10 Things I Learned in Long Term Rehab

10 Things I Learned in Long Term Rehab


I thought it might be a good idea to explain what I learned while living in rehab for 20 months. This might be an interesting read to anyone who is considering going into a longer term treatment program. Of course it might also be useful information for someone who is looking to avoid long term rehab (though if other options continue to fail for them, they may want to reconsider!).

Here are the 10 key points that I learned while living in long term treatment:

1) That long term treatment is not a cure for addiction.
2) That meeting makers don’t necessarily make it.
3) That personal growth is the key to long term sobriety.
4) That complacency kills more addicts than resentments.
5) That there are multiple ways to stay clean and sober.
6) That dependency on a recovery program is a liability.
7) That commitment to sobriety is all that matters.
8) That clean time matters.
9) That you have plenty of time in recovery to meet your goals.
10) That sobriety is its own reward.

That long term treatment is not a cure for addiction

It was amazing to see how many of my peers relapsed while I was living with them in long term rehab. I lived there for 22 months, and I would have guessed that about 20 to 30 people probably came through there and relapsed while I was living there. This was in a small facility that only housed 12 people! I was honestly stunned at how poorly long term rehab seemed to work for people.

I guess my thought was that people who attended long term rehab would do significantly better than people who just went to meetings alone, or who just went to short term rehab. But based on what I saw this was not the case…..people in long term rehab seemed to do just as poorly as anyone else.

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Just having the extra support was not enough to sway people into being successful at recovery.

My own perception at the time was that no one should relapse while living in long term rehab—there is just no excuse for it. Or so I thought. I mean, if you are going to go to the trouble to actually live in rehab, why would you end up relapsing? It made no sense to me. I mean, I do understand addiction, and I understand relapse. But in my mind if you are willing to actually live in rehab then you must be in a state of full surrender. Obviously this is not the case with everyone (though it certainly was for me). So what I was doing is projecting my own ideas on to other people, expecting them to be in a full state of surrender just because they were living in long term rehab.

And this is the reason that long term rehab is no cure for addiction—because the only “cure” is to be in a state of full surrender to your disease. Just going to rehab, or long term, is useless if you are still clinging to denial. Only full surrender can allow you to arrest your disease (and even then it is not really cured).

That said, long term rehab worked for me when other solutions had failed. But, I was finally ready. Being ready was the key, not the long term treatment.

That meeting makers don’t necessarily make it

When I first went to detox and was exposed to AA and NA, I learned the mantra that everyone seemed to be toting “meeting makers make it.” So I went to meetings along with everyone else (I was living in long term treatment) and we were required to meetings every day. I went to meetings for a long time and I carefully observed a number of people who were in recovery with me. But what I observed is simply this: Meeting makers did not always “make it.” In fact, they often relapsed.

But what I found is that you could not really challenge this idea that meetings were the key to success, because if you challenged the idea then everyone who was toting the AA party line would jump down your throat, and warn you that you were headed for trouble if you ever even thought of not going to meetings. So I kept my mouth shut. And for many months, I continued to attend the meetings, watching others who did so as well.

I noticed that there were 2 groups of people that traditional recovery groups had not told me about:

1) People who continued to attend AA meetings but also were chronic relapsers.
2) People who stopped attending AA meetings and never relapsed, but continued to grow in recovery.

The people who were die-hard AA fans did not seem to acknowledge either of those groups, nor did they believe that such people meant anything. Why should they care, they were doing well in AA, and were grateful for their sobriety. Why shouldn’t everyone else be the same way?

The bottom line is that if AA meetings work for you, then that is great. Go with it. Take your solution and run with it, be happy. But if daily meetings are not your cup of tea, there is life outside of AA. No one told me that though….I had to discover it for myself. And living in long term treatment exposed those 2 “secret” groups of people to me.

That personal growth is the key to long term sobriety

I watched a lot of people relapse in addiction recovery before I figured out what was really going on. There were two main “red herrings” on my recovery journey. The first was discussed above, and that was the idea that “meeting makers make it.” I could sense early on that this was not going to be my salvation in recovery (simply attending lots of meetings).

