My belief is that relapse prevention is based on a daily holistic approach to addiction and alcoholism recovery.
Much has been said, written, and suggested when it comes to relapse prevention, but how much of it actually works for people and can be applied in a specific way on a day to day basis?
In some ways it is very difficult to advise people on long term recovery, because quite honestly each person’s path will be a bit unique. That is not a cop out either, as I have several peers in recovery who have made it past the 10 year sobriety mark and none of us seem to be following the exact same “blueprint” for recovery. To me that speaks to a need for a holistic approach as much as anything else does.
Traditional relapse prevention and why it fails for most people
If you go to a traditional rehab center that is based on either the 12 step model or a religious program of some sort then the suggestions for relapse prevention are generally going to be pretty similar. They will urge you to go to aftercare, to follow up with meetings, to connect with your peers, to seek out sponsorship or mentors, to study the literature, and so on. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the fundamentals so to speak, but at some point your recovery is going to demand more from you.
There comes a point in recovery where you may realize that you are just going through the motions. Maybe you are sitting in meetings every day and you start resent them a bit. Or perhaps you have gone through the steps and you try to apply them in your daily life but you still fell like something is missing.
In such cases you may find the answers that you need by doubling down on whatever program got you clean and sober. That is, if you find yourself drifting in recovery or like your sobriety may be slipping out of your grasp, you may just double up on your meetings or switch sponsors or dive into the literature all over again. These ideas may or may not save you.
I only know this much: They were not going to save me. That is what I realized when I was somewhere around the 18 month point of my sobriety and I was still observing people and learning about what really works in recovery. I was starting to see that just hammering on the basics over and over again was not a sure bet to long term sobriety. It was working for some but it was really just a very select few. It kind of worked for others but I was not liking the results that I was observing with my own eyes. It was not enough for me to say “yes, AA is my solution and I will double down on that effort, refocusing on the daily meetings, sponsorship, the literature, etc.”
Instead I went a different way. I decided to dive into what was actually working for me and what I saw working for “the winners” in recovery. Most of those people were in AA and NA but that did not mean that everything good in their life was a direct result of the 12 step principles. In fact when I started talking to “the winners” and diving deeper into their daily lives I was learning that what they were really doing on a day to day basis had almost nothing to do with AA and NA, save for the occasional meeting.
I guess that I had this belief that if someone was in AA or NA and they were really going to make it work in the long run then they would have to dedicate their life to the program each and every day for the rest of eternity. Like they would be engaged in the program concepts and principles each and every day, going to meetings every day, and heavily involved with it all on a consistent basis. But when I started talking to people who I considered to be the “winners” in AA I found that this was not necessarily true. These people were doing all sorts of things that were enhancing their sobriety outside of AA, yet they mysteriously seemed to keep giving AA all of the credit.
I was mystified by this but I was not deterred. I though to myself: “Why not just take the best concepts and principles of recovery that are actually working for people and cherry pick them for my own recovery?” So that is what I started to do as I moved further and further away from the dogmatic 12 step model.
What I noticed as I made this transition from “Sit down, shut up, and do what we tell you to do” to my own personal journey of self discovery in sobriety was this:
Traditional relapse prevention was a sham. It didn’t work. Or if it did, I worked so poorly that I was not willing to stake my own sobriety on this collection of tactics that conventional wisdom had thrown together.
In other words, I was busy watching my peers in recovery during my first 18 months of sobriety, and I was not happy with what I was seeing in terms of relapse and success. My confidence in the traditional path grew weaker with each passing month. More and more evidence piled up that AA was not this bullet proof solution that I had hoped it was. It seemed more and more possible that I might want to bet on my own ideas instead (keeping in mind that I had already achieved some amount of stability in my life through surrender and willingness).
Traditional relapse prevention is a mish-mash of tactics and suggestions, such as:
* Call your sponsor if you feel like drinking.
* Go to a meeting if you feel like drinking.
* Use the phone numbers from your peers if you feel like drinking.
