One of the major themes that you hear about in AA and NA meetings when you first get clean and sober is how dangerous the threat of relapse is. There is this message that you hear over and over if you are a newcomer in traditional recovery circles which is essentially: “Anyone can relapse at any time, so count your blessings that you are sober today!”
The question that comes out of that situation might be: “Can I ever be totally sure of my sobriety? Am I going to have to constantly be on guard against the threat of relapse? Forever and ever? Don’t I ever get to say that I have officially made it in recovery, that I am safe, that I have achieved enough sobriety and clean time that I am now well protected against relapse?”
Let’s take a closer look at this concept and see if there is anything that can really buy you security in your own sobriety.
Length of sobriety does not necessarily affect your security
First of all it is important to realize that the length of time that you have been clean and sober doesn’t really buy you much security. Statistically it will buy you an ever increasing success rate moving forward, in other words, a group of people who all have ten years sober will have a better success rate than a group of people who only have 2 years sober. But even that effect may not be as pronounced as you might believe, and truly, anyone is potentially vulnerable to relapse.
There are two reasons for this at least. One is that it only takes a single drink or drug, which can enter your system for any given reason. For example, I know a guy who had several years sober in AA, and he suffered a softball injury in his shoulder. He ended up at the doctor and was prescribed powerful painkillers. He found that he liked the pills. A lot. And before he knew it, he was addicted to them and was displaying classic addict behavior in his life again. He declared this to be a full blown relapse even though it did not (quite) drive him back to his true drug of choice, which was alcohol.
This is what they mean when they say that the disease of addiction is “cunning, baffling, and powerful.” It tries to find a way to sneak back into your life, because the problem was not actually the alcohol itself, it was the fact that we felt a certain way, we were addicts, and we self medicated until it created a huge problem. And the world is full of a million and one ways to self medicate, unfortunately. So you may relapse on something other than your drug of choice, and this can still create real turmoil in your recovery. It can even be the trigger that leads you back to your drug of choice one day.
The second reason that anyone might relapse is complacency, which we will get to in a moment. A third reason that is a bit of a wild card has to do with relationships. If there is one thing that I could blame in my early recovery for why so many of my peers ended up relapsing, it would be relationships. That has to be the number one danger spot in early sobriety to watch out for. Especially dangerous are new romantic relationships. Handling a breakup without reaching for our drug of choice is apparently almost impossible when you have less than a year sober. And even in long term sobriety if you find yourself going through a difficult breakup this can put a tremendous amount of pressure on you to want to self medicate. Relationships are tough because they are high stakes. They can be very rewarding when they go well but they can also be very devastating when they turn bad, which poses a huge relapse risk to nearly anyone.
The problem with becoming too stable in recovery: complacency
Let’s talk about complacency for a moment.
In my opinion this is the number one threat to alcoholics and addicts in recovery (traditional recovery claims that the number one threat is resentment).
Well, you can learn to deal with resentments. If you do the work in recovery then you can overcome your anger and you can learn to let go of it, process it, move on from it. If you are in AA or NA and you get a sponsor and you work through the steps then you will learn how to overcome resentments by doing so. And you can learn a new way to live, a daily practice, in which you are not creating new resentments moving forward.
Any alcoholic who is honestly working a program should be able to conquer the resentment monster. You should deal with your past, process all of your anger, and move on from it. Moving forward, you should deal with new issues in a mature manner so that you do not create any new resentments. Sure, you will still become upset in life, and anger will still occur. But you don’t have to hang on to it any more, you can learn how to work through it and use the tools in the program and reach out to others and talk it through. You can “solve” the problem of resentment.
Now maybe you have done that already in your recovery or perhaps it is on your to-do list. If so, you can start by getting with a therapist or a sponsor and start doing the work. Dig into those old issues, see the part that you played in them, and learn how to move past it. It is simply a matter of making the effort and doing the work.
So what happens after resentments are no longer the number one threat to you in recovery? A new problem arises, a new threat takes the place of resentment, and that threat is complacency.
