There is always more to learn in addiction recovery….there is always another layer of information that you can peel back and learn about yourself.
But having said that, I also think that there is sort of a “tipping point” in your recovery journey. Not that you can get to, say, a year sober and then declare that you are cured or anything. I am not suggesting that much….only that you may eventually reach a point in your recovery, say after a few years, where you at least have the basics down of staying sober on a day to day basis. Sure, you could still get tripped up. You could get complacent. Anyone can technically relapse, and therefore we must always remain vigilant. But what I am suggesting here is that there is a certain amount of information that you accumulate in early recovery and at some point this is enough to sustain your sobriety in 99 percent of situations. The reason we have to keep pushing ourselves to learn and to grow is because of the random oddball things that we can never predict in our future (the disease is sneaky and is also very patient!).
So when I say that this is “all you need to know” about alcoholism and drug recovery, what I am really saying is that this is more like 99 percent of it. That last one percent is always going to be a work in progress, and it is that piece of the disease that can come back through complacency….when you are lazy and think you have figured it all out. That is the continuous threat in addiction that never really goes away and therefore you will always need to keep looking for that next learning experience in your life.
Beyond this “complacency component” that never really goes away, I think it is possible to get the basics down to a pretty simple list. That list is as follows:
2) Early recovery.
3) Transition to long term sobriety.
4) Overcoming complacency.
It makes sense to separate the stages of recovery out like this because most people that I have spoke with can clearly label a time in their journey with each of these things. The only exception is people who do not realize that complacency is a threat in the long run–which should help illustrate just how dangerous and tricky that last challenge can be! And of course that final challenge of overcoming complacency never ends….
So let’s take a closer look at these stages of recovery, and what it is that you need to know about each of them.
Most important concept by far: surrender
The first stage of recovery is that of surrender. This is the entry way into recovery and if you do not surrender to your disease then you do not even get to take a shot at having a new life in recovery.
Because this is the first stage and is also the entry path, that makes it the most important stage of recovery. Without surrender you truly have nothing, and are back to square one with your addiction or your alcoholism.
It is true that you could fail and relapse during any of these 4 stages that I have outlined here. But if you never get the concept of surrender then you do not even have a chance at all. None whatsoever. This is the prerequisite to recovery. Without it you have no hope.
Can you force a person to surrender to their disease, thereby convincing them that they should seek professional help? That is the million dollar question for families and friends of struggling addicts and alcoholics everywhere. They want a way to force their loved one to get better. While some places allow you to legally force treatment, there is no way to get a person to change their mind (or their heart) and surrender to the disease of they are not done using drugs or alcohol yet. The problem is that they may be stuck in denial and have just not had “enough” yet.
If this is the case then what can you do? There actually are some actions that you can take, though none of them are really direct actions. But this does not mean that they are not helpful. In the long run they move the addict or alcoholic in your life closer to surrender.
For example, you may go to Al-Anon meetings and start to learn how to set healthy boundaries with the addict or alcoholic in your life. You can then learn how to say “no” to the chaos and distance yourself from some of the madness, thereby protecting your own serenity in spite of what they might be doing in their addiction. You can learn to love the person and hate the addiction. You can learn to try to separate it out. It is never perfect but you can move along those lines. And you can learn to stop enabling the person so that they are more likely to move closer to the point of surrender. If you are always bailing them out of trouble then why would they stop drinking or drugging? Part of the lesson that they have to learn might involve you putting your foot down and not rushing to help them at every turn. You may have to learn to step back from the relationship. This is not always easy to do, and you may need support or instruction to learn how to do it effectively.
In doing these things you may not be able to force recovery on someone, but you can indirectly move them closer to the point of surrender.
Unfortunately we do not get clean and sober just by wishing ourselves to become so. It doesn’t work that way. If we could just wish away our addictions then there would be no problems with drugs or alcohol in this world. But the truth is that you have to be very desperate and very miserable before you are willing to commit to the kind of action that will actually help you to get clean and sober. Think about surrender like this: it has to be TOTAL surrender. If you are holding anything back then you are not fully committed to recovery yet.
