What You Really Need to Know About Complacency in Recovery

What You Really Need to Know About Complacency in Recovery


Yesterday we looked at the importance of staying busy in recovery and avoiding idle hands. This was mainly focused on early recovery, when the threat of relapse is most imminent.

But today we want to consider the threat of relapse in long term sobriety, and that is most commonly caused due to complacency.

When most people first get clean and sober, they have visions of relapse some day due to temptation, or due to a threatening situation where there are triggers everywhere around them. The truth of the matter is that most people who relapse in long term recovery do so out of sheer boredom and complacency. They don’t relapse because of a tricky situation or due to temptation, they relapse because they got stuck in their growth pattern and became lazy in recovery.

What you need to realize most of all is that this is enemy number one. Complacency is the killer in recovery that you need to watch out for. Most people get this wrong because they focus almost entirely on early recovery and the more immediate threats to their sobriety. After they find stability in early recovery they believe that the main threat is gone and that they are pretty much home free. Such an attitude is what can eventually lead to relapse because this is exactly how people let their guard down against addiction. They stop pushing themselves to seek active recovery and then their addiction finds a way to sneak in the back door.

In order to stay safe from the threat of relapse you have to realize that the threat exists to begin with. But just knowing that the threat exists is not enough, you also have to do something active about it. Or rather, something PRO-active. That means that you have to seek a solution for this BEFORE it ever becomes a problem. The nature of complacency is that you cannot really react to it after the fact because then you will have already relapsed. Seeing it in retrospect is too late. We need to catch complacency before it sets in and doing something to proactively prevent it. This article will give you a strategy to be able to do exactly that. But first we have to take a closer look at some of the attitudes and thought processes that can trip people up to begin with. If you cannot identify the problem then you obviously cannot do anything about it. So the first part of this battle is in recognizing that complacency exists, and also recognizing the need to do something about it.

Am I not fully recovered yet?

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No one is ever fully cured of addiction or alcoholism. There is always a chance that the person may be tempted to drink or use drugs again some day. Even without temptation, the person could still potentially relapse due to circumstances that almost seem beyond their control. For example, the recovering alcoholic who sustains a sudden accident and then gets unwittingly addicted to Vicodin after a trip to the hospital. This is just a random example but I have seen it happen more than once to recovering alcoholics who had multiple years in sobriety and thought they were immune to such a threat.

If you go through early sobriety and you manage to find stability in your life again then you may be tempted to believe that you are “fully recovered.” Some people also get sick of the label game and so they do not like being told that they are “powerless over their addiction” or that they are “an alcoholic for life.” From a mental standpoint such people may want to use more positive language and they feel that statements such as those detract from their power and tear down their recovery. They would prefer to be more positive and so they do not like labels that suggest that they have a disease for life, or that they can never move beyond a label such as “alcoholic” or “addict.”

I can understand such thinking and I also agree that some of the demeaning language that you might hear in AA gets a bit old at times. Sometimes people in traditional recovery seem to always be putting themselves down, reminding themselves of how powerless they are, and proudly claiming these negative labels to wear as if they are badges for the rest of their lives. It can get a bit tiresome.

But on the other hand, I think it is pretty dangerous to cast away the label of “recovering alcoholic” or “recovering addict.” If you attempt to declare yourself as “recovered” then I think you are on dangerous ground. The reason I say this is because I have watched so many recovering alcoholics and addicts screw up their long term sobriety, for various reasons. The threat of relapse is greater than most people estimate. Therefore we must stay vigilant in every way that we can, and this starts with our self talk and the language that we use when we think about our addiction and our own recovery process. In my opinion, the self talk is important and the terms we use are mildly important as well.

If you declare yourself to be “cured” in recovery then the danger in this is that it could cause you to be less vigilant in fighting against complacency. That’s all.

I realize that you can become stable in recovery and overcome those immediate threats in early sobriety and you eventually reach this point in recovery where you could use a new label. Maybe “cured” is a bit too strong but something like “living in long term recovery” seems to make sense.

All I am cautioning you about is the idea that you need to stay vigilant, and you need to keep pushing yourself to take positive action even after you are stable in long term recovery. So one of the traps that can have a negative impact on this is if you think of yourself as being “cured” or “recovered” from addiction.

