Is it possible to get alcohol treatment in just 28 days or less, as most treatment centers are generally set up for? The answer is a little bit “yes and no,” unfortunately. Yes you can get treatment in 28 days or even less. But on the other hand, the journey of alcoholism recovery lasts for an entire lifetime, and going through residential treatment is really just the tip of the iceberg.
It is an error in perception to think of treatment as being a single event. We are never “cured.” Therefore going to treatment is merely setting things into motion, but it is not the entire solution.
Treatment is a process, not an event
Treatment is a process. It starts out with detox and getting your body cleansed from drugs and alcohol. If that were all that you had to do, treatment would be a snap. It would be easy. But obviously things are more complicated than that, even though we all want for them to be so simple.
Addiction and recovery is not simple. It is complex. Addiction is complex. The reason that it is complicated is because our disease ends up affecting so many different areas of our lives. Then when we go to try to sober up we are nearly overwhelmed because we notice that our lives are so deeply affected by our alcoholism. Many of our relationships are built up around a lifetime of drinking. Even our job that we do or the way that we spend most of our time is affected by our drinking habits. Everything has to change in sobriety. It is overwhelming, and complicated. Just when you think that you have one aspect of your recovery under control, a new challenge pops up.
Treatment is not an event. Most of the “normal” world would like to think that it is, that we can just send someone to the right rehab, and they will walk away perfectly fine, with no more problems in the future. We think of rehab as a hopeful cure for alcoholism and addiction, when it fact it is merely a starting point.
Can you really get sober in just 28 days?
It is possible to get sober in just 28 days or even less but this will depend entirely on how much you dedicate your life to recovery after you leave treatment. Of course anyone can go to jail for a month and claim a month of sobriety. But the real question is: “what happens when you get out?” The same is true of rehab. What will happen once you are no longer in the protective environment of treatment?
This is why the idea of commitment is so important. If you want to be successful in recovery then you need to commit fully to changing your life for the long run. You can get a new start in rehab but only if you are willing to commit fully to recovery for the long haul.
I used to work in a treatment center and I would watch hundreds of people come into residential treatment. Most of them lacked this commitment and instead they were looking for a quick fix. They were hoping for a way out. They did not want to commit to massive amounts of change in their life. They only wanted to change one little thing and they wanted the pain and misery to go away. But this is not enough. It is not enough to just want to escape the pain and misery. You have to want more than that if you want treatment to work for you.
For one thing you have to want recovery more than anything else in your life. The problem with early recovery is that you have to change everything and it becomes overwhelming quickly. So unless you are fully committed to recovery you are going to quickly self medicate over this level of stress.
As soon as you sober up you are going to suddenly notice a lot of drama and stress that will seem to come out of nowhere. In fact this drama is nothing new and it has been there all along, you just were not noticing it because you were drunk or self medicated. So suddenly when you sober up there are all of these problems and issues bubbling at the surface and you will wonder “why now? Why do these problems crop up just when I am trying to get sober, how horrible can the timing possibly be? Is the universe really conspiring to make my recovery more difficult?”
But the truth is that you are just sensitive because you are going through withdrawal, because you are facing life without your drug of choice for the first time in a long time. So it is not that everything bad is happening at once, it is just that you are noticing it now because you are extra sensitive to the problems in your life. You have removed the fog of alcohol and/or drugs so all of your problems and issues seem to come crashing down on you at once.
Being in short term rehab is one way to help deal with this. But the problems and issues are likely still going to be there when you leave rehab as well. Therefore you need a plan. If you don’t have a plan when you leave short term rehab then you are almost certain to relapse. Why? Because alcoholics drink. That’s what they do. We revert to what we know, we revert to what works for us. And we all know that alcohol will get us screwed up in a heartbeat, even though that may not be what we really want to do with our lives any more.