And so on. You get the idea. Basically you REACT. First you must identify that you are being triggered to want to drink, then you have to react to that trigger and prevent it from happening. They suggest that you do this in a reactionary way by reaching out for help. This is really, really hard for most people to do. Asking for help from others is tough. And showing weakness (by admitting that you want to drink) is very difficult for most people to do as well.
I don’t have hard numbers for this in front of me but the results tend to speak for themselves. Traditional relapse prevention does not work all that well.
How to do relapse prevention the right way
So if traditional relapse prevention is a sham, then what is my alternative?
It does no good to shoot something down (especially something that is trying to help) unless you offer some sort of alternative, right?
My alternative is to flip the idea of relapse prevention around and start using a proactive strategy rather than the usual reactionary tactics.
This is an important point. Instead of a list of tactics for preventing relapse (which most alcoholics will not even remember when they are in an emotional state on the brink of relapse), we need to teach a different method that can proactively prevent these sort of situations in the first place.
The way to do this is proactively.
That means that you are taking action each every single day so that the chance of relapse is greatly reduced before the opportunity even arises.
The traditional method is to wait for the craving, then try to deal with it by going to a meeting, calling a sponsor, or whatever.
We want to prevent it before it even starts.
This is possible and I have done it. No, I am doing it. Each and every day.
The key is to take a proactive approach and reduce your triggers down to zero before they ever occur. This is not an easy process and it cannot be accomplished during a single weekend, for example. It takes work and effort. You will have to get honest with yourself and be uncomfortable at times. You have explore the depths of your issues and figure out what sets you off and learn how to overcome it.
There are two concepts to implement here:
1) First is the incremental improvement in your life. You must improve your life internally (self pity, resentment, shame, all that crap on the inside) and you must also improve your life externally (your life situation, all of the external forces of stress and negativity, you must change people, places, and things, etc.).
2) Second is after you are engaging in the above process of personal growth (incremental life improvement) you must also engage in the process of personal growth on a daily basis. Yes, this means every single day of your life. The idea is to establish healthy habits and a daily practice that leads you to the life that you want to be living. You become what you do every day. Your life is the total of your choices you have made in the past. So every day is an opportunity to steer the boat.
Change and improve your life, and engage in positive action every single day.
This is the formula for proactive relapse prevention. And if you are actively “working it” (as they like to say in traditional recovery programs) then you will blow the old method of relapse prevention out of the water. Trust me, when your life is getting better and better every day and you are pushing yourself for more and more growth, things will start to multiply down the road. Blessings and abundance from all directions.
This is how to approach relapse prevention the right way.
Or you can go back to a list of reactionary tactics, like calling your sponsor after you are sitting in a bar and suddenly realize that you are on the brink of relapse (like anyone is even going to pick up their phone at that point? C’mon….).
But what positive actions do I take? What habits do I try to form?
So you are probably wondering how to take positive action every day, and what actions to take, right?
I mean, if proactively preventing relapse is so easy, then just give me a list of actions to take here already!
It may not be that simple. For example, I am a distance runner and that running is a huge part of my daily practice in recovery. Obviously this is not going to be true for everyone in recovery, nor would I expect it to be.
But that does not mean that everyone in recovery cannot benefit from improving their physical health as part of their journey.
The key is “holistic health”–as in, the whole person. Your whole body–mind, spirit, emotions, social connections, and so on. This is what the holistic approach is all about.
The way this works in real life is that you must pay attention to your WHOLE self. Not just the spirituality (which they tend to narrowly focus on in most recovery programs).
So in order to use this holistic approach on a daily basis you have to listen to your body (and evaluate your life in general) and be able to take corrective action.
Maybe you exercise every day but you have a toxic relationship that is dragging you down. Or maybe your relationships are great with other people but you have drifted away from your spiritual center for too long. There is no list of action items here because you will need to evaluate your own life and then take corrective action.
I did this over and over again, especially in my early recovery journey. I noticed that I still had some negative stuff in my life, so it became a priority to fix it. For example I still smoked cigarettes for the first few years of my sobriety. Eventually I could not ignore the fact that this was holding me back in certain ways and dragging me down. So I had to address it (and quit).