So what then is complacency?
Complacency is when you get too comfortable in your recovery to the point that it lulls you into a false sense of security. You think that you are immune to relapse so you don’t push yourself as hard any more in your recovery efforts. You stop pushing yourself to grow and to change and to learn because you finally have recovery “all figured out,” for the most part.
Say that you have five years sober. You have been through a lot in your recovery journey, and you made it through without relapse. Surely you can handle the next five years, right? That is actually a very dangerous attitude to take in sobriety.
Why? Because life changes. Life evolves. New curve balls are going to be thrown at you, over and over again, until you die.
That is a very important concept so let’s take a moment and think about this. You are always in danger of relapse in recovery because there are new situations that are coming down the pike at you. The universe has a plan for you and you have no idea what that plan is. I can promise you one thing: Some of it will be a surprise. We can’t plan everything. Life is random and chaotic and things are going to happen.
This is why you have to keep working a program of recovery, forever. Because life keeps happening. Life keeps showing up and playing havoc in your life. Random stuff occurs and you are not always going to be prepared to deal with all of it. New things will happen that you have never had to handle in the past. Random stuff will occur. And some of it will be good, some of it will be bad, there are going to be ups and downs. That’s just life. If you stay alive, if you keep going, then you get to experience this random walk through chaos, because that is just what happens if you continue to exist in the world.
Ups and downs. Some of it will be easy to handle, most of it will be so-so, and a tiny bit of it will be really tough to handle. And it is that really tough to handle stuff, the real messy chaos and misery that inevitably will pop up at some point, that we need to watch out for. That is the stuff that might cause someone to relapse.
And so the only way to prepare for that is to continuously reinvent yourself in recovery.
So we have learned something here. We know for sure that if you continue to live your life and exist that you are going to have good days and bad days. Good weeks and bad weeks. Maybe even good months and bad months. But we also learn in recovery that “you can start your day over at any time.” We have tools in the program of recovery, but of course you have to be ready to use those tools. You have to remember that they exist. And in some cases you have to be in the habit of practicing with those tools, of reaching out to other people and asking for advice, of reaching out to other people and doing the work and helping them in some cases (so that you can help yourself).
There are always going to be ups and downs in life. Some of those peak experiences will be potential triggers for relapse. You may be protected against such triggers today, but as you move forward, the disease of addiction is inventing new ways to try to trigger you.
They have a saying in AA, that “the disease of addiction is over in the corner, doing push ups, getting stronger and stronger.” And that is a great analogy. In order to stay strong, you have to do your own recovery push ups. You have to keep reinventing yourself in recovery so that you are strong enough to keep battling against an evolving addiction.
So in order to do that in the long run we need a strategy. A lot of people use the program of AA or NA in order to fight back against complacency. Depending on how you work those programs and how you integrate them into your life, this may or may not work out well for you. For example, some people in AA fall into a pattern of going to meetings on a regular basis, but they stop doing the work, they stop integrating the steps into their lives, they stop learning new things, and they thus become complacent. In other words, you can be going through the motions of traditional recovery and still become complacent. The question is, are you still reinventing yourself in your recovery journey? Are you constantly learning about yourself and becoming a better person? Are you learning? If so then it doesn’t really matter what program you may be working on, you can overcome the complacency monster.
One strategy for proactively fighting against complacency
What I recommend in order to overcome complacency is a strategy of lifelong personal growth.
Recovery is, in essence, personal growth.
When you first get clean and sober you go through this initial phase of your recovery. It is like being dropped into a cold lake all of a sudden when you first sober up. It kind of shocks the body and everything is so new and raw and you have to get used to life again in sobriety. That’s early recovery. I recommend that you do this part at an inpatient treatment facility if you can. Go to a rehab, go to a 28 day program, get safely detoxed, and learn how to exist again while you are sober. This will get you through the first month and that is absolutely critical. If you don’t have a lot of help during that first part of your sobriety then it is very likely that you won’t break into long term sobriety.
