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There are times in your addiction recovery when you need a lot of support from other people, and there are times when it is not as important. It is critical that every recovering alcoholic and drug addict figure out this balance in their own life so that they do not relapse.
When you are living a strong recovery in long term sobriety, having a support network of other human beings becomes less important. It can still be a vital part of your life–don’t get me wrong here. But in long term sobriety you will likely have built a foundation of sobriety that can withstand this lack of support. If you have not, then my suggestion to you is that perhaps you have more work to do in your life–work that will make your sobriety stronger and more resilient. For example, maybe you have not worked through all of the steps in a 12 step program yet, or perhaps you are not working to help others to recover on a regular basis, or perhaps you are not taking care of yourself every day from a holistic standpoint, or perhaps you lack a spiritual side to your program (lack of gratitude, etc.). So if you happen to have all of those elements suggested in place, then it would make your overall recovery that much stronger, and thus you would not be as vulnerable just because you happen to lack a social network in your life.
That probably makes sense to most people, but if you try to apply that idea to the life of a newcomer, you are likely to get a disaster. This is because the newcomer is especially vulnerable and they need support regardless.
No, the newcomer in sobriety needs this support network from other people in their lives. Without it, they fail.
Why you need the most support in early recovery
There are two important reasons that people in early recovery need support from other humans.
One is that they need to identify.
When you first get into sobriety you may feel isolated. You may feel like you are the only person in the world who has ever really struggled with addiction. This is a normal feeling and a typical reaction to breaking through your denial. Everyone has these kinds of feelings at first. They feel as if they are broken, that something is really wrong with them, that they are unique in the world because of their addiction. The alcoholic may think to themselves “No one really knows how I feel, because no one could have possibly ever loved alcohol as much as I do!” And it is this feeling of isolation and this feeling of uniqueness that keeps the alcoholic or drug addict from seeking help.
So when you first get clean and sober, one of the best things that you can do is to start going to AA or NA meetings every day. This may be scary or intimidating for some people, but there is a huge benefit if you can summon the courage to attend. It is even more beneficial if you have the courage to let the people at the meeting know that this is your first AA meeting ever. Even if it is not, you should tell them that it is. Why? Because then they will do what is called a “first step meeting,” and each person will tell you their own story of what it was like for them in addiction, what happened to them, and how they transitioned into sobriety.
This is valuable. The first step meeting is valuable for the newcomer who has that feeling of isolation. It is valuable because it allows the newcomer to feel like they are no longer crazy anymore. This is really important if they are going to get the help that they need. So the newcomer hears these stories from everyone, and in each one of those stories they begin to hear a little bit of their own experience. The newcomer will say to themselves “ah, I have felt that way too.” Or they might listen to someone and say to themselves “yes, I did that in my addiction as well.” And then you realize that the people who are telling you these stories, these people who are really just like you in terms of addiction, they have all found a way to get clean and sober and turn their life around.
This is hope. The newcomer gets hope from this experience. Suddenly they have a shred of hope that they might one day be able to function and be happy without their drug of choice.
So that is identification. This is a really important concept and it is probably the most important reason for a newcomer to attend an AA meeting.
The second concept is about learning, it is about figuring out how to remain clean and sober.
When you are new in sobriety you don’t know what in the heck you are doing yet. You just don’t know yet. You are like a baby that was just born into the world and everything is new again. You have a lot of learning to do.
There are two ways that you can learn. You can run around like a maniac and stub your toe over and over again, learning the painful way by yourself. Or you can take advice and feedback from others and avoid the pain and misery. You can choose to learn by the example of others. You can hear the stories of other people’s trials and avoid the same fate. And that is an important part of what the meetings are all about. It is free advice and good feedback from others about how to live your life.
We all have resistance to this feedback and advice. Why should we listen to random people at an AA meeting? What is so special about them, and what do they really know about us? Those people at AA don’t know who you really are, so why should you trust them? They can’t possibly know what you have gone through. They don’t know who you really are. How can they judge you by giving you advice, telling you what to do, telling you how to live? Why would anyone listen to them?
