When someone shares that they have ten, twenty, thirty, or more years of recovery, it’s hard to conceive of such a lengthy amount of time without a drink or a drug. In early recovery, the question of how to get sober can overshadow the question of how to sustain long-term recovery. Unfortunately, this oversight often leads to relapse. While relapse is part of any chronic, progressive disease, it doesn’t have to be. However, no one should ever be shamed for a relapse. Instead, it is more helpful to provide loving compassion and model how further pain and suffering can be avoided.
I sat down with the CEO and COO of the Process Recovery Center – Justin Etling and Chris DiNicola – to learn more about the keys to achieving long-term recovery. Chris and Justin’s collective recovery experience enables them to answer questions such as: “How do I achieve long-term recovery?” and “Why do people with long-term recovery relapse after so many years?”
Identifying the Keys to Success
“The number one thing for me is honesty,” Justin emphasized. “Sharing what’s going on and how you’re doing – there are multiple avenues for that. You can go to a meeting, you can call a sponsor, you can talk to a friend, you can talk to a therapist… There’s a connection piece that’s undeniable. To achieve long-term recovery, you need connection with people. It helps you create energy you can’t manufacture yourself. If you could manufacture it yourself, you would just manufacture it and change. The truth is, if it were that easy, you wouldn’t use substances. You would just think positively and never use again. But the truth is we need outside people, thoughts, and ideas to give us energy to take the next step”.
“My philosophy is honesty is the number one antidote to the disease of addiction,” Chris agreed. “Without honesty, there can’t be accountability, and without accountability there can’t be growth or change”. Chris also added: “For me, self-implementing structure is one of the most important things that we must do in order for us to maintain long-term recovery. Our first and foremost priority in early recovery is to identify what our “musts” are. My “musts” are meetings, sponsorship, practicing the principle of honesty, step work, and service to others. Maybe that’s not everybody – maybe someone’s “musts” are meditation, yoga, and therapy. Once I identify those “musts”, it’s about implementing them into my life – with or without my own permission. If you’re waiting for motivation, it’s not going to come. After identifying my “musts”, I clearly identify why I’m here – what am I doing this for? We search for path, purpose, and meaning in life. When you visualize what the “wants” are – this idea of what life could become – the “musts” are a requirement. Therefore I do the “musts” in spite of myself because I’ve identified a target…an end goal”.
Justin concurred with Chis, and shared a similar idea he conveys to Process clients. “I asked the group today: ‘How many people think they could run a seven minute mile?’ Nobody raised their hand. I said: ‘Everybody here is capable of running a seven minute mile. All you need to do is start running. The truth is everybody here is capable of staying sober…but who’s willing to run? Who is willing to do the work?’ At the end of the day, habit and discipline create routine and remove resistance”.
Justin provided an additional example. “You tell someone new in recovery to go to ninety meetings in ninety days, and they say ‘no, that’s too much, I don’t want to do that’. You tell them: ‘I’ll give you $100,000 to go to ninety meetings in ninety days’. The task is the same, but all of a sudden it’s easy to do. Everyone would do ninety meetings in ninety days because they’re getting something out of it. The capability of the human being to do the task is easy; it’s the mind that creates barriers. If you can clearly define what your “musts” are – and you give yourself no excuses – you won’t resist. You’ll create a habit within yourself. It’s like anything else. People go to the gym five times a week. They’re scared if they go less, they’ll lose the habit. They don’t make it a choice. Once it becomes a choice, it becomes way harder to do. When you create habits, you automatically do it. You don’t have to wage mental warfare with yourself. In the beginning, if you can clearly define a plan, and remove all options not to do it, the likelihood you’ll be able to achieve long-term recovery increases drastically”.
Why Do People With Long-Term Recovery Relapse?
