What is the best possible way to build a strong foundation in addiction recovery? What is the secret to success and the key to overcoming cravings, relapse, and complacency?
There are a couple of fundamental concepts that I believe everyone should know about and practice in addiction recovery. Let’s dive in.
Starting off on the right foot at inpatient rehab
The first and perhaps most important fundamental concept regarding early recovery is the idea of going to inpatient treatment. There are probably other ways to quit using drugs and alcohol but I do not generally recommend them when compared to the solution of inpatient treatment.
Why rehab? Because it is safe. It is a concentrated and very specific form of help. They specialize in helping people to get clean and sober. That is all they do. That is their number one goal and all that they focus on. If anyone can help the struggling alcoholic or drug addict, it is inpatient treatment centers. That’s what they do.
Many people are afraid to attend inpatient treatment, and I don’t blame them for that fear. I was terrified of going to treatment myself once. In the end there is no real trick to getting past this fear, other than to become so miserable in your own addiction that you become desperate for change. It is only through the misery and desperation of addiction that you will develop the willingness to check into treatment.
People don’t just check into treatment casually. It is a big deal to go stay for an extended period of time at a treatment center, and many people do not want to face the stigma that they believe is associated with inpatient treatment. They don’t like to think of themselves as being a drug addict or an alcoholic. They would like to think of an alcoholic as someone who is lying down in the gutter with a brown bag in their lap, begging for change and going from one drink to the next. That is not typical of the kind of person who eventually checks into a treatment center. Anyone can be an alcoholic or a drug addict and so we all need to get past that stigma that may be holding us back from getting the help that we need.
When you go to inpatient treatment you have a lot of advantages in terms of building a strong foundation for recovery. For one thing, you are in a controlled environment when you are at your most vulnerable point. Most alcoholics who have a mere week of sobriety are extremely vulnerable to taking a drink if it is made available to them. This is one of the major points of inpatient treatment–there are no drinks or drugs available! Therefore the temptation to relapse is much, much lower when you are checked into treatment.
The sensation of craving generally leaves people when they are at an inpatient treatment facility. You go through a medically supervised detox process, then you are in residential treatment attending groups and meetings and such, and there is usually no major craving to go back to the drug at that time. You are at peace. There is no craving or urge to drink because it is not there; it’s not an option. So the possibility evaporates and for the time being you are perfectly OK with being sober.
The problem, of course, comes when you leave treatment. Suddenly temptation kicks in again. For one thing, you are now free to walk around the planet and discover booze and drugs that are seemingly available everywhere again. Second, you may be exposed to various triggers such as old drug or drinking buddies or even advertisements for booze. You are no longer in a safe zone and you realize that relapse could happen at any moment, any given second. There is no protection once you have left treatment. You are in full control again. You can drink or take drugs whenever you want. As soon as your brain realizes this, it starts to obsess over the idea again.
So you have to have a plan for when those obsessive thoughts start to kick in. You have to have a response planned out, you have to know in advance what you are going to do, you have to have some tools at your disposal so that you don’t just relapse. And this is largely what they try to teach you about at an inpatient treatment center. You have to have a plan in order to recover, otherwise the default behavior in your life is going to eventually lead you back to relapse and your drug of choice.
When you are in treatment they generally pair you up with a therapist or a counselor of some sort. That person generally comes up with a treatment plan for you, one that will eventually carry you forward and out into the real world. They may assign you to go to outpatient therapy, attend various groups, go to AA meetings on the outside, and so on. Whatever your plan is, if you fail to stick to it, guess what is the likely outcome? That’s right–relapse is almost inevitable for anyone who doesn’t follow through after treatment.
This is not because the therapist discovered just the perfect plan for you to remain sober–such a plan really doesn’t exist. Or rather, your recovery plan doesn’t have to be perfect. And there is no just one perfect plan for each person that will unlock their sobriety for them. Instead, there are many possible paths to recovery, and it is up to each individual to pick one. To get on with it. To stick with it.
