Why You Can Not Stay Clean and Sober for Good

Why You Can Not Stay Clean and Sober for Good


Don’t get me wrong–I am not trying to tear you down. A lot of alcoholics and drug addicts out there struggle to remain clean and sober. My main goal is to build you up, guide you to better choices, help you to see the light. Even if just a little.

But so many alcoholics and drug addicts struggle to find this new life. So many of them will struggle in their addiction and never even break through denial at all (the government says roughly 90 percent will never seek formal treatment).

And a whole lot of people who do finally make it to treatment don’t really follow through with things. They don’t get it. They may dip their big toe into the pool for a moment and test the waters, but they don’t really dive head first into recovery.

If you want to stay sober for good, you have to dive in head first.

Recovery is an all or nothing proposition. You are either all in, or you are totally out. There is absolutely no room for a middle ground here.

Many, many alcoholics and drug addicts have attempted to find a middle ground. Every single one of them has failed. Just when you think you can outsmart your addiction, you find yourself hitting yet another bottom in your life. The disease is relentless. But we are the ones who propagate the madness, because we can’t get out of our own way and just surrender. Just stop, ask for help, and learn a new way to live.

There are really two reasons that a person might not be clean and sober. One is that they never really got recovery in the first place. They have not yet surrendered and given themselves a chance. They are still stuck in addiction, stuck in complete denial, and trying to figure out how to make themselves happy while they self medicate. They are still looking for the on-ramp to recovery. They are completely stuck.

The second mistake that people make is that they get into recovery, they get stable in sobriety, and then they screw it all up. So they actually had a taste of sobriety for a half second, then they relapsed. This happens for a variety of reasons, but in the final analysis we can always look back and realize that this problem ties back to the first reason. Meaning that when someone relapses, it is because they had not yet fully surrendered to a new solution in their life. They had a reservation. They were hanging on to some piece of the old life that they believed would lead them to happiness. Or they held on to an old relationship that was no good for them. Or they held on to an old belief system that wasn’t working for them. Maybe they hung on to a resentment, or to a tendency towards self pity. Whatever it was that they hung on to, they relapsed because they failed to do the work that would have allowed them to let go, to move on, to learn a new way to live their life.

Ultimately it comes down to doing the work. What is “the work” in recovery? It is the stuff that you don’t want to do. Some people would say that this is the very definition of “work,” it is the very things in life that you would like to avoid doing. Normally work is paid. But in recovery, the work that you do is paid back in a much different way. Instead of getting a paycheck, you get to live an amazing life several months down the road.

It’s tough, because if you push yourself really hard in early recovery to do a lot of this sort of work, with self honesty and analyzing character defects and so on, you don’t really get that reward right away. No, it is delayed. It might even seem, at the time, like doing all of this work is not even worth it. A lot of people fall by the wayside in early recovery because they would rather not bother with working through the steps of AA. Or they don’t want to bother to get really honest with a therapist. Or they don’t want to call their sponsor every day and tell them how they are doing. It is tough to be honest, both with ourselves and with others. So it is only natural for us to want to avoid that honesty.

If you do the work in recovery then eventually you get this massive reward. Your life gets better and better. The changes that you make in early recovery will start to build on each other as you progress. Eventually it is like you get this big huge payout down the line. But you have to put in the work.

And if you fail to do the work, you get punished. Life is chaotic and random. Stuff is going to happen to you–both good stuff and bad stuff. In the end, you have to have a system in place so that you can deal with it all. You have to find a strength inside of yourself so that you do not turn back to your drug of choice. Life is going to have its ups and downs–that much is certain. So you have to build strength so that you can weather the coming storm.

And there will be a storm in your life. It is only a question of when it hits. We all go through trials and tribulations, eventually. It’s part of life. It is part of a cycle. We go through some good times, we go through some bad times. You cannot just plan for all good times, that is not realistic. The storm will hit eventually.

And that is when the winners and the losers get sorted out in terms of sobriety. If you are only sober when things are going well, then what happens when things finally heat up or get intense? Relapse happens.

