The Simple Guide to Relapse Prevention and Long Term Sobriety

The Simple Guide to Relapse Prevention and Long Term Sobriety


Yesterday we looked at the 3 lessons I learned while in early recovery. Today we want to take those ideas a step further and shape them into the most simple plan for relapse prevention.

The reason I would call this a “simple guide” is not because it is necessarily better or more effective than your typical 12 step program, but really because it has LESS instruction. It is more simple and more direct than most people would like to think is necessary. Does that make it any more or less effective than AA? It all depends on if you actually use it. Recovery only “works” if you actually work it! That part is absolutely true!

Furthermore, I would like to believe that anyone who is currently working the 12 step program of recovery could also apply these ideas that I talk about here. They are universal ideas that anyone in recovery can use. But even further than that, I really believe that these are fundamental ideas. So in reality, anyone who is successful in sobriety–whether they are working a program or not–is already going to be using these basic principles.

There are a number of different ways that we can break down the recovery process.

What is important is that we break the process down in a way that makes sense, and in a way that actually helps people.

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When I was introduced into recovery the process was broke down for me in a very complex way. My impression of the recovery process was based on all of the information that I was taking in during daily 12 step meetings, but also it was based on the information that I was being given in rehab. Then throw the 12 steps in there which were supposed to be my ultimate design for living, and you have quite a bit of information (some of it even conflicting!). It is enough to become overwhelming.

A lot of the people who were devoted to the AA program and way of life kept telling me “this is a simple program for simple people.” What they were really saying is “This will work if you just follow orders and don’t question anyone about the methods.” Think carefully about that because the “program” is anything but simple. The actual program of recovery has no fewer than 12 steps, none of which actually instruct you to avoid drugs or alcohol! Therefore, part of the AA program needs to be implied through common sense, as the 12 steps do not even advise abstinence from drugs and alcohol.

Seriously, think about the complexity of this program for a moment. At least 12 steps plus some stuff that is only “implied” and must be inferred through the meetings or via common sense. That is sort of a lot to ask from someone who is at the tail end of their addiction and has their life in shambles.

I want to propose a much more simple and direct program of recovery, but I am still fleshing out the ideas in order to make it more effective for people. It has to be usable but not overwhelming. In my opinion, 12 steps is a bit unwieldy for a newcomer to try to wrap their minds around.

I think we can break recovery down to a 3 step process. Now ultimately this is a work in process because each of these three steps will have a certain level of detail and explanation involved, and therefore you might gain some clarity by breaking those down into smaller steps.

On the other hand, I think it is important to give the newcomer a simple road map to how they will recover. Seriously. When I landed in detox and said that I wanted to stop drinking, my question for the recovery experts was “how?” They showed me the 12 steps and handed me the big book of AA. Whoa…..reading through the 12 steps through this fog that I had in my mind was not a step in the right direction. To be honest I was reading through the steps thinking “how exactly does this help me not take a drink?”

Now if someone would have said “look here, I have this simple process that you can follow, this is what you have to do in order to stay clean and sober, and these are the 3 steps you are going to have to take” I think it would have been much more helpful and direct:

Step 1: Go through detox and become stable without any drugs or alcohol in your body.
Step 2: Commit to total abstinence from alcohol and all addictive drugs. Make an agreement with yourself that you will not use or drink no matter what.
Step 3: Seek personal growth and better health. Try to improve yourself, your life, and the lives of those around you. Strive for growth.

Step one is the detox process and can be completed in a short week or two, probably in a rehab. Step two is a mental decision that the person must make and it must become their highest truth in life, their greatest mantra. Simple, powerful, and effective. “Don’t use no matter what.” They actually say this in AA sometimes, they say “Don’t drink even if your *ss falls off!” Well, why isn’t that one of the 12 steps? Really, why isn’t it? Would have made more sense to me…..

Step three in this process is the personal growth stuff. This is what you do with your life after you have decided that you will not self destruct via addiction. This is also your relapse prevention plan.

In the short term, all you need to stay sober is raw willpower and white-knuckle action. Simply commit to sobriety for the next ten minutes and anyone can do it. But we all know that this is useless in the long run for a true addict or alcoholic, as willpower is never enough. It always fails us in the long run if we rely on it.

