6 Things that a Recovering Alcoholic Needs to Learn in Order to...

6 Things that a Recovering Alcoholic Needs to Learn in Order to Stay Sober


Getting sober involves learning. There is no way around it. After using alcohol as our main coping mechanism for years and years, the challenge in early sobriety is to learn how to life our live without using self medicating as a crutch.

Here are six lessons in particular that every alcoholic has to learn in order to stay sober:

Six Critical Lessons

1. How to make a “zero tolerance” policy with yourself about not taking any mood or mind altering substances.

The “zero tolerance policy” is a condition that you place on yourself that says “no matter what.”

It basically reads as such: “I will not use drugs or alcohol today no matter what.”

Most people have no problem focusing on the idea of “not using drugs or alcohol.” What they often fail to realize is that the important part of this strategy is the no matter what part.

When you first get clean and sober, maintaining abstinence needs to become your number one priority in life. You have to set it above all other things, even above things such as family, love, relationships, religion, and so on. Everything gets bumped a notch down as your new, most important mission in life is to “not use drugs or alcohol today no matter what.”

This is the first action step of any long term recovery plan. The commitment to abstain, no matter what. It is more important than everything else. Period.

Why does this need to be learned?

Failure to grasp the idea of the zero tolerance policy results in relapse. If you do not commit absolutely, then you will most certainly relapse.

But the idea of having a zero tolerance policy towards relapse does much more than just prevent relapse. It actually changes how we live our lives, because each day, we completely write off the potential for using drugs or alcohol. This fierce commitment to abstinence frees up a lot of time and mental energy that might otherwise be spent needlessly obsessing on things. The quality of our life improves because we become more focused on positive action, simply because we do not have to hem and haw over whether we might take a drink or a drug that day.

It is not about raw willpower. We all know that willpower is typically not enough to overcome a real addiction. This is more about reprogramming your mind in early recovery. The thought of relapse should become like poison to you. The idea of taking a swig of alcohol should be like touching a hot stove. If you are not at that point, then something needs to change.

What is the best way to go about learning this?

The best way to learn discipline is through….practicing discipline.

Your only real option is to set the rules down for yourself and follow them ruthlessly. This is why you should add the modifier “no matter what.” It is not enough to simply swear off drugs and alcohol for the day. You must do it with real conviction. “I will not use drugs or alcohol today no matter what.” This must become your highest truth, your mantra.

You’ve either got it or you don’t. Either you have surrendered to your addiction and you are ready to stop, or you are not. Once you are at this point, you need to learn the discipline of waking up every day and saying “I am not going to use drugs or alcohol today, no matter what.”

And you have to really live it.

2. How to embrace a creative mindset so that you are actively shaping the story of your life, rather than just letting things happen to you and then playing the victim all the time.

One common problem among alcoholics is that they tend to react a lot. Things happen in their life, and they react to them. Of course everybody does this, but the alcoholic tends to do it with a special flair, in a way that seems to bring all sorts of additional problems and drama into their life.

For some people, this may manifest as “being a drama queen.”

For others, it may be that they are always on the pity pot, and constantly playing the victim.

And for still other alcoholics, it may be that they are angry and lashing out at the world, because they are convinced that everyone has it in for them.

In any case, these types of mental games have to stop. If you are going to have any shot at staying sober in the long run, you have to learn how to shut these things down.

Why does this need to be learned?

Playing the victim, lashing out in resentment, and instigating more drama and chaos in your life can only lead you back to one thing: relapse.

They are all roads that lead you back to self medicating. They are mental obsessions that trap you in a cycle of self destructive behavior, the ultimate outcome of which is always going to end in you getting drunk again, eventually.

None of these patterns of behavior are sustainable. If you are constantly angry at others with resentment, you will eventually self medicate out of anger at yourself. If you are constantly playing the victim, eventually you will take your own medicine, and justify it because you have built up such a huge case in your mind for all the hurt you have suffered. If you are constantly stirring up more drama in your life, then you have all the excuses in the world that you need to slip back into drinking.

What is the best way to go about learning this?

So how do you stop these self destructive behavior patterns?

Through creation. You have to create your way out of these problems. This means that getting rid of self pity and resentment and drama is not an act of elimination, but an act of creation.

It is a positive step. You have to do something positive in order to overcome this cycle.

For example, moving beyond self pity almost always involves gratitude. But it is not just sitting there on a chair, telling yourself to be more grateful. This is nowhere near the real solution.

No, the real solution is an act of creation. It involves action. You have to live the solution. So in the pursuit of gratitude, you have to actually put in some effort, try to do some different things, maybe help some people. It is through action that you overcome self pity.

