If there is a master switch in the search for real recovery and long term sobriety, then surely we are all seeking for that special switch. What is it exactly?
In my experience, the key to unlocking your success in long term sobriety is more than just going to AA meetings, and it is more than just working through the steps or attending therapy.
It is all of those things and more. Which is to say that the master switch of success is really an all encompassing idea that we could simply label “personal growth.”
The key to long term sobriety is actually slightly different from that of early recovery.
This is not necessarily something that is easily grasped when you are first starting out in recovery. When you have 30 days sober, it looks as if the key to long term sobriety is just to keep doing what you are doing. Go to more meetings, keep talking with your sponsor or therapist, and so on. More, more, more. Shouldn’t that work?
When I was in early recovery and I was transitioning into what I would call “long term sobriety,” I was watching my peers very carefully. I could not help but do this because I was living in a long term treatment program for almost the entire first two years of my sobriety journey. So I was surrounded by people in recovery and many of us were basically transitioning from early recovery to “long term.” I would consider people with a year or two sober to be undergoing this transition.
Early recovery is defined by this eager new state in which you are in total surrender and you desperately need help just to get through the day without drinking or taking drugs. You are fresh, new, and raw with emotion. You might go to treatment and stay for 28 days and when you get done with that stay you are still very new in your recovery journey. The recommendation at that point is to try to do it all and get as much support and help as you can by going to meetings every day, going to therapy or counseling, maybe going to IOP groups, and so on. You need to fill up your days with recovery related activities because if you are sitting idle or bored then that can lead straight to relapse (or so the theory goes).
So early recovery is fairly well defined and if you take suggestions from people then you will likely go through this pattern of inpatient treatment followed up with lots of aftercare, to include meetings and therapy and support groups. If you follow through and you do everything that is suggested then you will be quite busy. If you do everything that is suggested and you take it all seriously then you will likely stay clean and sober as well, at least in the short run.
Now what I was noticing during my first 2 years of recovery was that not everyone who did well in that early recovery environment was transitioning well into long term sobriety.
I think there comes a point in every recovering addict’s life in which they realize that they have to somehow step away–at least partially–from the full time circus that is early recovery activities, and figure out how to live a real life in recovery.
That is an important concept. Early recovery is full time, always on, non stop meetings and therapy and treatment and IOP and so on. You go and you go and you go, and you do it all and you absorb all the new knowledge that you can take in and you learn how to live a real life in recovery. And that is great, there is nothing wrong with this non stop circus that is early recovery activity.
But at some point, you have to realize that you probably cannot keep this up forever. You are not going to have 20 years clean and sober while still going to 3 IOP groups each week on top of daily AA meetings and also seeing a therapist one on one each Thursday afternoon. That worked well when you had 56 days sober, but it is not very realistic to keep that up for 3 or 4 more decades. At some point you have to learn how to live in the real world and find some sort of balance.
When I was in residential treatment for the first two weeks of my journey I listened to a man who would later become my sponsor. He was giving us all a lecture about “balanced lifestyle.” At the time I did not really believe that this was the key to recovery, because I needed so desperately to focus on saving myself each day from relapse. I needed focus and he was preaching balance.
It turns out that we were both right. I did need extreme focus in early recovery, and that was exactly what I kept doing–I went to AA and therapy and groups and I filled my life up with recovery each and every day. I continued to do that for several months.
But at some point I realized that he was right–I really did need some balance in my life. And I was slowly figuring out how to do that.
I had to take suggestions. I was not the genius who figured out how to balance his own life all by himself. No, I had to take suggestions from my therapist, from my sponsor, and from successful peers of mine from AA and NA.
So I started going back to college. I got a job. I started exercising. I wrote in a journal each day. I attended sponsorship meetings once a week. I dabbled in online recovery. And in this way, through taking suggestions from other people and exploring my options, I started to build something like a real life.
There was a moment when I was drifting away from going to so many meetings and recovery activities every day, and I was quite nervous at the time because there was a fairly strong message around the tables of AA and NA that if you drift away from meetings that you are going to relapse.
So I was nervous as I transitioned to this new life that I was building while leaving behind what I would call “the circus of early recovery activities.”
Note that I did not leave it all behind–I kept doing small bits of those things that got me through early recovery. But now I was adding in things such as physical fitness, education, and career advancement. I was branching out away from just hammering away on AA and spiritual growth all the time and I was seeking some real balance in my approach.
And it worked. Around the time of that transition, I had several peers from the long term recovery house who were still hammering away at “the basics” every day, and they warned me that I was going to relapse. Meanwhile, some of them actually did relapse, and I can remember one distinct conversation with a peer in which he said “I don’t understand how you are doing this, how you are staying sober, while I relapsed while doing all the right things.” He had warned me that drifting away from meetings would cause me to relapse.
At the time I did not really understand it myself. Looking back today, I can see how the concepts of personal growth and balanced lifestyle definitely both came into play.