I have seen this over and over again in recovery.
There is a natural inclination in early recovery to have this fear of relapse. Everyone has it but deals with it in a different way, essentially.
It is not necessarily the case that “everyone is afraid of relapse.” I don’t want to put words into your mouth or anything…..but anyone who is realistic about their recovery has to be observing others, watching who succeeds and who fails, and getting a general idea of what they are up against.
If you are like me then you will pay attention to the people around you in recovery. They can help you, and they can also show you what NOT to do.
Because I lived in rehab for 20 months at the start of my recovery, I was acutely aware of other people’s progress in recovery. After that period of time I worked in a treatment center for over five years. I still have friends in the recovery community and keep loose tabs on how certain people are doing. So over the past eleven years + I have informally collected a LOT of data about how well people fare in recovery. I am not exactly crunching numbers or logging this down or anything, I just make casual observations.
If you are in recovery for more than a few months then you will start to do this too. You will simply observe how the ebb and flow of people in recovery works. Maybe you will attend local 12 step meetings such as AA or NA and you will get to know the community a bit. If this is the case then you will get a good idea of how many of the newcomers have to filter through before you really get one who “sticks and stays” for the long haul. Now I realize that this single example is not representative of all of recovery, but it is a strong indicator. If you hang out at the same AA meeting for 5 years and count the number of newcomers who wander in (say it is 5 per week or about 1,300 total over 5 years) then just wonder to yourself: “How many of those people are sticking around AA and still sober at the 5 year mark?” Now I realize that some people may move, relocate, go to other meetings, jump to the NA fellowship from AA and vice versa, and so on. But in spite of all of these exceptions you are still dealing with these raw numbers and you cannot help but grasp the attrition rate just from watching how things go over the months and years.
At one time AA World Services published some data about AA meeting attendance. One of the graphs indicated that something like 90 percent of everyone who attends and AA meeting will leave AA within one year and never return. Wow. Clearly that is a program that is for people who “want it” rather than need it. But you have to wonder too if they could not somehow become more accommodating to that 90 percent that is slipping through the cracks.
The way I see it there are two potential paths in modern day recovery from addiction:
1) You can join a recovery program (very likely to be 12 step based, either AA or NA) and you can immerse yourself fully into it. You go to meetings every day or nearly every day for a period of several years or even decades. You get a therapeutic boost from the meetings and this keeps you clean and sober. If you stop going to meetings then you apparently run the risk of relapse.
2) You build a new life in recovery through personal growth and self development. You build healthy self esteem through achievement and positive action. You prevent relapse by building a life in sobriety that you are excited to be living. You do not rely on groups or programs to stay clean and sober.
I am not trying to bash AA necessarily, what I am doing is pointing out that, out of the two possible solutions listed above, one of them is fear based. You are living out your life in recovery based on the fear that if you stop going to meetings that you may end up relapsing. In essence you are trying to buy your peace of mind by spending an hour every day (or maybe a few days each week) in a 12 step meeting.
So I am not trying to say that everyone in recovery is terrified of relapse. I realize that this is not the case. But if you ask a group of people in AA why they keep coming to meetings, they will tell you things such as “I need these meetings in order to stay sober. If I quit coming I know I will relapse eventually.” Clearly this line of thinking is rooted in fear (of relapse).
Security in going with the crowd
Right now in modern day recovery, the 12 step program is the majority solution. If you go to 100 rehabs, something like 90 of them use the 12 step program. If you go talk to 100 addiction counselors, at least 90 of them will strongly recommend AA or NA as the solution.
So there is great security for people in just “going along with the crowd.” There is this strong idea in recovery where people say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Well, that sort of logic is just a little bit crazy to me, especially when the annual attrition rate is around 90 percent as reported by AA themselves.
Now again, I am not bashing AA here. I realize that recovery is a tough situation, and we may NEVER get anything better than 3 to 10 percent success rates with overcoming addiction. It is just a really hard disease to deal with effectively. There may not exist a magic bullet out there. I am not suggesting for certain that it exists.
On the other hand, I think there is a danger for some people of just going along with the crowd, especially when the stakes are so high.
Someone might argue: “Why not be safe and just go along with the 12 step program, it works for anyone who works it!”
I would argue back with that, saying: “Why depend on a solution that seems to be rooted in fear, and may not be the optimal path of personal growth for someone? Many people in AA eventually get complacent and a bit stuck. They stop growing, stop making progress, stop taking positive action. What good is that? They are living in a fear based pattern, attending meetings, and avoiding the sort of personal growth that could take their life and their happiness to the next level.”
