Preventing Stupid Mistakes in Addiction Recovery

Preventing Stupid Mistakes in Addiction Recovery


I have to admit that I have made plenty of stupid mistakes in my own addiction recovery journey. Of course the problem with making mistakes is not in the mistakes themselves (because that is how we learn in many cases), but in the fact that you also have to accept the consequences of your mistakes.

Recovery is, unfortunately, pass/fail. You are either clean and sober or you are fully relapsed and stuck back in addiction. There is absolutely no middle ground at all. Show me someone who believes they are in this mythical “middle ground” and I will show you someone who has relapsed and is now in denial, thinking that they are still in control. This is how our addiction deceives us. There is no middle ground.

I worked in a rehab and detox unit for several years, and I watched a lot of people struggle to get clean and sober. I would use words like this to describe the people who had the right idea and were on the right track:

1) Careful.
2) Conservative.
3) Cautiously optimistic.
4) Surrendered.
5) Willing to take suggestions.
6) Not in a hurry.
7) Listening.
8) Out of ideas.
9) Somewhat hopeless.
10) Not cocky.
11) Defeated.

And so on.

Then there is another set of words that might describe the type of newcomer in treatment that does not have a chance in the world at staying clean and sober (yet). Such a person is:

1) Arrogant.
2) Cocky.
3) Wildly optimistic about sobriety.
4) Full of their own ideas.
5) In a hurry to get out of treatment.
6) Talking more than they listen.
7) Sure of their resolve to never drink or use drugs again.

And so on.

See the difference between the two people? It is really about their attitude and their confidence level. Those who are cocky or in a big hurry are not going to make it. They are destined to relapse and thus make the biggest “stupid mistake” that you can make in recovery.

Not only is recovery pass/fail, but it is also (normally) the most important thing in a person’s life. In other words, all of the good things in life will depend upon continued sobriety. On that same note, almost all of the misery that a person might experience is driven by addictive behavior after a relapse. So it really all boils down to continued sobriety being the number one goal and priority in life.

This is one concept that I got really well the last time I tried to get clean and sober. I finally realized that I had to dedicate my entire life to the goal of sobriety. I finally realized that all of my future happiness would depend on sobriety, and that there was no room for error. I got the idea that if I relapsed I would likely be miserable.

Knowing myself, I was hoping to find a way to prevent this potential enormous mistake (relapse). I am not perfect and I have screwed up many things in my past, so I knew going into recovery that I was not necessarily immune to relapse. And I did not want to make that mistake.

Thus started a lifelong journey of what you might call “active relapse prevention.” Even to this day (over 12 years later) I am still actively trying to avoid relapse, avoid making stupid mistakes, and generally being careful and cautious with my recovery. And I believe everyone who achieves long term sobriety has to be actively living and thinking this way. If you coast, you’re toast! You have to keep pushing yourself to learn more and grow in recovery, or eventually you will slip up and it will be a disaster.

Technique number one for avoiding stupid mistakes in recovery?

Learn how to get out of your own way.

Getting out of your own way

This is especially important in early recovery. The less clean time you have, the more you need to use this technique.

When we first get sober in recovery we are a total mess. Our best ideas about how to make ourselves happy are not working at all for us. Instead we are miserable due to our addiction or alcoholism. So what can we do?

The first thing we do is go to detox and get the drugs or booze out of our system. But then we have the challenge of figuring out how to live a life where we are not miserable. Because given the choice between being:

1) Miserable and sober, or
2) Miserable and drunk (or high on drugs)

I would take miserable and drunk every time!

I am not being funny here. I am only being honest. Truly, if I am completely miserable, and I cannot pull myself out of it and the misery just continues, then eventually I am going to go get a bottle. Why? Because at least then I can get some temporary relief. At least then I can medicate my mood for a few hours. It may not be permanent but it is better than being permanently miserable, right?

This is how any alcoholic or drug addict is going to see the situation. Given the choice, they are going to try to medicate their misery away.

So one of the first priorities in recovery is to get rid of the misery in your life. Seriously!

