ClearingTheFogHere is a difficult catch-22 that many in recovery from addiction have faced:

…you cannot work on a relapse prevention plan if you are still active in your addiction.

It is of paramount importance for a recovering addict to establish immediate stabilization and initial abstinence from his or her “drug of choice” (or addictive behavior of choice) before working on the deeper recesses of recovery and relapse prevention. Once they have established abstinence from their drug of choice they can begin to formulate a plan for recovery that ensures that they will remain that way with long term success.

Sober Living brings joy. While simply abstaining from your drug of choice is not what we mean by “recovery” it is also true that there can be no “recovery” without first establishing abstinence. We use the term abstinence here to refer to the act of denying yourself of your drug of choice in whatever form it comes.

If your drug of choice is a substance such as alcohol, it is typically much easier to define abstinence than it might be for others whose addiction is rooted in a process such as gambling, the pursuit of love, or overeating, to name just a few. You are either drinking or not drinking.

However, even alcoholics have become unclear about their abstinence at times and have found themselves lost in the fog when they have failed to responsibly monitor drinks or foods that they ingest. Some will get into trouble and trigger a relapse as a result of using cough remedies that have high concentrations of alcohol in them that they were unaware of. Others will drink “non- alcoholic” beer claiming that they don’t need to worry about the small percentage of alcohol in the beverage because the label reads “non-alcoholic beer.” This is not confusion – this is DENIAL.

“Non-alcoholic beer” that contains alcohol is for NON ALCOHOLICS!

And of course there is the infamous “marijuana maintenance program” which is a popular solution for some folks in combating alcoholism. In the marijuana maintenance program the alcoholic decides they would rather use pot smoking to stay off alcohol instead of committing all that time and energy into actually addressing their addictive disorder…

So even with cut-and-dry addictions like alcoholism, your definition of abstinence will need to include a decision to refrain from all addictive substances if you want your relapse prevention efforts to be successful.

Defining sobriety in process addictions such as in gambling addiction, love addiction or in food addiction, can prove to be even more challenging. This is because the behavioral patterns associated with these addictive disorders can vary from person to person.

Do not despair!

If you are unsure about how you should be defining abstinence for yourself talk to members of your recovery fellowship, or speak to a knowledgeable addictions therapist. Some people get confused about the potentially contradicting definitions of sobriety available from one Twelve Step group to the next. Feel free to leave us a comment below with any questions you may have about this subject and we will be happy to help you, or, we may even use your question/comment as the topic of our next article!

And finally, there is no universal length of sustained abstinence that is optimal for everyone to use as a foundation for beginning this important work. Everyone is different. But if you are in a supportive environment, 10 – 14 days is usually more than enough time for the cravings and the physical discomfort associated with the termination of your drug of choice to ease its grip on you.

These 10 – 14 days should be used for the important stabilization work that will help you to clear your thinking and focus. We do this by spending the very early days in sobriety becoming well established in a support group, working on our first three steps with a sponsor, and when warranted, securing a comprehensive consultation with a therapist, family doctor, or psychiatrist knowledgeable in addiction medicine. These listed activities are not the essence of a comprehensive relapse prevention plan, they are merely prerequisites and part of the preparation necessary prior to developing a proper relapse prevention plan.

Once abstinence has been established, and the preliminary fog of addiction has cleared somewhat, you will then be ready to undertake the more emotionally challenging work required to develop a successful and comprehensive relapse prevention recovery plan.