Understanding the Alcoholic Recovery Process in Long Term Sobriety

Understanding the Alcoholic Recovery Process in Long Term Sobriety


There is a lot that goes into understanding the alcoholic recovery process in long term sobriety. Certainly when you are in your first week or two of recovery you are not going to be in a position to really grasp and appreciate all of the long term implications.

In fact, if you are anything like me, then you won’t even necessarily believe that all of those promises that you hear about are even possible for you.

I don’t blame you if you feel that way. Part of the alcoholic condition is feeling hopeless. I admit that I felt that way myself in early recovery. It was only because I stuck around and kept taking suggestions that things got better for me eventually. I was lucky enough to not give up on myself, even though I felt that it was all hopeless. I did not really believe that I could ever be happy again in my life without alcohol. And yet here I am, happy as can be, and sober for over a decade.

Perhaps that is the first lesson then: That your understanding of the recovery process is going to evolve over time. This is perfectly fine because I have news for you: Your actual recovery strategy is also going to evolve over time as well. For example, the things that I was doing in my first year of sobriety are completely different than what I do now in my recovery (over 12 years later). A lot of people in traditional recovery programs will disagree with that idea, and they will say that I am lying, and that sobriety is the same whether you have one day sober or ten years sober.

I disagree with such people. We are both entitled to our opinions, of course. But the question becomes: “Which opinion is more useful to someone who wants to remain sober and be happy?” The answer for me is that I have to figure out how to live my life in long term sobriety without becoming complacent. And in order to do that I have to keep changing, I have to keep learning, and I have to keep growing.

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For me, I could not just keep doing the same old things in recovery and expect to maintain sobriety. You know the routine I am talking about: Go to AA meetings every day (or nearly every day), get a sponsor and work the steps, read the recovery literature, and so on. Keep doing this stuff for the rest of your life. If you get antsy then you need to double down on the basics, go to more meetings, etc.

This wasn’t working out well for me and I watched a lot of people become complacent and relapse while they were attempting this “traditional” approach to recovery.

I suppose if it works for you and you are happy then that is great. On the other hand if you relapse while in “the program” then at some point you might want to blame the program rather than yourself. Ask yourself: “Why is it that when someone stays sober in AA, we give credit to the program, but when someone relapses in AA we blame the individual and say that they let themselves down?” If you are going to give credit to AA then you should also place blame there as well.

This is not said to discredit AA or even to try to steer you away from traditional recovery (especially if it seems to be helping you), but I say these things because they are what I have discovered in my own journey. This is my truth, and it may not be your truth. If so then that is OK. Feel free to go live sober in AA and be happy. I needed to find another path, because the daily grind of meetings was not going to sustain me forever. I left AA over a decade ago and I am still sober today.

You can still learn something from reading this website even if you are still in AA, and that is this:

The principles that govern your success in recovery are universal. That means that if you stay sober while in AA, you are using these universal principles. And if you stay sober outside of AA, you are using these principles as well. The 12 steps are a clumsy guide to some of the principles but in my humble opinion I don’t think they are the best road map for most people. Quite frankly I think that having 12 steps is ridiculous and not even necessary. If you can do it in less than 12 steps then why would you not opt for simplicity? This is the sort of thinking that caused me to strike out on my own and forge my own path instead.

The first principle of anyone’s recovery (whether they go to AA or not) is that of surrender. They must make a decision that they want to change their life. This is widely taught in AA and if you get sober outside of AA you still have to surrender.

My opinion is that the next important concept is that of disruption. This is sort of a technical detail but I find it to be very important. I worked in a detox unit for 5+ years and so I know the value of putting an alcoholic or drug addict under medical supervision. “Disruption” is exactly what it sounds like. You go to detox and you are watched by medical professionals and you thus break out of your pattern of addiction. You disrupt your pattern. I think going to rehab is by far the best way to do this.

And on the whole, disruption is pretty easy. It can take a lot of guts to surrender and admit that you have a problem, but once you do this and agree to go to detox the rest sort of takes care of itself–as least as far as being in rehab is concerned. Actually sitting in detox for a few days or going through a 28 day program is basically a cakewalk. Seriously. That is the easy part. The hard part is the before and after:

1) Getting up the guts to surrender and actually check into treatment.
2) Leaving rehab and then changing your whole life so that you don’t relapse.