This is different from simply reacting to life every day. You are creating, in this case. Put forth the initiative to help others, to participate, to make a difference. You can’t just wish your way to being grateful. You have to live it.

This is deliberate, conscious living. Creative recovery. The time for blaming other people for your problems is over. Blaming others will not keep you sober. Creating your own life and owning your path is the way to long term sobriety.

Everyone’s path is unique. Here are some sample actions that you might take in recovery:

* Exercising on a regular basis (seriously underrated in mainstream recovery).

* Reaching out and helping other alcoholics.

* Setting goals for your own personal growth and achieving them (quitting smoking, finishing a degree in school, etc.)

* Learning. Seeking higher education, deepening your spiritual foundation, or learning a new skill. Deliberately setting out to learn new things and expand your borders.

Notice that all of these things involve action. Doing. Recovery is not about sitting at home and thinking about this stuff. It is about living it, about experiencing it. This is what is meant by “embracing the creative mindset.”

The recovering alcoholic has to learn how to actively overcome their stumbling blocks in recovery. The armchair philosopher or the chronic intelectualizer is bound to relapse.

You have to get your hands a bit dirty to stay sober.

You have to learn how to live through positive action.

3. How to overcome complacency.

Complacency is what happens when a recovering alcoholic gets stuck in a routine that just barely keeps them sober. Instead of continuing to grow as a person, their progress sort of levels off and they are just coasting in their recovery. They might still be doing certain things for their recovery (such as going to meetings), but they are no longer really making solid growth in their life. They have stagnated.

Why does this need to be learned?

Complacency can easily lead to relapse, if it is left unchecked. The strongest form of relapse prevention is positive, continuous growth.

If you stop growing in recovery, eventually you will drink. So, the recovering alcoholic must learn how to overcome complacency, and recognize when it is setting in.

What is the best way to go about learning this?

One common way, unfortunately, is to become complacent in recovery, relapse, then look back and see how it all happened. Obviously, you don’t want to learn it this way.

Instead, you want to be proactive about this lesson. Learn it by attacking the issue of complacency with massive action in your life.

Like most of these problems, the first part of the solution starts with awareness. What are you doing today to help grow in your recovery?

Next, you need to push yourself to keep on growing. For example, if you have obvious issues in your life, such as cigarette smoking or a lack of fitness, then you know that you have some issues that need to be addressed as you move forward in your recovery. Sure, you could continue to smoke and stay out of shape for the next 10 years of your recovery, and you might not relapse because of it. However, if you take a proactive approach and tackle both of these issues, your overall recovery becomes substantially stronger because of it.

If you are engaged in positive, personal growth every day, you become much more protected from the threat of relapse. In a way, it is like you have “farther to fall” when you are constantly pushing yourself to grow all the time.

Continuous, personal growth is a like a buffer against relapse. Embrace holistic growth and you will overcome complacency.

4. How to communicate like a human being (to put it bluntly, how to stop acting like a jerk).

The longer we abuse alcohol, the worse our communication skills get. This is due to a number of factors.

For one thing, any alcoholic will tend more and more towards isolation as the years go by. They will simply distance themselves more and more from friends and family if they continue to drink.

But in addition to that, alcoholism ruins communication skills from the inside out. It does this because the alcoholic comes to rely more and more on the alcohol to help regulate their emotions.

In a healthy relationship, when various emotions arise, the people need to deal with those emotions in a healthy way, by communicating about them. Even with the occasional fight, people who are communicating their real emotions while sober are going to be much better than an alcoholic who is simply medicating their emotions at every turn.

Why does this need to be learned?

The moment of relapse for an alcoholic is always driven by raw emotion. Instead of communicating and dealing with their frustration, fear, or anger, the alcoholic says “screw it” and takes a drink instead. The way to avoid doing this is to confront the emotions head on and actually deal with them. This almost always involves communicating with another person.

It sounds complicated but it is actually quite simple. Basically, an alcoholic has to learn how to “talk out their problems” rather than give in to self medicating.

What is the best way to go about learning this?

Learn by doing, as usual.

First comes the awareness. If the alcoholic does not even realize when they are sliding into this “danger zone,” then they cannot do anything to correct the problem. So the first step is to form an awareness of when things are becoming a problem.

Then the person simply needs to practice cooling down for a bit, followed up with communication to resolve their emotional upset.

One natural example of this is when an alcoholic become enraged at a coworker. The best response is probably to cool down for a while, then confront the coworker in a calm manner and explain how their behavior affected you. Without hurling insults or opinions around, you simply state how their actions made you feel inside. Hard to do for most people, but very therapeutic. Doing this can mean the difference between drinking and staying sober.

