When I first became clean and sober I went to rehab.
The rehab was a twelve step based program but I vaguely understood that there were other approaches to treatment out there. For example, I knew of religious based treatment programs that existed, and I assumed that there were probably some other approaches as well.
So at that time I wondered to myself: “What is the best possible treatment that you can have for alcohol addiction?”
Really, what is our best approach to treating alcoholism? Is this as good as it gets? Or is there something else I should be doing differently?
I wondered these things out of self interest. I wanted to hang on to my new found sobriety.
Because I was at a short term treatment center that hosted public AA meetings, I had the chance to see a lot of failure. People would leave rehab and then they would come back to attend the AA meetings on-site. So these meetings were huge and could consist of upwards of sixty or seventy people sometimes. But many of these people only had a few months or even a few weeks of sobriety under their belt.
Everyone was trying to convince themselves that they knew how to stay sober in this environment. Everyone who spoke at each AA meeting seemed to be saying “I know what I have to do, I just have to go to these meetings, read this book, and work these steps, and I’m gonna be OK.” But quite honestly I wondered about this because many of my peers would relapse quite frequently.
I am sure it is different from this if you go to a well established AA meeting that is not a part of a rehab center. These meetings that I attended had a lot of “new blood” in the form of people just “graduating” from a short term rehab program. So relapse was quite common. But then later on I also attended some more established AA meetings on “the outside” and I tended to wonder the same thing: “Is this really the best approach for treating alcoholism?” To me it just felt incomplete. Like it was a good start for people in recovery, but there should be something more. And they would even tell me at the meetings: “More will be revealed.” And I wondered what that was. For me, it was a holistic approach that went beyond the AA program.
So at that point I started to explore case studies of people who had recovered using other recovery programs. To hear people tell it in AA meetings, there were no alternatives–AA was presented to me often as being the only viable solution. I wondered if this could really be true though. It felt like a scare tactic. Later on I would learn why people in a recovery program do this–they are projecting their own fear of relapse onto the newcomer in AA. They are trying to convince themselves that if they just keep showing up to AA meetings that they will never relapse. Their clinging to the meetings is a fear based response to the possibility of relapse.
People want to wrap up their recovery in a nice neat box. They do not want for their recovery program to be complicated and messy. They want it to all be neat and tidy. So they will try to put the recovering alcoholic in a box, and tell them that they have to do these certain things if they ever want to hope to recover. But that box is not necessarily the same for everyone, and I found that this box was not a good fit for me in early recovery.
Something felt wrong. The people in AA who would try to help me were trying to cram me into this box that represented their recovery program. But I was resisting it, and I wanted to know why.
They told me at first that this was because “my disease wanted me to relapse.” So my disease was trying to get me to abandon the AA meetings so that I would drink. This was their explanation, and I could see the logic in it.
But I did not really believe it.
Because I did not, in fact, want to drink. I wanted to remain sober, as I already had been doing so for a year or so at that time. But something was shifting in my life and I could no longer deny it. I could not just keep sitting through the meetings and listening to people talk and pretend that it was helping me. It wasn’t.
Now people told me that this is because I had a bad attitude. They told me that I could get something good out of ANY meeting, no matter how bad it might be. But I was still questioning my time spent in AA meetings, and wondered if I was wasting it. It felt like I could be doing other things that would be more conducive to my recovery efforts. Things like jogging, working with people in recovery online, writing about addiction and recovery, and so on. I had found other outlets and sitting in meetings each day was not one of them.
So I wanted to leave traditional recovery but I did not want to just walk right into a relapse. This is what I was constantly being cautioned about, that if I left the daily meetings that I would surely drink and I would die. This was the warning that I was given over and over. Later I realized that the people who gave me that warning were really just acting out of fear, and they were warning themselves. When they said to me: “Don’t stop going to meetings or you will relapse” what they really were saying was: “I am alcoholic, and if I stop going to meetings I will relapse.” But this obviously did not apply to me because I was willing to find an alternative path of positive action, a path that did not rely on sitting in meetings each day.
