Eternal Vigilance is Required to Stay Sober


The first known person to use the “eternal vigilance” quote—in that wording—was Wendell Phillips, speaking to the Massachusetts Antislavery Society in 1852. It follows that vigilance in sobriety follows the same vein as the quotes below. The sentiment is at least as old as the Founding Fathers:

  • “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”   –Benjamin Franklin, 1759
  • “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”   –Thomas Paine, 1777
  • “We are likely to preserve the liberty we have obtained only by unremitting labors and perils.”   –Thomas Jefferson, 1796

Many others since have expressed the same idea: you can’t win your freedom once and take it easy from then on. Throughout this life, there will be temptations to get overconfident and lazy because “everything’s fine now”; and those who take that route are left unprepared for new crises and are likely to do the wrong thing when crises materialize. Know that vigilance in sobriety can keep you on the right path and reinforce your freedom.

I Made It! (But Only Temporarily?)

Last week we looked at some of the struggles involved in making a commitment to recover from substance abuse and in getting through the early months. The recovering addict’s best friend is a solid hope of achieving a life that is not only substance-free but purposeful. Vigilance in sobriety will bring about a life suited to an individual’s unique self; busy with things that are personally fulfilling; working daily toward a higher cause for which one feels a special passion.

Still, the best passions can lose their edge after months of serious effort with little rest and no major triumphs. The “work” part of “work for a higher cause” begins elbowing the cause aside for primary position. Life slides back into patterns of finishing to-do lists for their own sake and finding everything pointless and tedious.

Or, conversely, we may “succeed” in our passion. The project draft becomes reality; the long-fought-for law is passed; the new patent brings us money for the rest of our lives. It seems that our struggles are over forever and we can finally relax. And then we realize: we have twenty-five or forty-five years of life expectancy remaining, and nothing seems left for those years but to idle them away. Fun (for a while), perhaps, but not exactly fulfilling.

Either way, the long-forgotten relapse temptation begins digging its way out of the grave—and we’re ill-prepared to confront it.

I Thought I Left You Behind!

At this point, the long-sober person may be in worse danger than the one struggling through early sobriety. The newly recovering addict knows all too well how vulnerable he is; he’s regularly in touch with his support network; and he understands instinctively that recovery from relapse is a simple matter of getting up and getting back on the right path. But for someone who’s been sober a year or several, and no longer shoves aside the temptation on a daily basis, the rationale “I’m fine now” kicks in easily. There are new things to keep up with, and there’d be more room for them without weekly support meetings and self-inventories. Why bother “learning” things you already know backwards and forwards?

Unfortunately, vigilance in sobriety isn’t like swimming or bicycling, where your body instinctively remembers the right movements years after the last time. Sobriety is more like eating and sleeping and exercising—if you don’t do it on an extremely regular basis, the benefits disappear. It’s addiction that’s a never-forget habit; even after ten or twenty years, the addict’s body still activates a “gotta have more” reaction after “just one drink.” Worse, the addict who relapses after a long period is likely to have a harder time recovering his footing as he finds himself on his own. He’s lost touch with his old support network—and even if he knows where they are, his pride cringes at the thought of crawling back and admitting he thought he didn’t need them anymore.

Eternal Vigilance in Sobriety

That’s one reason Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Steps groups give awards to active members, not only after three and six and twelve months of sobriety, but after five and ten and twenty and even fifty years. (The AA record for “sober the rest of his life” is 64 years.) The first rule of the eternal vigilance that protects freedom is: Remember the worst you were capable of. Counterintuitive as it may sound, people who recognize their vulnerability to temptation are less likely to give in to it than are those who bask in the pride of being “above” such things. Overconfidence is what leads many people to the tragic consequences of ignoring warnings and barriers.

That said, another major rule of vigilance is: Never define yourself by your weakest points. There’s a difference between having the sense to stop for red lights and not even daring to get behind the wheel. You may be an alcoholic in the sense of forever carrying the one-drink domino effect in your body chemistry, but you are not “just a drunk.” You are a capable, intelligent survivor who was made for better things.

The other rules of vigilance in sobriety are:

  • Stay in touch with your support system—your human supporters at least weekly, your Higher Power every day. Instead of considering it a chore, concentrate on how much you enjoy their companionship.
  • Be open with your support system. This is where all masks should come off. Remember, it takes a stronger person to be honest about struggles than to pretend they don’t exist. No support system will reject you for showing weakness; chances are they’ve seen the same weakness dozens of times in as many other people.
  • Take regular personal inventory, semi-monthly at least, preferably weekly or even daily. Again, this is not a waste of time; it’s saving your future time from being thrown away due to increased weakness.
  • Correct mistakes now, not later. The extra baggage of guilt and hard feelings may not feel like much initially, but over the not-so-long run it will weigh you down and increase your vulnerability. Apologizing is hard on the pride—especially when you feel it wasn’t all your fault—but the relief of a clear conscience is worth it.

Once again: lifelong vigilance is the price of liberty from substance abuse. But all things considered, the price isn’t so high. You’re buying insurance not only against relapse, but against the boredom and lack of fulfillment inherent in the so-called easy life.