5 Secrets of Successful Recovering Addicts and Alcoholics

5 Secrets of Successful Recovering Addicts and Alcoholics

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Yesterday we looked at how to explain the recovery process to a struggling addict or alcoholic (in order to hopefully allay any fears they may have). Today we want to look at some of the secrets of successful recovering addicts and alcoholics, so that we can better learn what actions to take in addiction recovery, and what is the difference between relapse and continuous sobriety.

Secret of success #1: They surrender fully.

This is the like a prerequisite for recovery. If you do not surrender fully then you can’t even get in to see the show, at all.

I have two distinct experiences that prove this “secret” to me. The first is my own experience in attempting to get clean and sober. I went rehab three times in my life–the first two times were for the wrong reasons. The first two times I went to treatment I was not doing it for myself, and I had not really surrendered fully to my disease. I was not, at the time, willing to do “whatever it takes” in order to recover. I was just barely willing to give rehab a chance. This is the wrong attitude and therefore you will not succeed in achieving long term sobriety if this is your level of surrender. The third time that I attended rehab, things were different. This time I was devastated, completely worn out and done in by my addiction. I wanted out, I wanted something different, I wanted to stop being so miserable all the time. This is true surrender, and that is what made all the difference. So when I went to rehab for the third time, I was not holding on to any sort of control. I did not have any reservations about how I might just say “screw sobriety” if the right excuse came along. I did not have any qualms about going to long term rehab, living in a treatment center, living in transitional housing in order to recover, or any sort of limitations like that. This is in stark contrast to the first two times I attended treatment, when I had all sorts of reservations and limitations in my mind that I was determined to be in control of (live in rehab? no way! etc.).

So that is my first piece of evidence–I myself had to surrender fully in order to finally “get” recovery. Until I was able to let go of the need to control, I could not make any sort of progress in my recovery journey. I had to let go absolutely. I had to truly let go of everything.

My second piece of evidence for this point comes in the form of observation. I lived in a long term rehab for a period of 20 months when I first got clean and sober, and had the opportunity to watch about 30 or 40 other recovering addicts and alcoholics who all lived with me at that time. In addition to this, I also worked at a treatment center that had a detox, short term, and long term residential unit in it, and I worked there for over 5 years. So I got the chance to watch a whole lot of people who were trying to recover. Most of them failed and a very small few succeeded. This is true of both the short term and the long term groups of people (to be honest, from what I observed casually, the long term rehab people relapsed just as much as the short term folks did).

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Now what was amazing when I lived and worked in rehab was that you could not help but sort of get to know the newcomers and predict in your mind if they were going to “make it” or not. We could not help but do this a bit and we even discussed it at times (is that terrible or what? Trying to figure out who was serious enough to really stay sober, and who was instead destined for relapse). This is what happens when you stick twelve guys into the smoke room of a long term treatment center. They talk. It is human nature. And a lot of this talk was about who was going to “make it” and who was not. That’s just the way it was.

Well, I was amazed at how lousy I was at predicting sobriety in other people. We were all bad at it. Looking back I can see that this is because we were judging the wrong thing. We were judging confidence and also how well someone spoke of recovery during meetings. So if someone loved to talk and if they were pretty good at making a nice little speech, we tended to believe that such a person would do well, simply because they sounded good in the AA and NA meetings.

This is a poor predictor of recovery! Looking back now that is obvious. For example, no one would have ever predicted that I would have stayed sober for over ten years–I never really even spoke during meetings! I was quiet and withdrawn and so most people would have guessed that I was not “passionate enough about recovery” and that I would eventually relapse. Really I can’t blame them for this, I would have guessed the same thing about someone similar.

But that is what I learned over those first few years of my recovery–you cannot predict someone’s success based on these external factors. What really matters is inside, and that is mostly their level of surrender.

And I started to learn this, and to see it more clearly after a few years. I got a bit better at predicting which newcomer was really serious about recovery. It was not the people who talked a great game in the AA meetings (necessarily). Instead, it was the people who were so beat down by their disease that they would barely hold their head up. This was the hallmark of future success, or at least it was someone who had a chance at long term sobriety. Someone who had really surrendered.