The answer is simple. You have a choice as a newcomer in AA. You can either take your own advice and use the ideas that you come up with in your own head, or you can take the advice of people in AA. It is an either/or decision. Your ideas, or those of AA. Your ideas, or the people at the meetings. You have to decide and make an agreement with yourself that you are going to follow one or the other.
Now stop here for a moment and realize something.
For your entire addiction, during all of the madness of your drinking or drug days, what were you really doing? You were following the ideas in your own head. Were you ever really taking the advice of others during that time at all?
No you were not. You were not listening to others, you were following your own heart, listening to your addiction, and doing your own thing. You were chasing after your drug of choice, over and over again. You ignored all outside advice in pursuit of getting drunk or high.
Now pause again and ask yourself: “How did that work out for you?”
Truly, stop and think about this for a moment. When you follow your own desires and try to get drunk or high every day, does it make you happy?
Did it really lead you to happiness? At all? Even a little bit?
No it did not. You became more and more miserable, to the point that you almost wanted to end your own existence. This is what addiction does to you. It destroys people, it destroys lives, it ruins happiness. It promises you everything, your drug of choice promises that it can lead you to happiness, and then one day you realize that you are miserable from it.
So with that in mind, you have to make that choice for yourself. And it needs to be a deliberate choice and a firm commitment. You need to make an agreement with yourself that you are not going to listen to your own advice any more. Instead, you are going to listen to the advice of others. And that can begin most easily and naturally by simply going to treatment or AA meetings, being honest with the people there, and doing what they tell you to do.
Does that sound good? Taking orders from others, doing what they tell you to do? Probably not, and I realize that. But if you do it, if you follow this one piece of advice, then you will learn to be happy again in life.
Do you need to stay “plugged in” to remain sober in the long run?
You absolutely need to find a way to stay plugged in to sobriety in order to make recovery work out in the long run.
Let me tell you what I have learned. Let me share with you something that I noticed.
When I was living in long term rehab during the first 20 months of my sobriety, I started my journey by attending AA meetings every single day. I was told to do 90 meetings in the first 90 days of sobriety, and I did it. I attended them religiously.
After that, I was required to attend 3 AA meetings per week while I was still living in long term treatment. So I started to skip days as was my new right. I would go through days here and there in which I did not attend a meeting.
And I started to notice something. On those days when I skipped the meeting, I was a tiny bit more on edge. I was more quick to anger. My brain would think about drinking or taking drugs more often. I would notice more triggers, more urges. I was not as grateful.
And I thought: “What is really going on here?” I knew that the meetings were helpful, and I knew that they were a powerful tool. But I wanted to figure out what was really going in my recovery, and what was actually keeping me clean and sober. There had to be more to it than just sitting in meetings every day.
To be honest, here is what I wanted to know: How could I stop attending meetings entirely and still remain clean and sober?
In the end, I figured it out. Within the first two years of my sobriety I completely eliminated all of the meetings from my life and I did not relapse. Nor did I slip into “dry drunk syndrome” or become a big jerk in sobriety. I would like to believe that I continued to push myself to learn and to grow in recovery, just without attending the meetings any more.
So how did I do it?
The holistic approach.
I figured out what really kept people clean and sober was a whole lot of little positive changes. And then I started to check those boxes off every single day:
* Am I taking care of myself physically today? Am I eating right, getting plenty of sleep, getting some decent exercise?
* Am I practicing gratitude today? Am I finding the positive lesson in every experience, even if it seems negative?
* Am I reaching out and helping others in recovery?
* Am I eliminating toxic people from my life, setting healthy boundaries? Am I surrounding myself with the winners in recovery?
* Am I eliminating thoughts of relapse, not allowing myself to glorify my drug of choice?
* Am I emotionally balanced today?
