OK, you’ve stopped drinking alcohol and using drugs a couple of years ago and you’re pretty sure you’re going to lose your mind. You’re feeling worse now than you did before you quit and you’re pretty sure this was not part of the deal. You don’t understand why – you did the steps (once in your first year) – you help the occasional newcomer (I mean you’re busy with your own life too, right?) – you go to a couple of meetings a week (again, you’re busy with your own life) – so why are you feeling so…uninspired to stick around?
When someone stops using a substance meant to give them a sense of ease and comfort, they are left to face themselves and life on life’s terms. Substances have become our medicine and when we don’t have our fix, we become irritable, restless and discontent. The program of Alcoholics Anonymous offers a program for living that works on all the unresolved issues we left behind when we started numbing our feelings. The steps are tools to uncover issues, discover patterns of unhealthy behavior and discard it so that we can move forward and evolve.
I polled several people in Alcoholics Anonymous with enduring recovery and asked them what the ticket was to enter into the long-term sobriety realm. I did not ask anyone who was not in the program, simply because I don’t know anyone who has that much time without the fellowship. Sober is more than not picking up; it’s what you do with all the uncomfortable feelings, difficult friends and family, plus the personal challenges that life throws at you.
All these people had basically the same things to say:
- Immersing oneself in a recovery community – everyone I spoke with talked about surrounding themselves with like-minded people who are dedicated to the same healthy lifestyle. If you want to be expert in something, hang out people who are good at what you want to do. Everyone does this, not just substance abusers: if you are an attorney, you most likely benefit from fellowshipping with other attorneys and being a member of a law group of some sort. Equestrians take lessons, train and hang out with horse people, etc. There’s that humorous saying, “If you hang out in a barbershop long enough, you’re bound to get your hair cut.” If you hang out with people who are still using, it’s just a matter of time before you use too.
- It’s an inside job – the Big Book (AA’s handbook) says that a business that takes no regular inventory will go broke. The importance of being able to self-reflect with honesty cannot be minimized. It is what separates living like a human being from dwelling like an animal. Looking inward with thoroughness at regular intervals clears away the cobwebs of self-doubt and ego.
- We’re only as sick as our secrets – this is the second part of #1. When we start keeping secrets we’re in trouble and it becomes a domino effect. It helps to tell someone you trust what you’re keeping inside so it doesn’t morph into something you cannot control.
- Having fun –People with long-term sobriety have discovered what makes them happy and they do it. There are all the sober activities and events – but even more than that – they’ve taken their foundation in recovery out into the world and participated in things that make them happy – just for the sheer joy of doing it.
- Maintaining an attitude of gratitude – Keeping in touch with everything we have to be grateful for is humbling and a reminder of just how lucky we are. Somewhere there is someone who wants what you have – literally – you have an apartment and they don’t…you have a job and they don’t. Imagine that when you are stuck thinking about what’s not going your way.
- Recommitting – Every day, every hour there is the chance to recommit. I heard an old timer share that when he has a hard time he goes back to basics and does all the things it was suggested he did in the early days of sobriety. It works every time. He also said, “you don’t have to relapse to start over.”
- Putting the program first – this is an action step and the way old timers use it, is as soon as the thought enters their mind that: “I can’t make a meeting because I’m too busy,” they go to the meeting. As soon as they think, “I can’t take a new sponsee, I have a job”…they say, “yes,” to taking someone through the steps…etc. It’s contrary to what they think the outcome will be but when the program comes first, everything falls into place.
- Enlarging the spiritual life – Not enough can be said about this and it’s the answer most people gave. Cultivating a relationship with a higher power, whatever that is, is the foundation of the 12-step program. There are so many ways to honor the diving, whether someone believes in nature, God or the fellowship, making regular time to honor their beliefs has kept the majority of people with long term recovery coming back.
- Seeking outside help if it is needed – no one gains anything from sitting in pain for a long time and we are not doctors. Seeking outside help has aided many people in sobriety. Sometimes mental health issues do not surface immediately, so it’s important to talk with a professional.
- Giving it away – when in doubt, help somebody out. It’s as simple as that – helping someone else makes you forget about your own problems for the time being.
- Meeting makers make it – This is the most common formula for being able to accrue long-term sobriety. Most people who relapse will tell you, they stopped going to meetings.
Putting all the above together results in emotional sobriety. Keeping focused on the solution, staying in the middle of the pack and using the tools of the program have helped countless men and women achieve 20, 30, 40 and 50+ years of sobriety. No one would stick around if the pay off were anything but grand.