Therefore the key is to find a way to avoid relying on will power. In the 12 step program this is done through reliance on a higher power. In our simple 3 step program this is done through the cycle of personal growth. Essentially what happens is that after you commit to recovery, you then start to engage in this cycle of personal growth and reflection. You deliberately take positive action to improve your life, and then you reflect on that action and start to plan some more. This is very simple and it is also effective at preventing relapse.

You may be wondering:

“How exactly does this cycle of personal growth prevent relapse?”

The cycle of personal growth works to keep you clean and sober because:

* You are still fully committed to “not use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.”
* You are making an effort to improve your life in a way that promotes more health and more self esteem. Feeling better about yourself will make you less likely to “punish” yourself with a relapse.
* The challenge of taking positive action and improving yourself will help to substitute for some of the thrill you experienced in addiction. Growth is challenging and exciting.
* Reflection on growth and also the planning for future changes helps keep you self aware and vigilant. You fight complacency when you are critical of your life and keep challenging yourself to improve it.
* You will receive many benefits in your life and in your recovery if you are constantly pushing yourself to grow and take positive action. These rewards will outweigh the short term benefit of getting drunk/high.

So really we can break it all down into just 3 steps, and we can even make each step just one single word:

1) Detox.
2) Commitment.
3) Growth.

Let’s slowly expand on each of these three concepts so that we can nail down the details and try to make it all clear to people.

For starters, I really prefer the labels of:

1) Disruption – get detoxed, go to rehab, get stable.
2) Zero tolerance policy – this the agreement that you make with yourself that you will not use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.
3) Cycle of personal growth – this is your long term relapse prevention plan. It unfolds more and more as you challenge yourself to improve some aspect of your life or your self.

Let’s look at each one in more detail. I am fairly confident that this entire program of recovery can make sense in only 3 steps, rather than 12 of them.

Step one: disruption

AA has 12 steps, and you would think that the first one would be “stop drinking and using drugs long enough to come out of the fog of addiction!”

But it’s not. Which is a shame, because before you can even TRY to recover, you have to give yourself a chance.

In my opinion, this is the main purpose and function of the modern day rehab or detox unit. If someone says they are going to residential treatment, then they are essentially going to go check in some where long enough to “disrupt” their addiction. It is a protected environment that gives them a chance to stop using their drug of choice for a while. That’s really pretty much it.

Now of course these rehab centers will try to go a step further than this–they will attempt to teach you what needs to be done in order to stay clean and sober. But remember what I pointed out earlier–this is like spraying a lit match with a fire hose. It’s information overload. You sit in rehab for a week or maybe up to 28 days and the amount of “stuff” that you learn in order to try to stay sober is overwhelming. Most rehabs will also have some 12 step meetings thrown in for good measure, and in the end some of what you learn may even be contradictory!

This is not a fault against AA, nor is it a fault against rehabs. It really is just the nature of the beast–addiction is complex.

This disruption step is still very important because you still need a way to get detoxed and to get stable in your sobriety. Short term treatment can do that.

What they cannot do, however, is to convince you to “make a commitment to yourself not to use drugs or alcohol, no matter what.”

That is up to you. Only you can do that. Only you can make that commitment.

So let’s say that you make this promise to yourself, that you will not use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what happens. If you make this promise, but then later allow yourself some wiggle room, what good is that? It will only lead to relapse.

This is why we call this promise “zero tolerance.” You are making a mental policy that you are not use drugs or alcohol, and you are not allowing yourself any wiggle room. No exceptions allowed! That is the zero tolerance part.

So step one is to get clean and sober.

Step two is to mentally commit to staying clean and sober.

Pretty simple right?

Let’s take a closer look at the zero tolerance policy idea.

Step two: the zero tolerance policy

This is simply your agreement that you make WITH YOURSELF that you will not use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.

The only thing that matters is the strength of this commitment (and that you make it to begin with!).

So really this is a mental commitment. You need to stop and think for a moment, and make a pact with yourself.

The pact is simple. You are agreeing that you will not use addictive drugs or alcohol, no matter what happens.

This has some implications that can also affect your thinking.

Here’s how:

When you notice yourself thinking about using your drug of choice, you need to become hyper-aware of these “cravings” and shut them down immediately.

Do not scold yourself–everyone will have random thoughts and fantasies of using drugs or alcohol. That is normal. It’s going to happen.

