The Secret of Staying Sober in the Long Run

The Secret of Staying Sober in the Long Run


When I first got clean and sober I went to a residential treatment center in order to try and recover. I never really left this rehab center because I ended up living in long term treatment for a period of 20 months continuous. This was a huge opportunity and I credit this time in long term rehab with helping me to be successful in recovery. Had I not lived in long term treatment I am not sure that I would still be clean today. It was exactly what I needed at the time in order to overcome my own addiction.

While I was living in rehab I had the opportunity to observe others in recovery. I was carefully observing my own path and my own journey in recovery as best I could, but I was also watching dozens of other recovering addicts and alcoholics who were struggling to find sobriety. I lived with eleven other men who were trying to recover in long term treatment. We attended in-house 12 step meetings at a residential rehab as well, so I was witness to a huge influx of new addicts and alcoholics who were trying to recover based on a short trip to rehab. And finally, after I left the long term rehab, I later returned there to work for a period of about 5 years, so I watched hundreds or even thousands of struggling addicts and alcoholics attempt to get clean and sober.

I talked with hundreds of individuals. I discussed the path of recovery and how the journey worked for them. I tried to learn all I could about how various people managed to recover successfully.

Early recovery was somewhat nerve-wracking for me because I quickly came to the realization that most people in recovery ended up relapsing. This was just the simple reality of it; most people that I dealt with in recovery did not make it to long term sobriety. The odds were stacked against us, I was learning. And so I was very fearful of losing my own sobriety. I did not want to relapse. Because I had committed to my own recovery and because I had moved into long term rehab, I really did not like the idea that I could possibly relapse. I had invested so much effort and therefore I did not want to be disappointed.

So I set out to find the secret to sobriety. My goal was to “figure this thing out” such that I could insure that I would not relapse. I wanted to conquer recovery intellectually, I wanted to unravel the mystery. I was frustrated when people told me to “just go to AA meetings and listen and do what you are told and you will be fine.” That was not good enough for me. Why did that work? How did that insure continuous sobriety? Show me. Explain it in detail. I don’t want to hear about a program of recovery is “magical” or that it “just works.” I need to know exactly how it works, and why it works, so that I can follow the program closely and make sure I hit all of the important points (and can safely ignore the superfluous stuff).

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The problem with traditional recovery is that it is a smorgasbord. You go to rehab and they throw a whole bunch of “tools” at you. Twelve step programs and the advice that you hear at the typical AA meeting are the same way. Seriously, go to a single AA meeting and when they ask for a topic from someone tell them that you want to know what is the most important thing in each person’s recovery process. Tell them that you need to know the ONE thing from each person that is the secret of their sobriety. Do this, and you will see what I mean when I say that recovery is a “smorgasbord.” You are going to get a slew of different answers, a whole range of advice from various people, and you are definitely not going to come away with a single secret of success for long term sobriety.

I have studied this idea over the years and I have tried to reduce recovery to the bare basics. In doing so, I believe that I actually have found the secret to sobriety, but there is a catch, of course.

The reason that you get so many different answers when you ask an entire AA meeting what their secret of recovery is, is simply because those people are all at different stages of their recovery. If you ask the newcomer in recovery who has 30 days sober what the secret is, they will likely tell you that it is “surrender.” This is because they have struggled for years or even decades to try to get started in recovery and they have always failed, until very recently when they finally were able to surrender and gain a small foothold in the path to recovery.

Now if you ask someone who has over a decade of continuous sobriety what the secret to recovery is, they might tell you that it is “overcoming complacency.” They may have friends in recovery who relapsed after multiple years sober, and so they have made it a point to try to avoid this fate by purposefully overcoming their own tendency toward complacency. This is just where they are right now in their recovery journey, they are dealing with the issue of complacency. This same person also dealt with the issue of surrender, but they did it over a decade ago, and it was surely very important to their journey at the time, but right now they are dealing with another issue. After ten years they do not have a problem with surrender. After ten years of living sober they no longer struggle with daily triggers that make them want to drink. Right now their biggest threat is getting lazy and becoming complacent in their recovery, and so that is the big secret that they have to deal with and overcome in long term sobriety.

And of course there are all sorts of stages in between this two examples. The newcomer will slowly evolve into the “old timer” in recovery. As they do this they are going to have unique challenges and therefore “the secret to sobriety” is going to keep changing for them over time. If it were held constant then recovery would be ridiculously easy.

