8 Ways I Have Stayed Sober for 16 Years
Staying sober can be a huge challenge. From rehab to exercise and diet, here are the things that've helped me, and so many others, achieve long-term sobriety.
While getting sober is challenging for a lot of people, staying sober can be even harder. In fact, according to a 2007 study published in Evaluation Review, only about a third of alcoholics and drug addicts who are sober less than a year will remain that way.
“Stopping drinking isn’t the hard part. The real challenge is to stay stopped,” says addiction specialist Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D. The good news is, according to the same study, the longer you stay sober, the more your chances of staying that way improve.
For most people dealing with long-term sobriety, including myself, deciding to quit drinking or doing drugs is just the first step of their recovery — and being successful in maintaining abstinence often takes a lot actionable work.
“People who stop drinking need to fill the incredible void that’s created when they put down the bottle with people, places and things that are supportive, reparative and curative rather than draining, shaming and destructive,” says Dr. Hokemeyer.
Here are all the things that've helped me — and so many others — achieve long-term sobriety.
The first thing I did after making the decision to get sober was to check myself into an inpatient rehabilitation facility. While going to rehab isn’t a prerequisite for recovery, many people find it's a helpful gateway to the recovery world.
Not only does it give you a temporary safe haven from the temptations of the outside world, but it also offers many helpful tools and methods to treat your addiction, including daily therapy sessions, an introduction to the 12 steps, exposure to support groups like AA and NA and a safe place to interact and connect with others suffering from the same illness.
“Residential rehabs are for people who need to be physically removed from a life of destruction and placed in a safe, contained space where they can physically detox from their addiction and stabilize the instability that has resulted from their addiction,” Dr. Hokemeyer says.
One misconception about rehab is that it's financially unattainable for many people. While some of the treatment centers you read about can cost thousands of dollars a week, there are others that are much less expensive and even some that are free. And keep in mind that many facilities offer scholarships and financing, and some take health insurance, so before you rule out an inpatient or outpatient facility as an option, be sure to do your research.
2. Joining a Support Group
While groups like AA and NA may not be for everyone and have been a source of controversy over the years, many people (myself included) maintain they're a crucial part of sustaining sobriety. AA not only offered me a regimented program to help treat my condition, but it also gave me hope.
“Addictions thrive in isolation, and they are cured in reparative relationships. Support groups are a great place to find these relationships,” says Dr. Hokemeyer. “In them you find comfort and knowledge from other human beings who are bumping along the same road as you.”
I can’t imagine a reality in which I could have stayed sober through my 20s and 30s without the support and companionship of other alcoholics and addicts struggling with the same illness. They also showed me what my life could be. Many of those who stayed sober went on to achieve great things, maintain healthy relationships and achieve a sort of happiness they never believed was possible. Eventually, when my life started coming together, I got to serve that purpose for others who were struggling.
The foundation of most addiction-related support groups, including AA, NA, CA and OA is the 12 Steps — an actionable set of guiding principles that help addicts achieve physical and mental sobriety. “The 12 Steps are a wisdom path for living a life of purpose and meaning instead of despair and destruction,” says Dr. Hokemeyer. “They provide context and direction in what is often a chaotic and overwhelming world.”
While the steps may seem overwhelming, they aren’t meant to be done overnight — and fortunately, you don’t have to do them alone. It's recommended that you complete them with the help of a sponsor, who serves as a mentor in the recovery program. The individual you choose as a sponsor is usually someone who's been sober longer than you have and who has already completed the 12 steps. Some people take months or even years to get through them, but once completed, many claim their life and relationships transform in a miraculous way.
When I first got into recovery, the steps were a bit daunting. When I initially read through them, I didn’t understand how they were going to help me get and stay sober, but my sponsor assured me they would. I completed the first three while in treatment, and then worked through the remainder over the following year.
As I completed each step, I began to understand how beneficial they were. Not only did they help me see how my addiction impacted my life but also how it affected others. I started to understand why I did what I did and how all of my insecurities and fears led me to engage in destructive behavior.
I learned how to accept the past and look to the future. How to believe in God and ask for forgiveness. I learned how to made amends to others — which is basically a thoughtful and comprehensive apology. I also learned how to talk to others in an effective manner and maintain healthy relationships, so that I could save myself from having to make amends in the future.