And it also became much easier to predict who was destined for relapse. I’m sorry to be so darn cynical but what can you expect for a bunch of guys who lived in a treatment center for multiple years, and saw thousands of people come through short term rehab and attend the same 12 step meetings that they attended? We watched the newcomers flow through and then we watched the results unfold. Some made it and most did not. So we formed opinions about what works and what does not work in recovery.

Those who were destined for relapse were too cocky. This became easier and easier to see over time. People who had too much confidence were doomed to relapse. People who had all the answers were doomed to relapse.

Later on when I was working at the rehab, I could pretty easily pick out when someone was destined for relapse. They were easy to spot because they were hanging on to something. When I say that they were “hanging on to something” what I mean is that they were struggling to control something. Control what? Anything. Doesn’t matter what it was. They might be all worked up or worried that they needed to have certain privileges while in treatment, or access to their cell phone, or whatever. If they were trying to hard to control something, or if they were too worried about trying to control a certain thing, then they were doomed to failure. You have to let go of everything.


This is what real surrender is. You let go absolutely. You let go of everything. Stop struggling for control.

It’s like if you were clinging for dear life to the side of a very high cliff, and someone told you to “just let go and magical angels will catch you below with this big safety net.” Would you let go, or cling to the cliff side out of fear? Success in recovery is just like that. You do not get to even TRY to recover until you let go of that cliff side completely, pushing yourself out into thin air with complete abandon. It is like dumping out the rest of your booze or dumping your pills into a toilet and then walking straight into a rehab and saying “OK, I’m here, I will do whatever you tell me to do, without any struggle or hesitation.” That is true surrender. It’s like jumping off a cliff.

Most of the thousands of people that I watched in treatment, they were still clinging to the side of the cliff. They were not ready to jump. Part of them wanted to be clean and sober, but they were still holding on to something. They could not, and had not, let go absolutely. They were hanging on to control. Some piece of themselves that they still wanted to control.

The secret is to jump off the cliff. Ask for help and then take the advice with complete abandon.

Secret of success #2: They ask for help.

This kind of goes along with the “secret of surrender,” but it is still a necessary step in the recovery process.

You gotta ask for help. Plain and simple.

The reason that this is so critical is because we can not do it alone. If you could then you would not really be an “addict” or an “alcoholic” at all. Instead you would just be someone who had a temporary drug or drinking problem who later moved on with their life. No big deal, carry on, just decided not to drink or use drugs any more one day, etc. This is not addiction or alcoholism, this someone who walked away from a drug or alcohol problem. Big difference.

No, real addiction requires outside help–this is what defines it as being an addiction. The person cannot stop under their own power. Therefore they are addicted and therefore they need help in order to stop abusing drugs or alcohol and change their life for the better.

This requires new information. The struggling addict or alcoholic has been trying to live the best life that they know how and to be as happy as possible given what they know. This has led them to misery and disaster at the hands of their addiction. What they know was not enough to produce real happiness. For that they need NEW information. They cannot get this information from themselves, they have tried to do so over and over again. They need new information and that must come from outside of themselves.

Really this is not so much about what someone must learn in order to get clean and sober, because really there is no great mystery there. All you have to do is to stop putting chemicals into your body. Any addict or alcoholic can technically figure this out without any outside help.

The problem is in the implementation. How do you transition to sobriety without climbing the walls or going crazy with frustration? How do you manage to live with yourself, cope with stress, have any fun ever again–without using your drug of choice? These are the REAL questions that require outside help. Everyone knows how to achieve sobriety, that just requires abstinence. But the newcomer in recovery needs to know more than that–they need to know how to deal with life, sober. This is the real information that they need, that they cannot just get from their own ideas.

To some extent, this is information that you cannot learn and implement just by reading it in books, either. This point is debatable. Some would argue that this is why AA meetings are necessary, so that you can learn from real people and talk about the details of how to implement recovery strategy in the real world. Face to face contact goes a long way in sorting out problems. Connecting with others emotionally can happen in meetings and you can also relate better to others, realizing that you are not alone, that others have conquered addiction, etc.