The second red herring that I found in recovery seemed to be God and the higher power stuff. Now this is a tricky topic because I do not want to discount the idea that spirituality can be very important in your recovery. But what I found over time was that traditional recovery was toting spiritual growth as being the end-all and be-all of recovery. And the problem was that I could clearly see this was not the case. Spiritual growth was just one rung on the ladder, but it was not the whole ladder.

Just about everyone in AA and NA seemed to be making this same mistake. They were putting spiritual growth above all other principles and concepts. And the problem with that is that many of these people relapsed. In fact, one of my peers who was extremely spiritual ended up relapsing, and it shook me to the core. At the time, I was looking for the highest truth in recovery, and all signs seemed to be pointing towards the spiritual path. The problem was that reality was showing me a different story. What I came to realize is that the foundation of recovery is simple, even more simple than the spiritual path everyone was pushing: physical abstinence was the highest priority.

And then what I discovered is that personal growth is what kept people active and healthy in recovery, not just spiritual growth. Spiritual growth was far too limiting. It was just one piece of the solution, but it was not the whole solution. The reason that I learned this in long term rehab is because so many of my peers relapsed who seemed to be more focused on spirituality than I was. At the same time I was seeking the type of personal growth that might set me free in recovery, and I found it by branching out into other forms of growth. For example, I started exercising and this became a huge part of my recovery strategy.

That complacency kills more addicts than resentments

When I first got into recovery it was all about overcoming and eliminating resentments. Many of my peers were angry people, and it was the therapists job to help them work through that anger so that they could avoid relapse.

This worked in early recovery, but many people found this “tool of recovery” to be their only trick. Those who failed to move on would not do well in long term recovery. It takes more than just overcoming your resentments.

In fact, what I discovered is that the number one problem in long term recovery is in becoming complacent. This is a far more insidious problem than resentments and anger because it sneaks up on you and catches you totally off guard.

While I was living in long term rehab, we were all very aware of our resentments and we all worked hard to eliminate them. We all did a fourth step according to AA or NA and we had a list of our resentments. The problem was that for many people in recovery this was their only trick. As they remained sober, they thought that they had it all figured out, because they had worked through most (or all) of their anger. And then complacency crept in and they were suddenly in a world of chaos and misery again.

What I discovered is that the only way to fight complacency is with a pro-active strategy. You can’t just wait for it to happen and then react. If you do then you will be too late. So the key is to take an active approach towards personal growth, to try to constantly improve your life and your life situation. It is only through this constant, incremental progress that you can fully protect yourself from relapse.

I watched so many guys in long term rehab work through the first few steps with their sponsor, then get lazy. It takes more than that. You can do “more” inside of a program like AA, or you can do it outside of AA. It really doesn’t matter. But you have to be taking positive action and making continuous growth in your life, or complacency will eventually kill you.

That there are multiple ways to stay clean and sober

I have to admit that when I first got clean and sober, I really believed that there was only one way possible to achieve sobriety. I believed in the myth that “AA is the only way.”

I found out that this was not true. It took me about 18 months or so to discover this truth. As mentioned above, the first part of the process started when I realized that the program was not perfect, and that it failed for many people (even when the attended meetings religiously).

Later on in my recovery I discovered that there were recovering addicts and alcoholics in the world who did not rely on the 12 step program at all. For example, I met people who frequented online recovery groups who did not go to meetings or participate in AA at all. I also found people who used rigorous exercise and fitness programs as a method of recovery. They, too, did not rely on AA principles or daily meetings.

It seemed to me that the rest of the world was clearly set in the other direction—they were happy to rely on the 12 steps and daily meetings in order to maintain their recovery. Meanwhile, I started to see that reliance as a dependency.

