There's No Graduating in Recovery
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There’s No Graduating in Recovery

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This post was originally published on June 23, 2014.

One of the undeniable truths about recovery—both good and bad—is that it’s an ongoing process. Good in the sense that if you continue to work at it, you not only stay clean and sober but your life will also most likely continue to improve in many intangible ways—even if that life deals you some unexpected blows. But bad in the sense that there are no completion dates or certificates that mean you’ve earned something that no one can ever take away. Quite the contrary. If you don’t keep up the work that you did to get sober, it’s quite likely that sooner or later you’re going to give away what you’ve earned.

Let’s say you go to law school, get a law degree and pass the bar. Now you’re a lawyer and you can go on with your life, credentials intact. Same thing with doctors and nurses and teachers and HVAC mechanics. But if you graduate from a treatment center or a halfway house or get a one-year coin, you really haven’t earned anything but another day of sobriety—no matter how much time you’ve put together. Which is not to pooh-pooh the achievement. If you’re clean and sober and you’re an alcoholic, one day is a big fucking deal. Plus you’re probably a little more clear-headed and may not even look like shit anymore. But if you pick up a drink or a drug, this isn’t likely to last very long. That shiny coin or certificate of completion from that rehab doesn’t mean shit if you’re slurring and nodding off just like you were before you went in. Given our aversion to a reality-based life, this is probably one of the hardest things for addicts and alcoholics to accept.

Something that those in early recovery need to be aware of is that completing a program really only means that you’re off life support. Or more accurately, that’s when the training wheels come off. As my friend who has worked in the recovery system for 20-plus years says, “Any nitwit can stay sober in treatment. It’s what happens after they leave that counts.” Because the real test is going to come when there’s no one asking you to pee in a cup, submit to a Breathalyzer or go to meetings without having to get a slip signed by your counselor or probation officer. For most, the temptation is to say (consciously or unconsciously), “I’ve put in my time, let’s get back to my real life.” As if, prior to getting sober, we actually had lives that were working well. If that was true, why the hell would any of us have stopped (or been forced to stop) drinking and drugging in the first place?

I have a friend that I got sober with who relapsed after 11 years, and struggled to get sober again (before stringing together 10-plus years this time). The reason? She referred to herself as the “President of the I’ll-Take-It-From-Here Club.” She would put some time together, decide that she knew what was best for her (deciding she could hanging in bars drinking ginger ale with coke dealers and not going to meetings) and relapse again and again. (BTW, if you come out of a detox/rehab and start drinking again after being locked up for 30 days, it’s my opinion that this is less a relapse and more a “resume.” Relapse implies a setback from a state of wellness.)

There’s a halfway house near my home group, and there are a number of people from that meeting who have gotten and stayed sober after completing the six-to-nine month program there. But it has more to do with the habits that they formed while in the house (joining groups, getting sponsors and doing the steps)—habits they continued to do after they left—than any magic tricks that they learned at the house.

The reality is that very few people maintain any kind of program after leaving structured programs. A few years ago, I attended the graduation of a woman who relapsed shortly after and was never able to put together any significant time after that, mostly because she never practiced any of what she learned outside the safety of the house. She died a few weeks ago. If knowledge was all it took to stay sober, we wouldn’t need AA or any type of aftercare programs. We’d read a book, pass a course and move on. Unfortunately, recovery doesn’t generally work that way.

Although I never went through a program or rehab, I did have to complete probation for a DUI/drug offense that required me to submit to urine tests and Breathalyzers, report to my probation officer and turn in signed court slips. During that time, I entered detox twice and truly expected to stay sober both times I left.

The first time, I left after detoxing for three days, and stayed sober for an additional three days. I then decided that since I had broken the actual physical dependency I had on booze, I could drink for a few days and then come back to AA the following Monday. That plan didn’t work out very well, and I was back in detox three weeks later. This time I really planned on staying sober when I got out, and the staff assured me that I was going to do well because of my attitude. But literally five minutes after discharge, I walked into the nearest liquor store and bought a half-pint of Schnapps and downed it. Because of the advanced medical training I had received watching Dr. Phil, I had diagnosed myself as “not medically detoxed” (although the hospital seemed to think so) and thought I’d have “one more” drink to treat my anxiety.

It took another six weeks of drinking hell for me to make my way back but then I managed to stay sober for seven months. I went to tons of meetings, got a sponsor, had a commitment in that group, and carried the message. Then I was released from probation. No more urine tests, no more Breathalyzer, no more court slips– and “no more reason to stay sober,” I thought subconsciously when I left my PO’s office. But before I got high—which I had the freedom to do now that the heat was off—I called my sponsor.

“Wanna sniff some glue?” I asked him. He turned down the offer and I agreed to meet with him for a little while, where he explained to me how common my reaction to getting off probation was. And I stayed sober by doing what I had been doing for the previous seven months and still do today. So if you’re reading this and just graduating from a halfway house or program or getting out of a posh rehab, congratu-fuckin-lations. Now the real journey begins.

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.