I have three different points of reference for the first year of sobriety and recovery:
1) I lived through my own first year of sobriety.
2) I lived in a long term rehab facility for 20 months, so I watched many peers close up in this same situation.
3) I worked in a rehab facility for roughly 6 years or so and observed thousands of people during their first year of recovery.
Based on all of this data I feel like I have a pretty decent idea about what it takes to remain clean and sober. The solution is not always obvious to people, that much is for certain, simply based on the typical rate of relapse. This is true in my own situation as well because I went to rehab three times in total, obviously failing 67% of the time! As a side note, I would also point out that I know of many people in recovery today who are clean and sober who had to try three times before finally “getting it.” It seems that three tries is a very popular outcome for recovery. I am not sure that I have ever met anyone in recovery who stayed clean and sober after just one trip to rehab. Seriously!
So let’s dig in and explore the road map to recovery a bit, shall we?
Of course it all starts with surrender, as you may have guessed.
It all starts with surrender
I talk a lot about surrender on this website, because it is sort of like the key that unlocks anything that might be good in the future. No struggling addict or alcoholic can make significant progress in their life without embracing the concept of surrender first. The more they struggle to control their addiction, the more it will consume them. The more they try to fight back against their disease, the stronger their disease will get. You can’t beat it in a one on one fight, you can only beat it if you are willing to surrender and ask for help. Depending on how stubborn you are, it may take you years or possibly decades before you figure this out (that you cannot beat your addiction through sheer force of will by yourself). Some people die before they figure this out.
This has nothing to do with brains. I am convinced that some of the smartest people end up passing away due to their addiction, and it is not because they were too stupid to surrender. The problem is that they were too stubborn. They were not wired the right way. You have to give up in order to “win.” That’s just how it works. And some people are just too stubborn to throw in the towel, so their addiction beats them in the end. The only way to win over addiction is to realize that it is far too strong for you to take on alone, and to ask for help. This is what I had to do eventually in order to get started on a new life in recovery. I had to ask for help and surrender.
When I did that, the people who cared about me told me what to do. They told me to go to rehab and follow directions. Simple as that. So when I had finally reached my breaking point I became willing to try that again. I had already been to rehab in the past but when you finally surrender everything will be different. Because this time you actually be listening and trying to implement what they tell you at rehab. You will be eager to learn a way out of the misery.
If a person has failed to surrender then the only real solution is for that person to endure more misery in addiction. Forcing them to get help doesn’t work. Bribing them to go to rehab doesn’t work. They have to get totally and completely miserable on their own so that they become desperate for change. It is only then that they will be able to build a new life in recovery.
Detox and inpatient rehab is a strong first step
If you are looking for the complete road map to recovery then I suggest that you start with surrender. If you truly surrender and ask for help then it is highly likely that people will steer you towards professional treatment services. They will send you to rehab, detox, or inpatient treatment.
I openly admit and acknowledge that rehab is not a magic bullet. But it is also the best solution that we have for the struggling addict or alcoholic, and the best way for someone to put their strongest foot forward in recovery.
You could try other things. For example, you may sober up on someone’s couch (potentially dangerous) and then just start attending AA meetings every day, as often as possible. I know for a fact that there are people who have achieved sobriety this way. They did not have to attend rehab at all. But on the other hand, they took a lot of risks in doing so that I don’t believe anyone should want to take. You are far better off in a real detox unit and going through a full residential program.
If you go into detox and treatment then you are giving yourself a huge advantage in making it to your first full year sober. While you are in rehab there is no question–you will remain clean and sober. They dry you out, they keep temptations away from you, and they keep you in a protected environment. If you stay in a rehab for 28 days then that is one month where you are insured of your recovery. You don’t even have to try really; once you are in rehab, staying sober is relatively easy. You are protected. You are kept comfortable, for the most part. The real challenge begins when you leave rehab.
