Early recovery is not the same as long term sobriety. They are slightly different, and in some ways there are some pretty significant differences.
For one thing, in early recovery you are focused heavily on social support, AA meetings, going to rehab, and so on. You need help now and you need it in a big way.
Obviously when you have 10 years sober you are not sitting in 3 AA meetings every single day, which is something that might actually happen if you have 3 months sober.
So things change in long term sobriety and while recovery is still important, your priorities shift. If you want to remain sober for the long run then you need to focus on building a certain set of strengths in your life, and those strengths are quite different than the treatment and meeting dominated schedule of early recovery.
Let’s take a look at what all is entailed in a successful long term recovery.
First of all is the critical strength of self analysis. This goes along with self awareness and to some extent you really need to have this in early recovery as well or you cannot possibly work through the steps, or any recovery program for that matter.
Let me give you an example. When I was in very early recovery I realized that I was sitting around a lot of the time feeling sorry for myself. What was going on? Why was my brain looking for excuses to play the victim role? Why would my brain even do that?
I had to do some analysis and talk with some therapists to realize what was going on here. The self pity was how I justified my drinking and drug use during my addiction. So my brain had to make it okay that I was abusing drugs and alcohol. In order to do that it had to somehow justify my outrageous behavior.
Some people are fueled with resentments. I was fueled by self pity. That was how my disease justified all the abuse and drinking.
So in order to figure that out I had to become more self aware. During my addiction I never questioned that rationalization or justification; I simply accepted it as the truth of the matter and then self medicated over it. But in recovery, I had made the deliberate decision not to self medicate, but my brain did not really know that fully, so it was still locked into that pattern of justifying my drinking, even though I was no longer drinking.
The problem was that this pattern of rationalizing was making me miserable. Why make yourself miserable in order to drink booze if you are no longer drinking? It doesn’t make sense. So you have to realize all of this before you can make a plan to fix it, which is actually fairly easy to fix, but first you have to know about the problem.
And that is half the battle at least–before you can fix resentments or self pity or shame or guilt or a thousand other negative emotions that are left over from your addiction, you have to know about those issues. And you cannot know about them unless you increase your self awareness.
There are many ways to do this. One way is by working the steps. Another way is to write in a journal every day. Another way is to talk things out with a therapist. Either way, you need to get down to the core of those issues and those problems so that you can identify them and then make a plan to eradicate them.
So that is the first key strength that you need: Self awareness. What else do you need to remain sober in the long run?
The next key thing that I realized is that you need to be growth oriented.
At one point in my early recovery I was watching lots of my peers in recovery and trying to figure out what really made people successful. I was realizing two key points: One, not every person who had dedicated their life to the AA program was successful in long term sobriety, and two, not every person who drifted away from the AA program was a miserable failure.
These two things confused me, because if you listen to the wisdom at the AA meetings, you will hear a fairly common theme which is: If you work the AA program then you will succeed, and if you leave the AA program you will relapse.
So what was the real truth? Why was I seeing this discrepancy in results?
I decided that there had to be certain fundamental concepts that actually were “the magic parts of a recovery program.” Meaning that things like surrender and faith might be the critical concepts, but sitting in an AA meeting every day might just be a minor side note when it came to actually remaining clean and sober. What was truly important to recovery, and what was superfluous?
I decided to find out for myself, and in doing so, I did a pretty big experiment. My experiment was this: I was going to leave the AA and NA meetings while trying to remain clean and sober. My peers said that it could not be done. I was going to try it anyway, so I started to ask “the winners” in AA and NA what truly kept them clean and sober OTHER than meetings. And I started collecting suggestions from such people, and I started to make some changes in my life.
So one thing they suggested was that I write in a journal every day. Another was that I work with people in recovery on a regular basis. And another suggestion that was quite common was for physical exercise and fitness.
So I started incorporating all of these things into my life. And then I left the AA meetings.
It turns out that the core concepts and principles are more important than sitting in actual AA meetings every day. Some of my peers in AA still say to me “I don’t know how you do it (remain sober) without sitting in meetings every day.”
Which kind of ties into the third and final concept for success in long term recovery, which is holistic health.
In order to thrive in recovery, I have found that I need to take care of myself in more ways than just the usual “spiritual health recommendation” that you get in traditional recovery.
In other words, I try to take care of myself physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and socially.
If I neglect one of those areas of my life for too long then I can see that relapse becomes a real possibility.
The key, therefore, is to look for the area of weakness in my life, the area that I have been neglecting, and make a deliberate effort to bring that balance back.
This is because the disease of addiction will look for the weaknesses in your life and try to exploit them in order to create relapse.
Your job, therefore, is to employ holistic health principles such that you are protecting yourself on all fronts.
Those are the key concepts that I have found to bring me to success in long term recovery. Good luck with your own journey!