Now this may be surprising to some people but traditional recovery programs do not necessarily take this approach. Most of those programs focus on how to deal with the misery that you have in your life without drinking. And I realize that we are all going to have ups and downs in our lives (given enough time) and that we will all have a few bad days in the future. But my proactive approach and my line of thinking is to eliminate the misery rather than to try to learn how to deal with it. Really it is just so much more efficient that way!

Therefore I suggest that a major part of your long term strategy in recovery is to eliminate misery and create happiness in your life. (Those are not the same thing, both are separate strategies…eliminating misery is actually more powerful).

In order to do this when you first get clean and sober, you have to look to outside help. You can’t do this part by yourself.

Why not?

Because you don’t have the information you need. If you had it, you would have been doing it already! But you haven’t been doing it, because you were trying to create your happiness and medicate your misery with drugs or alcohol instead.

Therefore you need a new approach. You can’t get this by just looking to your own resources. If you try to design your own recovery during early sobriety you will likely fail and end up relapsing. Self sabotage will sneak in and destroy you. Relapse and self medicating it just far too seductive at that early stage of the game.

This is why you should go to treatment, find support, go to meetings every day, and start doing what other people tell you to do. Sound like fun? Probably not. But therein lies the solution. A solution that will really work, regardless of who you are or what your addiction is.

Any addict or alcoholic can get started on a new life this way. It’s not easy, and it is ego-crushing to do everything that I just suggested. Go to rehab and get detoxed. Then start listening to what the therapists and counselors suggest that you do. Then follow through with these suggestions and start taking action. Go to the meetings. Go to treatment, to counseling, to therapy. Get a sponsor and work through issues. Work the steps. Find a religious program and get involved with that. Take direction.

This is the key in early recovery: that you take direction from others. This is how you prevent making stupid mistakes.

When you take advice from others in your recovery you are benefiting from collective wisdom that has accumulated for centuries. How is this possible? Because the people that you get help from have already gone through what you are going through. And they did it by getting help from others in a similar way. So when you draw from that pool of knowledge you are giving yourself every possible advantage to overcome your addiction. If you just try to go home and be alone and sober up by yourself then you miss out on this tremendous pool of wisdom about how to live sober.

The reason that you must do this is because the solution is not obvious or intuitive. Sticking it out in sobriety initially sucks. Getting wasted on your fifth day sober would actually be really nice for most people who are struggling through detox. So you need people who have gone through the process to let you know that it does, in fact, get better. How would you ever know this if you were alone and detoxing on your own? How would you know that there is really hope if you never spoke to anyone who had done it before you did?

That is why you need support and help from your peers. That is why you should go to detox and counseling and therapy and meetings and long term rehab and whatever else is suggested to you. You don’t have to do it all, you just have to do what you are told. Take the suggestions and use them. Apply them. This is how you avoid making mistakes in early recovery. Remove yourself from the equation. Remove yourself from the decision making process.

Bouncing your ideas off of other people first

Later on in your recovery you will inevitably grow stronger and more stable in your sobriety. At this point you will start to rely more on your own ideas and you will direct your life a bit more than what you were in early recovery. There is nothing wrong with this so long as you are careful.

The advice at this point is that if you are making a major decision, you should seek feedback from others first. Every time.

If you fail to do this (even after you have several months or years in recovery) then you still run the risk of making a stupid mistake that might snowball into relapse. This is exactly what we want to avoid.

Therefore you should be cautious. You should seek alternate opinions. This does not make you any less of a person for doing so. Keep in mind that the final decision is always yours to make, no one can take your self will away from you! But you can still benefit in long term sobriety by seeking a second opinion before you go making a major decision in your life.

When you do this you are not just preventing mistakes. In fact you are getting much more benefit than that. It goes back to the idea of collective wisdom. You are using leverage when you seek advice and feedback from others. Because what you are doing is drawing on years and years of accumulated knowledge. This is especially true if you seek opinions from more than one person.

