How does an addict or an alcoholic actually make the change in their life and become clean and sober?
What is the process that they have to go through? What triggers the change? What creates the moment of surrender?
And, how can family and friends of an addict or alcoholic push them closer to this point of surrender? How can they encourage the addict to take action to change their life?
If you are an addict or alcoholic, or you know one who is struggling to get clean and sober, then read on to find out some of the hard answers (hint: there are no easy shortcuts, but there is some hope!).
Let’s take an in-depth look at the process of early recovery, and some possible suggestions that might help people out:
* Spiraling out of control
* Hitting bottom
* Motivation through pain
* Becoming willing
* The moment of surrender
* Taking action
* Following through
* Finding the path
* Creating a new life
* Suggestions for friends and family
* Should you do an intervention?
* I am an addict or an alcoholic. What should I do?
Spiraling out of control
This is the “point of no return,” when things start to get really bad for the addict or alcoholic. In my opinion this is a mental shift. As someone who lived through the process of being addicted to drugs and alcohol, I can recall many moments of desperation where I felt trapped, and had convinced myself that the only solution for me was to continue to medicate with drugs and alcohol.
For one thing, this internal decision had to do with the “uniqueness” factor. I believed, as many addicts do, that I was unique in my complete and total love for getting high. I figured that other addicts and alcoholics who could sober up must not be like me, because they do not love drugs as much as I did. This was my reasoning, anyway, and a big part of why I continued to justify my using.
In speaking with others in recovery, I know that this feeling of being unique in our love for getting drunk/high is not unusual for an addict. This is a very common symptom of addiction. Unfortunately, simply telling the addict that they are NOT unique in their love of drugs does very little to actually change their mind about it. But it is still important to acknowledge “the unique factor” so that you can gain a better understanding of just how trapped the addict might be feeling.
Now when an addict is spiraling out of control, they will eventually have to acknowledge that their life is turning into a mess. This is because at some point, the consequences become too large to ignore. But don’t be surprised if the addict sees little connection with their drug use, even in the face of heavy consequences! They might still be hanging on to excuses, and blaming others for the things that have become screwed up in their life. This of course is denial.
Further down the road, the addict may eventually have to acknowledge that it is, in fact, the drugs or the alcohol that is at the root of their problem. I have been at that point and still not become willing to change. This is another level of denial. To admit that the drugs are your problem, but still being too afraid to try sobriety. It is possible to be stuck in this phase as well.
For example, I knew I had reached a point where I could no longer control my drinking. I knew I was a real, true, full blown alcoholic. There was no more denying it. But I was still too scared (for a while) to do anything about it. I was stuck (in fear). I was too afraid to ask for help. Too afraid to go back to rehab.
When does an addict actually hit bottom?
It is actually sort of a mystery because it can only be observed in retrospect. Someone who finally surrendered to their disease of addiction can later look back and say “Yes, that was when I hit bottom right there.”
Maybe it was yet another night spent in jail. Maybe it was getting busted for drugs and having the children taken away. There are a million different bottoms out there for different people, and obviously it is going to vary quite a bit.
One important thing to remember is that some people never reach their bottom, and they just keep using until they are dead. Had they stopped at some point, and said “Wow, I have really hit bottom this time. I should try living a different way,” then they might still be around. It does happen.
So what is the key to helping a struggling addict recognize their bottom? Is it even possible to do so?
If you speak with people in recovery about what their bottom was like, you start to get a better picture of what to expect. About half the people who sobered up will tell you that they had an actual event in which they recognized their bottom. For example, they were sitting in jail after another DUI. Or they ruined a family gathering because they were so intoxicated. Some event occurred that made them realize that they had to make a change.
But it is significant to point out that the other half of the people who sobered up and finally “got” recovery did not have any such event to create this bottom for them. They might have had consequences throughout their addiction, but they did not have a major event or a major consequence push them into recovery.
So it can work both ways. But a crisis event can be an opportunity for some. Facing real consequences can wake some addicts up. But then again, it might not.
Pretty much any intervention, either formal or informal, is an attempt to convince an addict that they are at their bottom, and it is time to make a change. We will take a look at this in a moment.