As an alcoholic your natural state is to be drinking, to get drunk. It takes deliberate action to overcome this. It takes a serious plan of action to overcome the tendency to drink in the long run. It won’t just happen naturally on its own. I think some people are secretly hoping that they will suddenly want to stop drinking naturally, that their disease will just sort of fade into the background, or that if they are in rehab for a little while then their addiction will just sort of evaporate. This doesn’t happen and it doesn’t work that way. They have a saying in the program of recovery: “When you are sober, your alcoholism is in the background, doing push-ups, getting stronger all the time.” They say this because people who have relapsed have reported back that their addiction actually got a lot worse over time, even though they had been sober during that time. As soon as they relapse they pick up right where they had left off, and it also got quite a bit worse than that very quickly.
Therefore when you are sober, you can’t just sit there. You can’t just sit and be idle about your recovery. You have to take action in order to build a new life for yourself.
When we first get clean and sober, our lives become a blank slate again. We remove the drugs and the alcohol and we are left with….nothing. We have to fill that “nothing” in with something or we are going to eventually revert back to our old lifestyle of self medicating. The alcoholism will come back if we do not actively replace this void with something.
If you go to AA then you will be instructed to replace this gap in your life with the daily AA meetings, with your higher power, and with the fellowship of AA. This is a valid path to sobriety, though it is not the only path. There are other paths available that you will likely not even hear about when you are in a traditional treatment center. This may be fine though as you just need a solution that works for you. If traditional recovery fails, then simply try something different. There are alternatives (such as Christian based recovery, or the idea of Creative recovery as described further on this website).
Making a decision to change and breaking through denial
What will really determine your success is not necessarily a 28 day treatment program (though this is still a great starting point), but instead it is all about breaking through denial.
One problem is that many people who agree to get help and go to rehab have not fully broke through their denial yet. This is typical though because there are actually several stages of denial, just as there are many corresponding stages of surrender. If you go to enough AA meetings you will hear people talk about how they thought they had hit bottom, only to realize later that this had not really been their bottom, and that there was “a lower bottom out there waiting for them.” This is because the first time that they tried to get sober they had not reached a full level of surrender. They were still in denial. They had fooled themselves into believing that they were really ready to change, that they were really ready to let go of their addiction.
I worked in an alcoholism rehab for several years. I also lived in the same rehab for a few years. In that time I realized that there were several stages of surrender, and I could also look back at my own life and see many of those stages. For example, I was once at a point where I agreed with the idea that I had a massive problem with alcohol. I had never been to treatment yet and I knew that my life was screwed up. So I went to rehab for the first time and I had the attitude of “well, I guess I will see what happens, maybe sobriety will suddenly be the perfect thing for me and everything will work out.” This is the wrong attitude to have going into rehab. Needless to say I relapsed immediately after leaving my first (and second) rehab.
So what is the proper attitude to have when going to treatment? The proper attitude is one of desperation. You have to want sobriety more than anything in the world. You have to want to escape from the chaos and the misery more than anything. And this attitude cannot be faked. People were telling me at my first rehab that this was the proper attitude, and so I tried to fake it. They even told me to “fake it till I made it” (they were referring to the idea that you need a higher power and that you need faith in order to recover, but this also applies to the idea that you have to have faith that you can be happy again someday without alcohol. At the time of my first rehab I was not convinced of this, though I wanted to be).
No, you cannot fake an attitude of desperation. I tried to do so myself when I was at my first treatment center. The people in the meetings there were telling me that I had to want sobriety more than anything in the world, but I just wasn’t feeling it. In reality I missed the alcohol and I thought that I wanted to drink again. I just wasn’t ready to get sober, to change my whole life, to take that much action in order to change.
And why not? What was the hold up? What was the problem? I could not fake desperation, even though I wanted to, and I tried to. The problem was that I had not had enough pain and misery in my own life yet. I know that sounds terrible but it is the truth. We are all struggling through a miserable existence in alcoholism, and it is our job to notice how miserable we are. That is why denial keeps us stuck in our misery, because we refuse to acknowledge it. So the solution is to notice how miserable we are, to embrace the fact that we are miserable, and to realize that we are never going to be happy if we continue to self medicate. But we can’t just notice this on a whim and expect to change overnight, we have to surrender on a very deep level instead. It may take time. For some people it takes years or even decades to break through their denial.
