There are millions of people across the nation who are living in recovery. In fact, according to recent data, about one in ten adults in the United States reported having ‘recovered’ from an alcohol or substance use disorder. For some of these individuals, recovery will not last more than a few months or maybe a year but for others, they will learn to maintain their sobriety for the long haul.
So what makes the difference for those who enjoy sobriety for many years versus those who only get short periods of sobriety? Many factors come into play when it comes to staying sober—particularly for the long haul. For each individual it is different. What helps one person stay sober may not be helpful for the next. However, there are certain factors that are helpful for everyone who wants to maintain long-term sobriety.
When I walked into my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting I saw many different people at various stages of their recovery, experiencing different feelings, emotions, and approaches to recovery. There were those who were brand new to recovery like me who seemed to be very happy, then there were those (like me) who were scared, sad, and full of fear.
I would come to learn that those elated with their newfound sobriety were on what was referred to as a ‘pink cloud’. They were filled with happiness, joy, and relief. I simply couldn’t understand how these individuals could truly be so happy but they were. This wasn’t how early sobriety was for me. But, nonetheless, I have been able to stay sober for a few years now.
And while everyone’s journey is unique and personal, here are a few of the tips that have worked for me during good times and bad.
Staying Sober Through the Good and Bad Times
My start in sobriety wasn’t easy. I didn’t really want to be there or be sober—after all, life could be really hard and the only coping tool I had was alcohol. What was I to do when ‘life’ happened? I was terrified. Part of me thought that maybe just being sober and starting to ‘do the next right thing’ would ward off the downs of life I so feared. Sometimes I would sit in meetings and look at all of the happy people. I would wonder how they had such good happy lives with no problems.
I was sad and angry that my life and the problems were still there. However, what I would come to learn is that these people too had problems, they had just learned to cope with them in healthy ways—something that at the time was foreign to me.
In AA, they tell you to just keep coming back and keep listening. I did this and as I listened I started to learn that life happens even when you’re sober. I learned about men and women who had lost loved ones, lost jobs and homes, gone bankrupt, were struck with serious illnesses, and who had gone through a whole lot more—and stayed sober.
This was something I just couldn’t fathom.
I was betting on doing the next right thing and somehow being immune to the hard things life throws our way. I simply couldn’t imagine staying sober through hard times. But, I would learn, and I would stay sober through painful and difficult times.
Tip 1: Don’t Pick Up
As I mentioned, my first few years of sobriety weren’t easy. I didn’t go to rehab, I wasn’t good at listening, I struggled to follow directions, and I wanted to do things my way—even though I knew nothing about how to stay sober for more than a day or two.
I did one thing right—I didn’t drink. Some days this was really hard to do (after all I’m an alcoholic, drinking is what I did), other days weren’t so hard. But I woke up each morning and prayed to my Higher Power to help me stay sober that day. When I went to sleep, I said a prayer of gratitude that I had stayed sober that day.
I reminded myself on a daily basis that even if I accomplished nothing else that day, if I simply didn’t drink, I had achieved a huge goal and that was enough. Putting down the drink or drug is really just the first step in recovery. As the AA ‘Big Book’ states, “the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, not his body”’. So while I wasn’t picking up a drink, if I wasn’t working on the problem where it centers—my mind—I would continue to struggle.
What I did right here is I didn’t drink. This allowed my mind to begin to clear, my heart to begin to feel again, and me to be in AA meetings and listen to what people with long-term sobriety were saying.
Tip 2: Go to Meetings or Support Groups
One of the key indicators of whether or not an individual will stay sober after treatment is the support system they have on the outside. This support from others who are where you are in recovery and who have been where you are is essential. This is the premise of AA; one alcoholic (or addict) helping another.
This support from someone who really ‘gets it’ is crucial in all parts of recovery—at least for this alcoholic. And this is the entire foundation upon which AA was built in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith—both alcoholics. This first 12-step group has grown into other fellowships such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Much of the success of these 12-steps programs is because of the support it provides from one alcoholic or addict to another.
Getting to meetings or a support group for alcoholics or addicts is key. For me, going to AA meetings on an almost daily basis enabled me to hear ways that others stay sober over and over. This began to become ingrained into my thinking. When something that I perceived as bad happened instead of thinking “I need a drink” I began to think “I need a meeting.”
As we all know life continues to be life with its ups and downs whether you are sober or not. This was true for me too. I recall vividly my first ‘crisis’ in early sobriety. My oldest child had moved out and into her own place a few months before. At 5 AM on a Tuesday morning, I received a frantic call from her crying and screaming uncontrollably. Someone had broken into her apartment while she slept and attacked her boyfriend and her in their sleep. As I raced over to her apartment the fear and anxiety were unreal. In my head, I was already thinking about a drink and how it would make me feel so much better.
