Yesterday we looked at ego depletion and addiction. Today we want to look at the concept that you “have to change everything” in recovery.
Why most people fail in early recovery
Most people who attempt to get clean and sober are holding back. They want for things to be different in their lives but they are not willing to go all out in terms of making radical changes. We call this having a “reservation.”
It can be tough to deal with such reservations because first you have to identify them. This is tough because sometimes they are very vague and undefined. But in some cases they are very clearly defined and I have dealt with them myself. The problem is that I was not really able to deal with my reservation in any sort of meaningful way; instead I had to just get miserable enough to let go of the stupid thing. Allow me to explain.
When I first went to rehab the first two times I heard a lot of suggestions. One suggestion that kept popping up over and over again was that I should consider living in long term treatment in order to overcome my addiction. The counselors and therapists that were talking to me thought this would be a good idea for my “aftercare.”
I was horrified by this idea. This was to become my big reservation. “I’ll do anything to recover, but I won’t do that” was sort of my approach to this. Going to long term rehab felt like going to prison. It was just too much for me. So my argument was basically “if that is what it takes for me to get clean and sober, then I guess I will just have to keep drinking.”
And so it went for a long time. I did not get clean and sober because I was not willing to make massive changes in my life by embracing this radical solution. I stayed stuck in my addiction for years because I could not get past this idea that I probably needed long term rehab.
In all truth I did not necessarily have to have long term treatment….what I needed was radical change in my life. Living in long term rehab is just a shortcut to get that, but it is not a necessity. Many people in recovery have made similar changes without living in rehab, but it is not an easy path by any means. And of course, this is why most people ultimately fail. Recovery demands radical changes and they are only willing to make moderate changes.
It is not necessary to live in long term treatment in order to change everything. However, this is definitely a way to accelerate the process and set yourself up for success if you are serious about recovery. That said, many people who go to long term treatment end up relapsing anyway, in spite of the excellent support that they are receiving. Herein lies a clue to what we actually mean when we say “change everything.” We are not really talking about the external world so much and what you do for support and your program and such, we are really talking about your attitude towards the world and how you react to everything in life.
How to change everything from the inside
There is an old saying:
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
This perfectly illustrates the idea that you need to “change everything in order to recover from addiction.”
What actually changes?
As the saying illustrates, the outside world remains the same. You may even go through many of the same actions each day: go to the same job, attend the same school, deal with the same people in your life, and so on. But you still get a sense that “everything changes” if you are working a successful recovery because your eyes are suddenly opened in life.
The moment of surrender should change you from the inside out. Suddenly you give up the struggle to be in control and you let go of the need to self medicate. You become willing to learn a new way of life. You stop believing that your way is the best way to live, and that you might be able to learn from other people.
Now you are viewing the world through an entirely new lens. You have put on “a new set of glasses.” The old mindset was to self medicate, to be happy at all costs by using your drug of choice, and to take care of your own needs first and foremost. The old attitude was about control. Controlling your life, controlling your supply of drugs or alcohol, controlling your emotions so that you could be happy and medicated at all times.
Your new life in recovery is about relinquishing that control and trusting in the process. You have to let go if you want to recover. You cannot cling to the idea of control and still micro-manage your entire life in recovery without driving yourself crazy. You have to give up some of that control and trust that things will work out in the end.
This is an attitude change of epic proportions. This is what it means to “change everything” in recovery. You still chop wood and carry water each day, but your attitude towards these things is now different.
What is important to you in life will change dramatically. Helping other people will become much more important and seeking your own happiness in selfish ways will fall by the wayside. Personal growth and challenging yourself to make positive changes will become important, seeking to control every little thing in your life so that you are constantly happy will become less important.
This all comes from trusting in the process of recovery. What does that mean? It means that you have to embrace sobriety and trust that things will get better and that you will be happy again someday. In early recovery you may believe that you will never be happy again if you let go of the need to control and also abandon your drug of choice. When I say that you need to “trust in the process” what I mean is that you need to:
* Let go of the constant need to control things in your life and start going with the flow of things.
* Realize that happiness will come to you if you trust in this process and try to take positive action each day.
* Seek to improve yourself and your life through positive daily action. Some people call this “doing the next right thing in recovery.” Do this consistently, every single day. Life gets better. Trusting in the process means that you realize that life will, in fact, get better if you keep doing this.
It is essentially a decision to stop self destructing, to stop using harmful drugs or alcohol, and to start taking positive action each day instead. If you do this then your life will slowly get better and better. When you are in early recovery and you are first starting this process you will not see instant results. Therefore you must trust in the process and believe that things will get better some day. There is a time gap here–between when you start living recovery and when you start receiving benefits from doing so. You have to have enough determination to see yourself through the “gap”–that time when you are taking lots of positive action in early recovery but the benefits have not really materialized yet.
In order to change everything in recovery you have to embrace this new set of “lenses” through which you can see the world. For me this was trusting in the process. My brain was taking in all of the data during early recovery and it was not entirely sure that I would be happy again some day. In fact I thought that I might be miserable forever without my drug of choice in my life. So this new lens through which I viewed the world was a lens that glimpsed a new future, one in which things would get better for me and I could somehow be happy again without my drug of choice. Honestly I can remember being a few months into recovery and seriously doubting this at one point. But I hung on and it got better. And in all truth it got better pretty quickly after that moment. It is always darkest before the dawn. Very true for me in my own journey.
Taking suggestions and doing something different
How do you change everything in recovery?
It is a monumental task, or at least it seems that way at first.
If you have not yet surrendered to your addiction then the task of changing everything is impossible. It cannot even be attempted yet. This is because you have not surrendered and you are still clinging to the idea that you have to self medicate with your drug of choice. Until you let go of that, nothing will change. That one piece holds the entire rest of your life firmly in place.