But when it does, do not indulge these fantasies! You will only make yourself miserable.

Instead, remember your zero tolerance policy. You KNOW for a fact that you will not allow yourself to use addictive drugs or alcohol, right? So don’t allow yourself to fantasize about doing so! Because if you do allow that fantasy to play out in your mind, then you will just make yourself miserable through deprivation.

Don’t deprive yourself. The only way to do this while maintaining abstinence is to shut down those cravings and fantasies.

Remember that they will still happen, and to some extent they may be beyond your control. But once you become aware of the fantasy, you can choose to distract yourself and think about other things.

This is very important. Make the mental commitment, and then stick to it. Don’t allow yourself to daydream about what it would be like to get drunk or high. If you find yourself “going there,” shut it down immediately.

In early recovery this will be an issue. After a few years or even just a few months it will become far less of an issue. I am at 11 years clean and sober and I do not remember the last time this was a real issue for me. Maybe I still have cravings but I shut them down automatically, out of habit. I just don’t allow myself to “indulge” in the fantasy of using drugs or alcohol. It will only serve to make your miserable in the long run.

Step three: The cycle of personal growth

Let’s recap again:

Step one: Get clean and sober.
Step two: Decide to stay that way.
Step three: Take positive action while clean and sober.

This is step three, the personal growth stage. This part lasts until you die. It is long term relapse prevention in action.

The idea is that you strive to make personal growth. Positive action.

Stop and think for a moment about recovery in general. What is the point of getting clean and sober to begin with? What is the point of sobriety?

Part of it is your health and your quality of life. In fact, most of it is your health. When you choose to get clean and sober, you are doing so as a decision for better health.

You are essentially saying “I need to stop killing myself with my addiction. I need to get healthy.”

This long term cycle of personal growth should really be an extension of that decision.

For example, a popular thing to do in long term recovery is to finally quit smoking cigarettes. (Of course this does not apply to everyone, but it certainly applies to many in recovery).

Quitting smoking is exactly the sort of positive change that I am referring to when I talk about “the cycle of personal growth in recovery.”

First you have to look at your life, and evaluate. “How could I be healthier? How could I be happier in my recovery? How could I improve myself life situation, or help others in some way?” These are just basic evaluation questions, nothing special or specific really. Just wondering “how can I take positive action? How can I eliminate something negative from my life?”

So after you evaluate, you may identify a problem or an opportunity that you can tackle.

My system has always been to seek out the “biggest bang for the buck” when it comes to making changes in my life. So I do not want to put forth a huge effort and only get tiny results. What I want to do is to find the biggest impact change that I can possibly make, and focus exclusively on that.

So with the smoking example, this was obvious (at least for me in my situation it was). I was clean and sober but I was still smoking. There were some other goals in my life and some other opportunities, but none of them would have the same impact as quitting smoking would. Therefore I pushed myself to quit smoking until I (finally!) made it a reality.

At the time this had a HUGE impact on my life, and on my recovery. It really gave me a huge boost to accomplish that particular goal. This was by design–I had choose the one goal in my life that would make the greatest positive impact.

After achieving this goal, I reflected for a bit and also asked other people for advice and feedback. What area of personal growth should I pursue next? What needs fixing in my life today? What is the next change that I could make that would have the greatest positive impact?

This is how you enter into this cycle of personal growth. Evaluate your life and figure out the most important change that can be made. Then, put all of your energy and effort into doing it.

This is how you can create a new life in recovery without depending on other programs, meetings, or therapy.

I believe that feedback is still useful for determining future changes, and also for evaluating your current situation. We cannot always see clearly what our next step should be, but others possibly can. Therefore it makes sense to seek out advice, feedback, etc. This can be done both in or out of formal programs such as AA.

Who needs a 3 step program?

Anyone who feels overwhelmed at the complicated stream of information that you get in early recovery can benefit from this simplification.

The question is:

“Does this 3 step approach actually help me to recover?”

That is for you alone to answer.

1) Detox your body and get stable.
2) Commit to abstinence.
3) Pursue personal growth.

I am not sure how many more ways I can say it or break it down, but this is the essence of the 3 step process. Disrupt, decide, and execute. You may need help along the way, including with each of the 3 steps in the process, but this does not invalidate the simplicity of the method.

How simple can we make recovery, and still have it work for us?


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