My daughter and her boyfriend were rushed to the hospital and as they were being evaluated, I called a friend with 30 years of sobriety I had met in AA. I was hysterical. And she said to me, “Go to a meeting.” I thought she was crazy and it was the last thing I expected to hear.
However, once I knew everyone would be okay and was stabilized I did just that. I went to an AA meeting where I was loved and supported. This enabled me to not only stay sober but also to help my daughter and her boyfriend. Had I picked up a drink, I would have been no help to anyone.
Tip 3: Share
When I went to that meeting on that difficult day, I did what I never wanted to do in meetings or anywhere else—share what I was going through. Through tears and pain, I retold the story and how much I just wanted a drink to help me cope. AA members rallied around me when they knew what was going on.
It’s vital to share in support group meetings of all kinds. This way people know where you are and can help. Chances are, other people there have been through the same or very similar situations. These people can help you stay sober by sharing what worked for them and by being a support to you.
For many of us, opening up and being vulnerable is difficult. It’s not only stepping out of your comfort zone it’s being vulnerable and sharing part of yourself with others. This can be scary. But the rewards are immeasurable. One of which is it helps you to achieve long-term sobriety.
Tip 4: Get Connected
Right along with sharing comes getting connected with others. When you share, often others will come up to you after a meeting. If you tell people in an AA meeting you are new, they will rally around you and help you to get connected with others.
One of the important parts of recovery is to change people, places, and things. Getting connected in a 12-step program or another support program is a crucial part of sustained recovery.
As an avid member of AA, I can tell you that one of the best parts is the fellowship. I am now friends with people who I like, who are also sober. We do fun things together and we are there for each other through thick and thin.
I didn’t want to get connected to others in AA. I wanted to come and sit in the back, get what I needed and leave. But I soon learned that while I may not pick up a drink for a while, I would be miserable that way. I did resist forming connections but eventually, I put myself out there and am now grateful to have a handful of people I can call at any time of the day for any reason.
Tip 5: Ask for Help
If you’re anything like me, asking for help doesn’t come so easy. But what I learned is that if I want to stay sober—and I do—then I need to ask for help. This means that when I’m feeling off or am in a funk, when I’m confused about what to do, when I find myself engaging in unhealthy behaviors, etc. I reach out to trusted sober friends and talk to them.
I had to learn to do this early in sobriety when I didn’t know people let alone completely trust them. I had to take the risk. And it’s paid off.
I know how hard it can be to open up and ask for help. But most others in AA or other support programs also know how hard it can be. They get it. And many will be able to help you find what you need to continue to stay sober.
In early sobriety, I also went through a painful breakup. I had spent a lot of time with this individual also in recovery so when the relationship ended I didn’t have many connections in AA. But what I did was to go to meetings and share where I was and what I was going through. After the meeting, people would come up to me, comfort me, and share their phone numbers. I had to learn to call these people that I barely knew and trust the process.
I maintained my sobriety through it and made some of the best friends I now have. I took the risk, I was vulnerable, and I followed the suggestions of AA.
There are other recovery support programs but AA is the path I have chosen and what has worked for me. And while you may choose another support program, each of these tips applies no matter what support program you prefer. But, remember, having a solid support system outside of treatment is key to long-term sobriety.
A final tip is to build your own toolkit of recovery tools. After I built my foundation in AA and worked the 12 steps, I continue to be involved and connected to AA. I know from my own experience as well as watching others in sobriety that I have to stay involved to stay sober. That’s how it works for this alcoholic and my sobriety is so precious I’ll do whatever it takes to keep it.
In AA they say that you must be willing to go to any lengths for sobriety. I have to remind myself of this many times that I want to stay home and watch Netflix or go out to dinner instead of going to an AA meeting.
I have managed to stay sober through some challenges; the violent attack on my daughter, my father’s death, losing loved ones to suicide and overdose, losing my job, moving, supporting my family members struggling with mental health, a pandemic, a painful breakup, and more.
Sobriety is not easy, it’s not glamorous, and it’s work. However, my life in sobriety is so much better than my best day drinking. I am willing to go to any lengths to maintain it. I hope you are too—it will be worth all of your work.
If you want to learn more about treatment programs for an alcohol or substance use issue contact Futures Recovery Healthcare. Offering three different addiction treatment programs; Core, Rise, and Orenda, as well as a unit solely devoted to Mental Health treatment, Futures uses evidence-based treatment and introduces clients to multiple ways to engage in support after treatment.
Call Futures today at 866-804-2098.
Take the chance and ask for help. It will be well worth it.