Those are the hard parts. But actually being in detox and rehab and becoming sober, at least temporarily? That is the easy part.

After achieving stability, now what?

So you make the honest admission to yourself that you need serious help and then you go to detox for a week. Maybe you stick around for the residential program as well. They probably introduce you to AA meetings, group therapy, and so on. You walk out of treatment after a few weeks and you are basically stable. You are detoxed. You are clean and sober and if you really want to then you can keep this momentum going and stay this way.

Of course doing so requires a great deal of effort. This is why so much of your treatment will be therapists and counselors telling you what you must do after you leave rehab. This is because you are never truly “cured” and in particular the first 30 days after leaving treatment are especially dangerous. Most people relapse during that time period so they are doing everything that they can to convince you that you need tons and tons of support and resources. And for the most part they are right. If you just go back to your old patterns and routines then it is highly likely that you will relapse. The key is to change everything. Really. Everything.

I did not make it work for myself until I honestly went to a long term rehab and lived for almost two years! That is not a little commitment. Obviously that is a really big life change and so this was really one big massive disruption in order to escape from my old life. For me, it actually worked. I was ready to move on and find a new way to live. For many of my peers in recovery it did not work so well, and I later learned the long term rehab does not generally have a much higher success rate then the regular old 28 day programs. Most studies give longer programs a slight edge but it is not a large enough amount to really call it a “breakthrough” or a cure by any means. For the most part, treatment is treatment, no matter how long you attend for. I am grateful I was able to stay in rehab for as long as I needed, just when I most needed it. I was ready to change.

And ultimately this is what it always boils down to. Most people who leave detox or treatment are not really ready to change. They think that they want a new life in recovery but they are not usually willing to put in the massive effort in order to get it.

Taking a drink takes you from being miserable to being “drunk and happy” in mere minutes. But becoming happy in recovery after you quit drinking takes time. To be honest it takes a lot of time. Meaning that you may be depressed for at least a few weeks and possibly even more than a month. But if you are serious about recovery and you are taking suggestions from people then you will not still be miserable after a full year has gone by.

Let me put it to you this way:

If you are still miserable in your recovery after a full year of really trying to make positive changes then you are definitely doing something wrong. You should at least be able to realize that true happiness is possible when you are sober in a way that you never could have achieved while you were drinking. Now that is not to say that you may not relapse one day after realizing this fact, but at least you should have some happy days in there and realize that there is true hope for recovery. I realized this somewhere around the 90 day mark. In fact I realized one day that I had just made it through a whole day without thinking about drinking once. Not even once! This was a miracle.

So after you leave treatment and you are following suggestions (going to meetings, working a program, reading the literature, etc.) you need to take that next step.

Now if you ask people in traditional recovery what that next step is you are going to get spoon fed more of “the program.”

They will say things like “Keep going to meetings!”

“Work with your sponsor some more!”

“Work through the steps!”

And so on.

My opinion is that this can become a recipe for complacency to set in. Instead of doubling down on the program basics, you need to expand your horizons and start planning out your own personal growth in recovery.

I suggest that you do this after you have achieved some stability in recovery. Not before. Think of this as a process you go through after 6 months to a year in recovery, rather than at the 30 day point. The label we might put on this process could be “mapping.”

How you need to reinvent yourself through the use of mapping

The idea behind “mapping” is pretty simple:

Figure out where you are in life. Then figure out where you want to go, and what you want your life to be like. Then develop a plan in order to get there.

Simple, right?

So how do you go about doing this?

First of all you should seek help for every step in this process. That means talking with other people in recovery and seeking guidance and feedback from them.

They can help you with each and every step.

For example:

1) Figuring out where you are – first you might do some writing about this and try to assess where you are at in your recovery. I would consider both your character flaws as well as your life situation. While it may sound negative of me to suggest, I honestly believe that you should focus on all of the negative stuff in your life and things that drag you down and/or hold you back. There is an important reason for doing this, namely because that is where all of the personal growth will come from (fixing the bad stuff).