What is the solution for this?

The solution is personal growth. The solution is continuous and constant self improvement. You have a choice to make today, which is the same choice that you make every single day: Do you want to recover, or do you want to relapse?

With that choice comes a broader implication–do you want to build a stronger future for yourself, or do you want to let yourself get weaker and weaker in recovery?

And then you must realize that it is either or. Recovery is entirely pass/fail. You cannot coast down the middle of these two things and do fine. There is no such thing. If you try to coast, you will relapse.

No, the secret is to do the work, and then to keep doing the work. Over and over again. You have the task in front of you to learn how to live a sober life, to learn how to be happy with yourself and in your own skin, to figure out how to help others and to ask for help yourself, all in a healthy manner.

That is no small task. But it is not impossible either. You have to decide that you want to live, and then you have to take action.

In order to do well in recovery you must keep reinventing yourself. What does that mean, to “reinvent” yourself?

It means that you try new experiences, you learn new things about yourself, and you take positive actions. You establish healthy habits that were not there in the past. You learn new ways to cope and deal with reality. And you keep pushing yourself to do more and more of these things as you progress in your recovery journey.

Sometimes someone relapses because they never really got started in recovery. But other times someone relapses because they got lazy. They got complacent. They stopped learning new things, they stopped reinventing themselves. And so they got stuck in a pattern and this eventually made them vulnerable to relapse.

Sometimes life is going to show up at just the wrong moment, and you are going to have to rely on your support network, your internal thought process, your strength that you have built up for yourself in sobriety. How much “strength training” have you done in your own recovery? If you go to meetings, work with a sponsor, explore the steps of AA, practice gratitude, work with others in recovery, and so on….then you have built up quite a bit of strength.

I think it is important to have many different recovery tools available to us. It mentions in the recovery literature that you will likely face a moment one day in which it is just you and your drug of choice without anyone else around. And you will be tempted and you have to have some sort of internal defense built up for that moment. Having such an internal defense is a form of faith, regardless of who or what you give credit to.

I think it is necessary to dedicate your life to sobriety for about a full year in order to create the sort of foundation that can maintain long term sobriety. This is not to say that after one year of effort you can just slack off completely and expect to remain sober. Nor does it mean that anyone who pushes themselves for one year will remain sober forever. But I think most people will be able to build a really strong foundation for recovery in one year.

I took 20 months at long term treatment but I was a bit of a slow learner. Looking back at my own journey, I was a bit too comfortable and a wee bit complacent when I stayed for 20 months. I should have worked a bit harder, stepped up to the plate, and left a bit sooner. But I don’t regret it. I don’t regret giving myself that 20 months in order to recover and build a foundation. If I had to make a suggestion to you, I would recommend more treatment rather than less treatment. If they give you 28 days, then take 28 days. If they encourage long term treatment, then go to long term treatment.

The first time I tried to get clean and sober I did not get this at all. I went to a rehab for 2 weeks and I thought that this seemed like a long time to miss out on my real life. What a joke that was–my real life at the time was full of chaos and misery and depression. What was I rushing back to? This happened again when I went to rehab a second time, and they suggested that I live in long term rehab for a year. I just wasn’t ready to hear that yet, I guess I was stuck in denial. I could not wrap my head around the idea that living in treatment for a full year might somehow lead me to happiness. My brain was telling me that a year in treatment was worse than prison, that I would be better off dead rather than to “waste all that time.”

This is denial. I was deeply confused. I did not realize that going back to my addiction while stomping my feet and complaining about long term treatment was absolutely insane. Why rush back to a life of misery? Why rush back to addiction? Instead, when I finally did agree to go long term treatment, I became happier and happier by the day. I learned how to live a sober life, and things slowly started to get better. I could not see it at first, because I was too close to my own life to really see it objectively at first, but in the end I could look back and see how much happier I had become, just while living in rehab. It was the best decision I ever made for myself.

