It is one thing to sober up and be dry for a short period of time. It is another thing entirely to stay sober over a period of several years while overcoming the various challenges that life will inevitably throw at you.
Photo by Tambako the Jaguar
So few people actually find sobriety and then maintain it over the long run. What is the key to doing so? How can we insure our own success at staying sober? Let’s take a look.
Extreme focus early on in recovery
Your time in early recovery is obviously critical but it only makes up a very small portion of your recovery (if you manage to stay sober). What is the key to early recovery? Overwhelming force. You need to make a supreme effort in order to make recovery work for you in the beginning. That means asking others for help and following what they suggest for you to do.
This is a very different idea from long term recovery. In your first year (or even less) of sobriety, you should focus on taking direction from others and using their knowledge to take a lot of action in your life. People might suggest treatment, therapy, meetings, sponsorship, counseling, inpatient, outpatient, long term treatment, and so on.
My recommendation: do all of it. Hesitate at nothing. Take any suggestion and run with it. You are putting your life on hold so that you can learn how to stay sober. If you don’t do this then you might end up dying drunk, and very soon at that.
It is fairly easy to see who is definitely not going to make it in early recovery: the people who are desperately trying to maintain control over their life and are resisting every suggestion for how to help them stay sober. They have an excuse for everything about why they do not need this type of treatment or that type of therapy or meetings and so on. In early recovery, this resistance spells certain failure.
If you have truly surrendered to the disease of alcoholism and you are ready to change your life, then you must hesitate at nothing. This means being open minded and willing to do whatever people suggest for you to learn how to recover. You can’t put a time limit or limitations on it. At one point they told me I needed long term treatment in order to recover. I scoffed at the idea and told them that living for 6 months in a treatment center was too long of a time commitment….and then I proceeded to go stay drunk for the entire year that followed. Hesitating at their suggestions meant that I had not yet surrendered.
Widening our scope of growth as we progress
In early recovery our focus is very narrow. We concentrate almost exclusively on making it through each day sober, one day at a time. This is fine for early recovery and this laser focus is actually quite necessary in order for us to make it through this tough time.
As we progress, however, we need to start expanding our horizons. If we do not do this then we are in danger of getting stuck in a rut. Recovery demands growth or we will slide back towards relapse if we are not careful.
So how can we effectively do this?
One way is by deliberately trying to learn new things in recovery. Don’t limit yourself to the traditional 12 step meeting circuit after being sober for several years. To do so is a disservice to yourself and to the other people at the meetings who might hear your message. Take charge of creating something new and exciting in your life as you explore new paths of growth.
For example, you might go back to school, or take a course and try to learn a new skill. You might go back to church and get involved with that community. Or perhaps you will get into exercise and physical fitness as a way to supplement your recovery efforts and feel better about yourself. There is no right or wrong here, just different paths you might take in pursuit of holistic growth. The idea is to grow as a person in new areas of your life. If all you do for the next 30 years is go to the same AA meeting every week, where is the growth in that? While it is possible to still maintain recovery and grow that way, you will probably need to supplement such a recovery plan with some highly motivated growth of your own making.
In other words, you need to go beyond traditional recovery and push yourself to create the life your really want to live.
Relapse creeps up on people who have long term sobriety when they get lazy in their recovery. This can happen because they are stuck in a routine and not pushing themselves to grow or learn new things. The only way to overcome this pitfall is through taking action. You have to do something in order to overcome laziness and complacency.
In early recovery, a laser focus helps us to resist urges to drink. In long term recovery, this becomes less and less of an immediate threat, but we still need regular action in order to maintain our sobriety. The threat of relapse becomes more subtle over time; less immediate. But it is still there and if we do not keep growing then we will eventually drink again.
Enthusiasm for recovery
If you don’t get excited about recovery then it’s going to be a long and dreary road. Now, someone who is just starting out with sobriety does not have to put on a fake act and pretend that they are on top of the world right away. You should also be aware of the idea of the “pink cloud,” where newcomers in recovery feel extra good simply because they are starting to slowly detox from their addiction and they are actually starting to feel normal again.