2) Figuring out where you want to go – this is basically “modeling” if you are looking to your peers or a sponsor in recovery as a role model. Find people who are living the sort of life that you want to live, and then draw from that vision to add it to your own ideas. Have a vision of where you want your life to end up, what you want things to be like. Use modeling to find what works for others and what makes others happy as well.

3) Figuring out how to get there – again, use advice and feedback and modeling for this. If someone has the life you want, then they also know how they arrived there. Ask them to tell you what to do. Then go do it. Very simple, and yet also very challenging to actually follow through on.

All three of these mapping steps can benefit if you seek advice and guidance from other people.

You may believe that this makes you a weak person because you are asking others for help. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you model others like this you take a massive shortcut and you get awesome results by “borrowing” their wisdom. There is not a smarter way to do it, trust me!

Preventing relapse through personal growth

Remember when I mentioned that that are fundamental principles in recovery from alcoholism–principles that hold true whether you are in AA or not in AA?

Well, one of those principles is that of relapse prevention.

Most people do not actually have this figured out. If you ask them what relapse prevention actually consists of, they will give you a strange and sometimes wandering answer. Or they will say “work the steps” which is a bit overwhelming as there are 12 of them to take in all at once.

The secret has I have discovered over the years (for me anyway) is that relapse prevention is actually based entirely on personal growth. If you stop growing completely in your recovery then you are at serious risk of relapse.

On the other hand, if you have recently gone through some major change and you have learned something about yourself and you took positive action, then it is impossible for you to relapse during that process. It is not even remotely possible that you would relapse while you are going through some serious positive growth and changes. I am talking about the sort of changes that are challenging and bring you real benefit in life.

This is the idea of “reinventing yourself over and over again in recovery.” If you stop learning about yourself then you stop the process of change. If you stop improving your life or your life situation then you will eventually revert back to your old habits (that lead to relapse).

They have a saying in traditional recovery that sums this concept up pretty well: “You are either working on recovery, or you are working on a relapse.” If you think that you are standing still in the middle of those two extremes then you are wrong. You are headed for relapse.

The only way that you can be sure of yourself in recovery is to keep taking positive action. When you learn and grow and take positive action, you move further and further away from the threat of relapse. When you get lazy and do nothing in order to grow, you get closer and closer to relapse. It is as simple as that.

Now you can see how this fundamental concept can apply both inside AA and outside of it. If you are pursuing personal growth outside of formal recovery programs then this is not problem–you are still protected from relapse. On the other hand, anyone can be actively involved in AA or another recovery program but they can become complacent and just sort of go through the motions, and before you know it they might relapse and not even understand why. It is because they stopped growing, they stopped pushing themselves to that next level.

Therefore I am suggesting that you need to find a way to keep reinventing yourself. If you can do that in AA, then go for it. Keep growing and learning and be happy in sobriety. Me, I had to find another path with which to find those sort of challenges, where I could push myself to make progress. I found this path outside of formal recovery programs.

Honestly, it is not the path so much (AA or not in AA) but the personal growth that you are experiencing. Because people stay sober (or relapse) both in and out of recovery programs. It is only their personal growth (or lack thereof) that determines their fate.

When do I get to rest?

You don’t.

On the plus side, you get to keep experiencing more and more rewards and benefits of a life well lived in sobriety.

And that is reward enough for me.

Trust me, it is worth it. Otherwise, would I write all of this?

Seeking internal and external changes

One last thing about the process of long term sobriety:

It must contain both internal and external changes.

This is important. You must seek to change both your character flaws (internal) as well as your life situation (external).

When I first got sober, I left a job that was at a business where all of my peers drank and used drugs with me. I got drunk and high with nearly every single coworker of mine.

This is an external problem. I had to quit that job in order to move forward in recovery. This was an external change.

I also had to learn how to overcome self pity. I had to figure out a way to raise my awareness and shut this (self pity) down when I recognized it. This was an internal change that I had to make.

Both types of changes are important to consider. Do not neglect one only to focus on the other, or this lack of balance will eventually lead you to relapse.

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