This is a huge point. Many recovering alcoholics dismiss the idea of communicating their emotions as being unimportant. But if we study those who have relapsed, it is almost always over emotional upset with others, that could have been solved with healthy communication.

5. How to have fun while sober.

When you are trapped in the cycle of alcoholism, the idea of having fun without drinking is not realistic. The active alcoholic has to have booze in order to enjoy themselves.

At first, just getting drunk is a blast. Later on, when we become dependent on drinking, we have to have it in order to enjoy normal activities. For example, going to a movie or watching a sporting event. Alcoholics can enjoy these sorts of things, but only if they are self medicating while they do them. Without the buzz, it is no longer fun. This is one way that dependence affects us.

When an alcoholic sobers up, their “fun” sort of evaporates for a while. They are miserable without the ability to self medicate. And they believe they will never have any fun in their life, ever again.

Why does this need to be learned?

Obviously, in order to avoid relapse in the long term, the alcoholic must learn how to have fun again while sober. If we stay miserable in recovery, we will eventually say “screw it” and go back to what we know: self medicating with alcohol so that we can have a good time.

No matter how serious a person you may be, deep down, everyone knows that they are entitled to have some fun in their life. And just about any alcoholic in early recovery can use this as an excuse to drink, if they want to. They may be feeling down for a while, and going back to the bottle would be “instant fun” for them. Of course, the fun only lasts for a short time, and then we are stuck in the misery of daily addiction again in no time at all. But of course our mind will cling to the good times we had while drinking, and remember those as if they were more plentiful than the bad times.

So learning how to have fun again in sobriety is a key part of preventing relapse. When you can have fun again in sobriety, it takes away an excuse to drink.

What is the best way to go about learning this?

The best way to learn this is to take a leap of faith, and realize that you actually will have fun again if you stick it out in early recovery. Most alcoholics will admit that they have found a way to enjoy themselves, sober, within the first few weeks of sobriety. So it is crazy to believe that you will never have fun again if you get sober.

As we remain sober in early recovery, we start to learn what is fun for us again in the real world. Our idea of what “fun” consists of slowly starts to change. Life becomes interesting and exciting again based on personal growth and various challenges we might face.

6. And finally, you have to learn that taking massive, positive, action in your life trumps careful planning every time.

Hopefully this is becoming more and more evident to you by now: action trumps thinking any day of the week.

How many times have we sat around while we were still drinking, trying to think our way into recovery? This is a fantasy world. We sit there and wish that things were different, but without putting in the effort, nothing will change.

Massive action leads to success in recovery. Just about anything else results in relapse.

In other words, if you want to have success in recovery just handed to you on a silver platter, without having to put in any hard work, then you are in for a huge disappointment.

Why does this need to be learned?

Just about everyone who tries to sober up fails to learn this lesson the first time around. Why?

Because we almost always underestimate how difficult it will be to achieve meaningful sobriety. At the same time, we tend to overestimate our own abilities. This is typical, because we expect recovery to be fairly easy, just like most of the other average challenges in our lives.

With most life challenges, we can put forth a modest effort and get back modest results. This is NOT the case with recovery. Putting in a modest effort results in relapse. The only way to achieve success in recovery is to make a full, committed effort–one that consumes your entire life and takes pretty much all of your available energy. Early recovery should be intense. Early recovery should involve huge amounts of dedication. Without this intense effort, relapse is almost certain to occur.

What is the best way to go about learning this?

Unfortunately, the only way I have seen people learn this (including myself) is to try at recovery and then fail at it.

That might sound discouraging, pessimistic, or just plain negative, but really it is not. The simple truth is that most people need to try and get sober a few times before they can finally “make it stick.”

Recovery is hard work. The best way to learn this (really the only way to learn this) is to jump right in and take your lumps. If you have tried in the past to stay sober, and ended up relapsing, then you know that you need to try harder.

Through failing, we see just how much effort it really requires to stay sober.

For me, this meant a progression from counseling, to treatment, to long term treatment. Living in long term rehab is what finally “did the trick” for me. That is why they say that “it takes what it takes.” For some people, they have to wreck cars, lose homes, lose marriages, and go to prison….and then they might still not even stop drinking.

So for me, it took what it took. It took living in long term rehab. But, I was not willing to do this at first, even though many people (and professionals) were suggesting this to me as an ideal solution for my drinking problem. At the time, I was not willing to live in rehab. I was not done drinking, and was still trapped in denial.

