Building Courage in Addiction Recovery

Building Courage in Addiction Recovery

Wheat and sugar field

Yesterday we looked at 4 experiments that everyone should do in their addiction recovery. Today we want to look at what it means to build courage in recovery and see how you can go about doing that in your own life.

Why bother to build courage at all?

We need courage in recovery in order to maintain sobriety. It takes guts just to get clean and sober, but it also takes a strong person to remain sober in the long run.

On top of that, we need courage in recovery in order to become a better person. Your path of personal growth is not going to be super smooth and easy at all times. As they say, “you will be tested.” This is inevitable with the ups and downs in life. Having courage does not mean that you don’t have any fear, it just means that you have the guts to keep on going even in spite of your fear. This is the right attitude to have in addiction recovery. “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” We want to be strong enough in our recovery to be able to make that kind of growth.

Therefore your courage is a bit like a muscle. If you never use it at all then it is going to be rusty indeed. If you never push yourself to the edges of what you are capable of in terms of growth then you are never going to develop the strength and ability to push yourself even further. Therefore you get stronger when you push yourself through a difficult change. This is simply based on your increased ability (and willingness) to then make future changes. Courage is a muscle and if you are deliberately trying to learn and grow in recovery then you will increase this characteristic in yourself.

The foundation of courage in early recovery is willingness

In very early recovery you need a ton of courage. Everyone who has faced the decision to try to get clean and sober in the first place fully understands this. It is terrifying to even attempt to become sober.

- Approved Treatment Center -


In order to make this leap of faith into an unknown world you have become willing. At the same time, open-mindedness is also a key to this willingness. If you are not open to any new ideas about how you might be able to get help for your problem then you are going to be stuck. Therefore you have to be both willing and open to new ideas at the same time. Being just one or the other is not going to cut it in early recovery.

Of course part of willingness is in taking action. Anyone can say that they are willing to change, but what do they actually do when someone gives them a road map to recovery? Do they take action and willingly go to treatment (or meetings, or counseling, or whatever)? Or do they resist the idea and try to find a way to do the least amount of treatment possible?

In early recovery, the amount of action that you take based on other people’s suggestion is a good measure of your courage. Acting on your own ideas is usually not very effective and is usually not too scary. But taking advice from other people and actually following through on it takes real guts. This is how you abandon the self and give away complete control in your recovery. You have to be willing to put your life into someone else’s hands in order to make progress in early recovery.

This is what is so scary about early recovery–the total lack of control. Up until the point of surrender, you have been 100 percent in control of your own life. Even if you are miserable (which you likely are if you are addicted) you are still in total control of all of your decisions and actions. Everything is up to you and you are not looking to outside sources for any guidance or advice. You decide what you will do, how you will do it, and so on. All of the control in your life is 100 percent your own.

After the moment of surrender you have made this profound shift (that requires a great deal of courage): you have relinquished control of your own life and put it in the hands of someone else. Can you get clean and sober without doing this? My belief is that no, you cannot–not if you are a true addict or alcoholic. The only way to change your life in that case is to give up control of your life (temporarily) to other people.

How can you do this? By asking for help. Essentially the idea is that you ask people you trust to help you to start a new life in recovery. If you are not at this point of surrender then you are not ready to let go of drugs and alcohol yet. But once you have had enough pain and misery then you will get to this point of surrender and you will ask for help.

It should be something like:

“I am sick and tired of my addiction and I will do anything in order to change. Please show me how to live. I will do whatever you tell me to do.”

That is true surrender. Notice the level of desperation. Notice the level of willingness. The person is willing to do nearly anything in order to recover. Except that they don’t think of it in terms of “recovery” just yet….they just know that they are miserable and they want it to stop. This is what motivates the addict or alcoholic to finally change. Pain and misery.