Therefore if you have a significant decision to make in your life, bounce it off of someone else first. Always seek advice and feedback from others first. That way you can get the maximum benefit of extending your knowledge through other’s experience. This is a powerful way to live because then we don’t all have to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. I can warn you of pitfalls that I have ran into, and you can do the same for me. Thus we can help each other by sharing our knowledge. But none of this works if we never talk about our problems or challenges that we face!

Living based on other people’s suggestions

When you live based on suggestions from other people, your life will start to take a new direction. In early recovery this will result in your life transforming fairly quickly. You will notice that things are getting better and better all the time and that you are happier than you were in active addiction.

Some people will phrase this in terms of “self will” and “God’s will.” They say that if you suddenly stop seeking advice and you get your own idea and then you follow through with that idea without talking about it with others, that you are then “taking back self will.” The alternative would have been to go talk about your idea with other people and get their opinion on it first. This would be “following God’s will” because many people in traditional recovery believe that “God speaks to us through other people.”

Now whether or not you believe in the faith aspect behind that advice is irrelevant. The advice is still sound and the suggestion is still valid. When I talk about how it is good to be “cautious” in early recovery, we could also frame that discussion in terms of “self will.” You want to avoid acting out of self will and instead try to seek direction and guidance from others. Again, I am not suggesting that anyone has to be religious in order to do this… just have to get out of your own way and start taking direction from others!

Focusing on improving health and personal growth

In my experience the best path forward in recovery is to embrace personal growth.

One area of personal growth that makes sense to focus on is in improving your own health. Not just your physical health either, but also your mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health.

Why is this the case?

Your health is essentially the highest form of currency that you have in life. If you get clean and sober and you start to gain self esteem and feel better about your life, then guess what your most precious asset will become? Your health.

Nothing is more important in long term sobriety. Because if you run out of health, it is game over.

Also, think about it like this:

You have to pursue growth and positive change in your life just to remain sober. This is a given. You cannot sit idle and expect to remain sober.

Given that you have to make some form of growth, what area of your life does it make sense to focus on the most?

Sure, you can focus on things like education, or relationships, or your finances. You can seek personal growth in many different areas.

But your health is a constant that will never become unimportant. It is always going to be one of the most important areas of your life.

So it makes sense to give extra attention to your overall health when it comes to recovery. You may as well focus on improving your health as a matter of course in recovery.

In fact, I believe that you could build a recovery strategy entirely out of this form of personal growth. I believe that nothing else would be required in order to maintain sobriety (though I have never really tested this directly).

Most of my personal recovery strategy can be framed in terms of my own health. One of the “pillars” of my recovery is exercise. My emotional health and well being is also very important to me. And spiritual health is important as well.

So if you are looking for an area in which you might seek personal growth, I would suggest that you start by looking at your own health. If you focus on this then you are also, in turn, raising your self esteem. You cannot increase your health without also increasing your self esteem. You cannot help but feel better about yourself if you make an effort to become healthier. Progress feels good!

Following through on decisions and projects

My last piece of advice in order to prevent stupid mistakes in recovery is about following through.

This can be a big problem for people in early recovery and I heard it over and over again while I was working in rehab:

“My problem is that I just never follow through with things. I don’t finish anything that I start. I don’t see things through to the end, so I never get anywhere.”

I found this to be a really common problem among the addicts and alcoholics that I was trying to help.

Unfortunately there is no secret or magic solution to this problem. The solution is dead simple: you must follow through.

The only way to do that is to do it. There is no shortcut. No way to cheat on this. If you want to follow through then you have to buck up and just do it.

Now there is one technique that might help you a bit, and that is the idea of building momentum.

Start small. Get a win under your belt. Follow through on something easy.

Then, set your sites a little higher. (Remember, day at a time!).

If you do this right then you will notice that you are accumulating benefits by following through on things. Keep going! Set a bigger goal and then use your new resolve to tackle that project. Focus on the benefits that you are creating for yourself. See your progress as it happens.


What have you done in your own recovery to help prevent mistakes? Let us know in the comments!


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