And so I reached this conclusion that I was not being honest with myself by sitting in meetings every day. I was being called to change, to branch out, to explore. My goal was to deconstruct sobriety. What really kept people sober? Was it sitting in AA meetings every day? I thought not. I thought that there was something deeper going on, and I wanted to deconstruct that process so that I could find out what really kept people sober.
And so I made a decision. I would leave the meetings, and at the same time I would take positive action in my life each day, in the hopes that this would protect me from relapse. I made a wild bet with myself that personal growth was the key to long term sobriety.
It is now a full decade later after I made this leap. I won the bet with myself, and my life continues to get better and better with each passing day. You really can create your own path in sobriety, though it takes real work.
But it takes work anyway, even if you stay in AA or use more traditional approaches to recovery. That is a key point that many people in AA are missing. They believe that if they can avoid having to think for themselves that they can get out of doing the actual work of recovery. Just because the 12 steps tell you what to do does not mean that you are off the hook. You still have to put in the footwork and make recovery happen–regardless of what recovery program you are following.
Sobriety takes action. Daily, consistent action. If I learned anything in leaving the meetings it was that this is true; that recovery takes work and you have to put forth a consistent effort to build a new life in recovery. True in AA, true outside of AA.
First and foremost you should take action and try to change your life
One the fundamental principles in early recovery from alcoholism is that of taking action.
You have to do something in order to recover. You can’t just sit there and expect your whole world to change.
Most people who have never successfully sobered up are underestimating the scope of the change.
They do not realize just how massive a change they are attempting to embrace. If and when you successfully transition to a life of sobriety, nothing will be the same any more. Everything changes. This is really because your attitude towards everything in the world changes as well. So it is not the outside world that changes but it is your reaction to the world, how you deal with things, and how you make it through each day. All of that stuff on the inside will change and this will make it seem like EVERYTHING changes.
Recovery starts with a decision. This is not specific to any recovery program, this is a fundamental principle of change itself. If you want to change your whole life then you need to make a decision to do so. Nothing will change without this commitment to yourself.
Believe it or not this commitment to change is probably ten times more important than many other factors, such as:
1) Where you go to treatment.
2) What kind of recovery program you are exposed to.
3) How many days you are staying in rehab for.
4) Whether or not you like your counselor or therapist in treatment.
And so on. None of that stuff really matters when it comes to sobriety, because your success or failure all hangs on the fact that you have either surrendered fully and completely, or you have not. If you have not fully surrendered to your disease then it does not really matter much if your family convinces you to attend the nicest treatment center in the world.
If you want to get sober then you need to take action. My description of this process is that you need to take “massive action.” I always say “massive” because the scope of the change is probably much bigger than what you are anticipating.
Imagine that you walk away from your life, from your relationships, from everything and everyone and you go to this rehab center that is located on another planet somewhere. Then you live there for two years while you learn how to live a sober life. Does that sound extreme? It should. That is how you should think about recovery. Not in terms of what you have to do, because I don’t think we have any off-world rehabs right now. But in terms of the commitment, of the level of action that you are going to take. You have to turn your whole world upside down if you want to recover. You must embrace the recovery process and change everything. If you do it right then when you look back it will feel like you changed planets for a year. The changes that you made will be truly massive. Your life will go in entirely new directions. Everything will be different if you embrace recovery and positive change.
Never give up trying to change until you reach sobriety
I lived in long term rehab for 20 months. During that time I met hundreds, perhaps even thousands of different people in recovery. I also lived with several dozen different people in recovery. They were all on the same journey and everyone was struggling to stay clean and sober.
One thing that I learned during that time was that nearly everyone has to try more than once to get clean and sober.
I don’t think I ever met a person who tried to sober up just once and was entirely successful at it right off the bat. I never encountered that, not even once. I later worked in a rehab center for about 5 years time and this truth seemed to hold out there as well. No one stayed sober on their first try.
And when you think about the massive commitment and massive amount of action that it takes, this makes a lot of sense. How could people get it right on the first try? No one is going to put forth that massive amount of effort if they don’t have to at first.