People like to say that recovery is simple. They love to say that it is a simple process and a simple program and so on. I disagree with this idea of simplicity. I have lived through over a decade of continuous sobriety and I believe that recovery is complicated. I believe that if a person is going to be successful in long term sobriety then they need to accept a certain amount of this complexity and try to deal with it and adapt to it. If you try too hard to simplify it then you are going to miss some important lessons and stubbornly refuse to learn certain things on your journey, thus risking relapse.

So far in my own recovery these are the “secrets” that I had to learn and employ at the time in order to maintain my own sobriety. I continue to learn new things though and so this list may not be comprehensive. Long term sobriety and the threat of complacency may reveal new “secrets” to me in the future, but this is what I have focused on thus far:

1) Absolute surrender.
2) Embracing learning.
3) Willingness to grow as a person.
4) Personal growth as a path of sobriety.
5) Holistic health as your compass.

The foundation for success is surrender

When I was in very early recovery I was living in rehab and I was convinced that TOTAL surrender was the biggest secret to success. This was proven to me over and over again as I watched people relapse in their recovery journey. In each case when someone relapsed, I was constantly digging for answers. I wanted to know why they relapsed, what had happened, what they had done wrong, and so on. In most cases the person was gone and off to the races and so we were left to discuss their fate among ourselves in the long term rehab center. “So and so relapsed, what do you think happened for them?” Someone might have replied “I’m not surprised, because they were cocky and did not seem to be working the steps, etc”. And so we attempted to decipher the reason for relapse and what made certain people succeed or fail in recovery. We were trying to study and learn what created success in early recovery.

After a very short time of living in long term treatment and watching dozens of people relapse, I sort of boiled it all down in my own mind to the concept of surrender. Really it was all about total commitment to sobriety and in order to have this rock solid commitment you had to have 100 percent total surrender to your disease. You could frame the argument a few different ways but in my mind it all boiled down to the extreme commitment to recovery and the absolute surrender that was needed in order to make this commitment.

People who relapsed violated their commitment to recovery. At some point they picked up a drink or they picked up a drug and they must have said in their own mind “screw it, I am going to relapse.” You cannot get around this self talk that occurs at the moment of relapse. A conscious decision was made when they relapsed and they chose to ignore their own personal commitment to recovery. I figured out that this had to be happening with each person who relapsed. They were not unconscious when they relapsed. They were fully conscious and they knew what they were doing and they chose to throw it all away and use drugs or alcohol. They lacked commitment and therefore they lacked full surrender. They had not surrendered fully to their disease because if they had then they would have had a stronger commitment to themselves and therefore they would not have relapsed.

So for me the foundation of success in recovery was clearly commitment and surrender. The two concepts went hand in hand and you could not have full commitment without having full and total surrender. When someone relapsed, we could sit there and talk about it and try to analyze it but ultimately it all pointed back to the same idea: that person who relapsed lacked commitment. They violated their own personal commitment to remain sober. At some point they threw caution to the wind and decided to use drugs or alcohol anyway, in spite of their recovery effort. They threw away their hope to try to chase short term happiness or satisfaction.

And in every single case like this, the person could have remained sober had they had a stronger commitment. If they had a stronger personal commitment to recovery, they would still be clean and sober today. But their commitment to sobriety was too weak.

And so this was the first “secret” that I discovered in early recovery. It was all about commitment and the strength of your personal commitment to stay sober. And the strength of your commitment was directly related to the depth of your surrender. If you had surrendered fully to your disease then your commitment to recovery was very strong. In early recovery this was by far the most important concept: that you surrender fully, that you commit 100 percent to total abstinence, and that you not pick up a drink or a drug no matter what. This was the first “secret” of recovery that I sort of had to deduce for myself.

Others may have hinted at this as being part of the process, but no one came out and said “this is the most important thing in recovery.” Instead, I was getting the full smorgasbord, and had to decipher what was really important. In other words, when I asked at an AA meeting what was the most important thing in early recovery, I got a whole list of answers about daily meeting attendance, higher powers, sponsorship, step work, reading the big book, and on and on. No one was able to pin it down and say what was truly the most important concept.

Embracing a path of learning in early recovery

At a later stage of my recovery I came to another realization: it is all about learning.

I had to embrace learning as the vehicle for success in recovery. It was easy to see that some people who relapsed simply had the wrong attitude toward recovery. They wanted to be spoon fed a recovery process without having to think about it. This was the wrong attitude because it did not lend itself to learning.