Realize this too: If you think of yourself as “recovering” and you think of yourself as still being in a learning process, there is absolutely no downside. Just because you have 4 years sober and you still think of yourself as being eager to grow in your recovery, this does not diminish you in any way.

The right attitude can only help you, it will not tear you down or hurt you. And the right attitude is to think of yourself as one step away from relapse, never fully cured, always eager to learn more about yourself in recovery, and always seeking more positive growth to protect yourself from relapse.

The journey never ends. You will never arrive at a place of “full recovery.” It will always be an unfinished process. So just accept this and then start moving forward. You are not cured. You are curing yourself, one day at a time, for the rest of your life.

When can I simply enjoy my life and practice some acceptance?

Some people get sick of personal growth. Or they may grow weary of the idea that they have to keep pushing themselves to grow, to learn, to change–for the rest of their lives.

“When do I get a break” they might ask. “When do I get to kick my feet up and relax for a while? Practice a bit of acceptance and just bask in serenity? Why do I always have to be pushing myself to grow?”

Those are fair questions for anyone who reads about the Creative Theory of recovery and gets overwhelmed at the thought of constant growth.

Let me attempt to dissuade your fears. There is a very strong focus on pushing yourself for personal growth in recovery, and this is the main thing that will protect you from complacency in the long run, so this is certainly a reasonable worry for people. However, consider that:

* The constant push for personal growth is really a cycle and an ongoing process that includes periods of down time. This down time is the part where you are practicing acceptance and also reflecting on the growth that you have made in life. The reflecting process also gives you a chance to plan what your next goal and purpose in recovery may be, in order that you might start moving forward again. It is very possible to get burnt out on this idea of constant learning and growth. When you do burn out, you will naturally practice acceptance, kick your feet up, and just reflect for a while. The important thing is that you use this time to plan out your next growth project in life, and what you want to accomplish next.

* Growth first, serenity later. Most of the growth and personal achievement that you make in early recovery is to eliminate negative elements from your life anyway. Without making this effort, your serenity will be compromised to begin with. In other words, you can’t just kick up your feet and enjoy your recovery until you have put in the work and eliminated the sources of stress and chaos. Think about this: 90 percent of your joy in life will come from simply eliminating all of the garbage, stress, addictions, and negative habits that you may have acquired. Our real happiness comes from reducing ourselves back down to the bare essences of our humanity. Get rid of the addiction, stop smoking, eliminate toxic relationships, start moving our bodies (exercise), eat healthier foods, get in touch with our spirit, and so on. What else would you argue that you need to be happy in this life? I can tell you what the answer to that is….nothing! Serenity is created based on eliminating the negative stuff from our lives, rather than creating positive stuff. A bit counter-intuitive but absolutely true. Make your life into a blank slate and you will find joy and happiness there. Fill it up with garbage, stress, addictions, and toxic relationships and you will find misery and chaos.

* People relapse based on a lack of action, not because of too much action. Sure, people can get overwhelmed in recovery. But when they do they simply back off and chill out for a while, and then reevaluate their approach to recovery. But people who do not do enough and who do not take enough action are the ones who relapse. Your greatest threat is a lack of action, not in being overworked or over-stressed due to the drive for more change in recovery.

If you push yourself hard for personal growth then you will eventually find that you are practicing acceptance as well, and that there are times in your recovery where you are kicking your feet up and enjoying life again. This is all part of the cycle of personal growth. It will happen naturally if you are truly pushing yourself to achieve significant goals in life. When you achieve such a goal you will naturally pause for a while and reflect on it. You cannot help but do this, because you will be proud and amazed at your accomplishment.

If you are turned off by the idea of continuous growth in recovery, then I would bet that you are overestimating how inconvenient it will be. Really, it’s not so bad! The time is going to pass anyway, you are just using the time to improve your life. This is not like signing up to run a marathon every week. In fact, if you follow the 12 steps the same concepts of continuous growth are pretty much embedded in there as well (step 10 for example, and also the constant evaluation of character defects and trying to remove them, etc.).

What is the point of continuous growth in recovery? Why keep pushing for change?

Continuous growth protects you from relapse.