Motivation through pain
You want to know the truth about what motivates a struggling addict or alcoholic to change? Go ask an expert who has been in Al-anon for several years.
“Pain is what motivates the addict,” they will tell you. “When the pain of continuing to drink becomes greater than the pain of making a change, the addict will change.”
I could see this equation working out in my own life, right before finally surrendering to my disease. I was lonely, and bored with my life, and I wanted the drugs and alcohol to make it fun and exciting for me–even if temporarily. So I bought some very strong liquor (151 proof) and proceeded to drink and use drugs.
Was I in pain? Not any physical pain, no. But I still had a strong need to medicate my emotions because I was battling loneliness at the time. And it wasn’t working. The drugs and the booze were not working. They were not producing fun for me. I could not get to that “happy place.” I knew that if I continued to drink the liquor, that I would eventually either black out, or pass out, but neither one of them was really what I wanted. I wanted to be happy. And it just wasn’t working.
What did it take for me to realize that it was no longer working? Why did I realize it then, at that moment, when I could have discovered this at an earlier point in time? I can speculate a few reasons:
1) I was temporarily lonely, and I was comfortable being in a (dysfunctional) relationship with someone who was on vacation with family for a few weeks.
2) I was depressed and isolated, and normally I was not isolated. This may have been enough to push me over that “pain threshold.”
3) I was forced to look at myself, and examine my life for what it had become. I could not blame others, because the “others” were on vacation. I had no useful distraction from myself.
4) I was alone, and I had money, and even had a few friends around, and I thought: “I should be able to produce happiness in this situation. I should be able to feel good in this freedom.” Of course I was miserable, and had plenty of strong drugs and alcohol, and yet I could not achieve anything like happiness.
So this was the state of being when I was forced to admit that I did not know how to live. Using my best ideas about having fun, achieving happiness, and being content, I was still miserable. And it was not for lack of resources. I had no one else to blame. I was forced to admit that I had orchestrated my own misery.
The moment of surrender is when the addict becomes willing. Willing to do what?
Willing to try something different. Willing to go to rehab. Willing to try anything that sounds even remotely reasonable.
If there is a lot of hesitation at this point then the addict may not be truly ready to change. They may not have hit their bottom yet.
For example: “Oh, I am ready to change my life and quit drinking, but I’m not going to that particular treatment center.”
Or “I’m willing to stop using drugs, but I can go to outpatient therapy to get help for this, rather than what you are suggesting.”
Or “I do want to stop using drugs, but I am not going to any meetings or group therapy.”
Of course all of these examples have that ring of classic denial to them. The fact is, 99 percent of the time, family and friends just want what is best for the addict, and 99 percent of the time, they have a better idea of “what’s best” then the addict does.
If the addict in question is struggling against this collective wisdom, then it is a sure sign of denial. If they are not fully willing to engage in any reasonable request, then they are probably not yet ready to change.
You will know when the addict has become willing, because they will become open to any suggestion about getting them professional help. They will not be fighting the ideas about rehab, or meetings, or counseling, and so on.
The reason it is important to hit bottom first is so that the addict realizes that their problems are of their own making. If they do not have this level of humility, then they will not be open to suggestions about how to fix their life.
For an addict, willingness is saying: “I am completely out of control and I do not know how to live. Please help me.” Anything less than that and they are hanging on to a shred of denial, and they are still fighting to control their addiction and their life. They must let go absolutely in order to find real change.
The moment of surrender
This is what Alcoholics Anonymous refers to as “the turning point.” The addict stops fighting and something drops away from them. They cease to struggle. They come to realize that they do not want the future pain of using more drugs and alcohol. They have accepted the idea of change, and fear, and the unknown instead. They have suddenly become open to facing that fear, rather than to continue to endure more pain.
They see their addiction for what it really is, and how it is leading them nowhere. They admit that it is no longer fun to use drugs and to drink. They accept that it will never be fun again.
And they accept the idea that they need help in order to recover. That they must ask someone else for direction. They admit that they need instructions for how to live better.
What actions produce success in recovery?
Is there a magic formula for success? Are there certain treatment centers that have substantially higher success rates?
Are there certain recovery programs that are better than others? Are religious based programs successful?
