Getting Through Early Sobriety without Relapsing

Getting Through Early Sobriety without Relapsing


There are really only two basic steps to overcoming any addiction:

1) Stop.
2) Stay stopped.

The problem of course is not in just stopping… is the difficulty of staying stopped.

Addicts and alcoholics stop all the time. They go to jail, they fall asleep, they have (however brief) dry spells. Everyone stops at some point, for at least a brief moment in time. The problem is that the addict or alcoholic keeps returning to the madness.

Therefore stopping is rather trivial. No need to complicate it; just get yourself to rehab. That is the safest way to stop, under medical supervision in a real detox center.

Stopping is only 1 percent of the problem/solution. The other 99 percent is in staying stopped.

In particular, early sobriety is especially dangerous when it comes to relapse. Look at how many people have relapsed in early sobriety. Go look at the actual statistics, and how sharply the graph is. There is a steep fall off where nearly everyone relapses within the first 30 days, and a whole bunch more within the first 90 days, and nearly everyone has relapsed by the end of one year. And even after that, people still continue to fall off. Only a very slim percentage make it to 5 years, and even less to 10 years, and so on.

But the first and most immediate hurdle is early recovery. That first year is a real test for people. If you can make it through a full year without a relapse, you have a very good shot at long term sobriety. If you cannot get that first year in though then you are right back to the chaos and misery of addiction.

So the first year is a testing ground. You gotta hold on for at least that first year and hit this milestone. After that you will (hopefully) have built a strong enough foundation in your recovery that you can enjoy many more years of sobriety. Nothing is promised just for making it to one year, but obviously if you want to get to “long term recovery” then you have to first get through short term recovery! We will draw our imaginary dividing line at the one year mark for the sake of discussion.

Stopping is easy.

Staying stopped is tough.

Therefore we must focus a ton of effort and energy on staying stopped.

But how can we do that?

How much help do you really need? Look at your past experiences

The first thing that you might consider is how much help you really need in recovery.

If you have struggled to get clean and sober in the past then you already know what does NOT work. You tried in the past and failed (because you are still struggling to get clean today). If that is the case then you have a very clear indicator of just how much help you need: MORE.

You need more help than what you tried to do in the past. If you went to counseling in the past, try going to inpatient rehab this time. If you already tried in patient rehab, maybe it is time to consider long term rehab. If you already tried that and failed, then maybe it is time to try it again with a different attitude.

Those are really the only options you have when attempting to “up the ante” on your recovery. You can seek more intensive treatment options, or you can change your attitude. Or you can do both. But if you do neither of these things then it is a given that you will get the same results that you have received in the past (not good).

Becoming willing is part of the solution. I had to become willing to attend long term treatment in order to make any sort of progress in my recovery. That is just what it took for me to change. Your solution may be different and perhaps all you need to do is surrender and ask for help. Or surrender and go to meetings every day. Or call up an old sponsor and get to work with them. I am not sure what your exact solution is but you can bet that it involves taking action. If you do nothing then nothing will change. If you try something then you might get good results. In order to get radically different results then you need to radically alter your approach. This is what worked for me when I abandoned all of my fears (complete surrender) and willingly went to long term rehab. In the past I was terrified of this solution and thought it would be as bad as prison. Turned out that living in long term rehab was awesome. In fact it was such a good experience that I would not hesitate to go back and live there again if I was forced to for some reason. It was not like prison at all and in fact it was the first time in a long time that I had true freedom again. Sure they had lots of rules to follow but they also taught me how to break free from the chains of addiction. I needed the structure and rules at that time and once I got used to them it unlocked a whole new world of happiness for me.

If you have tried in the past to get clean and sober but failed at it, then you need to try harder. You can do that internally (attitude) or externally (more intense treatment). Or you can double down and do both at the same time. But don’t expect to get different results if you do neither of these things.

Why people relapse in early recovery

People relapse in early recovery for a few reasons:

1) They lack commitment – they are not liking their addiction and the problems that it creates for them, but they are not yet at the point of total misery where they are willing to do almost anything in order to change.

2) They underestimate their disease – they do not think it will be too difficult to overcome addiction. They believe they have enough willpower to beat it easily.

3) They overestimate their willpower.

4) They have not fully surrendered yet.

5) They do not follow through with suggestions.

