How can you stop worrying about relapse once you are in alcoholism recovery? Does the threat of relapse ever go away completely? When can you just kick back and enjoy your life again without having to worry about addiction screwing everything up?
Let’s take a closer look at some of these questions and find out what is really going on in sobriety.
In very early recovery, worrying about relapse is pretty normal
First of all, it is pretty normal to worry about relapse when you first get clean and sober. That is normal.
If you are not worrying in the least about your sobriety in the beginning then something is probably wrong. You are not likely to stay sober for very long if you are not working hard at it and worrying a bit.
So in very early sobriety, don’t beat yourself up too much about your worrying.
They have a saying in AA and other programs: “Give yourself a break.”
I always used to wonder what that meant, exactly. How do you actually “give yourself a break?”
And then one day it hit me, and I finally understood what it meant.
Here is how I understand it:
It means, don’t be so hard on yourself, and recognize that sobriety is a really tough path to follow, and that you are doing the best that you can.
If you are genuinely worried about relapse then you are probably not in immediate danger of doing so. It is the person who is not worried at all that is in trouble.
So cut yourself some slack and realize that you should not be beating yourself up so badly. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You are doing the best that you can do, and that is all that you can do. It has to be enough. Go forth in your sobriety and don’t drink today no matter what. Try to help yourself and to help others. Everything else is a minor detail and not really that important.
Repeat: If you are sober today then that is a blessing in itself. Make a promise to yourself not to drink for the rest of today, and try to help yourself and others. That’s it. Nothing more is ever required of you in sobriety. You are doing the best you can. Worrying is normal but if you are consumed with anxiety over it then that is not healthy. At some point you have to give yourself a break. When you give yourself a break you give yourself permission to stop worrying.
Massive action in early sobriety can help to alleviate fears of relapse
Now if you are in early sobriety and you really want to stop worrying about relapse, my suggestion to you is to take massive action.
There was a day in my early recovery when I actually went to four different AA meetings. One was at noon at the big club in town, the next one was at 5:30 in the basement of the club, the next one I was chairing and it was an NA meeting in a detox center, and the last one was a midnight meeting. That was quite an intense day!
Normally I would not go to so many meetings in a single day but it just worked out that way and my peers in recovery wanted me to go with them. So I tagged along and I ended up going to several different meetings in one day.
If you are worried about relapse then you should incorporate this strategy yourself. Simply reach out and get a ton of extra help. For most people in most situations the help is available and you can easily find support if you are open to it. I am lucky in that I live in a town that has lots of meetings every day. I realize not everyone has that same luxury but there is plenty of support online as well (including online meetings, online discussion forums, etc.).
And it doesn’t just have to be AA meetings. You can find a sponsor in AA and you can meet up with them, call them on the phone, work through steps together, or maybe even go fishing. You might find a professional counselor or therapist that you can talk with on a regular basis in order to help you in recovery. You might have peers in recovery who you can call up and they will go have coffee with you and just talk. And so on. There are lots of options for support out there but you have to take some initiative and find some of those opportunities for yourself.
Once you find them they tend to expand from there. So maybe you will be talking to people after an AA meeting and they will invite you to go get coffee after the meeting. Later you learn that they do this several times each week, and some of them may even have lunch or breakfast together on a certain day. So you are networking now, you are expanding your support circle, and you are building strength in recovery.
There is no one way to do this “right.” You just do it. You get out there, you start talking with people, and you find new avenues of support. It is all about having the right attitude. You have to be willing. Willingness is a huge key to this and if you are not willing and eager to find new support then it is never going to work.
If you are worried about your sobriety then you need to take action to fix it. Sitting and thinking about it is actually a detriment. Only taking action can alleviate this sort of anxiety. Because when you take positive action it will bring you relief, it will help to reassure you that you are doing the right thing and that you are protecting yourself from relapse. So maybe you get on the phone and call a friend in recovery, and they suggest that you go to a meeting together tonight. Or maybe they attend a church or something and they offer to take you to a youth group or something similar. So maybe you tag along and learn something about yourself. Maybe religion is not for you, and that is fine. But you look around, you becoming willing, you try some new things, and you find out what works for you and what doesn’t. And maybe in doing so you create new connections and you find new avenues of support.
