You might believe that if a recovering alcoholic or drug addict reaches a certain milestone in recovery, such as 5 or 10 years sober, that they are now immune to the threat of relapse. Surely once you reach a certain number of years, you are good forever, right?
Wrong. It turns out that there is actually a somewhat scary rate of relapse, even for those who have accumulated several years of clean time. While it does become less and less likely, it is important to realize that it does still happen.
Also, this is going to be the only problem that a recovering addict or alcoholic has in the long run. Why? Because they get through early recovery, and they succeed, and now their only remaining task is to avoid burnout in long term sobriety. And that challenge never goes away, so long as they are still alive. You have to maintain sobriety for the rest of your natural life!
We can think of recovery burnout as being complacency. If a person becomes complacent then it means that they have become lazy or inactive in their approach to recovery, and therefore they are at greater risk of relapse.
If you think about someone who is new in recovery that is going to treatment, going to AA meetings every day, talking with a sponsor, going to see a therapist, doing IOP groups, and so on–that person is not really at risk of being complacent. They are learning and growing every single day, at a fairly rapid rate. This is the opposite of complacency.
And yet, this is not something that is sustainable for 10, 20, or 30 years of recovery. You cannot keep doing IOP groups for 30 years straight, nor would you want to.
So the challenge is this: We all go through early recovery and we experience explosive amounts of personal growth during this time. After that, our rate of learning and personal growth tails off to some extent, but if it drops all the way to zero, we relapse.
So the question is, how do we maintain some of that enthusiasm and intensity from early recovery, while not allowing ourselves to become totally idle and complacent?
My approach to complacency has to do with balanced lifestyle and holistic health. There are other ways to approach the problem of being complacent, but this is just how I tend to do it. You might, for example, have a sponsor in AA who eventually guides you into having your own sponsees, and you would use this as your main tool to avoid becoming complacent. Ultimately you have to find a system that works for you. Just keep in mind that the stakes can be quite high in this “game” because if you relapse the results can be quite devastating.
So let’s talk about the holistic approach. When I had a few months clean and sober my sponsor in NA was trying to get me to exercise. He was also trying to get me to go back to college and finish up a degree. And he wanted me to start dating again.
I was confused by a lot of this and I almost argued with him and tried to correct him, because I believed that I was supposed to be putting all of my energy into a spiritual quest, seeking a higher power, and working the 12 steps of AA and NA. I was very focused on what I believed was “the solution” while my sponsor was trying to get me to do all of these other things in my life.
Now looking back today I can see the holistic approach and why it is important. But when I had 9 months sober and I was struggling to find my own path in life I could not really see the benefit of physical exercise, or why it related to my recovery efforts. I could not see that when I was stuck in early recovery and still struggling to find my path. But today I can look back and see how it all fits in together.
Your health can be split into 5 categories for our purposes: Physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. If you neglect one of those areas of your health completely then it could lead to relapse.
So when you get into AA and you have 2 weeks sober, they are telling you that you need to have a spiritual awakening and that you need to find a higher power, and that is certainly helpful. But when you have a year or more clean and sober, you need to do more than just work that third step of AA. You need to take care of all of those areas of your life, because any one of them could potentially lead to your downfall if you neglect it too much.
Today I try to live a balanced life because I try to take care of each of those 5 areas of my health.
Or rather, what I try to do is to not neglect any of those areas. If I notice an imbalance in my life then I attempt to correct it. If I feel like I have gone too long without exercising then I attempt to correct that and get back into shape.
This has led me to develop routines and habits that prevent me from “burning out” in my recovery.
So today I write about recovery, I work with people in recovery, I do physical exercise, and I meditate. I have established habits and routines that are now completely automatic for me, and I continue to refine those habits and question them. I seek feedback from others and I look to my mentors to see what their habits and routines consist of.
If you get stuck for too long without changing up your routines then you can become complacent. We want to avoid this. Seeking feedback from others is a great way to challenge yourself. This is one reason that I started doing seated meditation in addition to the jogging that I was already doing.
I find that working with newcomers is another great way to avoid burnout, because they challenge you to see the problems and flaws in yourself that you notice in them. If you are working with people in early recovery then it continuously challenges you to question yourself and your own life choices. This is one reason why the path of AA and sponsorship can be quite effective for some people.
But it is up to you to find the path that works for you, and that serves you best. Outcomes are a great indicator in recovery–if you relapse, then you need to listen and learn a new way to live rather than digging in and sticking to your guns and being stubborn. Take suggestions from others and then test out their methods for your own life to see if they are a good fit. Good luck!