It won’t! If you remind yourself periodically that you could still be stuck in your addiction, and visualize just how bad it could have become for you by now, then you will be grateful for the progress you have made in recovery thus far.

Many people believe that using negative visualization will make them depressed or miserable. This is not the case. Try it a few times and you will see that it helps shift your mindset to one of gratitude.

The bottom line is that if you fail to commit to total physical abstinence from all mood and mind altering drugs then at some point you will probably be challenged in your recovery (face temptation) and end up relapsing. The best way to prevent this is to hold physical abstinence as your absolute highest truth in life and your number one priority. Keep in mind just how bad things can get if you fail to remain sober and how quickly your life will revert back to the madness, chaos, and misery of addiction.


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