If you feel alone in your recovery and you are afraid of relapse then you need to start creating connections NOW. Force yourself to create at least 3 new connections every single day of one kind or another. Get to an AA meeting and talk to people before and after the meeting. Get phone numbers. Reach out and make connections. Do it every single day, more than once per day, doing whatever it takes to reach out to someone. If you force yourself to do this every single day then your life will transform in a very short period of time. You will be amazed. And it is all about volume, it is all about being consistent and doing it every day and putting yourself out there. It takes guts but it works and it gets results.
Transitioning to a life of personal growth and holistic health
What I described above is very early recovery and that is what I would call “the support phase.” Most people go to rehab and then they get out of treatment and normally they are hitting AA or NA meetings every single day. Hopefully they get a sponsor and also hang out with peers in recovery. They are making connections and it is this support that enables them to make it through early recovery.
After doing this for a while you start to transition into a new phase of recovery. My experience is that you do not stay stuck in the “support phase” forever. You move on. You get stronger in your sobriety. And so you need others less and less while you rely on yourself more and more. Staying sober is a bit easier, it is more automatic. It is no longer so foreign to be sober every day. Sobriety becomes more normal to you.
This is the personal growth phase of sobriety. It is time to start doing serious work on yourself, not just networking and talking with others and getting general support from them, but actually doing the work in recovery that will help you to remain sober. So if you are in the 12 step program then you will have to get honest with yourself and figure out what your character defects are and then do the work to eliminate those defects. Otherwise those defects will create behaviors in the future that may drive you to relapse.
So part of how you stop worrying about relapse is that you have to embrace….relapse prevention. In very early recovery that means finding support systems. After you transition out of early recovery, however, there is serious work to be done. You have to strive for personal growth and do work on yourself.
How do you do this?
As mentioned, one way is by working through the 12 steps with a sponsor.
But that is not the only way. Much of the important work that I did in terms of personal growth during this phase was not actually done through the 12 steps. I figured it out myself while I was living in long term rehab, because I felt like I wanted to relapse and I had to figure out why.
It was self pity. I was sitting around, feeling sorry for myself every day, and that was how my brain used to justify drinking. So I had to identify this problem and then deal with it. If I had been using the 12 steps, this would have been a character defect that I exposed during my inventory.
So then I had to come up with a plan to eliminate this self pity. Because it was no good, it was not helping me, and it was going to drive me to relapse.
So I figured out that gratitude was the ultimate antidote for this, and I also created what I called a “zero tolerance policy” for myself. So I became more aware of when my brain was using self pity, and I was purposefully catching that early and putting a stop to it. I would notice it quickly and then redirect my mind. If that did not work then I forced myself to stop what I was doing immediately and write down ten things that I was grateful for. You cannot be grateful and full of self pity at the same time. It is impossible. Gratitude cures self pity.
So that was something that I had to learn how to do. That was some action that I had to take in order to grow as a person in recovery.
Figuring out what helps to keep you sober by paying attention and raising your awareness
During this middle phase of recovery you need to experiment.
In early recovery when you first get clean and sober, you do what you are told. That is simple (not easy, but simple). You go to AA, or you go to rehab, or you go to your sponsor, or you listen to whoever, and you do what they tell you to do. Simple. Take directions. Follow instructions. Ask the therapist what you should do when you leave rehab. They will tell you very specific things to do. Then you go and do them. This is early recovery. It is simple, though not necessarily easy.
After this early phase of sobriety you transition into “long term recovery.” Now it is a bit easier (in my opinion) but it is no longer simple. See how that switched? In early recovery it was super tough to remain sober but it was dead simple: Just don’t drink and go to meetings and do what they tell you to do. In long term sobriety this is reversed a bit, now it is much easier to remain sober on a daily basis, but it is no longer super simple. You have to go do some complex things, you have to work on yourself internally, you have to work on your life situation, you have to get honest with yourself and eliminate the negative parts of your life, and so on.
So when you get to this middle phase of recovery you are still experimenting a bit. You don’t necessarily know what to do, so you are still taking advice from others. And that is fine. You are not quite ready to make your own path in recovery yet. You are not quite ready to use all of your own ideas and ignore the rest of the world (are we ever ready to do that?).