Can you say to an addict “Do this, and you will stay clean. Follow these directions, and you cannot fail.”
Do any of these details really matter?
All good questions. To get the answers, we have to take a look at what actually works for people in recovery.
Imagine that you took this list of questions and asked them of 100 addicts and alcoholics who are already living in recovery. What do their answers tell us?
If you do this experiment you will find that people find success through different programs, and through different recovery strategies.
For example, there are some who find success in 12 step programs. But there are some who go see an individual therapist twice a week, and they have achieved recovery without using groups at all. And there are some people who have found success using religious based programs. And so on.
So it does not necessarily make sense to limit ourselves to one program, or one path in recovery. This flies in the face of all available evidence. To say that an addict must find recovery through one specific method, and cannot be allowed to explore alternatives, is too constricting.
However, the moment of surrender does not lend itself to choice. An addict who is designing their own recovery program on their first day clean does not have good odds. So it makes sense to get people into a program of some sort–any program–and let the details get sorted out later. Professional help of any sort is better than the addict trying to design their own recovery. The lesson here is to get help quickly without being too picky, especially if the addict is at the point of surrender and is willing.
Most of the addiction help out there is abstinence based. They spin you dry and sober you up and get you off drugs and then they try to teach you how to live without going back to your old ways. There are a million and one ways to try and teach people how to live sober, but the process of early recovery remains fairly consistent.
The way that alcoholics stay sober at 5 years of sobriety and later might differ quite a bit from person to person, but the way that they get clean and sober is going to be somewhat similar. In the beginning, we all had to stop using drugs and alcohol. We all had to find a way to put the bottle down. Early recovery is actually quite simple. Don’t put drugs and alcohol into your body, one day at a time.
In other words, early recovery is pretty standard. Go to 100 different treatment centers, and you will see that the process of early recovery remains fairly consistent.
So then: What actions produce success in early recovery?
Based on my own experience, and on my observations, it is not what you do in recovery that produces the results, but rather it is the intensity.
For example, going to rehab never worked for me. But going to long term rehab and really getting serious about recovery produced awesome results for me. In particular, I did the following:
1) Lived in long term rehab for 20 months.
2) Started networking heavily with others in recovery, and basically dropped all of my old using friends immediately.
3) Started pushing myself to grow as a person, both through the help of a professional therapist, and through a sponsor in recovery.
4) Completely immersed myself in recovery, and started seeking a spiritual path in my life.
Those were the basics for me in early recovery. Later on, I had to shift my strategy drastically in order to keep growing in my recovery.
But the key is to take action. I would go a step further and say that the key is to take massive action, especially if you are in very early recovery.
Don’t just go to rehab or hit a 12 step meeting…..do these things with intensity. Dedicate your life to recovery. Quit your job for a while. Focus on learning how to live sober.
It is all about action. What are you actually going to do for your recovery? Thoughts and intentions count for nothing. All that matters are your actions.
The specifics will differ among addicts. Some might find success through church, some through therapy sessions, some through rehab, some through 12 step meetings, and so on.
The details are not the key. The details are not where the magic happens.
What is important is the follow-through. The dedication. The commitment to recovery. This is what I mean when I say “taking massive action.”
If the addict tries to “incorporate a recovery program into their life,” it will never work.
They have to live it. This is massive action. The addict must incorporate recovery into every moment of their life. And everything they do should become relevant to their recovery.
Recovery becomes their whole life, at least at first. Early recovery demands it.
Anything less seems to lead to relapse.
So, don’t just take action. Take massive action.
How does the addict follow through in early recovery? This is a stumbling point for many, and plenty of addicts and alcoholics struggle to get to that point of living in “long term sobriety.”
So what is the key to making this transition? How does an addict move past the stage of chronic relapse? How do they break out of their cycle?
To me the answer to this question is obvious: change.
The addict has to change in recovery. Of course, everyone knows that the struggling addict or alcoholic has to change in order to get clean and sober. But what most people do not realize is that the recovering addict or alcoholic has to change, even while living in long term recovery, if they are to remain clean and sober.
Why is this?
The reason that recovery demands change is because getting sober is nothing like staying sober. Having 30 days clean is nothing like having 3 years clean. And neither is anything like having 10 years clean.
