In order to avoid one of the biggest threats in long term sobriety you are going to have to use a proactive approach to your recovery.
This has to happen on a day to day basis, even after having been clean and sober for years or decades.
The threat is complacency: You tend to get lazy as you rack up more and more clean time and you get more and more comfortable living the sober life. Suddenly you no longer have to push yourself nearly as hard as you once did in order to maintain sobriety. Living sober becomes familiar, easy, more automatic.
This is the threat. If you get too comfortable in your recovery journey, then from out of nowhere a series of unfortunate events could cost you your sobriety. The perfect storm could form right when you are at your weakest point, thus driving you to relapse. In order to avoid this problem we need to develop a long term strategy for our recovery journey.
We need a system of recovery that can work at 20 years sober or 2 years sober, just as it was working for us at 2 months sober.
However, I do not believe that “going back to the basics” is the answer. I have seen this approach used quite a bit in the world of addiction recovery, where people argue that the solution is static, that it is all about getting back to the basics, and that you just need to hammer on meetings and sponsorship and book work just like we all did when we had 2 weeks sober. They argue that we just need to get back to our roots, go back to the basics, and that we will be fine that way. “The program is not broken,” they argue, ” and therefore it does not need fixing. Just keep doing what has worked for you and you will remain sober. If you relapse then it was your own fault for not going to enough meetings, not working the 12 steps, not studying the recovery literature enough,” and so on. That is essentially the “back to the basics” argument that is often presented as the solution for long term recovery. If you start slipping, in other words, just do more of the same–more meetings, more AA, more of the stuff that worked for us when we were first getting clean and sober.
My opinion, and my experience, is that this is not the optimal approach when it comes to thwarting the threat of complacency. Sure, it can be made to work. But it is a bit like forcing a square peg through a round hole via brute force–there are more elegant solutions in my opinion.
So what is this more elegant solution that I speak of? I can only tell you what my own experience is, and how my own sobriety journey unfolded for me.
When I was approaching 18 months or so in my recovery journey, I had been going to lots of AA meetings and essentially working a “back to basics” kind of AA based recovery. And while it was working for me thus far, I could tell that something was going to have to change.
One of the big reasons that I noticed this impending change was based on the meetings that I was attending. Suddenly I was realizing that my time spent in nearly every AA meeting could have been better spent in a more specific way: Writing in my journal, meditating, going for a jog, talking with a close peer in recovery over coffee, and so on.
Was the AA meeting “bad?” No, it’s not that. It just wasn’t the best use of my time and energy. It was helpful for my recovery, sure. But I was realizing that there were other personal growth activities that I could be doing instead, and some of those were yielding me better results than listening to the same old war stories at AA.
I know that sounds highly critical of AA. But honestly, I would ask you this: If your recovery is such that quitting AA meetings on a daily basis causes you to relapse, then really what kind of quality recovery could you claim to have had in your life?
I noticed that for many of my peers, daily AA meetings were a dependency. If they quit the meetings it led them to relapse. This was not the path that I wanted.
People argued back with me, saying “But if that is the price that you have to pay for sobriety, just one hour per day of AA, wouldn’t you gladly pay it?”
Well, sure. If that were the only way that any human could ever remain sober, I would pay that price.
But, I did not believe it. I could not believe that going to AA every single day was the only path to lasting recovery.
And so I started on my own journey of overcoming complacency. I began to talk to people in long term recovery and inquire with them about what actions they were taking in their daily lives–other than going to AA meetings. What did they do now that they had 10 plus years in recovery? And I started hearing answers like “meditation,” and “physical exercise” and “writing in a journal” and things like that. So what I did was that I started forming all of these suggestions into new habits in my own life as I transitioned out of going to daily AA meetings.
So I did not just quit going to daily meetings. Instead, I made a plan based on what was working for other people in long term recovery, and I adopted their ideas and their suggestions and I made them into real habits and lifestyle change for myself. So I became a regular jogger. I wrote about myself and my recovery every day in a journal. I started meditating. And so on.
At some point I realized that this could not be the end. If all I did was adopt a few new habits as I transitioned out of daily meetings, that would still potentially lead me to complacency if I was not careful.
The key, it seemed, was that I continued to push myself to seek that next breakthrough in personal growth. I had to keep searching and seeking for more and more self improvement.
We can accept ourselves or we can demand better of ourselves. The serenity prayer outlines the dynamic that we face every day in recovery–do we push ourselves to keep growing, or do we kick back and relax and accept things as they are?
My belief is that your default should be to seek the personal growth. Figure out how to stop using “self acceptance” as an excuse for inaction, and instead get yourself geared up to do the work of recovery.
One of the ways that I have found to be able to do this consistently is to keep asking for advice from other people. If you test out their ideas and suggestions, then keep the things that genuinely work for you and that help you, then you will be on a very powerful path of growth in recovery. Most people do not want to keep humbling themselves and keep asking for advice, but this is really the best shortcut to personal growth that I have discovered.
Find people that you look up to in recovery and then ask them how they got to where they are. Emulate their success by borrowing their habits. Good luck!