After you establish yourself in sobriety, after you find your initial footing, you need to start thinking about the rest of your life. Now that you are sober, what are you going to do with yourself? How will you remain clean and sober? They will tell you to do the work, to get a sponsor and to go to meetings every day, and this is not bad advice necessarily. But if all you do is go to meetings then eventually you are going to relapse due to complacency. The program is more than just sitting in AA meetings every day. I learned this very early on when I was living in a long term treatment center as I watched many of my peers struggle with relapse. They were all going to meetings every day and yet they still managed to relapse, and I wondered why that was. Some of those people who relapsed had significant amounts of sobriety too, some were over a year, many were over six months.
The reason, I feel, was complacency in many of these cases. Because some of these peers had done the work, they had sponsors and they had worked through the steps and they were even doing 12 step work and carrying the message. But at some point they got stuck in a routine and they got lazy. They were going through the motions but they were not challenging themselves to grow, to learn, to reinvent themselves.
And I discovered that there were other programs out there, other than AA and NA, in which people were staying clean and sober. And so I started to look at these various programs and see what the fundamental principles were. In other words, if you look at all of the different recovery programs out there, what are the common features? What do they share? What is really fundamental to recovery?
There are a handful of principles that all of these programs shared. The first is surrender. Of course you have to stop what you are doing in addiction and get your footing. You have to somehow extract yourself from the chaos and misery of addiction. Going to rehab solves this problem, for the most part. It is not a long term solution, it is merely the start of your journey. But it is still critical.
Second of all is reinvention. In AA they call this “a personality shift sufficient enough to bring about sobriety.” In other words, if you drink every day and you are angry at the world, you have to figure out how to be happy and sober. And that change in attitude will change everything. It changes your entire world. That is a massive shift in personality, in your attitude, in how you deal with the world.
Third is the idea of personal growth. I also refer to this as “reinvention.” In sobriety, you are charged with the task of becoming the person you were really supposed to be. And so you have to push yourself to find out what that is, to find out how to become that ideal version of yourself. To do that, I suggest that you listen to other people in recovery, people who have more time in than you, and to start taking their advice. Get into action. Do what they tell you to do. And experiment. You can move on from a suggestion if it is not a good fit for you, but try it out first. Take action. Experiment. This is how you test out a new life for yourself in recovery.
How acceptance gets abused in recovery
There is a balance between personal growth and acceptance.
In the big book of AA they talk about how “acceptance is the answer to all of my problems today.” The serenity prayer addresses this as well. If you cannot change something in your world and it is upsetting to you then you must accept it, right? And if you fail to do so then you are just making yourself miserable.
So we need the wisdom to know what we can change and what we must accept.
The problem is that this gets abused. People use it as an excuse for inaction.
So they may be out of shape and unhealthy. And they might use acceptance of themselves as an excuse. Instead, they could ask for help. They could take advice. They could start doing the work and get physically motivated, get whipped into shape, work out really hard and transform themselves physically. But they use “acceptance of self” as an excuse so that they don’t have to take action, they don’t have to do the work, they don’t have to push themselves.
One way to avoid this is to find a sponsor that you trust in recovery and start taking suggestions from that person. I did this myself and it led to many interesting decisions: I started exercising, I went back to college, I got a different job, I found a new relationship. I was not on a path to do any of those things at the time, but having a sponsor helped push me in the right direction for those things to occur. I had to be willing to listen though. I had to be willing to say to the world: “I don’t know how to live, please tell me what to do.”
Your ongoing efforts at recovery are the best measure of your sobriety. What you did in the past will not keep you sober in the future
What you did in the past to remain sober will not work in the future.
Your life changes and evolves. You need new information to remain sober. Life is going to show up, it is going to challenge you, and you have to be ready for it.
You have to be willing to reinvent yourself. All over again.
“Am I willing to keep learning?”
That is how you defeat complacency.