What are you willing to do in order to get clean and sober? Nearly anything at all? That is the point you must reach. It involves desperation. I used to say that I would never go to long term rehab. I thought that it was too much like jail or prison. But I got desperate enough at one point and I became willing to give it a try. This is the kind of desperation that you need in order to make recovery work for you. You cannot just surrender “a little bit.” You have to go all in, and surrender fully and completely. Hold nothing back at all.
What you need to know about early recovery
Early recovery is an extension of the surrender concept. You should be eager to learn and ready to soak up information about how to live this new life in recovery. If you are shut off from new ideas at this point then you really do not have a chance at staying sober yet.
You have to have the right attitude in early recovery. Many, many people do not get this right at first. The reason they do not get it right is because they have not yet hit their bottom and surrendered fully. So their attitude is all wrong. They are either:
1) Far too cocky, too optimistic, too enthusiastic about recovery. They know it all and they are going to do it perfectly. They cannot take it one day at a time at this point because they have their whole recovery planned out in advance. Most people who I have seen who are like this have already had some clean time in the past, but relapsed. So they kind of already know how it all works, but then they still got to a point in their recovery where they got tripped up in the past. But they have been through the early recovery process and “know the game” so to speak. So they are cocky and overconfident.
2) Far too depressed and hopeless to recover. Not willing to do anything, not willing to have hope that they can find happiness in life without drugs or alcohol. Not willing to take action or follow directions. They are still stuck in denial for the most part. They still want their drug of choice. They are in rehab for some reason but they are not really done getting drunk and high. They want to go use or drink.
Neither of these attitudes will result in success, but the problem is that I do not think either of these attitudes can just be changed on demand. Instead you have to go out there and live some more and gain some tough life lessons before your attitude can be changed to the one that is appropriate for success.
And what is that attitude like that you need in early recovery?
1) Humbled. You have been utterly defeated at the hands of your addiction. You may have guilt and shame. You have “your tail between your legs.” You are definitely not cocky. You know that you need help. You are humbled.
2) Willing to learn. You feel like you have thrown up your hands in the air in desperation, as if to say to the world “please show me how to live. I cannot figure it out.” You are willing to try anything at this point. You are desperate for a solution.
3) You have a small amount of hope. Not enough to be cocky. Just enough to wake up and face each new day, to give it a chance. You are not necessarily happy and bouncing off the walls. You are just willing to keep moving forward.
Early recovery is a minefield of relapse opportunities. Before I ever got clean and sober, I thought that the idea of going to a rehab center for treatment was absolutely stupid. Why on earth would I pay for treatment so that I can stay in a place where people will simply withhold drugs and alcohol from me? Could I not just arrange this myself if I wanted? This was kind of how my thinking went.
But of course over the years I started to realize that treatment might actually make some sense. And then I actually was convinced a few times to attend inpatient rehab even though I was not at “full surrender” and I was shocked to find out that I could not just casually overcome my addiction, even with this added help. I was at a point where I wanted my addiction to be gone, but I was not quite desperate enough to take massive action and fully commit to a new way of life at that point. When I agreed to go to rehab, I thought to myself “it would be nice not to have to use drugs and alcohol” but on the other hand I was not extremely desperate for change at that point. Therefore those trips to rehab did not work for me and I left only to start using my drug of choice again.
Later on I reached a point of desperation where I realized that I was never going to have fun again with my drinking. I had reached a point of misery and a point of realization. I knew that I was not going to be able to be happy in the future if I continued to self medicate. I could suddenly see that fact clearly for the first time. I saw the futility of trying to self medicate to reach happiness. And so this was my real turning point, this was my point of true surrender, and this is when I became willing to do the things that I was never willing to do in the past. Therefore I became willing to go to rehab, to follow through, to take advice and direction from the people there, and even to attend long term rehab. I became willing to take massive action.
