Exploring the Zero Tolerance Policy and Your Highest Truth in Addiction Recovery

Exploring the Zero Tolerance Policy and Your Highest Truth in Addiction Recovery


I watched so many people in early recovery who failed to really “get it” and go to any length for their sobriety. Instead, they ended up relapsing because they did not make a strong enough mental arrangement with themselves regarding their recovery.

The premise is pretty simple for overcoming drug or alcohol addiction:

1) You realize that you cannot control and simultaneously enjoy your drug or alcohol use. You can either control it and be miserable or you can go crazy and be out of control. You cannot be both in control and enjoying your drug intake. This realization has to come first, then you can move on to the solution: abstinence.

2) You accept abstinence as your total solution for addiction. This is the answer that you have fought against for so long.

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When we say that we have finally admitted to our addiction, that is not enough. Just admitting to your addiction means that you may still be stuck in denial. So what, you have admitted that you have a problem. This does nothing to actually solve your problem unless you are willing to take action along with it. This does nothing if you still believe that you might be able to control your drug or alcohol intake rather than to move entirely towards an abstinence based solution.

I can fully remember what it felt like to be stuck in active addiction and to be completely put off by the idea of 100 percent total abstinence. It just sounded so restrictive, so final, so brutal. It was like the same concept of death–to go for the rest of your life without ever taking another drink or a drug. It was just such a severe suggestion that I could not even wrap my brain around it, I recoiled in horror at the idea because I thought that I would be miserable forever if I got clean and sober.

But I fully remember what it was like to be terrified about the idea of “total and complete abstinence.” I remember what it felt like to be hopeless, because the idea of total abstinence was so incredibly depressing to me. I loved drugs and alcohol or at least I believed that I loved drugs and alcohol. The thought of going without them for the rest of my life was overwhelmingly negative. I just could not bear it. This continued for a long time as I continued to become more and more miserable as a result of my addiction.

Your level of surrender dictates your level of commitment in recovery

So at some point you become miserable enough in your addiction that you decide to ask for help and give recovery a chance. You have, by this time, no doubt had some exposure as to what the typical recovery scene looks like. Most people who are about to get clean and sober “for good” have already been run through the mill a few times before. They have been around the block a few times, probably been in and out of either treatment or 12 step programs or both. They know by now what they are facing and what the proposed recovery solution is going to be and so they have a deeper level of acceptance than someone who does not even know what they are up against.

I think this is a crucial part of the recovery experience, this learning process. Nearly everyone that I know in recovery did NOT get it right on their very first try. Instead their journey was a process that spanned over several months, years, or even decades. Sometimes addicts and alcoholics have to bang their heads into the wall several times before they finally see the light. I know I did.

Take for example the person who has just recently got the idea that they might have a problem with alcohol. They have never been to treatment, never been to AA, and they are just now getting to the point where they are realizing that they have a serious problem. Think about their level of surrender and their acceptance of their disease and how complete it is. Right now it is not very deep or intense. They might go to treatment and start to learn about recovery and how abstinence is basically the solution but they are a bit overwhelmed with it all. It all seems a bit extreme to them. People are talking about going to meetings every single day for the rest of their life, people are talking about having a profound spiritual transformation and finding God, and people are talking about barring their soul and opening up to others and so on. The newcomer may not be anywhere near ready for this level of intensity that they find in typical recovery.

In fact, the newcomer may have been holding out hope that they were going to learn how to control their drinking via treatment. I have heard several people in recovery who said that they thought that is what AA taught you how to do–to learn to control your drinking! But of course the truth is that any successful approach in addiction recovery is going to be an abstinence based approach, but the newcomer may not even realize this yet.

So the first foray into recovery may just be a time to get acclimated to the ideas of recovery (like abstinence rather than moderation) and the intensity level that is required and the dedication and level of commitment that is needed in order to succeed.

I can remember being sort of amazed at how intense people were in 12 step meetings when trying to convince the newcomer of what it took to recover. They seemed to be saying to the newcomer “Look, the odds are stacked against you, most people end up relapsing, but if you really, really, really want this to work out for you then you can succeed. You just have to want it bad enough and try harder at this than you have ever tried at anything in your life before, and you can be clean and sober forever. But you have to take it a day at a time and you have be willing to make a deeper commitment than you have ever made before in the past.

