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What are the smartest steps that you can take in early recovery from alcoholism? What sort of things can you do to insure that you do not relapse in early recovery?
These are the sort of questions that I asked myself often in my early recovery journey. I wanted to know the exact steps to take in order to stay clean and sober.
Now some people I am sure would say something like “Well, just work the 12 steps of AA, that is how you insure your sobriety,” and this may be true to some extent for some people. But if you are currently stuck in a pattern of drinking every day then you might not be in a position to be able to work the 12 steps right away. Sometimes we need to get some professional help before we can learn how to help ourselves.
Given that, let’s take a closer look at some of those preliminary steps that you might take in order to overcome alcoholism, and why they are important.
The single smartest step that you can take to recover from alcoholism or drug addiction is probably to check into inpatient rehab
My number one recommendation to the struggling alcoholic (or drug addict for that matter) is to check into inpatient rehab.
There are other solutions available. Understand that you could avoid rehab entirely and simply go to counseling, or you might go straight to AA meetings, or you might join a church community and decide to stop drinking on your own.
But my argument is that none of these alternatives are a good option for you compared to inpatient rehab. Why not?
Here are some reasons why checking into treatment might be the best choice for most alcoholics:
1) With inpatient treatment you get a full medical detox. This is a safety issue, as alcohol withdrawal can be fatal in extreme cases and certainly dangerous in other cases. When you go into treatment they put you in medical detox area where you are supervised by medical staff around the clock. In addition to the safety factor, there is a comfort factor involved as well. They generally try to keep you fairly comfortable in detox so that you are not suffering through massive withdrawal symptoms. I worked in a detox unit at a rehab for 5 plus years, and generally speaking, no one is climbing the walls or going crazy from discomfort. They keep you comfortable without over-medicating you.
2) Comprehensive care – when you go to rehab you get the best of all options when it comes to addiction treatment. So you get a medical detox, then you generally get paired up with a counselor or therapist, that person generally makes you a treatment plan, you are probably introduced to AA or NA meetings, you are encouraged to get a sponsor, and so on. They don’t just spin you dry in detox and tell you to avoid alcohol. There is a lot more that goes into your treatment and in fact a lot of it is follow up care. So they are planning things for your treatment plan that will happen after you leave the inpatient program.
So going to rehab includes AA meetings (usually). Going to rehab includes a medical detox. Going to rehab includes getting specialized help from a dedicated therapist or counselor. It is actually a combination of many types of addiction therapy and treatments. It is more comprehensive than other solutions.
So it may be true that you could avoid rehab and just, for example, go to AA meetings. But in doing so you would miss out on a whole host of other treatment options that might be part of the key to saving your life. Inpatient rehab is comprehensive in this sense, it is exhaustive.
3) Follow up care – rehabs recommend aftercare. If you fail to have a plan then you are almost certain to relapse. Aftercare is vital to your success in recovery. Most alternative forms of treatment do not generally involve aftercare or follow up care.
4) Education – when you go to treatment you get a foundation of knowledge about addiction and the recovery process. You don’t necessarily get this knowledge if you choose another way to recover.
As I indicated, there is a chance that you could avoid inpatient treatment and still come out sober in the end. I just don’t recommend making it that hard on yourself. Why avoid treatment and make things tough when you could go to rehab and give yourself every possible advantage instead?
The second smartest step for alcoholism recovery is deep involvement in a recovery program of some sort
My recovery journey is probably a bit unique in that the first 18 months I was deeply involved in treatment, AA, sponsorship, and so on.
I have been sober now for over 13 years and to be honest, after that first 18 months was over with, I pretty much left the recovery programs behind and did my own thing.
Does that mean that AA and NA are worthless? Or that I don’t recommend them?
Not it does not. I fully recommend AA and NA programs to any newcomers in recovery, simply because they offer a ton of support for people who may be struggling.