So my suggestion to people is to take advantage of inpatient rehab. Go to detox. Go to residential treatment. Stay in rehab for as long as they will let you. This is the strongest first step that you can possibly take in recovery. It may not be fool-proof (people still relapse after treatment) but it is the best option you have.
After you leave short term treatment, the real challenge begins.
Foundation and support in early recovery
Early recovery post-treatment is the tricky time for recovering alcoholics and addicts. You are suddenly back in the real world and suddenly you have to face real problems and challenges. This is when most people relapse. In fact, something like 50 percent will relapse in the first 30 days after leaving rehab, and another 40 percent or so will relapse before the end of the first year. Pretty depressing statistics. I pulled those out of thin air and perhaps the stats are slightly different than that these days, but that is the general idea. Most relapse very quickly and nearly all will have relapsed a year after treatment.
So obviously you want to be in the slim percentage of people who manage to stay clean and sober permanently. You don’t want to relapse and go back to the madness because of course it gets worse every time. You don’t go to rehab to learn how to drink less or minimize your addiction. Recovery is entirely pass/fail. You either remain sober or you go through a devastating relapse. There is no in between.
In order to be in that 10 percent or so of people who make it through the first year clean and sober you are going to have to take action.
So the question is, what kind of action do you need to take, and how much of it do you need to take?
For starters there are plenty of suggestions for aftercare when it comes to leaving rehab. They will make lots of suggestions and they will also probably set you up with lots of aftercare assignments and projects. For example they may have you continue on with outpatient treatment, or they may have you going to counseling, and so on. They will probably also recommend AA meetings, sponsorship, and so on. So there are all of these positive actions that you can take when you leave rehab, and it is your responsibility to chase after those things and actually implement them into your life. The people who ignore all of these suggestions relapse. The people who embrace positive action have a chance at long term sobriety.
Now second of all is the question of intensity. You decide to take positive action, but how often and with how much enthusiasm? Let’s answer this question by looking at your peers in recovery. I know it is poor form to compare ourselves to others, but in this case we can learn a valuable lesson, because 90 percent of your peers in recovery are going to relapse within the first year. You don’t want to be in that group. Therefore when you compare yourself to the 90 percent, you don’t want to be doing the same things that they are doing in order to recover. Instead, you want to be doing MORE.
That is pretty easy to understand, right? You want to do more. How hard should you work on your recovery? Probably harder than you first expect. Remember that nearly everyone I have met in recovery today has been to rehab at least three times. Seriously! How is it possible that all of these people had to go to rehab three times? What is wrong with these people?
The truth is that there is nothing wrong with anyone, it is just a notoriously difficult challenge to overcome. Addiction is tough to beat. You don’t just casually take on the problem and succeed. That will never happen. Instead, most people have to try and be defeated, then try again harder and be defeated a second time. It is only then that they will make a third attempt at some point, knowing full well what does not work well for them based on their past history. They tried in the past to get clean and sober and they failed. So now they know that they must try harder this time.
I definitely had to go through this realization process myself. I had to come to grips with the fact that I was going to have to dedicate my entire life to recovery if I was going to get good results. I had tried twice in the past and I had failed both times. So something was lacking. I had to try harder, to commit more fully.
The depth of your surrender will determine the depth of your commitment. You cannot commit fully to recovery unless you have surrendered completely to your disease, and accepted that you no longer want to pursue a life that makes you miserable. You have to let go of everything.
So once you have made this strong internal commitment to yourself, you have to find help.
We can’t do it alone. If we could, then I assure you I would have figured it out. But I could not do so; I had to have help. I had to be told what to do in early recovery. Because when I tried to do it on my own I just screwed up.
Now this is not to say that I was dependent on others forever. But I had to ask for help and follow direction in order to get started in recovery. I had to find the people who could help to guide me and inspire me to change.
Finding the people who inspire you to create change
Inpatient rehab was my starting point for recovery. I actually lived in treatment for 20 months. But getting through the first year is definitely possible if you only stay in rehab for a short period of time (such as two weeks). The key is in finding the right people in your life and following their direction.