In the past I had sort of “half surrendered” and was willing to take some action, but not massive action. I had agreed in the past to attend rehab, but I was not willing to follow through and to adopt a new way of life. I was listening in the past but I was not willing to take action and direction from others. But then this last time when I surrendered fully, all of this changed. Then I became willing to do anything. I was willing to go to long term rehab. I was willing to take action and to listen to other people. I was humbled to the point where I knew that I definitely did not have all of the answers. I was done listening to myself.
So when people in early recovery are against the idea of treatment, I have to sigh and hang my head in despair for them. They are just not at the point where they are able to “get it” because they have not surrendered fully yet.
It is not that going to rehab is the only way. That is the not the issue here. The issue is that if someone is not willing to go to rehab, then they don’t have the right attitude anyway. So it doesn’t matter what they do, they lack the willingness that is required to be successful in early recovery. In order to succeed you must be willing to take positive action, to take direction from others.
Most people who fail do so during early recovery. In fact many of the statistics that you consider would show that 9 out of 10 people who try to get clean and sober will relapse sometime within the first year. This is insane. Never have the odds been so stacked against you before in your life! Therefore you need all of the help that you can get. Early recovery is tough. In order to overcome this stage of recovery you are best to take advice and direction from other people while ignoring your own ideas. This may sound a bit strange but it is always “our own ideas” that lead us to relapse. Following other people’s suggestions will not lead you to relapse! From their point of view recovery is easy, and they can tell you how to do it. Listen to them and follow through and you will not fail.
How to transition into a new life
There is this transitional period between what I would label “early recovery” and “long term sobriety.” What happens during that stage? In my opinion it is lots of learning and growth experiences.
How do you actually transition to long term sobriety? You don’t do it by declaring that you want to be “done with early recovery.” You can’t just wish yourself into a further stage in your life. You have to actually live your way into it. And that means growth, learning, taking suggestions from other people and trying new things.
This transitional stage should be a time of exploration. They have a saying in recovery: “Take what you need and leave the rest.” Well, guess what? This only works well if you actually try lots of new things. If you are not willing to try new things in recovery then you don’t have much to sort out and choose from.
For example, one of the most important parts of my own recovery is physical exercise. Without it, my recovery would not be nearly as strong. But I did not know this when I first got clean and sober. And I did not know this when I had one year sober, nor did I know it when I had 18 months sober. I still had not found this “secret” to my best life in recovery.
So I had to experiment. I had to take suggestions. I had to listen to other people and do what they suggested I do. So this included things like keeping a journal, meditating, exploring religion, exercise, going back to college, and so on. I got lots of suggestions in my recovery and I tried to act on many of them and take action.
A lot of what I tried did not work out. But I am glad that I tried it all, and continue to try new things. Because for every few things that I try in life, maybe one out of every ten will be something that has a huge impact on me, and really changes my life for the better. And you just don’t know what these things are going to be, or which experiences will really help you. It is different for various people.
For example, there are people in recovery today who rely almost exclusively on meditating. This is a huge thing for them. It helps them immensely. It is the core of their recovery. It works for them, really well.
But this is not me. I did not find that to be true for me. I found that same level of success when I started exercising every day. And the people who meditate, they may find that exercising every day does not really do much for them.
So we are all unique. But we all have to find what works for us. Each of us must “take what we need and leave the rest.” But in order to do that, you have to get out there and try some things.
How do you do that?
You talk to other people in recovery.
This is your source of information. Go talk with others, find out what is working for them. Then do your own experiments.
Keep doing this, over and over again, so that you can learn what is most effective for you in recovery.
Do this for long enough, and eventually you will find yourself “living in long term sobriety.”
What most people do not realize about long term recovery and complacency
The last stage is the trickiest, because you can not react to complacency. If you do you will be drunk already. The only way to beat complacency is to be proactive about it.
And this only means that your journey never ends, that the growth and learning that you have done up to this point must continue forever.
That is the only way to beat complacency: Stay humble. Keep learning. And know that the journey never ends.