After you have surrendered this opens the door to massive change. Now it is just a matter of willingness and open mindedness. These are really two sides of the same coin and this goes back to the idea that you need to view the world through a new pair of glasses.
What has been happening with most struggling addicts and alcoholics is that they have been fighting for control for a long time while struggling with their addiction. What this means is that they have been trying to figure everything out for themselves and direct their lives in such a way as to make themselves happy. This is how the addict lives: selfishly. They are using their own best ideas on how to maximize their own happiness. Who can blame them? They just want to live and be happy in this world, just like everyone else.
The problem is that it is not working for them. This is evidenced by their addiction. Their best ideas about how to be happy and successful and content in this world have led them into a messy life that is dominated by addiction. Their best ideas about living have failed miserably.
If such a person has reached the point of surrender then you can bet that they have also tried many times to quit drugs or alcohol on their own. Again, more failure. They have tried to reduce their intake, eliminate it entirely, switch from liquor to beer, and so on. Nothing has worked for them and they have been defeated by their addiction. Hence their eventual surrender to recovery. If they are at a point of true surrender then they are essentially saying “please help me to get over this addiction, I cannot figure out how to do it myself.” Now most people will not say it like that out loud because it is too crushing to the ego to do so, but that is what their attitude must be at the moment of true surrender. They have to realize that their way has not worked, and never will work for them. They have to realize that they need new information if they are going to recover, and that this information cannot come from themselves.
This is about the power of suggestion in early recovery. Remember when I talked about “trusting in the process?” You may have to trust in other people as well–people who can tell you how to recover. This is important because you cannot figure it all out by yourself and expect to stay clean and sober. If you could, then you would have already, and that failed many times. So you finally admitted that you could not figure it out for yourself and therefore you had to get new information from outside sources. Left to your own devices, you could not recover by your own effort. You needed help and it was finally time to admit it.
So this is part of what it means to “change everything.” The addict or alcoholic who can look back on this moment of surrender and see that they finally broke down and asked for help from others and actually took their advice will count this as being a radical change. That is because it actually is a radical change. Taking advice from others is huge, especially after a lifetime of addiction and trying to manage everything by yourself. This is the essence of changing everything. You are finally accepting guidance and direction from others.
Of course doing so is incredibly empowering and will accelerate your recovery like nothing else. Taking direction and advice from others is one of the smartest things that you can do in early recovery. But of course our ego makes it very difficult for us to reach this point of surrender and be able to do this.
So really when you ask someone in recovery to look back and tell you if “everything changed” or not, they will emphatically tell you that everything did change for them. A big part of this change (that they will struggle to put their finger on) is that they relinquished their self will to some degree and they put faith in what other people were telling them to do. They asked for help and then they followed through on the advice. This is so completely foreign to most addicts and alcoholics that it represents a massive change in how they live their life. This is a big part of “changing everything” in recovery. Taking advice and suggestions from other people is a radically different way to live.
Willingness to try new things
Of course if you are going to embrace radical change in early recovery and become successful in this new life then you have to be willing to do so in the first place. This willingness does not materialize out of thin air and in most cases it has to be earned with pain and misery. This is unfortunate but if you talk with people who have successfully recovered you will find that it is true. Addicts and alcoholics do not become willing until they have exhausted all other options and have no other course of action. We do not tend to surrender when things are going good in life. We surrender when we are at a point of massive despair.
For a long time I was not willing to attend 12 step meetings. I new that recovery was based on attending these meetings on a regular basis and I was simply terrified of them due to social anxiety. Therefore I shut myself out from this possible solution and I was not willing to face my fear.
The motivation and the willingness to face this fear did not come from anything positive. I did not one day say “you know, I would really like to pursue wonderful things in my life, and in order to do so I need to be sober so I think I should face my fear of going to 12 step meetings.”
This is not how I became willing and I do not believe that any addict or alcoholic ever finds willingness in this way. Instead, I was miserable. I was completely fed up with my addiction and I was sick and tired of the pain and misery that I was getting in life.
Sound depressing? This is addiction. This is how it works. When you are sick and tired of enduring the same old misery over and over again, you will become willing to change. This is the way that you develop willingness. And this also why Al-Anon encourages you to stop enabling people and just let them endure the misery that they are creating for themselves. You don’t have to try to punish an addict or an alcoholic, they will do that all by themselves. All you have to do is get out of their way and let them keep falling down and scraping their knee, over and over again. Sooner or later they will get sick of scraping their knee and wonder if there is a better way. This is the moment of surrender and this is when they will finally ask for help. If they are still busy trying to self medicate and they just want a band aid for their knee then they are not ready to change their life. Many addicts and alcoholics who seek to get sober are really just looking for that band aid and they are not ready to change everything (as is required). This is why so many go to rehab and then relapse shortly after leaving. They did not really want to learn how to stop skinning their knee; they just wanted a band aid.
But eventually after doing this over and over again and enduring much pain and misery in an endless cycle, the addict or alcoholic may finally wake up to the fact that it is never going to get any better. It is only after enduring much pain and misery that they can finally say “OK, I’ve had enough and I want something different in life. I don’t care how scary the change is because I am so sick of the misery and the pain I have been getting.” That is the attitude that they will have in the moment of surrender.
If you want to recover then you need to embrace massive change. Trying to ease your way into a new life of recovery does not work. You must jump in with both feet with no hesitation and “complete abandon.” Use a new lens to see the world, a lens that allows you to learn from your experiences and then change and adapt. Start taking positive action every day and eventually your life will get better and better.
Trust in the process. It really works.