You may find people through AA and NA meetings. You may find a sponsor who seems to be living the life that you want to live yourself, and then cling to that person to get new information from them. You may find a therapist or counselor who is going to work with you during your first year of recovery. Whatever the case may be, you need people in your life who can help guide you.
If you try to do it alone you will fail and relapse. Our old ideas do not work for sobriety; we need new information. Simple as that. It doesn’t really matter how smart you are because your addiction and your disease is part of that “smartness.” It will figure out a way to sabotage you unless you are following advice and direction from someone else.
This is an ego-crushing process. You have to listen to what other people are telling you to do in recovery, and then you have to do it. Not many people will be eager to embrace this sort of process in their lives, because it is so damaging to the ego. But this is the secret of early recovery, this is part of the surrender process that everyone has to go through. Do what you are told in early recovery, and your life will get better and better. Try to figure things out on your own and you are bound to struggle. It is as simple as that.
I simply attended long term rehab so I continued on there with therapy and counseling. I also got a sponsor in early recovery and started taking advice from him. So there was no shortage of people who were telling me what to do. If you do not have people who are giving you this advice (that you trust) then you need to seek those people out. Saying that they do not exist for you is no excuse. If you use that as your excuse then you will just relapse, and what is the point of that? Instead it is your responsibility to find someone in recovery who can lead you and help you and guide you. If nothing else then go to AA meetings and find the person in them who makes the most sense to you and ask them to sponsor you. Ask them for help, ask them for advice, and then follow through on what they tell you to do. This is not rocket science but it is still very challenging to follow through with. You have to crush your own ego in order to succeed in early recovery. You have to be humble enough to ask for help and then follow through and do what you are told to do. This is simple to do but not easy. Anyone can do it, but most will not because it is so hard on the ego. Kill your ego and start taking directions from others.
I can remember when I first getting clean and sober, I did not trust myself at all. I knew for the first time in my life that I was my own worst enemy, that if I were to relapse it would be all my own fault. It would be because I let my own brain be in charge for too long. So my goal was to get out of my own way, to not make any decisions for myself for a while, and to really let others decide my fate. This started when I surrendered and asked for help and my family sent me to rehab. So I went to rehab willingly but then I also decided to extend the idea of surrender to every single decision in my life. Because I knew that I could sabotage my own efforts, I would try to let other people decide my fate instead of myself. So I kept deferring to other people and their advice. I tried not to take back control of my own life in any way.
Sound a bit counter-intuitive? You better believe it was. You have to constantly remind yourself that “I am not in charge, I don’t want to be in charge or I will just screw up my life.” So I tried this for most of my first year of sobriety and it worked perfectly. It worked marvelously. I simply took advice and direction from others and I tried to ignore my own thoughts and ideas. You would think that this would lead to total misery, right?
Wrong. My life just kept getting better and better. And I would notice this, that things were getting so much better, and I was learning that taking advice and direction from other people was very powerful. I realized that I was not so smart after all, and that I could benefit from the wisdom of others. So I continued to take advice and direction in my early recovery so that I could reap these benefits from other people’s wisdom.
Your long term plan for personal growth in recovery
By the end of the first year in recovery you will start to realize that the rest of your life is a really long time. At some point you will need to think for yourself again, and this will happen naturally enough on its own. You will have ideas, goals, and start to see a purpose forming in your life.
Early recovery and the first year is quite different from long term sobriety. There are some people who argue that it is the same thing, but I strongly disagree. My life today (after 12 years of sobriety) is nothing like it was in that first year. My first year of sobriety was intense and I was trying very hard to live according to the wisdom of others. Today my life is quite different from that even though I am still on a path of positive action and personal growth.
In long term sobriety your personal growth can become much more self-directed.
During your first year of sobriety you should rely as heavily on the wisdom of others as you can.