So you experiment. And this is very powerful, because you are borrowing from the wisdom of others.
So your sponsor may suggest that you meditate. So you try meditation and you learn something about yourself in the process. Maybe meditation is really the thing for you, or maybe it is not quite a good fit. Whatever–that’s not the point. Keep experimenting. Find another suggestion, try something else, and keep taking positive action.
At one point in your journey you will stumble on something that makes a huge impact on your sobriety. Or perhaps you will just keep making small incremental changes in your life as you discover new tactics in your sobriety journey. For me, this happened when I discovered distance running. And actually it took a long time before that really kicked in and made me into a believer, made me realize that it had a hugely positive impact on my sobriety (at first it was hard work and I hated it and I would have told you that it made me want to drink, if anything!). But I stuck it out for long enough and eventually that positive habit paid huge dividends.
You are really searching for positive habits. Recovery can be explained in terms of habits.
Sobriety is trading in an old set of habits for a new set of habits. And habits are powerful because they are consistent, they are ingrained in you, they happen every single day consistently.
So when you are stuck in addiction your habits are working against you, and they are very powerful. We all know this and sense it, even when we are in the grip of addiction.
But the same is true in sobriety–if you can turn those habits around and create positive action in your sobriety, then your life will completely transform. And this is an amazing thing to experience when you are living through it because the positive side effects just keep adding up.
For example, you quit drinking and using drugs. That is the obvious baseline, right? But then (hopefully) you start sleeping better. This can take months or even years, but eventually your sleeping habits will get much more healthy. Remember, give yourself a break! These things take time.
And your eating habits will probably shift as well. If you start exercising then you will eventually start putting healthier fuel into your body as a result. So you get sober, then you start exercising your body, then you improve your fuel (nutrition), and your sleeping improves. Mentally you are sharper and gain clarity as time goes on. Again, give yourself a break. It takes time for the fog of addiction to lift. Some say it can take several years to fully get back to normal.
Emotionally you will mature during this time as well. You will learn how to deal with your emotions and better handle them as you remain sober. If you don’t do this then it will very likely lead to relapse, so you sort of don’t have a choice! Sobriety demands that you mature emotionally on some level. It has to happen if you are going to make it.
Spiritually your life will change as well. You can’t live in sobriety and be completely selfish for too long, or this will lead you to relapse. When we are selfish and self centered it eventually leads us to relapse. And why not? We deserve it! We are selfish and we deserve to reward ourselves in any way that we want! This is one way that people relapse.
The opposite of this selfishness is not really caring, it is more subtle than that. It is gratitude. Remember that selfishness is an attitude as well as a behavior. And the attitude that can subvert that selfishness is being grateful. If you are truly grateful then you will not, by definition, be selfish. You will be kind and caring because your attitude has shifted.
Therefore we must shift our attitude to being grateful, rather than selfish. If you are thinking “I deserve better than this” then you need to remind yourself of reasons to be grateful instead. Otherwise your brain is just going to rationalize and justify a drink or a drug for you.
These changes can be described in terms of your habits. We all need to develop the sort of habits that allow us to be grateful, to be emotionally balanced, to be physically healthy, to be mentally stable, to be socially friendly, and so on. We must eliminate toxic relationships. We have to strive for greater health in every area of our lives. And when we find habits that allow us to do this on a daily basis then that is very powerful.
I owe nearly all of my success in sobriety to the fact that I established some really healthy habits. And then I stuck to those habits consistently, and over time this transformed my life into something amazing.
When you live this way for a long time the benefits just start to snowball. It starts out really slow and you will wonder if it is even worth the effort at first. But then later on you will be amazed almost every day at the transformations that you are witnessing.
There is a secondary reason for this as well, it is called “synergy.” That sounds like a useless buzzword but it is actually a very valid concept. The idea is that as you strive for greater health in all of these different areas of your life (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, socially) the benefits of these actions will start to enhance and positive affect the other goals that you have. So in other words, getting into great shape and developing healthy sleep habits will enhance your emotional stability. Sound obvious? It’s not though. When you start to integrate all of these habits with a holistic approach, you start to notice these little interactions that you never would have predicted in the past.
What about you, do you still worry about relapse? Do you think you could develop new habits that would lead to more strength in this area, and more confidence? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!