There are other ways to protect yourself from the threat of relapse, of course. What you need to do in your recovery journey is to evaluate the approach that works best for you. In my opinion and in my experience, the best approach is to keep reinventing yourself in recovery. I believe that this process of reinvention and continuous growth is the best form of relapse prevention.

For example, you may attend AA meetings for the rest of your life and use this as your relapse prevention plan. Many people do this, and they will tell you that point blank that this is their exact plan. They will say “I need to go to these meetings for the rest of my life because they are my medicine. Without these meetings I might relapse. I don’t want to risk that.”

When I was in early recovery I slowly realized that this was the default plan that was pretty much expected for everyone to follow: simply go to AA meetings for the rest of your life. Something about this did not sit well with me and I suspected that there might be a better way to live in recovery.

Now whether or not you go to AA meetings all the time is actually beside the point. Many people who continuously attend 12 step meetings relapse all the time, believe it or not! Such people need to take their own advice and try something different (insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, etc.).

What I have found after my first decade in recovery is that your success in sobriety is more about your level of personal growth, and the amount of positive action that you take. This is true both in and out of AA. In other words, there are people in AA who relapse repeatedly, and there are people in AA who are continuously pushing themselves to take positive action and to grow. Guess who stays sober? And then realize that the continuous growth is not dependent on AA in any way. The program is just one context in which such growth may occur.

People relapse due to complacency when they stop learning and stop taking positive action.

How some people get stuck in a program of recovery

Programs of recovery (such as 12 step programs, religious based programs, etc.) are only useful if they can inspire you to keep making positive changes in your life. Once they stop motivating you to accumulate growth and positive changes then they stop being useful.

Therefore the question to ask is not “Should I go to AA for the rest of my life?” instead the question is “Is going to AA helping me to push myself to grow and learn?” If the answer is “yes” then keep going to AA, as this will prevent relapse.

However, many people get stuck in recovery because they are relying on a program that is no longer motivating them to make positive changes. Now you can fault the person for this, or you can fault the program for this, but realize that doing either of those things is missing the point entirely. It has stopped working, and therefore the person needs to change things up. They need to find a way to start making positive changes again, to start seeking personal growth again. This is the important part. Whether they do this inside or outside of AA is actually not very important. Of course most people believe that it all hinges on program involvement or daily meetings and so they can not see this for what it really is.

If you get stuck in recovery then you need to jump start your personal growth again. Some might double down in AA and rediscover their efforts there. Others might walk away from the program and realize that they need to find their own motivation to grow and to change. Either path can work for you so long as you “work it.” They are right when they say “it works when you work it!” But realize that this also applies to your own personal path of growth outside of AA. That works too if you “work it.” The important thing is that you light a fire under your seat and start taking action again. Fail to do that and you will relapse eventually. This is how complacency works. It kills slowly but surely.

Cumulative growth

Still not convinced that you need to find a path of continuous growth? Consider one more concept: that of cumulative growth.

The real long term benefits in recovery are based on accumulation. You can only tap into these immense benefits if you are willing to put in the effort.

What defines this effort? Daily positive action. You cannot see it when you have two weeks sober and are trying to do the right thing, and not getting anywhere very quickly.

But fast forward to 3 years sober and take a look at the growth you have made in recovery. Suddenly you will see that it has all been worth it! Recovery is a gift that just keeps on giving, and in fact the long term gifts of sobriety become greater and greater as you go along. This is due to the concept of accumulation.

Accumulation works just like the negative downward spiral of addiction worked, just in the other direction. If you take positive action every single day, then eventually all of those tiny choices start to add up and create an amazing new life for you. You can’t see this on a day to day basis until you have lived long enough in recovery to be able to look backwards several months. This is why you have to “give recovery a chance.” It takes time to see the benefits.

Every day is a gift, a multiplier. If you take positive action every day in your recovery then you are creating a powerful downstream benefit. Your life will get better and better and the benefits will be positively overwhelming at some point. But you have to have faith in the process because when you are first getting the ball rolling you will not see these benefits kick in right away. You have to give it time in order to achieve peace and contentment in long term recovery. This is how continuous growth can overcome complacency. Through accumulation.


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