In order to recover from drug addiction or alcoholism you have to do 2 main things:
1) Stop using the chemicals. Achieve sobriety.
2) Maintain sobriety. Do this by figuring out how to live and be happy without self medicating.
That’s it. That is all you have to do. You have to get clean, then stay clean.
Consider the following recovery program:
1) Make a personal commitment not to use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.
2) Take positive action every day to improve yourself and your life.
Seriously, think carefully about that 2 step program. Do you really think that this would fail for someone who gave it 100 percent?
Do you see how this would be effective if you honestly put your heart and soul into following those two steps?
Do you realize that a 12 step program is clunky, overwhelming, confusing, and definitely out of date?
There is nothing wrong with spending an hour each day in 12 step meetings, so long as that is what you genuinely want to do with your time.
On the other hand, if you are DEPENDENT on that meeting each day for your sobriety, then what in the world does that say about your recovery? What does that say about your progress in recovery?
I stopped attending 12 meetings about a decade ago. Since then I have pushed myself to make personal growth. I have tried to become a better person. This has been an active pursuit of mine. I have not lived passively. I set goals and then I worked hard on them.
I could have done this within the AA program. As it was, I did it outside of the AA program. Either way would have worked fine (I believe).
But one way included dependency on regular meetings. The alternative method (the path I choose) seems to depend more on continuous progress and personal growth. I don’t push myself super hard and I am by no means an over-achiever. Really I am not. But I made a deliberate choice to leave AA, and I decided if I was going to avoid relapse that I had better get busy with improving myself.
After all, isn’t that what the AA program tries to do? Do the steps not attempt to fix character flaws? Yes, they do in fact.
The question to ask yourself, then, is this:
“Why do you need to sit in meetings for the rest of your life in order to fix your character flaws?”
Seriously, think carefully about that. If you are dependent on regular meetings to stay sober then your entire recovery is called into question. You are substituting the comfort and regular “whining session” of a meeting for what should be your own path of personal growth and development.
Regular 12 step meetings are for people who either:
* Want to give back and help the newcomer (this is fine, I applaud such a goal).
* Cannot stay clean and sober on their own without regular meeting attendance (this is a huge problem, exposes a hole in your recovery, and is seriously holding you back from the sort of growth that would transform your life and make it a whole lot better).
Meetings are either for people who want to go, or who have to go. If you have to go, then you have a slight problem (in my opinion).
Relapse after 90 days and what it usually means
Most addicts and alcoholics can be spun dry in a rehab and then placed in daily 12 step meetings and get decent short term results. It is not uncommon for even the worst cases to achieve some short term sobriety through treatment and regular meetings.
The question is what happens after six months, after a year, after three years. This is what recovery is all about–the “long haul.” If you get stuck in a pattern of relapse every few years then your life will not really get any better. You will keep “resetting it” back to the misery of addiction.
Therefore the emphasis should be on long term sobriety. Of course we can all only stay clean for one day at a time, but no one is going to be happy if they relapse every couple of months, only to have to start all over again with their journey. Long term sobriety has one enormous benefit and that is “accumulated growth.” If you relapse then this benefit is erased.
Therefore if you relapse after 90 days (or after any significant length of time in recovery) then this becomes an indicator of a deeper problem. Why did the relapse occur? In my opinion part of the problem is that you are not engaged in personal growth. Instead, the person who relapses after finding stability but before finding long term recovery is doing so because they are not really embracing personal growth. Instead they are relying on an external solution (usually daily meetings and the 12 step program) to keep them clean and sober. This fails them because they are not really pushing themselves to make real growth.
Let’s break it down into 3 stages in order to help visualize what is happening when someone relapses during early recovery:
1) Stage one – they disrupt their addiction (such as by going to detox, rehab, etc.) and they are suddenly clean and sober.
2) Stage two – they are learning about how to live a new life in recovery. This is when the relapse occurs–after they are stable but before they find “their true path in life.”
3) Stage three – if they make it here without relapse, then they have found their long term solution, which is to embrace personal growth and to take positive action in their life.
People who relapse after getting stable but before finding long term sobriety are usually guilty of a lack of growth. They are relying on a recovery solution to keep them clean and sober, when instead they should be relying on themselves to make the personal growth that will prevent relapse.