So the addict must reach this moment of surrender and willingly give up control of their entire life. They have to decide that they are so miserable that they are going to give the reigns to someone else for awhile, because what they have been doing with their own decisions has simply not been working out for them. They are miserable in their addiction and they can deny this no longer. It has become too obvious. They can no longer escape their pain and misery by self medicating any further. The drugs or alcohol have become less and less effective as their tolerance has increased. And so they reach a point of total despair where they are faced with a choice: continue on in endless misery, or face the fear of the unknown and try to change.

Those who choose to surrender and try to change are doing so based on raw courage. There is no way to do this while feeling happy and confident and good about yourself. You can only become willing to change your entire life and give up total control if you are at a point of extreme desperation and despair. This is not a good place to be but if you can surrender then it will turn your entire life around for the better. This is the gift that comes hidden inside of desperation. It is a way out of misery if you have the willingness to relinquish control and take advice from others. Doing so takes guts. It takes courage. Most people never go through with it and stay stuck in their addiction instead. A select few will feel this immense fear of sobriety and do it anyway.

Facing the fear of sobriety and how to reach that point

So how can you reach this point of finally facing your fear of sobriety?

I did it in stages, but I am not sure that this was necessarily the best approach. It is only how it worked out for me.

I went to rehab three times before I finally “got it” and became willing to do whatever it takes. I also had gone to some counseling for a few years in my journey to try to overcome addiction.

Obviously I took quite a bit of action in doing things that did not work for me. I attended rehab twice and failed. I attended counseling but that did not seem to help either. It was only after my third visit to rehab that I finally found the courage to become truly willing to change.

So what was holding me back?

To be honest I was not afraid of rehab so much on my first visit. I really had no idea what to expect. But after leaving that first rehab and promptly relapsing my fear was much better defined. Now I understood what it meant to be clean and sober. Those people wanted me to quit drinking and doing drugs forever! I was just not ready to embrace sobriety yet and I had not experienced enough pain and misery in my life yet, so the idea of “permanent sobriety” horrified me. I was just not ready to quit yet. I was still having some amount of fun in my addiction and I had not had enough years of pain and chaos yet. I wasn’t ready.

I had defined happiness in my life as being self medicated at all times. This was what happiness was to me. I wanted to be drunk and high at all times and anything less than this was miserable. To me, happiness was being medicated. This is what it meant for me to be an addict. Life was just one big continuous party and if you were not getting drunk or high at every moment then I did not understand what your problem was. What was the point if you were not living it up and trying to get wasted at every moment? This was my perception of happiness. This is what I thought of as being the path to happiness.

So the idea of rehab and sobriety was a serious threat to my way of thinking. I equated sobriety with misery. I believed that if I were to become clean and sober (either by force or by choice) that I would be miserable. I actually hoped deep inside that I would never get twisted around enough in my mind to actually want to become sober on my own. That was a real fear. I was actually afraid that I would WANT to be clean and sober someday. I was afraid that if this happened that I would be like a robot, a dead person walking around without a brain inside. What was the point of living if you could not chase happiness and get high all the time? This was why I was so afraid of sobriety. I was equating drugs with happiness and sobriety with misery.

This is what held me back from going to rehab again for a long time. I had been to treatment twice and I relapsed both times immediately and I had no intention of living life sober because I believed that to do so would lead to a lifetime of misery. My fear of sobriety was based on the idea of happiness. I was terrified of giving up control because I was afraid that recovery would “brainwash” me into thinking that I could be happy without drugs and alcohol. This is astounding. Really, I was paranoid while using drugs that I might someday become happy without the drugs. Crazy.

So what happened? How did I shift into sobriety, in spite of this fear?

I am not sure if it was “courage” as much as it was extreme despair. What happened is that I got miserable enough in my addiction that I no longer cared enough to be afraid. Is that courage? I am not sure that it is, but I am also not sure that it isn’t. Basically I became willing to go to treatment, get clean and sober, take suggestions from other people, or do just about anything because I was finally past that breaking point in my life where I was extremely miserable. No amount of drinking or drugs could medicate my weariness. I had finally had enough. Nothing worked any more and I could not seem to get “happy” any more no matter how much I used or in what combination.