When we first get clean, it is all we can do to hang on and make it through early recovery. We take support however we can get it. We tough it out and do what we can to make it to that one year mark.
But later on, this no longer works. Why? Because we are changing and growing in recovery. It becomes less about support, and more about growth. We start to become the person we were supposed to be, before we got diverted with drugs and alcohol. And this transition demands a different approach than what we used at 30 days clean.
Those who do not evolve and push themselves to grow in recovery end up relapsing. They refer to this as “complacency.”
Again, the details are not what drives this problem. You can be in a 12 step program, or a religious based program, or some form of therapy, and fall into complacency. Or you can be in any of those programs and rise to the challenge and continue to grow in your recovery.
This is how the addict follows through after early recovery and transitions into long term sobriety. They start living the life they were really meant to live, using their unique talents and skills to reach out to others in different ways. They become the person they were meant to be. For the religiously inclined, they are now doing God’s will, allowing themselves to be used as an instrument of God, to do his work. This might be volunteering in a homeless shelter, running a drug rehab, coaching troubled teens, or even rescuing animals. (Remember, the details don’t matter so much…..it is the action behind them that is important).
Finding the path
How does an addict take a recovery program and make it their own? How do they come to explore their own spiritual path in recovery?
Go ask 50 addicts in recovery and you will get 50 different answers. And this is the beauty of recovery–that it is both powerful and flexible.
For example, I have a friend in recovery who is very involved with 12 step recovery and sponsorship. He has almost 10 years of sobriety and has definitely found a path in recovery that works for him.
I have another friend in recovery who is also approaching 10 years of continuous sobriety, and he has left the rooms of traditional recovery (long ago) and is now an active member of a church community. Again, this is a path that works for him.
And I have seen others who have found non-traditional paths in recovery. But the path can be “traditional” as well, and still work out great for a person. It is all about your passion and enthusiasm, and less about the details.
In my opinion, our path in recovery is dictated by how our strengths and talents can best be used to serve the world. If you are not yet living your best life, using your gifts to help others, then you have not yet found the path.
Creating a new life
What exactly does it mean to create a new life in recovery? How does the recovering addict find meaning and purpose, when all they have come to know is getting high?
This can vary from addict to addict, obviously. But the key is in the term “creating.” The addict must shape a new life for themselves with action. It will not fall into their lap, just because they are not drinking and using drugs anymore.
Some addicts are literally discovering sober living as a brand new experience, because they started using drugs and alcohol at such a young age. For them, they have never known any kind of “normal life.”
For other addicts, they may have experience in life when they were basically healthy and not addicted and living in chaos. So they may have more of a reference point to look back on, and this can help guide them in creating a new life.
But the bottom line is that the addict cannot just stop using drugs and then drift aimlessly through recovery. Without a purpose, without some concrete goals, without something to push themselves towards and to put their energy into, they will not be able to keep growing continuously. Complacency is a lack of creative energy. Coasting through recovery without pushing yourself to achieve anything of significance is a recipe for relapse.
The life of creation is a life of action. Building a new life for yourself takes a lot of energy and effort.
Suggestions for friends and family
So what can you do if you are the friends, family, or loved ones of the struggling addict or alcoholic? How can you reach out and help them? How can you push them towards taking action?
Lots of tough questions, and no easy answers. Dealing with addiction is tough, and on top of that, it is not fair. The disease just plain sucks. It destroys relationships, without permission.
As such, my number one suggestion to folks is always to go to an Al-anon meeting. If you go to one and you don’t like it, go find a completely different one in another town or city. This is probably one of the best outlets for anyone who is struggling in dealing with a loved one’s addiction. There are a number of advantages to Al-anon as a solution:
* It is free. You can attend meetings and they do not expect any fee from you for doing so. You can donate to help keep the meetings alive if you so choose.
* There is real support there at the meetings. This is the real strength behind the Al-anon program. You will meet others who have gone through exactly what you are going through, and who have learned how to deal with another’s addiction. The level of support you can get from this type of interaction probably cannot be found elsewhere, at least not easily. In other words, Al-anon makes it easy to connect with the exact type of support that you need. The people there can identify with you.