But aside from these minor quibbles, the recovering alcoholic really does need to get enthusiastic at some point about living life again. This might not happen right away in recovery but it should build up slowly over time. The key is to find something in your life to be passionate about. This will define your purpose and help you find something to put your energy into. For some people, this might be sponsoring other alcoholics in the 12 step program. For someone else, this might mean helping people in a way that is totally unrelated to addiction and recovery. That is fine too. The key is that you live with passion and purpose. If you can’t get excited about life, then you will eventually return to drinking, because we all know in that drinking could become a quick fix for boredom….even though we know it will lead to pain and misery in the end.
And, if you can find enthusiasm for helping other alcoholics to stay sober in some way, then this is truly the height of potential in recovery, and can produce some of the best results as far as your own sobriety is concerned.
Focus on building healthy self esteem
The cornerstone of healthy recovery, in my opinion, is in building real self esteem. This is the best way to prevent relapse in the long run, because you are building your life into a powerful asset that you no longer become willing to trade away on a relapse. When you value yourself and your life, the possibility of relapse diminishes greatly.
How can we build our self esteem? Through action. Some would suggest affirmations (such as telling yourself daily that you are a good person, that you are worthy, etc.), but I think real self esteem can come from actions that go beyond this type of exercise. It is not that affirmations are not useful, because for some people they definitely are, but to stop at that point is to rob yourself of the potential to build so much more with your life. The key to building self esteem is to create new things in your life with action.
If you do this right, then you will probably take some action and end up failing a few times. If so, you will learn that this is OK, and that the benefits still outweigh the risks. Reckless action will always triumph over sitting on the couch and wishing that things were different.
Self esteem can build. It is like a snowball rolling down a hill. For example, take exercise. If you force yourself to get out there and exercise every day, this can be very tedious and tough going at first. But if you persist, then the benefits will start to kick in from a physical health perspective, and you will naturally start to feel better about yourself. In addition to this, you are also taking better care of your self. If you keep this up then the feedback loop starts building on itself: do healthy exercise, feel good, feel good about yourself and your life, then do more exercise. Success breeds success when it comes to building self esteem. Celebrate every victory and use it to push yourself on to more achievements. This can become a powerful growth strategy if you just find a way to get yourself jump started and motivated in recovery.
Of course it does not have to be exercise that you focus on. There are a million avenues of growth available to you in recovery. Any type of positive action or new learning experience is able to boost your real sense of self esteem in some way.
Positive action is the key. But for most of us, and what holds us back the most, is simply taking any action at all. Remember, reckless action beats complacency and laziness any day of the week. Get inspired to do something in your recovery, and thus you will reap the rewards.
Find purpose that exceeds that of drinking
When we were drinking, we were passionate about it. We fell in love with alcohol and we loved the effect that it produced in us. This changed our whole world and put the focus squarely on being drunk as often as possible. For many alcoholics, drinking was a way to connect with other people as well. Drinking became a way of life and a way to interact with others.
In recovery, you have to find a way to replace that. If you sober up and become bored and isolated, how long do you think you are going to stay sober? One idea that is prominent in most recovery programs is that you connect with others in recovery who are also trying to stay sober. It is the connections with your peers that hold the value in traditional recovery.
In early recovery, it makes sense to build connections with others because you will likely need the support in order to make it through early sobriety. We need help in order to recover.
As mentioned earlier, you can take this a step further by finding ways to help other alcoholics as you progress in your recovery. If you can find a way to do this on a regular basis then it will boost your chances for long term sobriety in a big way. This is because helping other alcoholics is really the best medicine for a recovering alcoholic. No other activity can offer the same level of return in terms of helping you to stay sober. When you reach out and help others to recover, you help your own recovery immeasurably. Thus, helping others is like an insurance policy against relapse. Make it into a habit and your recovery will be that much stronger.
Pursue a holistic approach
A holistic approach is ideal for long term recovery. What happens when you seek an avenue of growth in recovery and then you plateau with it? You start seeking another avenue of growth. Thus, continuous learning becomes your new way of life, and complacency never has a chance to set in and drive you towards relapse. Life stays interesting because you are constantly experiencing new things and pushing yourself beyond the boundaries of traditional recovery.
For me, this is the way to real sobriety. This is how I stay sober.