The problem with long term sobriety is that the challenges keep changing over time. This is why it is a PROCESS and not just a mere event. Keep in mind that some people relapse who have over twenty years of sobriety. Why do they relapse? Because the challenge keeps changing and they faced a new challenge and they were not up to the task of learning something new about themselves. If they had been in “learning mode” then they would have discovered that they need to keep engaged, keep learning new things, keep challenging themselves to grow so that they do not become complacent and relapse because of it.

Just the fact that there are five “secrets” to long term sobriety should clue you in to this need for learning. Long term recovery is a process in evolution. The person is on a journey and they are not the same person after a few years. They are definitely not the same person after a decade or two. Everything changes and the challenges that they face in life continue to change and therefore they need to keep focusing on learning. We never stop learning and perhaps most importantly they never stop learning about themselves. There is always another layer of truth to discover if we are willing to look inside of ourselves.

If you are not willing to embrace this learning process and this evolution in recovery then you are just making it harder for yourself. People who hate to learn do not do well in recovery unless they can make a shift whereby they become open to the learning process.

Even after decades of successful recovery you are still going to be learning new things, especially things about yourself. You must embrace the learning process.

Becoming willing to grow in recovery

Willingness is another key concept in recovery. As mentioned above you have to have a willingness to learn new things and to keep on learning as you progress in recovery.

But it is more than that. You have to be willing to grow and to pursue growth for yourself in recovery.

I watched many addicts and alcoholics relapse who could not grasp this willingness. They would get detoxed, become stable in recovery, start attending 12 step meetings, but then their enthusiasm would wane. They would not push themselves to grow as a person. They were not seeking to improve their own life or their own situation. They were trying to coast through recovery.

This lack of willingness led to relapse. Had they been willing to look critically at their life and try to make positive changes, they might still be sober today. But they lacked willingness to grow as a person and therefore they relapsed.

Again, this is all about timing. For me, this was an important “secret” when I was like 3 to 18 months sober. I was struggling to make personal changes (trying to quit smoking cigarettes for example) and this is part of what led to my success at the time. I was willing to seek positive change and some of my peers were just “coasting” along in recovery. The different outcomes came down to willingness.

Personal growth is the secret to long term success

After leaving long term treatment I had to find a way to maintain sobriety without relying on the support of living in rehab any more.

For me this “secret” of sobriety revealed itself to me as an experiment. I really had no idea if I would be successful in recovery by simply pursuing positive changes and personal growth.

Ultimately it worked out well, I remained sober (for over a decade and counting), and the next “secret” that I discovered is that personal growth is the key to relapse prevention.

Notice that timing is still important. You cannot apply this “secret” to your life if you are at an earlier stage where you need to focus on, say, surrender.

Ultimately all of these “secrets” can be reduced to another simple idea: taking positive action.

If you positive action every day for a year then you will grow stronger in your recovery. If you fail to take any sort of positive action for yourself for a long enough time period, then eventually the negativity will build up until you reach a breaking point and you will relapse.

A lack of action will inevitably lead to relapse. So we say that “personal growth is the key to long term sobriety.” Really it is not about personal growth per se, it is just about the idea that you have to keep taking positive action in your life if you want to maintain sobriety.

People who slack off, get lazy, don’t want to learn, refuse to try to improve themselves…..those are the folks who relapse.

You can slack off for a day and get away with it. But can you slack off for a hundred days and get away with it? Probably not. At some point, a poor attitude or a lack of positive action will snowball into relapse.

How to use holistic health as your compass for future growth

The last “secret” in my experience has been the idea of holistic health as a compass for personal growth.

Essentially this is how you define “positive action” for yourself.

If something increases your overall health in recovery then that is positive. If it decreases your health then that is negative.

The tricky part is that we have to consider the whole picture….thus the emphasis on “holistic.”

So it is not just your physical health that it is at stake here, but also your emotional stability, your social relationships, your spiritual connection, and so on.

Sometimes you may need to consider a new area of your health that was previously overlooked. What have you been ignoring lately? The holistic health idea will cause you to reconsider these weak points in your recovery.


Recovery is a process and therefore your “secret” to success is going to change and evolve over time. Start with surrender and total commitment to abstinence and then build from there. Learn as you go, and stay open to learning. Push for personal growth. These are just a few of the secrets that have been revealed to me on my journey.


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