You can’t just surrender. You have to surrender and then ask for help.

Secret of success #3: They follow through.

While I was living in long term rehab I got the chance to watch a whole lot of people relapse, who should have known better. These were people who were living in long term treatment, but for some reason they still managed to screw things up and thus they relapsed while living in treatment (and thus got kicked out).

The people who succeeded are the ones who followed through. The people who relapsed had always failed to follow through.

Now this begs the question:

“Followed through with what?”

And I would say that they answer to this is:

“Followed through on recovery. Followed through on taking positive action. Followed through on taking suggestions.”

When you ask for help and then you act on that advice, you are following through.

When you ask for help and then you do what you are told to do, you are following through.

If you ask for help and then go to rehab, you are starting out on the right path. But then what happens if you go to rehab and the counselors tell you that you need long term rehab? This is what happened to me the second time I attended treatment. I was not willing to attend long term rehab at that time and so I did not follow through.

I asked for help but then I did not follow the advice. Bad idea. This led to relapse.

The secret to success is to follow through when people give you advice. Remember, you need new information in order to recover. If you ignore advice then you are not able to learn anything new.

Secret of success #4: They embrace recovery and engage heavily, with full immersion into their new life.

This is another secret that I learned through careful observation. I watched thousands of people attempt to recover from addiction and alcoholism. There was almost always a direct correlation with their level of involvement in recovery as to how well they did in the long run.

You could always tell someone who was headed for relapse because they were constantly looking for a way to minimize the amount of work that they had to put into recovery. “I have to go to how many meetings?” This is the wrong attitude. Such a person should just go back out there and face their addiction and get some more pain and misery in their life, because they are clearly not ready to recover yet. Not even close.

No, when you are really ready for recovery, you will embrace it and dive head first into the new lifestyle. You will not hold back or worry about how much time you have to spend working on your new life. At the point of real surrender, you will realize that it does not matter–it is either recover or die. You will not be trying to weasel out of meetings or treatment or somehow minimize the amount of work you have to do. Such people are still hanging on to something, still struggling for control. You have to let go of all of that completely, and just embrace the new life, embrace recovery, embrace a new solution.

I had to dive head first into recovery in order to make it work for me. In AA they say “half measures availed us nothing.” Absolutely true.

Secret of success #5: They beat complacency by embracing personal growth

People who succeed in long term recovery have a special obstacle that they have to overcome: complacency.

The biggest threat to long term sobriety is complacency. This is what happens when you get stuck in a routine in your recovery and get a bit lazy. Addiction can sneak back in under many different disguises.

There really is no way to react to a problem like complacency, because by the time you realize it and react it is generally too late. Instead, the better method is to use a proactive approach.

Recovery is all about change. In particular, we would have that such changes are positive. Of course, it is up to you to define “positive,” but I would argue that positive changes are healthy changes. When you create positive change in your life, it should make you healthier in some way–either physically, emotionally (lower stress), spiritually, socially, etc.

I have seen a few people in long term recovery who have relapsed (or relapsed and died) due to complacency. Yes, it really can be that deadly, so it makes sense to take a proactive approach against it. You have to have a plan, and your plan should involve continuous growth.

If you get lazy in recovery and decide to just coast for a while and not try to make any serious growth, then this is sliding in to complacency. This is the slow and slippery path towards possible relapse.

The key then is to find balance in your recovery, and embrace a cycle of continuous growth. Embrace a process of growth, evaluation, and reflection. It is OK to take a break from the constant push to improve yourself. You can, at times, just “be you” in recovery, and be perfectly OK with who you are and where you are at.

After a time though you should get that itch. The itch to look deeply into your life, and find something to fix, or to work on. Are we really so perfect that we can never again make any improvements in our lives? I think not! We all have room to grow, and we must never close this door entirely.

The final “secret” then is to stay open to new opportunities for personal growth. You can pause and reflect for a time, but at some point you should look ahead to your next challenge, your next learning experience. This is the cycle of continuous growth that prevents relapse. You will not relapse if you are in the midst of pursuing personal growth.

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