So how did I learn that this is what it would take for me to be sober? I learned it the hard way….by refusing to go to long term treatment, and continuing to stay miserable while drinking for a few years. It was only after I had endured enough pain and misery at the hands of alcohol that I was willing to consider long term treatment as a solution.

There are a million sayings in recovery that address this idea. “Go to any lengths.” “It takes what it takes.” “Half measures availed us nothing.”

It all boils down to the same thing: you have to work your tail off in recovery if you want to succeed, stay sober, and have an awesome new life.

Massive action is the key to success in recovery. Nobody can do the work for you, either.

What do you think?  What are the critical things that you must learn to stay sober?



  1. Just a general question . . . do recovering alcoholics have to give up their old friendships? I have (had) a very good friend that just became sober and I feel like I have the plague because he won’t talk to me at all (I am not a drinker so I didn’t think that would be the issue)

    • I think you should maintain some sort of contact. Your friend once fully recovered will be more than happy to be in contact. I am recovering at the moment and one thing I feel is shame for my past. I tend to avoid all my old friends. In fact I feel more comfortable in the company of strangers. I hope one day to feel comfortable enough to re-establish contact with my old friends. I still love them. I just do not want to establish contact as yet. I feel judged and wonder whether they will recognise the me that they once knew.

  2. Do a sober man date differently
    Than he did as a alcoholic?
    Is common sense a super power
    For a dry drunk? How can a man

    When drinking spend ten yrs
    Dating a 8 grade drop out that
    Was married but not spend a
    Descent amount of time with
    A great woman that doesnt
    Abuse and faithful?

  3. I quit feb 25 2012 and stayed with my partner who drinks. The reason I quit was because I wanted to keep my family and I knew if i didn’t then we would be broken apart. Although I wasn’t the only problem with the drinking I knew it would help. It did and he has slowed down as well but two years later with no help from any group i’m struggling with wanting to throw it all away and have my old life back. Something won’t let me and I know deep down inside I really don’t but it’s getting harder every day to convince myself of that…help i need some advise

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  5. I love your post. I am almost 65 and starting recovery again. You give me hope. I feel like crap but know the next drink could lead me to my death, one God or my family does not want for me.

  6. Keep going. They will appreciate the effort you are making in time. Just keep in touch and tell them you still love them.

  7. Alcoholics have a physical allergy coupled with mental obsession and “only” a complete spiritual transformation can conquer this. Try eating an entire box of Ex-lax and see how much willpower you have. For those who have relapsed so many times, you know you are an alcoholic and you know alcoholics can’t drink. So why did you drink again? You can come up with probably a hundred excuses. This is called rationalizing. I see that as two words, “Rational Lies” The truth is when you get honest with yourself, you don’t know why you picked up a drink. You have heard, I’m sure, many times that you have to call someone before you pick up a drink. You know why you didn’t call anyone, because they would have tried to stop you. This is powerlessness, less meaning “no power” 1×0=0 You can go to meetings all you want. Lets take say, 10 alcoholics. Each one of them are powerless. How many of them can help you to stay sober? lets see 10×0= You do the math.

    This approach they are discussing here will not produce long term sobriety. ” If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit
    entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount
    you take, you are probably alcoholic. If that be the case, you may be
    suffering from an illness which only a spiritual experience will
    conquer.” pg 44, line3

    “If that be the case, you may be
    suffering from an illness which ONLY a spiritual experience will

    You are on here looking for alternative solutions to your problem. You know what the solution is. The Twelve Steps. And why haven’t you at least tried them? Could it be, “Why fix a problem if there is no problem” Do you seriously know if you are a real alcoholic? Think about that.

    There are two AA’s. There is the “program” (12 steps) and there is the fellowship. If you are not willing to go to any lengths to stay sober and surrender to the program of AA, not the fellowship, then you are not ready yet. Not to worry though, alcohol will eventually beat you into a state of reasonableness. If you need more info contact me on Facebook. I’m praying for each and everyone of you. ~ Mike

  8. See the post up top Deb. Get yourself someone who is experienced with the Twelve Steps and roll your sleeves up and go to work. You are in for a miraculous journey. Don’t let anyone tell you not to do them. At least give it a try. I have never heard anyone in my 25 years of sobriety ever say they picked up because they did the steps.

  9. Ill pray for u love i know its hard i had 6 days sober and i relapsed yesterday so rite back at day 1 dnt give up stay strong and most of all have faith in our higher power whom witch is our great lord above good luck and god bless

  10. Hang in there I know exactly how you feel. I’m 2 months sober now and it’s worth it things will get better.

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