For Justin, the answer is simple: “You don’t feel fulfilled. As a result, you start to yearn. Really, the solution is the habits and disciplines you had before, but by getting away from them, you implement behaviors to fill the void. You can use people, you can use gambling, you can use all kinds of things. In that video, Johann Hari talks about people using because of lack of connection. When you disconnect yourself from the things that were working for you, drugs become a viable option to fill that void. The problem is that when you start utilizing behaviors, they work temporarily. You get stuck in a cycle of ‘this feels good, so I’m going to do it again.’ It’s difficult to break bad habits because they feel good. They work for a period of time, but not permanently”.
“Everything eventually wears off when we’re searching outside of ourselves,” Chris agreed. “With relapse, I firmly believe it’s a loss of the structure we’ve implemented in our lives. I think true freedom lies within structure. I think that not only for people in recovery, but for human beings as a whole. If you eliminate laws, and times to be at work – if you just eliminated all this stuff that’s implemented in our society – it would be anarchy. People thrive and flourish with structure. That’s why I always talk about why I did so well in programs. Within the structure I could flourish; I was no longer bartering back and forth with myself about what I needed to do. I was told what must be done: wake up, take a shower, go look for a job, be back by five, eat dinner, make your bed, be home by midnight, pay your rent. I didn’t have the option not to. As a result, even though I felt resistant, my life was getting better in spite of me. If we all just did what we wanted to do – and not what we had to do – we’d be on a beach somewhere getting a tan and doing nothing. But stay on that beach for a month straight… How much are you enjoying it? What about two months? We start to resent the sun; we start to no longer like the ocean; we start to get a sunburn. So, essentially, too much of absolute, complete freedom is not good for us – we’ll regress. We’re creatures of habit. Repetition is the Mother of all skill, especially for people in recovery. We do the same things over and over again because it gives us that freedom to do what we have to do and constantly improve”.
Long-Term Recovery and the Dangers of Ego
“We all suffer from the ego-psyche, too,” Justin mused. “We want to start taking credit for our good life. It’s very easy to say ‘I’m good now’. Well, you’re good because you took care of yourself. It’s like anything else; if you exercise, you’re healthy. If you stop exercising, you lose the shape you were in. It’s just inevitable. Recovery work is the exact same. I will inherently start to take credit for all the good things in my life when, the truth is, every single person who sits in a meeting helps create positive energy in me, which helps me flourish. The process of recovery requires people outside the self. I can do certain things, but my energy only lasts so long. So that’s why I need an avenue of honesty. Without that, I will just tell myself I’m fine. ‘I don’t need that’. The mind will block out anything you ignore for long enough. That’s how the mind works. If you don’t do something for long enough, you won’t think about doing it anymore”.
“The second part to that,” Chris chimed in, “is that when a system works for you, conviction is developed. That’s where it’s solidified. It’s no longer ‘this is an opinion of what may happen,’ it’s ‘this is what is happening and what has already happened’. Now there’s evidence; I’ve trusted in this process and it led me to success. I have the ability to connect the dots looking back. We’re all susceptible to straying. As we progress – as life progresses – so does our disease – and so do the circumstances around us. We have to adjust. But now I’m not confused about what’s required when I stray. I’m not like ‘Oh my God, my life is in shambles’. After one honest conversation with Justin, I know exactly the routine I need to get back to the place I should be. I’m not stifled by life. If anything, I’m upset with myself because I’m self-inflicting my own pain, and there’s no one to blame other than me. Somewhere along the line I got caught up in ego”.
Justin also reflected on straying from habit: “There are so many avenues to get caught up in – these fixes. You can go on Netflix and just crush shows. And, yeah, it’s a nice, relaxing tactic – but is there any self-fulfillment in that? No, it’s mindless. If I participate in too many mindless activities, I get lazy. It unmotivates my being. I know I need to get back on the path”.
If you need help implementing accountability and structure into your recovery, please call (888) 649-1149 or contact us here. You can sustain long-term recovery and achieve the life you envision.
Autumn Khavari is the Process Recovery Center’s in-house writer. She received an education in Substance Use Counseling from Beal College in Bangor, Maine.