One thing that I figured out very quickly is that people in traditional recovery do not generally like to hear about alternative recovery techniques. If you tell people who are into AA that you have a method of recovery that is not 12 step based, they do not want to hear it (as a general rule). Such people already have their solution and they do not want it threatened in any way. Their response is understandable but it is also a fear-based response if you look deeply into it. They see anyone who is not promoting the 12 steps as the solution to recovery as a threat to their own sobriety. Most people in AA will not admit to this if you try to talk to them about this. Therefore, the solution is not to talk about it, but to simply find what works for you in recovery.

If you do find an alternative method of sobriety (as I have) then do not try to tell anyone in AA or NA about it. They are not interested in hearing about a different solution.

This is not to say that AA or 12 step programs are bad, or that they don’t work, because they certainly do—for some people. But they do not work for everyone, and for those of us how want an alternative, there are other paths to recovery. It took me almost 2 years to finally admit this to myself, but it was an important revelation for me.

That dependency on a recovery program is a liability

During my first year of recovery I really had this one backwards.

And this may not true for everyone, but it I found it to be true for me. Or at least I can say that I am grateful for the 12+ years of sobriety that I have enjoyed, thanks to reducing my dependency on recovery programs.
I have watched many other people in recovery who relapsed, and many of them had a large amount of dependency on recovery programs. Such people dedicated their lives to programs such as AA or NA, and I decided that this path was not the best for me. I did not want to get “hooked” on a program and come to depend on meetings for my sustained sobriety.

When I was in early recovery, I would watch people come back to meetings after a relapse, and they would say “my problem was that I stopped going to meetings.” So everyone agreed that the solution was to never stop going to meetings, and thus avoid relapse.

I saw this as a warning sign. Why the dependency on meetings to begin with? Why is that a good thing? If a recovery program is that dependent on daily meetings, then how good is it really? These were the thoughts and questions that drove me to investigate alternatives to traditional recovery.

Now that I have been free from organized recovery programs for over a decade, I can honestly say that (for me anyway) recovery programs are a liability. They get in the way of real recovery, which should be based entirely on personal growth. If a program helps you to grow as a person then that is a good thing. But if you just show up to meetings every day to vent your problems, then you have to ask yourself what you are really doing in recovery.

That commitment to sobriety is all that matters

What is the most important thing in your life, and in your recovery?

Commitment to total abstinence.

Not daily meetings. Not your sponsor or your peers in AA. Not even your higher power. But total and complete abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances.

That is your number one priority in recovery. Don’t ever screw this up. It is the only rule that truly matters.

That clean time matters

Clean time matters, I don’t care what anyone says.

If you go to lots of AA or NA meetings, you are going to run into plenty of folks who say that clean time does not matter. You will hear them say things like “whoever got up earliest today has the most clean time, because we are all just one drink away from a relapse.”

Many people in traditional recovery try to downplay clean time for some reason.

I got news for them:

Clean time is important. It is one measuring stick. It may not be the only way to measure your recovery, but it is a darn important way. And it is a big mistake to minimize it.

I am grateful for the 12 years I have accumulated thus far. And it is a big deal to me that I have gone for that long without a drink or a drug. Why would anyone want to take that away from me?

Have I been a fool for believing that clean time is important all along? Maybe I am, but I prefer to hold my sobriety as the most important thing in my life….period. Therefore, clean time is super important to me. If you don’t like it, too bad! I think you are missing an important concept in recovery if you try to minimize clean time.

That you have plenty of time in recovery to meet your goals

Recovery is a long journey. You have time. You have plenty of time. This is especially true (or perhaps it is only true) if you remain clean and sober. Because once you are stable in recovery, your whole world opens up to you. If you want to learn something new, you have time to do that. If you want to explore a new skill, you have the opportunity to do that.

Clean time stretches out before you. Everything becomes an opportunity. Go learn something!

That sobriety is its own reward

This is another thing that I did not know on the day that I got sober, and perhaps did not even know after my first year was over. But it really is true—sobriety is its own reward.

If you are working a recovery, my opinion is that this means that you are actively pursuing personal growth. There is no way to remain sober in the long run if you stop growing.

Therefore you are always learning, always discovering new things, always engaged in the act of re-discovering yourself. This is the life that you were meant to live all along. Sobriety is its own reward.


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