I said that in stage two the person needs to “find their true path in life.” That is perhaps a bad way to state it but ultimately what I mean is that the person must embrace personal growth and positive action. They don’t necessarily need a purpose, but they do need to take positive action on a regular basis (daily even!). Doing this consistently for several months or even years is what gets you the huge benefit in recovery–“accumulated growth.” If you take positive action every day for five years and truly make an effort to improve your life and your life situation, you will be amazed at the results.
Early recovery is about conformity, long term sobriety demands some customizing though
Part of the problem is that people in recovery are preaching that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Well, this is confusing and contradictory. If you keep doing what you did in your first 30 days of recovery, then you will probably relapse at some point.
Recovery demands that you evolve, that you change over time, that you make growth. If you stand still then you are stagnant and you will relapse at some point. The only way forward is to make positive growth.
Early recovery requires that you listen to other people. Your ideas about living life have failed you. You tried to be happy with drugs or alcohol and it resulted in a mess. So you put your ego to the side and you listen to other people. They tell you what to do and your life gets better and better.
You should not still be doing this at 10 years sober! After a certain amount of time, you should be able to design your own path in life, to dictate your own goals, to find your own happiness. If you cannot do this after several years sober then you may still be struggling with fundamentals. If you take advice in early recovery then eventually you should learn discipline and be able to think on your own two feet some day (without sabotaging yourself and getting sucked back into relapse).
Early recovery is not the same as when you have several years sober. If you are hoping to stay clean and sober after several years simply by attending meetings every day, then you have missed the point. Recovery is about living, not about meetings (necessarily). You can still go to meetings, sure…..but do not depend on them. Depend on them in early recovery, but make sure you are pursuing personal growth so that this dependency is not permanent. If it is permanent then it only points to a lack of growth on your part. Recovery can be so much more than dependency on meetings!
This is not a bash against 12 step meetings, instead it is a plea for you to pursue personal growth. There is nothing wrong with meetings; only with long term dependency on them.
Why you have to evolve in order to succeed in recovery
Recovery changes you over time. If you keep doing what you did when you first got clean and sober, you will run into trouble.
You have to change your recovery strategy as you yourself are changing in recovery.
I have been clean and sober for eleven years now. When I was 90 days sober, my life was much different than it is today.
When I was 180 days sober, my life was much different than it is today.
Shoot, even when I had 3 to 5 years sober, my life (and my recovery strategy) was different than it is now.
I have grown and evolved over time. If I was still living in rehab, I do not think I would be as productive, happy, and helpful to others as what I am today.
The same is true if I were relying on those tactics that got me through year 2 and year 3 of my recovery journey. I had to move past some of those things, I had grow and learn new things.
For example, at one point I started jogging. This was HUGE for me, yet I had no way to predict this. Running has become one of the foundations of my recovery.
But how was I to ever learn that if I had been content to just keep “doing what worked for me,” and showing up to meetings every day? I had to try new things, to explore personal growth, to try to improve myself.
They say that you need to “take what works and leave the rest” in recovery. This is exactly true. Modify your approach over time, to leave behind the things that no longer serve you.
Doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results……
They talk about the definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Well, we need to apply this to our path in recovery as well. If you are happy and excited about your path in recovery, then stay on it! Go with it.
But if you want something different then you have to change things up. For me, this meant leaving the “comfort and security” of traditional recovery (i.e., going to a meeting every day) and pushing myself to make growth in other ways. I had to realize that I could make progress and still prevent relapse outside of the confines of traditional recovery.
Taking a leap to faith and believing in personal growth as your relapse prevention plan
It takes a leap of faith to leave behind conformity in order to do your own thing. The fear-mongers in traditional recovery will warn you that you are headed for certain relapse. They are saying this because of their OWN fear. They would prefer that everyone stay in their little boat (of traditional recovery) and that no one rocks it at all. Instead you are threatening them by leaving and doing your own thing. What if you are successful? This is the real threat to them, though they would never admit to it. It is their fear for their own sobriety that causes them to warn you about leaving the meetings.
It takes a leap of faith to realize that all of the conformity of traditional recovery is not what keeps you sober. It is the personal growth that you make in life that prevents relapse. You can achieve that growth both in or out of a “program.”
When you leave the formal program of recovery, then you can no longer cheat and get false security through following the crowd. Now you must earn your peace of mind through your own personal growth and effort. From what I have experienced, this is a good thing.