Maintaining Long-Term Sobriety: Figuring Out What Works

Coming to the realization that I had a problem with drugs and alcohol was difficult for me to acknowledge. I started drinking and using drugs at a very early age, and it all just seemed so normal. Everyone I knew was doing it. I don’t know exactly when things changed—when drinking went from fun to disastrous.

I don’t think there’s one specific moment that it happened, just a lot of small moments over the course of almost a decade. The first time I blacked out. The first time I ended up in the back of a police car. The first time I promised myself I wouldn’t drink anymore, but I did anyway. The first time I got in trouble at school due to drinking. The first time I was raped and blamed myself for being too drunk. The first time I cheated on a partner because I was so drunk I didn’t know what I was doing.

The firsts are never-ending, and I know that if I stop doing the things that work to keep me healthy, both mentally and physically, it’s just a matter of time before I could end up back in the devastating cycle of active addiction.

Finding My Way Out 

woman climbing a long staircase on a grassy hill
Photo by Wayan Parmana on Unsplash

When I first came home from treatment, I found 12 step meetings to be incredibly helpful. I went to 90 meetings in 90 days as suggested, so I could try to figure out how to stay sober in the “real world.” I had taken a break from school and wasn’t going back yet, so it gave me something positive to do and helped me establish a routine.

While I found 12 step programs to be very useful in early sobriety, however, it’s not something that I’ve used as a tool in maintaining sobriety long-term. It was a great way to meet other like-minded people in similar situations: Seeing people with long-term sobriety who still enjoyed their lives was incredibly important for me at first. But eventually, going to meetings started to feel more like an obligation, and I wasn’t finding it especially helpful.

Even more frustrating, everyone I met in AA and NA constantly told me that I’d end up dead or in jail if I stopped attending meetings. While this might actually be true for some people, I don’t believe this to be the case for everyone. Going forward, I found that what I needed was a more flexible set of tools and practices for staying sober.

Find What Works For You

Recovery is a very personal process—what works for me might not work for you or someone else. What matters most is that each of us finds an effective strategy, and commits to it. Before I stopped going to 12 step meetings, I made sure that I had many other tools I could count on to help me stay clean and sober, and remain on a newly-found positive track. That is where I wanted to be in my life.

Here are some things that I, and others I’ve spoken to, have found especially helpful in maintaining long-term recovery.

Therapy

I found therapy to be incredibly helpful. Many people end up drinking and abusing drugs because of difficult issues in their lives: mental health issues, trauma, relationship problems, etc. Having someone who I could really talk to about all of these important aspects of my life was crucial for me, and integral to my sobriety and well-being.

Medication 

I resisted being on any kind of psychiatric medication for a long time, which is pretty ironic if you think about it. I spent years putting poison and chemicals into my body to try to make myself feel good. Still, when it came to the availability of helpful and mostly safe medications, I resisted them because I didn’t want to have to rely on something to stabilize my mood for the rest of my life.

What I learned is that medication is just another tool. There’s a great deal of trial and error, but I found one that helps me immensely. I’m certain that it’s way healthier and more productive than slowly killing myself with drugs and alcohol.

Staying Active

man jogging
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Something else that was really important for me was staying physically active. This may not be possible for everyone, but staying active and getting back in shape was a really positive thing for my mental and physical well being. I was always worried about not being able to fall asleep, or being unable to sleep through the night, so tiring myself out really helped distract me from wanting to use drugs or alcohol as a sleeping aid.

Journaling 

By the time I got out of rehab, I was pretty sick of hearing people talk about journaling. It sounded foolish and silly—something that wouldn’t really work for me. Eventually, I was clean and sober but still fairly miserable, and I was willing to try anything. It turned out that journaling was actually very helpful for me. It was a way to collect my racing thoughts and actually do something useful and creative with them.

Finding Hobbies

When I was drinking and using drugs, I didn’t really have any hobbies. Beforehand, I had many things I loved to do, but after I started using I lost interest in them. My entire life revolved around getting drugs and alcohol, using drugs and alcohol, and finding money to buy more drugs and alcohol. And this cycle just kept repeating itself for many years of my life.

When I finally got clean and sober, I realized that I didn’t even know what I enjoyed doing anymore. I started reading a lot. I started playing sports again. I started traveling. For me, the possibilities truly were endless when I wasn’t spending every day and all day obsessing about drinking and using drugs.

Harm Reduction

While my ultimate goal at the time I went into treatment was to be completely substance free, there were many harm reduction techniques that could have been helpful as well. At that time in my life, they didn’t really work for me—but that’s not to say they wouldn’t work for someone else.

Harm reduction means making the changes that are going to have the biggest positive impact on your overall well-being, even if that doesn’t mean total sobriety. For example, many people have success just cutting back on how much they are drinking, by using anti-craving medication. For drug users, harm reduction techniques might include using drugs but no longer using them intravenously.

If your goal is to be sober, these techniques may not get you to the final destination you’re looking for, but they are definitely a start. If maintaining long-term sobriety feels too difficult, or if you don’t actually want to avoid alcohol completely for the rest of your life, harm reduction may be worth trying.

It’s Not All Or Nothing

woman with coffee on a balcony
Photo by Nikita Kachanovsky on Unsplash

Another really important lesson I learned once I stopped going to 12 step meetings was that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I didn’t have to go to a meeting every day. If I didn’t attend regularly, I wasn’t going to end up dead or in jail. If I never went to any meetings at all, I truly believed that I would still be alright. I found inner strength, and I put the tools I needed in place to make sure that I was okay.

People are all different, and there’s no “one size that fits all” when it comes to recovery. As mentioned above, not even total sobriety is a must if you can find harm reduction techniques that get you where you need to be. The key is to not lose control of the positive aspects of your life to addiction.

The most important thing in my case was making sure I had people supporting me, and that I had the tools I needed to stay healthy. For me, that’s been the key to maintaining long-term sobriety. Every day that I’m not in the cycle of active addiction is a victory for me.

Written By:
Rachael Goldstein
Philadelphia-based freelance writer specializing in law, mental health, psychology, and addiction.
Reviewed By:
Content Writer/Editor
Writer specializing in targeted, informative content. Dedicated to making the abstract accessible.

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