I was at my breaking point. I don’t want to say that I was actually suicidal, because I had no intention of trying to hurt myself. On the other hand, I was actually sort of “semi-suicidal” because I really did not care what happened to me. Someone could have held a gun to my head and I think I would have been somewhat indifferent about it. I was just that miserable. I was so sick and tired of being miserable in my addiction that I had really lost hope.

Now here is where the courage part comes in. I still had a shred of hope and so when someone suggested that I go back to rehab I agreed to try it. This is hope. There is still a shred of hope there. Now mind you I was not doing jumping jacks and celebrating this new chance at life. I was still miserable and I did not care about myself or anything else. I just had this tiny shred of hope that maybe going back to rehab (for a third time) would prove to be somehow useful.

This is how I made the leap into recovery. I know it is not very glamorous or exciting, but at least it is accurate. This is how “courage” worked for me. This is how I found willingness: one inch at a time. I became willing when I was so miserable that I no longer cared how afraid I was. I found courage through apathy. My success came out of extreme despair. I really felt like I had no hope at the time (though I must have had a tiny bit of hope left, no?).

Choosing the challenging path of personal growth as opposed to passive recovery

Once you are living in recovery and are relatively stable in your sobriety, you have a new challenge in front of you: Are you going to engage in personal growth, or are you going to become stagnant in your recovery journey and basically just go through the motions?

In my opinion we did not get clean and sober in order to sit back and coast through sobriety. That is not the point of our transformation. We did not get clean and sober just to sit around and exist for the sake of existing. My thought (and my hope) is that each person in recovery has some purpose. That they find some meaning. That they try to make a difference and create something interesting in their life. That they find what they are good at and go use that to be helpful.

This is the path of personal growth. It is entirely possible to go to AA meetings every day and not be engaged in this path of growth. I know many people who have done exactly that and this is not the kind of life or recovery that I wanted for myself. At one time I felt like I was stuck in my recovery and I was thus facing a decision that required some amount of courage. Everyone was telling me to play it safe and take the easy, softer path to recovery (which was traditional recovery, meetings every day, etc.). But the very principles and concepts that they talked about in recovery seemed to speak against this (like how we should not take the easy, softer way!)

I was noticing that there was a fork in my recovery–I could easily sit back and take the “deferred path” of daily meetings for the rest of my life, or I could take serious action and figure out how recovery really works. This was the missing link that they would not fully explain to me in AA. Instead I was told to just embrace the program and be thankful that it worked, without a complete explanation as to WHY it worked. Everyone in AA was obsessed over how it worked without every stopping to examine why it was working. I wanted to refine the process and learn from it so I needed to know the WHY. No one would tell me so I set out to find that out on my own.

It did not take me long to figure it out: recovery works when you take positive action every day and push yourself to make positive changes in your life. Recovery works when you commit fully to physical abstinence from alcohol and addictive drugs. That’s it. These are the truths that I learned about recovery and about AA. The rest of it was all window dressing and not entirely necessary. I had taken the traditional 12 step program and reduced it down to the parts that actually keep you sober, which were:

1) Commitment to abstinence and sobriety as the highest priority in life. (Don’t use drugs or alcohol no matter what).
2) Commit to taking positive action each day in an attempt to improve yourself and your life (pursuit of personal growth).

That was it. These were the only two hinges of success in recovery that I could find. Everything else was strictly optional or a variation on these two themes.

Using these two concepts you can illustrate WHY recovery works, rather than just how it works.

Finding and embracing this path (instead of taking the “safer route” of lifetime AA meetings) is what required so much courage. This was especially true because all of my peers told me that I would relapse if I pursued this path. Lucky for me that was over ten years ago, and I have been clean and sober ever since.


I believe that it is important to build courage in recovery because you are going to have unique challenges and growth opportunities in the future. If you don’t have anything “in reserve” when it comes to courage then you will be ill equipped to meet these new challenges. Life is deeper and richer if you have the guts to learn new things about yourself. In the world of recovery, this is courage defined.

- Approved Treatment Center -call-to-learn-about