Three Stages of Recovery: A Primer to 12 Smart Things to do When the Booze and Drugs are Gone

Recovery involves three stages. They are: 1) Getting clean and sober; 2) Staying clean and sober; and 3) Living clean and sober. The first stage, getting clean and sober, is by far the easiest to achieve. Many of us have cleaned up or sobered up several times. I am not saying that withdrawal is easy, because it is not. Withdrawal from certain drugs is hellish, there’s no doubt about it. But a painful withdrawal usually doesn’t prevent us from drinking or using again.

It is the next two stages of recovery that present the greatest challenges. Staying clean and sober and living clean and sober are difficult. Relapse rates remain high despite all the advances in treatment over the past 75 years. Why is this the case? Is addiction that intractable or is it that we have missed something in our focus? I think the answer lies in the latter. We are missing something, there’s no doubt about it.

Over the past 30 years many different issues have been considered as candidates for the missing link. We have incorporated traumas work in recovery, with no significant decrease in relapse rates. We have focused on the treatment of co-occurring disorders like depression with some decrease in relapse rates for certain diagnostic populations but not for others. Medically assisted recovery, a relatively new kid on the block, is stillbeing investigated and while the verdict is still out on its effect on reducing relapse rates, the initial results are not that encouraging. In my opinion emotional sobriety is the missing link in successfully managing our continued vulnerability to addiction.

The first reference to emotional sobriety was made by Bill Wilson (1956) in a letter he wrote to a depressed friend. Since then only two other major publications in the recovery literature have addressed this critical issue. Ernie Larsen (1985) discussed what he called Stage II recovery. This stage of recovery occurs after getting clean and sober. The main task in this stage of recovery is learning to have healthy relationships. This was a very important contribution to our understanding of recovery but unfortunately it was not investigated further. What was discussed was the importance of healthy relationships but no one seemed to know much about how to develop healthy relationships. The main question that was not addressed is “What do we need to look at in ourselves to make a healthy relationship a reality?”

The next major work that discussed emotional sobriety was a book by Tian Dayton (2007). She focused on the effects of relationship traumas on our emotional well being and on co-dependency. She explored how traumas creates emotional dysregulation and that “emotional sobriety” is learning how to have balance in our lives. There is no debating the deleterious effects of traumas on human development. But the effects of traumas are not the only thing that interferes with our ability to soothe ourselves and better regulate our emotional reactions. What seems to have been missed are the effects of what Bill Wilson called “absolute dependency” or what I like to refer to as “emotional dependency.” In fact emotional dependency may ultimately mediate our reaction to traumas.

Doesn’t it seem strange that so little has been written about such an important topic? Maybe it’s because it is difficult for us to collectively face this issue. Emotional dependency makes it impossible to feel at peace, to feel balanced, and to be emotional stable. Emotional dependency interferes with our ability to have healthy relationships. It’s like a cancer that destroys our recovery and damages our relationships. It turns a good relationship into a bad one. It makes us highly sensitive and reactive to events in our lives. We end up taking things personally. As Bill Wilson stated this fatal flaw must be cut away, just like a surgical oncologist removes a cancerous organ, if we are ever going to achieve emotional sobriety.

This is the major focus of my new book. I want to help you become aware of your emotional dependency and how it is affecting your life, your recovery and your relationships. You cannot change something that you are unaware of. So the first step is to become aware of your emotional dependency and the expectations and demands that accompany this state of mind.

Once you become aware of your emotional dependency the next step is to learn how to hold on to yourself or keep your emotional center of gravity within. To accomplish this goal I suggest several different strategies, perspectives and technologies. You see holding on to yourself is the cure for emotional dependency. It is the key that unlocks our ability to integrate the powerful spiritual principles that we have learned in recovery. Who is the audience? Anyone at any stage of their recovery who wants to strengthen the foundation to their recovery and learn some new ways of managing their ongoing vulnerability to addiction. This book will also speak to the experience of members of Alanon or Adult Children of Alcoholics who are struggling with holding on to themselves while remaining in a relationship with an alcoholic or other drug dependent addict.


What are some of the FAQs surrounding this subject that are answered in my new book?
• What is emotional sobriety?
• How do I achieve emotional sobriety?
• How are emotional sobriety and emotional maturity related?
• Bill W. identified “absolute dependency” as interfering with his ability to achieve emotional sobriety. What was Bill dependent on and how did that affect his life?
• How can I tell how emotionally dependent I am?
• What can I do to work on my emotional sobriety? What are some discussion questions relevant to each assignment that readers might want to consider and discuss?

Assignment 1:
• What did you identify with in Bill’s letter to his friend?
• How high or low is your level of emotional differentiation?
• How does differentiation relate to Dr. Perls’ idea of being self-supportive?
• What events or situations are you most reactive to?
• What was the level of emotional differentiation like in your family during your childhood?
• What is the level of emotional differentiation in your current relationship or family?
• What are the similarities and differences between then and now?
• How has recovery affected your level of emotional differentiation?
• What are the unhealthy demands and unreasonable expectations your emotional dependency creates? Can you identify them? How do these affect your relationships? Your recovery? Your self-esteem?
• What is your dominant way of dealing with your emotional dependency? Do you move towards people, against people or away from people?

Assignment 2:
• What was the most painful example of when you let someone edit your reality? What happened? What did you do? How did you cope with your pain and disappointment?
• What is the best way for you to stop letting other people edit your reality?
• What was the last thing you took personally? How does the AA related concept of “contempt prior to investigation” relate to taking things personally?
• How can you catch yourself taking things personally?
• What part of yourself do you tend to project?
• Who was the last person that you couldn’t stand? What was it about them that you didn’t like? Do you see that characteristic in your behavior?

Assignment 3:
• How well do your confront yourself or pull your own covers?
• What stops your from taking more responsibility for your life?
• How does emotional dependency factor into taking total responsibility for your feelings, your behavior, and your self-esteem?
• Who do you pressure to change in your life? What do you want them to change? What do you imagine would happen if you stopped pressuring them to change and instead focused on what you need to change to feel better about the relationship?
• What emotion causes you the most difficulty?
• What have you done to try to get a better handle on this feeling?
• What is the next developmental step you need to take in your life?
• Describe a very difficult situation in your life. Can you find something to appreciate in this situation?
• Describe a resentment you currently have? Can you find something to appreciate in the resentment?
• Describe a loss that you have experienced. Can you find something to appreciate in the loss?

Assignment 4:
• When you are hurt or upset, how do you do to comfort yourself?
• How has your recovery helped you develop a personal compass in your life?
• The Ninth Step Promises indicate that we will intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us. How has this manifested itself in your life?
• How do you respond to conflict or tension in your relationship?
• What perspective would you need to take in order to see the tension in your relationship as an opportunity for you to work on your emotional sobriety?
• What would it mean to you if you started to look at the real problem as how you cope with a situation rather than the problem being the problem?
• Emotional sobriety creates emotional resilience. This means that we can stay clean and sober regardless of a difficult situation or circumstance, regardless of health or illness, regardless of success or failure. Is your recovery this stable, do you have this kind of faith in yourself? What idea would you need to give up to have this kind of faith in your recovery?