I have a broad argument both for and against the 12 step program. Let me give you them both:
Argument for AA: It is the single greatest concentration of help and support that you can get in early recovery. If you ask for advice or feedback at an AA meeting then you can get a huge amount of guidance from doing so. You can also find a sponsor at AA/NA and get personalized support from a peer in recovery. It is not a cure but it is a whole lot of help. The infrastructure is there, nothing out there is really bigger or more available than the 12 step program right now. Take advantage of the help that exists, even if that help is not perfect.
Argument against AA: My biggest gripe with AA has to do with personal growth and complacency. It is pretty easy to get complacent and the truth is that AA only points towards a solution, it is not a solution in itself. I repeat: the 12 steps point you towards a solution, but they are not a solution. There is a difference and anyone who has achieved sobriety on their own will understand this subtlety. You can get sober without AA or the 12 steps simply by taking positive action and working hard at self growth.
Given these two arguments (both for and against 12 step programs) I still believe it is beneficial for most people in early recovery to seek out AA meetings. In particular, the timing of the help that you get is really important. So going to AA meetings during the first 18 months of my recovery helped me a great deal. But near the end of that 18 months I could easily see that sitting through the daily meeting was no longer as beneficial to me. My sobriety hinged on positive action and personal growth, not on the fact that I was grinding out a daily AA meeting or meeting some arbitrary quota (such as 3 AA meetings per week, etc.). Therefore I quit going to meetings during the second year of my sobriety and instead adopted a path of personal growth and holistic health. This decision appeared to be a good one and I am now at over 13 years sober. Which brings me to the final idea about what is smart to do in recovery, and that has to do with the pursuit of personal growth.
The third smartest thing you can do for your chances at sobriety is to engage in a path of personal growth and holistic health
I used to wonder all the time what the real secret of sobriety was. Why do some people relapse while others remain sober? What is the real secret to success in alcoholism recovery?
What I learned (very slowly) was that it was all about personal growth.
Now we can actually use lots of different labels and terms when we have this discussion–I like to throw around words like “personal growth,” “Holistic health, “positive action,” and so on. But they all sort of point to the same basic ideas, which is that you have to make positive changes in your life in order to overcome an addiction.
This is simple stuff that is really hard to do. If your life is bad because of drug or alcohol consumption, then you need to make serious changes. Most likely you need to stop putting drugs and alcohol into your body, and then you have to figure out how to cope with reality on a daily basis without reaching for those drugs or booze as a solution.
That is a two part process that I like to break into “early recovery” and “long term sobriety.”
Early recovery is pretty straightforward I think: Go to inpatient rehab, listen to what they tell you to do, and then start doing it. For most people that will probably mean that they go to AA meetings after leaving rehab. Pretty simple really. Not everyone will do it of course, because it takes real work and real commitment. It’s tough. Simple, but not easy.
Long term sobriety is not the same thing. It is not as simple as going to treatment and then hitting AA meetings three times per week. Most people who try to squeeze by with this sort of plan end up struggling or relapsing. In other words, you can’t apply early recovery tactics to long term sobriety. What got you sober will not necessarily keep you sober. What worked on days 1 through 30 of your sobriety will not work exactly the same when you have, say, 9 years sober.
Because you change. You grow. You evolve in your recovery journey. So the challenges change as you go along.
Some people who have been sober for many years end up relapsing. How is that possible? Obviously they knew what it took to stay sober, right?
They did know, but somehow they forgot. And what really happened is that they got complacent. They got lazy. They stopped pushing themselves to make the sort of growth and positive action that it takes to keep up with your addiction.
The alcoholism is always in the background getting ready to try to get you to relapse. You always have to remember this. The only way to really fight back is to always be fighting back. How do you do that? By always looking for the hidden lesson, by always looking for gratitude every day, by always being humble and trying to learn from every experience that you have in life. If you stop learning then your disease has an entry point to force relapse. If you stop being grateful then your addiction has a way to get you to relapse. If you become too proud or too confident in your sobriety then your disease has an advantage over you.