People relapse because they won’t do the work in recovery. They don’t want to look at themselves honestly, at the kind of person that they have become. Our addiction brings out the selfish part of ourselves, and no one wants to acknowledge that. We would prefer to imagine that we are good people and that “anyone would drink or use drugs” if they were in our shoes. We rationalize and justify our drinking and drug use as best we can.

In order to recover you have to admit to yourself and to the whole world that you do not know what in the heck you are doing. If you try to claim that you have the answers then you are only setting yourself up to fail. The key is to get out of your own way.

How do you do this? How do you get out of your own way in recovery? The key is to ask for advice, and then take it. Actually do what people tell you to do. This takes humility, and it takes guts. No one wants to admit that other people have the answers for us, that other people have the power to make us happy when we cannot make our own selves happy.

And yet this is the state of surrender that leads to recovery. We are pleading with the world: “Show me how to live. I cannot figure it out. I don’t have the answers.”

If you cannot stay clean and sober for good it is because you have not yet surrendered fully. You have not yet surrendered 100 percent to a new solution in your life.

There are some strange requirements for this new solution that might surprise you. One, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the 12 step solution, in spite of what you might hear at the local AA or NA meeting. There are alternatives to this for recovery that actually do work. The key is not in the program that you adopt for yourself, but the willingness with which you work that program.

For example, you may come into recovery and find a treatment center that uses a 12 step program. Or you may come into treatment and find a program that is based on a certain religion. Is one of these going to work for everyone while failing for others?

Not necessarily. Either program could potentially work for any struggling alcoholic or addict, provided that the person surrenders completely to that program and is willing to dedicate their life to it.

This is the level of ambition that you need in order to succeed in recovery: You must dedicate your life to it. My suggestion is for at least one full year you concentrate on nothing but a recovery program.

Which program you choose is not important. The 12 step program can work just fine, if you want it to work. If you dedicate your life to it.

The same can be said of religious based programs. Or behavior based programs (at least abstinence based programs, anyway). The actual program and the way that it is designed is not all that important. What is important is that you completely abandon your old ideas about how to live so that you can find a new path to happiness.

And what exactly is that new path to happiness? What does it consist of?

Basically any sort of life in which you are no longer self destructing should provide a good baseline. After that, what you really need is to find a path to personal growth. In other words, you need to find a way to improve you life, and the motivation to keep doing that over and over again.

It is a fair question to ask: “How do I keep improving my life? In what areas would I seek to try to do this in?”

The answer is to consider your overall health in recovery, and to look at each of these five areas: Physical, mental, social, spiritual, emotional. Each of those five areas is another area in which you can focus on your overall health in recovery.

If you fail to address one of those critical areas of your health then one day you might regret it. For example, someone who neglects their emotional health can eventually relapse as a result. Someone who keeps hanging out with the wrong crowd (social health) can eventually relapse as a result. And so on. Every one of those five areas of your health presents an opportunity for personal growth. Anyone who seriously neglects one of those areas is at risk for relapse.

Therefore the potential for personal growth in recovery is unlimited. And this is why it is possible for a person to “keep reinventing themselves over and over again.” You can keep learning new things. You can keep testing out new ideas to see if they help you or not. You can keep experimenting and taking suggestions from other people in recovery to find out what really helps them.

This is one of the greatest “shortcuts” that you can take in recovery–find out what works well for other people, then try it for yourself. Really try it. Take advice, act on it. Put it into action. Then observe the results for yourself.

If you fail to stay clean and sober then you are not doing the work. Taking positive action and making positive changes every day will eventually lead you to the life that you want to be living. In fact, if you do the work consistently for a long enough period of time, the rewards that you get from that will likely amaze you. Recovery is a gift that keeps on giving, because the cost of sobriety is personal growth. You gotta keep moving forward, or you slide backwards. You have to keep pushing yourself for personal growth, or relapse will slowly overtake you. And thus the work that we have to do in order to recover, which at first may seem like a curse, is really the greatest gift that you can imagine, and will pay enormous dividends to you down the road.