* It is fairly widespread and can be found pretty much all over. There may not be meetings every single night but you will likely have access to one or two each week at the minimum.
Now anyone who is struggling with an addict or alcoholic in their life could read for hours on end on the internet about how to cope, but walking into one Al-anon meeting and sharing openly with the people there is probably going to be at least twice as powerful as anything you can learn online. This is because you will be getting real feedback from real people who can listen directly to your story.
So there are a few other suggestions you can follow but if you ignore this one about going to Al-anon then that sort of puts you at a huge disadvantage. It is worthwhile just to gain some perspective and to identify with others out there and know that you are not alone in dealing with addicted persons.
Should you do an intervention?
Many people have seen the television show called “Intervention” and they wonder if they should try to organize an intervention to help their loved one who is struggling.
Just like everything regarding addiction, there is no easy answer to this one either. But here are some guidelines that you might consider if you are trying to decide if you should do a formal intervention or not:
* Have you tried to do several informal confrontations first? An intervention should follow a logical progression and be sort of like a last ditch effort. Before going through with one, you should have tried numerous times to get the addict to take action on your own, through less formal confrontations. You might also suggest to other friends and family members to speak with the addict first, before you try to organize anything formal.
* Do you think that the person is going to be willing to take action? Sometimes people are stuck in denial and they are nowhere near surrender. Who is really a good candidate for a formal intervention? Anyone who has been living in pain and misery for a while. If someone is still having fun with drugs and alcohol, an intervention is a bad idea. They are not going to be ready for the idea of change if they are still basically having fun in their addiction. It is only after experiencing misery and pain for a while that they will consider the idea of massive change.
* Do you have a good goal mapped out for the intervention? It does no good to get the addict to agree to change, if you don’t have a plan of action lined up. For most situations this is going to mean having a trip to rehab all planned out in advance. It helps to make the calls in advance and have a detox bed waiting for the person. This way the intervention has a clear goal and it then becomes easy to define the success of it. Either they agree to go check in or they do not. The appointment is made. Not next week, or next month, but do it now and change your life by going to treatment…..
So basically you want to exhaust your options first before you decide to organize a formal (and sometimes costly) intervention and trip to rehab for someone. Your level of desperation may not be reflective of their level of desperation. In other words, the addict in your life might not be anywhere near surrendering to their disease.
Remember that it takes guts to admit that you have a problem. But even beyond that, it takes guts to accept that problem on a deep level and actually take action to resolve it. They are two different things, and many people who can admit that they are a bit out of control will still not have the guts to check into rehab and face their fear of being sober head-on. And ultimately, this is what prevents the addict from taking the plunge: fear. Though most will never admit it while they are still using drugs and alcohol, it is fear that prevents them from facing reality without the crutch of being intoxicated or high.
Because of this fear-driven cycle, it seems unlikely that you are going to intimidate or threaten an addict into getting clean and sober. Though this might actually work in rare cases, it is more often a loving and caring approach that will turn out successful for most interventions. If you try to bully an addict into sobriety, their fear will cause them to lash back in anger, or it will simply drive them further into isolation. Keep this in mind if you are planning out a potential intervention, and realize that a loving and caring approach is almost always the best way to go.
I am an addict or an alcoholic. What should I do?
This is an easy answer, but tough to execute on:
1) Ask for help.
2) Take action. Follow suggestions. Don’t struggle against the help. Go with the flow.
3) Follow through with it.
4) Push yourself to grow.
If you are a struggling addict or alcoholic and you are ready to change, then it really does not matter much what you do or where you go for help or who you ask. None of the details are crucial, so long as you ask for help and then take real action.
On the other hand, say that you are still hanging on to a piece of denial. You know you have a problem, but fear is holding you back from taking the plunge into sobriety. You do not fully accept any recovery solutions. “Meetings are not for me,” you might argue.
If you are at this place (denial), then nothing will help you. No program will help you, no recovery strategy, no wisdom, no medication, no nothing. You are in denial and nothing can help you. You will continue to use drugs and alcohol until you can get past that last bit of denial and accept the fact that you can no longer be happy using drugs and alcohol. No real change can happen until you decide: “It’s over.” Time to break down, ask for help, and find a new path in life.
Only then can you start an awesome new life in recovery.