As human beings I believe that we are wired to conserve our energy and our effort. So we are not going to go “all out” at every little challenge that we come across in life, at least not at first. If we did then we would be wasting a lot of time and effort and energy. It doesn’t make sense to go “all out” every time we encounter a new challenge. Many times we can make a modest effort in life and get great results.
So the problem with alcoholism recovery is that it is not your average challenge. But the alcoholic does not know this at first, they believe that it is a challenge just like any other that they have faced in the past. Therefore they are not going to just dive in and put forth this massive effort right off the bat. Why would they? It is a waste to do so.
The problem is that addiction is probably the biggest challenge that a person has ever faced, and therefore it DOES require the biggest effort that they have ever made in their life.
But we can’t know this at first. Most of us have to try and fail a few times in order to realize just how difficult the challenge will be.
It is not that recovery is impossible, because it most definitely is within your reach. It is within anyone’s reach. But most of us believe that we can make a modest effort in recovery and that we should be able to get decent results. So this is the hard lesson that we must all learn in our own time: Recovery is pass/fail, and unless you put forth a truly massive effort, you are likely to fail.
I can sit here and tell you this, try to warn you about it, but ultimately this is something that alcoholics must learn and experience for themselves.
Therefore if you find yourself relapsing, you should do everything that you can to get yourself back into recovery as quickly as possible. Most people don’t get it right off the bat, and it takes what it takes. For me it took 3 times in treatment. But on the third time around I finally figured out that I was going to have to dedicate my whole life to sobriety if I was going to make it work.
And I think this is a key point: You can’t just work on sobriety “on the side.” It has to become your whole life.
What works for one person may not work for everyone. Therefore you must experiment
I like to look at various case studies of people who stay sober. Did you know that there are recovery programs based entirely on physical exercise? Fascinating. Surely these are not for everyone, but their existence should give us a clue as to what is really important in the recovery process. Surrender, commitment, action. The specific tactics that people may talk about in terms of recovery are not always relevant to everyone who may be trying to get sober. For example, consider some of the following tactics:
* Going to AA meetings.
* Working with a sponsor in AA.
* Reading recovery literature.
* Writing in a journal every day.
* Connecting with others in recovery.
* Helping people in recovery.
And so on. If we all brainstormed together we could get a list of over 100 tactics that can potentially help people in sobriety.
So you can ask someone in recovery: “Do you do every single one of these things in your recovery efforts?”
And they will obviously tell you “no, not every single one of them!”
I do some of the things on that list every single day. But there are other things on that list that I pretty much never do at all. And those things that I never do at all may be the most vital parts of someone else’s recovery process.
This is a really important point in my opinion. There is more than one way to embrace the recovery process.
Not everyone’s recovery will look exactly the same.
If you hear someone in traditional recovery telling you that certain things are absolutely critical to sobriety, realize that this person is speaking out of a place of fear. They are afraid that if they stop doing these things then they will relapse, and therefore they are projecting that fear onto others in recovery. They are giving out the advice that they think they need to hear themselves.
But the truth is that I got clean and sober and I was doing some of the things from that list up above. Then I reached about a year sober and over the next 18 months I slowly shifted those things to an entirely new set of tactics. I remained sober through this process and my recovery got stronger in a number of ways.
There are many paths in sobriety, and I will admit that a whole bunch of them lead to relapse. But this does not mean that you cannot find an alternative path that leads to successful sobriety, as I have done.
Inpatient rehab is generally the best place to get started in recovery
Regardless of what your final path in recovery looks like (it will probably always be changing, actually!), the best place to get started is in a controlled environment.
For me, this meant going to rehab.
I only have a 33% personal success rate with treatment. I went to rehab 3 times, and I only stayed sober once!
In the end it doesn’t matter. I am grateful that I kept trying. I persisted. Eventually something clicked and I have enjoyed a new life of sobriety for the last 12+ years.
Life keeps getting better and better. Isn’t that worth the effort?
What about you, have you found a path that works for you in alcoholism treatment? Are you still struggling to find a path to sobriety? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!