It is very difficult to teach this to someone who only has 5 days sober and is in treatment. Therefore you will need to keep growing, learning, and evolving long after you leave rehab. I left long term treatment after 20 months and quite honestly I feel like I was just starting to grasp the basic concepts of recovery at that time. I understood abstinence and I understood support groups (such as daily AA meetings) but I probably still did not understand the threat of complacency at that time. I still had a lot to learn about long term sobriety (and I am still learning to this day!).
Taking action versus doing nothing at all
Every alcoholic has a choice to make right now:
Maintain the status quo and do nothing, or ask for help and dive into some new sort of lifestyle.
Keep drinking, or change everything.
Do nothing, or change everything.
That is the choice that every alcoholic and drug addict is really facing. This is because their entire world is defined by their addiction. So if they want to overcome their addiction and make a change they are going to have to take this massive plunge into a black hole, it is like being shot out of a cannon into space, only to land on some alien planet somewhere. I hate to over-dramatize it but that is really what it feels like if you happen to be the struggling alcoholic. It is scary. It is a big leap of faith. Asking for help and then going to rehab is a massive step into fear. Everyone who makes this leap of faith is doing so by facing one of their biggest fears. It is a really big deal.
Ultimately you can ask for help, or you can keep going it alone and self medicating with alcohol or other drugs.
If you continue drinking or using drugs then you can probably guess what your results are going to be like. Whatever results you have been getting in life, your future results will be either the same or slightly worse. Over longer periods of time your life will get much worse because the negative consequences will snowball eventually and compound into bigger problems. For example, an alcoholic will usually lose their driving privileges at some point, which will then create additional negative consequences that are difficult to predict from their current standpoint.
Luckily, the benefits of sobriety work the same way–they tend to snowball over time. But this requires an element of faith, because the positive feedback that you get in sobriety starts out very slowly at first. You may not even notice that things are getting any better at all, and then one day in the future you will suddenly have this realization that you are happier now than you ever were during your addiction. And this is an amazing revelation which will give you a deep sense of gratitude. The miracle finally happened for you and you weren’t even watching at the time! At least that is how it worked for me–early sobriety was a bit of a struggle, and then one day I realized that my obsession to drink was gone, and I was actually happy without needing any drugs or booze. This was amazing. And it happened in about six months of time. My prediction was that it would never happen, that I would never be happy in sobriety, that I would be forever miserable. Boy, was I wrong. Things got a whole lot better for me and all I really had to do was surrender, ask for help, and follow directions.
I think that is an important point to emphasize: I didn’t figure any of this out at first. All I did was to get so miserable and become so sick and tired that I just wanted it all to end. And so I was desperate enough to ask for help and I was desperate enough to follow directions.
People then told me what to do, and I did it. Go to rehab. Get a sponsor. Go to these meetings. Talk with this therapist. Write in this journal, write in the steps, and so on. I did this things and my life got better when I wasn’t paying attention. I looked back one day and realized that I was happy even though I was sober. This was a miracle.
Anyone can achieve this miracle if they are willing to do the work.
How to get started in recovery if you don’t know what your next step should be
If you don’t even know how to get started or what step to take first, let me make a suggestion to you.
Ask for help.
Realize that you can’t do it alone.
I certainly could not do it alone. I had to have help.
My family told me to go to rehab. In fact, they called up the treatment center for me and made the appointment. All I did was to get in the car, really. I had the willingness, and that was it. I asked for help and I was lucky enough that people responded to me.
If you don’t have family or friends to direct you, then call up a rehab directly. Call them ask what you need to do in order to get the help that you need.
And that is the bottom line–if you don’t know what your next step is, then ask for help and start following some direction in life.
What is the worst that could happen? When I was stuck in addiction, the worst that could happen was that I might ignore everyone else and just do my own thing. That stopped working well a long time ago. It was time for me to ask for help, to seek advice, and to take a new path in life.
I am glad that I did.