4. Prayer and Meditation
When I used to hear the word "God," I would begin to feel uncomfortable. I didn’t believe and couldn’t fathom the concept of a power greater than myself. “Stand in front of a wave,” my sponsor suggested. “Try and stop it.” For whatever reason, that made sense to me, so initially my God was the ocean.
My house was near the beach, so every morning I would walk down and say morning prayers and meditate as she suggested. Sometimes I would ask God to remove the obsession to drink, others times for the power to do the right thing. I couldn’t comprehend how they could make a difference, and I barely believed in what I was doing. But the program’s words, “fake it until you make it,” kept me going.
All the prayers and meditation seemed to help. My mind felt calmer and anxious thoughts quieted down a bit. So I continued the process, eventually truly believing in God. Sixteen years later, I even identify with organized religion.
Therapy is a big part of any inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation and was influential in my recovery. Even if you opt out of rehab, you should consider seeking professional help in the form of psychiatrist, psychologist or addiction specialist in order to work through the issues that may have contributed to your addiction.
“Therapy provides a safe and contained frame to unpack and explore the multitude of reasons why your drinking became toxic and figure out ways to live in the world in a more evolved and productive state of being,” says Dr. Hokemeyer.
While support groups and sponsors can help give you guidance, most are not professionally trained experts. A therapist — especially one that specializes in addiction — can also help you come up with an effective treatment plan for yourself and also help you get to the root of your problems. I started seeing a therapist the day that I checked out of rehab, and it's been a huge part of my recovery.
6. Surrounding Myself With Like-Minded People
Early on in my sobriety someone said to me, “If you hang out in a barber shop, eventually you are going to get a haircut.” This basically means: If you hang around people who are drinking or places where drinking is going on, you're probably going to start drinking.
“The company you keep in the first days, weeks and months of your recovery is key,” says Dr. Hokemeyer. Even though some people may have the best intentions, if they don’t understand what you are going through it may be impossible for them to provide the support you need.
“Old friends and even family members may be uncomfortable with your newly found sobriety and may try to consciously or unconsciously sabotage it,” he says. “Avoid those people who you feel are dicey, and find new friends and acquaintances who will support you on your journey.”
Now that I have been sober several years, when someone else’s drinking makes me uneasy, I simply remove myself from the situation. I have many friends and family members who drink, and I'm now comfortable enough in my own sobriety to be around them. However, I try not to surround myself with people who engage in addictive behavior.
Research is limited, but a small number of studies have found that exercise can be helpful in treating alcohol-use disorders. Exercise is critically important for three key reasons, says Dr. Hokemeyer. “First, it provides a routine and discipline in a person’s life. Second, it fills up time, and because addictions devour time like a hungry lion, newly sober people find they have a lot of extra time on their hands. Third, exercise makes you look and feel better,” he says.
I started exercising regularly in early sobriety and looked forward to the physical and psychological benefits it provided — including that natural high. I've also enjoyed the social aspect of it. Instead of going to the bar with my friends, we meet at an exercise class, and then sometimes go for breakfast afterward. Find activities or a form of exercise you enjoy, and pay attention to how your practice betters your life. You might find that you enjoy it more than drinking!
Read more: Can Alcoholism Really Be Cured With a Pill?
8. Proper Nutrition
When I was getting loaded, I had no consistency with my diet. I wouldn’t eat for days, getting most of my calories from alcohol, and then would binge on unhealthy food. When I checked into rehab, they encouraged eating three meals a day — a concept that I hadn’t embraced since I was a kid.
“When it comes to food, the rule ‘garbage in, garbage out’ very much applies,” says Dr. Hokemeyer. “Newly sober people should begin to slowly move their diet in a healthier direction. The key here is slowly.”
In fact, a 2004 study from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that nutrition education is positively associated with substance-abuse program outcomes and can help the addict’s or alcoholic’s healing process.
Dr. Hokemeyer says most newly sober people find they crave sweet foods to replace the sugar in alcohol — and he doesn’t suggest cutting them out cold turkey. “My advice is to allow yourself sweet indulgences for the first six months of your recovery,” he says. “Once you’ve got six months under your belt, you can focus more on a healthier diet.”