If you want to know what habits to form in order to prevent relapse, you can either:
1) Evaluate your own life and correct the negativity in it. Focus on one goal at a time and keep searching for more things to fix. Incremental growth and improvement.
2) Seek advice and feedback from others that you trust (such as a sponsor) so that they can tell you what you should be doing in your life. These suggestions have more value than what you probably believe at first. In trying them you can then reject them or use them for the long haul. But either way you learn something valuable when you take suggestions from others. And they can help you see things in yourself that you might miss on your own.
If you do not know how to live your life then simply ask others. Trust me, they will tell you! They may not be “right” but you can at least test their ideas, see if they benefit you, and then move on to try other ideas later. This may sound like a lame way to live but it is actually incredibly powerful. And on top of that it is light years ahead of the kind of progress you were (not) making when you were stuck in addiction. Trust me, if you seek feedback and advice and keep acting on it then your life WILL get better and better over time.
Learning and growing and evolving over time in recovery
The nice thing about this strategy of relapse prevention (personal growth + daily practice) is that you get the side benefits of a constantly improving life.
If you hang around traditional recovery long enough you will realize that many recovering alcoholics are “treading water.” They are not really growing in their recovery any more and on the other hand they have not relapsed either. Maybe they will never relapse, but also they will not really make much more growth, either. Kind of sad. In some cases it might even benefit someone who would relapse and then go back to recovery later and get back on a path that is growth based instead. Becoming complacent is no fun at all, and it is a very tricky trap because it is so hard to see it for yourself. Complacency is a condition that tells us that we are not actually complacent (just like alcoholism tries to convince us that we are not alcoholic).
So how can we overcome complacency if we cannot even detect it for ourselves? (Until it is too late?)
Overcome complacency in the long run by challenging yourself to keep improving your life
The way to beat complacency is to live in such a way as to leave it in the dust.
Complacency is a lack of personal growth. When you stop learning and stop growing (same thing really) you are in danger of becoming complacent. Depending on who is measuring you may already be complacent, and it is just a matter of time until you might relapse. At the very least you are not going to be making any more strides of personal growth when you are stuck in complacency.
So how do you beat it?
Go back and read the formula above for proactive relapse prevention. That is the method for beating complacency as well. In order to prevent relapse that you cannot see coming, you have to make sure that you are taking positive action every single day.
Because you don’t know when you could be tempted, or by what route.
Your addiction could sneak up on you in any different number of potential ways. I have watched it happen before to so many peers of mine in recovery.
Just as an example, a close friend of mine fell ill. This did not cause him to relapse immediately. Nor did it cause him to relapse directly. But after a prolonged battle with a particular illness, this person relapsed. And later on he identified the illness as playing a major role in this. And of course the lesson here for him was that this illness was something that could have been prevented with a holistic approach. Taking care of yourself, sleeping well, eating healthy, exercising, lowering stress, quitting smoking, and so on. Had he been doing all of those things (he admits that he was doing NONE of them, actually) then he may not have fell ill at all. And therefore he might have pulled himself out of this potential relapse instead of giving in to it.
What did he do wrong?
The daily practice. At the time he was practicing a spiritual life, or so he believed. I believed that he was very spiritual as well. This is what confused me so much when he relapsed. It shook me to the core because at the time (around 1 year sober for me) I was convinced that it was all about spirituality. I was wrong, and his example helped prove that to me. His holistic health is what had the power to keep him healthy and sober, but he ended up relapsing because he failed to his a holistic approach.
The formula for long term success is:
1) Personal growth +
2) Daily practice.
Evaluate, take action.
Evaluate, seek feedback, take action.
Take suggestions, implement advice, evaluate results.
Find the habits that work for you. Make them a part of your daily practice.
You become what you do every day. Therefore if you want to build a life of sobriety, you need to choose healthy habits.
Find them and make them your own. This is how to become a living example of relapse prevention, in action.