What is the key to making it through early sobriety without a relapse? How can a recovering alcoholic be sure that they are not going to slip up and take a drink or use drugs unexpectedly, erasing all of their progress?
My first suggestion to anyone who is looking to insure their own success is that they start with a very strong foundation in the first month of their sobriety. This can best be done through an inpatient treatment program that runs for 28 days. Sure, you could try to find an easier way than this, or something more convenient, less restrictive, and so on–but your results are going to reflect the corners that you cut. If you want to do it right then you need to start out with a strong foundation.
My second suggestion for anyone who is serious about their recovery is that they follow through very thoroughly with their aftercare plan. If you go to an inpatient treatment program then the counselors and therapists there will probably set up a plan for when you leave inpatient treatment. There will likely be suggestions in your aftercare plan such as doing 90 AA meetings in the next 90 days, but also things such as counseling or Intensive Outpatient.
If you slack off on any of these suggestions then, again, you can expect your results in recovery to reflect that. They do not just suggest those things for the heck of it–those are the things that successful people in recovery do in order to maintain sobriety. If you want to make it into long term recovery then you need to build a super strong foundation.
A big part of your foundation in early recovery is going to be social. This is because you need to relate to others who are going through recovery like yourself, but also because you need to be able to reach out for immediate help when you are in a pinch. Also, you are going to be learning a great deal of information from your peers in early recovery, so without this social support it is going to be very difficult to learn how to live your life and manage your stress.
The big shortcut to these things is to first go to rehab, then to follow up with daily AA meetings. While not a perfect system for everything, you could certainly do much worse than to go through a 28 day program and follow that up with 90 AA meetings in the next 90 days. When it comes to building a strong foundation in early recovery, it is pretty difficult to do so without using at least some, or all, of these ideas. You need the break that you get from inpatient rehab, and you need the social support and routine that you get from 3 months worth of meetings. Do people remain sober without doing these things? Sure, it can happen. But I certainly would not stake my own recovery on it, and I would not recommend it for yours either.
Now after you are working a strong recovery program by building this foundation for yourself, you need to start engaging in personal growth. Meaning that you cannot just sober up, hit a few meetings, and expect for your addiction to just magically evaporate because you are not using any more. In order to truly avoid relapse you are going to have to maintain personal growth.
In other words, you need to trade out your bad habits for good ones, and you also have to keep doing this over and over again as you maintain sobriety.
If you stop doing this then you open the door for relapse. If you stop pursuing positive action, seeking out solutions and looking for positive habits, then that is a sure sign that you are becoming complacent. And a complacent person in recovery is someone who is very close to taking their next drink. The reason for this is because life is so random that new problems are going to keep popping up in your life, and in order to solve those problems in a healthy way you need to be looking for positive solutions.
The moment that you decide that you already know all of the positive solutions, life is going to throw a new problem at you in which you do not have a solution. And if you have become “unplugged” from the recovery process then the only viable solution is going to look like alcohol or drug use. And that is what leads to relapse.
It doesn’t happen overnight. If you have a foundation in recovery and you are doing well then you are still at risk for relapse. The tricky part is that you are not going to just relapse on a whim–it will build up slowly over a period of weeks or even years. And suddenly you will look back and realize that you have not been working a recovery program for a long, long time. That is the moment when you are at your most vulnerable. That is the moment when your disease can strike and take you down quickly.
Think back to your early recovery, when you were just starting out and you were asking lots of questions with your therapist, maybe with your sponsor in AA, maybe with your peers in the meetings. You were eager to learn and you were discovering new solutions all the time.
That is the mindset that can keep you clean and sober for the long run. If you lose that mindset, that humility, that ability to learn and seek new solutions–then you are sitting duck for relapse. That is how the disease sneaks back in. It waits for you to be complacent, to become lazy, to stop looking for those new solutions.
Early sobriety, in my experience, is all about support. You would be crazy not to take advantage of an inpatient treatment program if you have access to it. And you do not know what you have access to unless you get on the phone and find out. Second of all, I really believe you are making things harder on yourself if you attempt to avoid traditional solutions such as AA and NA. Not because those solutions are so perfect, but because they are widespread and provide so much social support. To put it another way: If you don’t get your social support and ability to identify with other alcoholics from AA or NA, where are you going to get it from? Because without that identification and the support from others in recovery, you are going to have a very, very difficult time in early recovery. Social support is practically everything.
If you think about it, your addiction is really defined by the fact that you could not beat it alone. You tried. Everyone at the tables of AA and NA tried to beat it by themselves. No one wants to admit that they need help. So we all try to figure it out for ourselves first. And we all failed, reached out for help, and eventually found our way to solutions like inpatient treatment and 12 step meetings.
If you want to avoid relapse then you have to put in the work. And when we say “put in the work” what we really mean is that you have to try harder at this recovery thing than you have ever tried to do anything before in your entire life. Ever.
Put your entire life effort into recovery and you will get a wonderful life back out of it. If you put in half an effort then you will relapse, lose all progress, and go back to the full blown misery of addiction. Recovery is, unfortunately, an all or nothing proposition. You either get it all in recovery and live this great life, or you go back to addiction. Very few alcoholics and addicts can stay in limbo for very long. Our disease is based on extremes.
Early recovery, done right, is not necessarily comfortable. You have to put yourself out there, make yourself vulnerable, ask for help, and then try to learn how to live your life all over again. You are playing by a new set of rules now, but the results are well worth the effort.