And that is what the real secret of sobriety is–it’s not in finding the perfect program. Many people in AA and NA make this mistake all the time–they think that their program is somehow magic, that it is the only possible way that anyone could ever achieve sobriety. That is not true–there are other paths to recovery, and other ways to remain clean and sober. There is more than one way to rebuild your life.
The point is, you have to rebuild your life. You can go to AA meetings and get a sponsor and work the steps and hang out to drink coffee after the meetings, and that is one way that you can rebuild your life. Certainly that has worked for some people. But that is not the only path. There are other ways to remain sober.
For example, there is a person who has rebuilt their life in recovery as someone who goes to the extreme with physical exercise. This person pushes themselves every day to work out really hard and they challenge themselves to compete in some pretty grueling endurance races. That is their entire model of recovery. That is how they remain clean and sober. Further validation of this idea can be observed in two parts: One, that the person has been doing this for decades and they are still successful at it, and two, that a following has been created, books have been published, and this has become a model for hundreds or even thousands of other people in recovery. It works for more than one person. And if that is the case then it is probably an idea worth sharing, because it might help a struggling alcoholic or drug addict who has failed via other methods.
There is no one way to remain clean and sober. Sometimes you have to explore your options in order to discover the path that fits you best. Being at an inpatient treatment center is one way to start exploring those options.
Finding lots of support in early recovery
Another fundamental part of early recovery is in finding support.
AA and NA are a strong idea and the program works for a lot of people. It is also an enduring idea. The program has already lasted for a long time and it looks set to continue.
There is a certain kind of drug addict or alcoholic, and perhaps this applies to all drug addicts and alcoholics, who need help in order to recover. In fact, it may be that the very definition of addiction revolves around someone who cannot stop drinking or taking drugs under their own power. They need help in order to stop. They need intervention in order to stop. Other people must help them to abstain from drugs or alcohol.
Therefore we all need support in one form or another in early recovery.
First of all you need support so that you can identify with other drug addicts and alcoholics. When you first get clean and sober you are going to believe that you are going insane. You will believe yourself to be crazy. This is not helpful because you will beat yourself up, tell yourself that you are in the wrong place (when you are at inpatient treatment, for example) and generally talk yourself out of taking positive action. It doesn’t help you to believe that you are crazy.
And yet every alcoholic and drug addict goes through this. What is the solution for it?
You need to identify with others in recovery. You need to hear their stories of drinking and taking drugs so that you know that you are not alone, that there are others out there like you, that there are others out there who are worse than you.
This identification process gives you hope. Because you will naturally be in treatment, or at an AA or NA meeting, and you will be hearing people tell their story of abusing drugs and alcohol. And sooner or later you will hear someone who is telling your story, who has done many or all of the things that you have done. And there will be this moment all of a sudden when you realize that this person is really no different than you are, and they have somehow found hope in recovery and they are living a brand new life in spite of their addiction. And you will realize that there is hope for you too.
There is another reason that most of us need this sort of support in early recovery as well. The second reason is because you don’t have a clue as to how you should be living. You tried to make yourself happy with drugs and alcohol and it failed miserably. Now you look back at your life and realize that it is entirely screwed up. Your priorities have been out of whack for a very long time. You don’t know how to rebuild your life or how to be happy while you are sober.
Basically you need to ask other people to tell you how to be happy again, how to live your life in sobriety.
Most people are not at this point yet.
Even if you go into an inpatient treatment center, many people are still hanging on to a shred of denial. Ask them outright: “Are you willing to let someone else tell you how to live your life?” Most of them will balk at that and say “no.” They want to maintain control. They are not yet at the point of full surrender.
Their challenge is to “let go absolutely” as it says in AA. That means letting go of all of it–the need for control, the need to be right all the time, the need to try to make yourself happy. Those things have failed for you in your addiction. It is time to let someone else tell you how to live. Your way did not worked, and it made you miserable. Are you willing to listen to another way? This is the challenge of recovery. Your own ideas, at least at first, will not work out for you. You have to open that door and be willing to hear other ideas instead. You have to get out of your own way.