6) They do not ask for help from others who have been successful at recovery.

There are many more reasons than this that people relapse in early recovery but they all sort of revolve around a similar theme: lack of surrender.

Surrender cures everything. If you really surrender fully and completely, it changes everything. Because after you reach that point of total surrender you realize that you cannot do it alone, you realize that you have to change everything, and you realize that you need serious help. Everything changes. You suddenly are no longer struggling to try to control your drug intake and be happy all the time. You give up on that fantasy. It all just slides away from you. This is total surrender.

People who relapse in early recovery have not surrendered fully. If you ask one of them what went wrong, their reasons will always point back to this. Had they surrendered more fully, they would not have relapsed. Surrender to win.

Dedicating your life to recovery

Again this is another theme on surrender. Some people who get into early recovery treat it like a club that meets for one hour each day, three times per week. This is not how recovery works. You can’t just compartmentalize your recovery this way.

That is a big word: “compartmentalize.” It is important to understand this though. If you try to compartmentalize your recovery you are going to find yourself relapsing. You cannot just separate your recovery from everything else. It doesn’t work that way.

The more accurate way to think about it is to put your recovery first, before everything else, and make it the number one priority in your life. Period. Put it above everything else, including all of your relationships.

After you have done that, now you can start to piece your life back together….with strong recovery as the foundation.

Most people try to do the opposite of this. They try to keep their life relatively the same as before, just without the drugs and alcohol. And they might tack on a few meetings or therapy. It doesn’t work that way. If you try to keep things the same while just “tacking on some recovery” you are going to fail. Instead, change everything. Disrupt your life. Change everything all at once, and start over from scratch, with recovery as your main priority.

When I did this I quit my job, changed my relationships, and moved into long term rehab. You can’t get much more extreme than that. I actually did NOT change location, I just changed my housing. But I also changed my relationships to get away from the bad influencers. And I quit my job too, which was full of addicts and alcoholics.

The power of networking and support

If you relapse in early recovery, you probably did not have enough support.

I am a firm believer in the idea that you need more support in early recovery, and less support as you maintain sobriety. When you first get clean and sober you can benefit a lot from having tons of support. This is really a big part of what helped me through early recovery when I was living in long term rehab.

The other half of that equation was in accountability. You get some of that when you have lots of peers and friends in recovery with you. They help to hold you accountable, and you feel like you do not want to relapse because that would let them down. When I was living in long term treatment that came with some added accountability as well, because if I relapsed then I knew I was kicked out of the rehab and onto the street. Not a pretty exit even though I am sure I could have scrambled to find a new place to live. Nobody wants the shame of being kicked out of your home.

Therefore accountability is a tool. You can make decisions in early recovery that will help to keep you in line. Networking with others and finding more support systems is a part of that.

Getting extreme: long term rehab

As I have pointed out, I got extreme in my own early recovery by living in long term rehab for 20 months. This is what it took for me to be successful; perhaps other people will need less help than this. If you have failed in the past then you might consider more intense treatment options. It doesn’t get much more intense than living in rehab. It sounds drastic, and it is drastic. But it is not nearly as bad as most people believe that it will be. Long term treatment is nothing like prison. And it just might save your life.

Daily meetings as a support measure

One final thought about avoiding relapse in early sobriety is through the use of daily AA meetings.

I have never been a huge advocate for heavy meeting attendance, as it has not played a significant role in my own recovery.

However, early in my recovery I did attend daily meetings during the first three months, and after that my attendance trailed off significantly. After two years I stopped going entirely.

That said, you might do well to hit tons of meetings if they seem to help you. I know several people who could not afford rehab, so they simply camped out in AA and NA meetings almost around the clock. They used the meetings in the same way that a drunk might use the corner bar. It became their second home, their safety zone.

If it works for you then I would definitely encourage this strategy. Most cities have a lot of meetings and if you are willing to jump in between the fellowships (attend both AA and NA) then you can really hit a ton of meetings if you need to. (I never understand people who refuse to go to both AA and NA, only sticking to just one or the other……if you really believe they are that different then I think you are just cheating yourself and being stubborn. Support is support, and fellowship is fellowship. Get over yourselves people! But I digress…)


So those are my thoughts about getting through early recovery without relapse. What are your suggestions? Let us know in the comments, I would love to hear them.