So if you are at the point where you have broke through your denial, then going to a rehab is very good timing. Unfortunately, you may have to go to more than one rehab before you realize that you have reached a point of total surrender.
When I was in my first rehab, I did not really know if I had surrendered completely. I mean, here I was in rehab, wasn’t that enough when it came to surrender? How could I force myself to surrender further than that? I did not know how to do that.
And that is the problem–you can’t fake desperation. You can’t suddenly force yourself to break through all of your remaining denial. Just because you agree to go to rehab does not mean that you are at the point of total and complete surrender, willing to do anything that it takes in order to recover.
There is a huge gap between being willing to go to rehab, and becoming willing to do whatever it takes to commit to a new life in recovery. When I was early in recovery I assumed that there was no gap there; that going to rehab meant that you were fully ready to recover. But this is not true, not by a long shot. In fact the gap there is quite large, to the point where most people who have become sober after rehab actually attended an average of 3 or more treatment centers.
In other words, it is all about the commitment and the level of surrender.
The lifelong process of overcoming alcoholism
You may very well go to a treatment center and get sober after only 28 days. But the process of recovery never ends, and it will take a lifetime of recovery for us to learn this.
“Relapse prevention” is the idea that you can take certain actions after leaving treatment in order to avoid relapse. If you can avoid relapse on a daily basis then the days will turn into years and your life will get better and better as you move into long term sobriety.
My theory is that relapse prevention is all about personal growth. There are two things that you can improve: Your life, and your life situation. There is a subtle but important difference there. In other words, you can work on improving yourself from the inside out, but you can also work on improving your external life situation as well. If you listen carefully in traditional recovery programs they advocate doing both. For example, they say things such as “you need to change the people, places, and things in your life that existed during your addiction.” In other words, no more hanging out at the corner bar (duh!). But furthermore, you may need to change jobs if you are surrounded by bad influences. Or you may need to get toxic people out of your life. Or you may need to get rid of certain things in your life that trigger you to want to use or self medicate.
At the same time you may need to change your life from the inside out. This is the emotional and spiritual side of recovery. If all you do is focus on the external things in your life then you are probably going to leave yourself vulnerable to relapse in the future. Striving for emotional balance is important and it should be “self correcting,” meaning that you will be able to tell easily when you are upset and your life is out of balance. Some people are not at that level yet though and they will need to learn how to notice that they are angry.
In other words, some people have been angry for so long that they do not even realize it when they are upset! If this is the case then you definitely need to find a professional (counselor or therapist) who can help you work through and start identifying your emotions.
When I first got clean and sober I did not believe that emotions were an important part of recovery. But in fact they play a crucial role and can make or break your recovery. People who relapse are generally very upset and emotional. If they were better at identifying and communicating their feelings then it is likely that they could have avoided relapse.
Everyone thinks that avoiding relapse is an intellectual challenge but in fact it is more emotional. We don’t relapse after carefully weighing our options–we relapse because we are so angry and upset that we just don’t care any more. Our emotions are what tips us into the danger zone. So we need to learn about our emotions and how to manage them better in recovery. This is something that I reluctantly learned how to do, thanks to a counselor in early recovery who forced me to look at my feelings. I did not like doing it but I am confident that learning to process my feelings has helped to insure my sobriety over the years.
Going to rehab for 28 days may seem like a lot, but in reality it is just a tiny blip on the map of sobriety. It may not be a total “cure” for alcoholism but it is still the best solution that we have.
If there is one thing to learn here, it is that timing is critical. If you want to insure sobriety, simply go to rehab only after you have reached a point of total and complete surrender. Unfortunately, you are probably not going to know exactly when that is until you can look back and see it in retrospect. Therefore, error on the side of going to treatment anyway, as I did. I went to rehab three times and it was well worth it in the end.