Not everyone has to go to AA and NA meetings necessarily in order to recover. But you should ask yourself an important question: If you are not going to get your support in early recovery from AA or NA meetings, then where are you going to get it? Because if you don’t get it from daily meetings then you need to have another plan in place. Remember, without a plan you are sure to relapse. A pretty common plan in early recovery is: Go to treatment, then follow up with aftercare and start doing 90 AA meetings in 90 days. Get a sponsor and work the steps. Don’t drink or use drugs no matter what.
That may be a pretty boring plan but it is still pretty solid. The key, of course, is to actually have the plan, then to follow through on it. If you just talk about it then it means nothing. It’s all about the follow through.
Learning as much as possible and soaking up new information in early sobriety
Here is another fundamental concept in early recovery–learning.
Recovery is a learning process. You are growing as a human being, you are making progress. In order to do that you have to learn new things.
This includes both learning new things about the world in general, but also learning new things about yourself. Recovery involves a certain amount of self analysis.
In early recovery you need to become like a sponge. They have a saying in AA: “Take the cotton out of your ears and stick it in your mouth.” No one wants to hear that advice these days, they would rather talk themselves silly and hear their own voices. People love to talk, to hear themselves talk, and newcomers in recovery are no exception. The problem is that they don’t really have anything to offer anyone. You don’t come into an AA meeting with one week sober and give everyone a great message that they are just dying to hear. This is not to say that you can’t contribute at one week sober, only that you are lacking the answers when it comes to living in recovery. Put simply, at one week sober, you don’t know how to live in recovery. Period. If you knew how then you would have a lot more than one week sober. But since you don’t, any advice that you have to give to others is really just an example of what not to do. That may sound harsh, but you can’t really argue with outcomes. When I was in early recovery I wanted to hear what the guy with 14 years sober had to say a lot more than I wanted to hear what the guy still in detox was saying. The guy in detox didn’t have any information I really wanted or needed. The guy with 14 years sober knew something that I did not. I wanted to hear his message, see if I could apply his ideas to my own life, maybe get similar results for myself.
If you are serious about sobriety then you have to be willing to learn new things. Otherwise you are just fooling yourself that you are serious about recovery.
Part of the reason for this is because your life is dynamic and evolving all the time, therefore your recovery tactics must evolve as well. That said, you can still learn the strategies that are timeless, as well as the fundamental concepts (such as those discussed here) that will continue to serve you in sobriety. The key, however, is to realize that you are never going to be done learning about yourself in recovery.
Taking suggestions from other people
In order to learn you have to take suggestions from other people. Failure to take suggestions means that you are not open minded, you are not accepting new ideas, you cannot see beyond your own limitations.
We all have certain strengths and weaknesses in recovery. You are good at some things will not so great at others. You can assess yourself accurately in some ways while being blind to certain issues in other ways.
Because of these limitations you need to be able to rely on other people to help you. They have a saying in NA “We are each other’s eyes and ears.” So we can help to see the danger zones in each other’s lives, we can help to hold each other accountable, we can help each other to become better people in recovery.
You can’t do this alone, because you have certain weaknesses that will never be overcome all by yourself. You need help in order to become the best possible version of yourself.
Most of us do not like to take criticism from other people. We would prefer to stay safe, to hear only positive feedback, to never hear the bad things. But it is the critical feedback that can help us to really turn our lives around and to become truly happy with ourselves. This is because our character defects are what hold us back and keep us miserable. The key to happiness is not in getting what you want, it is in fixing the negative stuff that drags us down and holds us back. We create our own flaws…such as self pity, resentment, anger, shame, and guilt. If we can identify and then fix those problems then we become much happier people as a result. But you have to be willing to do the work, and that means you have to be willing to listen to suggestions from others.
Daily action and the accumulation of personal growth
If you take action every day then you will slowly build up the sort of personal growth that we want to achieve.
If you can improve your life just 1 percent per day, think of how much growth you will achieve over a ten year period. The key of course is to take consistent action. Every day that you stop moving forward towards this goal of progress you are automatically sliding backwards. Momentum is critical. You can’t stand still. You have to keep pushing yourself to improve your life and your health every single day. This is how you build a strong foundation in recovery.
What have you done in order to build a strong foundation in recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!