I found out that if I pushed myself to check off each of those boxes every single day of my life, that things just kept getting better and better.
I mean, I was surrounded by people in AA and NA who were not doing all of these things. They were going to meetings, but they weren’t really walking the walk in all of these areas of potential growth. And some of them relapsed.
And I thought to myself: “Wait a minute here! Some of my peers who attend meetings every single day are relapsing! What will become of me if I quit meetings entirely? Won’t I relapse too?”
But that fear was not the truth. The truth is, recovery is not about sitting in a meeting every day just to say that you sat in a meeting. The meetings are not magical. They are only magic if you apply yourself and you apply the concepts that you hear about in them.
And in that sense, I was on the right track with my holistic approach idea. Instead of sitting around and discussing these recovery concepts, I simply started applying them in my life each day. Every day. And I pushed myself hard to do this.
I had this moment when I was maybe six months sober in which I thought: “Maybe I will relapse from this path, or maybe it will work. But I don’t just want to sit around in AA meetings every day as my solution to this thing.” And so I used the principles here, those of the holistic approach, the idea of taking better care of myself every single day, in all of these different ways. And it started to work. It worked really well. And it is still working to this day, over 14 years later.
So that was my own personal transition in early recovery to long term sobriety. I started out going to meetings every day, which I still believe was important. But in the end, my sobriety was not about relying on others, it was not about the support of other people. It only started out that way. Later it grew into something more personal, something more individual, working towards my own goals for my own life. In long term sobriety I became a little more self directed. But in early recovery, I relied heavily on the support of others, to the point that I lived in a rehab for the first two years.
Why you need to learn from real human beings and not just books or Internet
You may be wondering: “Why can’t I just read the AA book and skip the meetings?”
Can you learn everything that you need to know from the literature?
The answer is annoying, I am afraid.
Yes you can learn what you need to know from the literature, you can read the big book of AA or you can keep reading the Spiritual River and you can continue to learn about recovery concepts. But the problem with that is the implementation. Will you really apply the concepts if you just read about them in a book? For most people, the answer is “no.”
In order to really take a concept to heart and apply it in your daily life, we almost always have to experience it directly, we have to see it in action, we have to have that proof of concept right in front of our own eyes. And we don’t get that direct and visceral experience from reading a book or a website.
No, I believe that in early recovery you need to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. You need to check into rehab and see what it is like to interact with other addicts and alcoholics. You need to get the hope directly from someone who is telling your story but now they have over a decade of sobriety under their belt. You need to find unique people and unique personalities and meet them face to face, the people who have your same exact problem and yet they figured out how to overcome addiction. Until you have that level of proof right in front of your own eyes, I don’t believe you will have the motivation and the conviction that is needed to dive into recovery and take real action.
Having support in very early recovery
So how do you get support? How do you find the people that you need in early recovery so that you can avoid relapse and build this new life that I am talking about?
Two ways right off the bat. Number one, go to treatment. Go check into a rehab center. Get on the phone and call up treatment centers and find someone who will help you. Maybe you have insurance and maybe you have nothing at all. It doesn’t matter, there is help out there available to everyone in every possible situation. Get on the phone and reach out for help and start asking questions. Keep reaching out and continue to ask for help until you get to a treatment center and can begin to turn your life around. If you are persistent in this search then eventually you will find the help that you need. When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Just make sure you are actually asking for help and reaching out to others. Pick up the phone and make a call.
Second of all, go to AA or NA meetings. You may be scared, or you may have decided that they don’t work for you in the past. It doesn’t matter. Just go to them anyway, force yourself to go, force yourself to sit there. For me, this was not a lifelong solution in my sobriety, but it was a huge part of what started me out with the support that I needed in the beginning.
If you want support in early sobriety then you need to take action. Ask for help. Luckily, nearly everyone in a recovery program is more than willing to help you in any way that they can. That is the nature of recovery. So that one day, you, too, will be able to offer your hand to others and help them to find a path to recovery.