Learning in stages

So I believe that as addicts and alcoholics on a journey of recovery, we tend to learn in stages. I have not really witnessed an addict or an alcoholic who has suddenly surrendered to their disease and learned how to live this perfect life in recovery all at once, overnight.

Instead, as mentioned above, you tend to learn chunks of your surrender in stages. At one point you might agree that there is a problem with your drinking or drugging, and so you might check into rehab or attend a 12 step meeting. And so you get some exposure and you hear the solution but you may not really be ready for the solution just yet. At that point you might still be in denial even though you realize that you definitely have a problem. You are just not ready to accept total abstinence as your solution yet.

So at this point you might go back out and test the waters some more. You nod politely at the recovery ideas, the need for total abstinence, but you decide that it is way too extreme for your situation. After all, you’re not THAT bad yet, right? You compared yourself and your story to the other people that you met in treatment, and nearly every single one of them was worse off than you are. They all had done worse things and slid further down the scale into addiction than you had. So you compared yourself to these people and you decided that this recovery stuff did not apply to you. Maybe you just need some counseling or therapy once a week. But surely you are not as screwed up as these other people, these real hard core addicts and alcoholics who need daily meetings just to keep themselves from using their drug of choice. Right?

And so even though people warned you or the counselors encouraged you to stay for more rehab, you decided that this was all too extreme for you and that your addiction is just not that bad and so you go back out into the world with a resolve to curtail your drug or alcohol use by a respectable degree.

And of course you do curtail your use at first. Any addict or alcoholic can easily do this, for a certain period of time. This is not impossible nor is it even that difficult. All addicts and alcoholics can demonstrate control in the short run. It does not matter how bad off they are or how addicted they may be, any addict can maintain control for a short period of time.

The problem comes in when you start to look at longer time frames. After a week or a month of white-knuckle moderation, every addict and alcoholic will eventually, at some point, return to their old level of consumption. This is the nature of addiction. Anyone can control it for a while. But eventually they will slip up and lose control and go nuts with their drug of choice. And when this happens, the addict or alcoholic will have a tendency to say something like “See, I was able to control it just fine, until X happened.” Then they have fallen into the trap of blaming their addiction on others, or on external events.

They had an excuse for why they relapsed, or for why they ended up using more than they had planned on, or why they lost control. But the fact is that life happens, life is a series of ups and downs, and given enough time, every addict and alcoholic will eventually “get their excuse” that they are looking for. Every addict who is trying to control their using is going to get into a situation eventually where they are encouraged to take more, or they are emotionally upset to the point where they lose control or stop caring about trying to control their intake.

And so the addict must learn this slowly, they must come to realize that their addiction is always there, it is always in the background and ready to manifest itself, even when they appear to have regained control. It is sort of like when a cigarette smoker attempts to quit smoking cigarettes, and they keep having some crisis in their life that gives them an excuse to relapse. “Oh, I can’t quit smoking now, because I am having this problem at work, and it is just stressing me out so bad. So now it just not the right time.” And after they have tried to quit smoking like a dozen times and failed each time, they come to realize that there is ALWAYS going to be a crisis, that they are always going to struggle with drama in their life when they are trying to quit smoking, and that it is not just “bad luck” that things happen when they are trying to quit, but instead it is that they simply NOTICE the ups and downs of life while they are trying to quit.

The drama is always there. The ups and downs in life are always there. We just tend to notice them more when we are trying to go through the intense process of detox, withdrawal, and recovery from addiction. That process is intense and difficult and it sort of turns up the volume on all of our emotions in our lives. Transitioning to recovery is difficult, emotional, and intense. That is why most people suggest getting lots of support for when you try to pull it off.

So the addict learns all of this in stages, usually over the course of trying to quit several times. It would be a rare event for an addict or an alcoholic to say for the first time ever “I am going to try to quit my drug of choice” and then to simply do it without any problems or complications or relapses. Instead they are more likely to have to learn these different levels of surrender in stages, because they will be reluctant to surrender completely and give themselves over to the ultimate solution all at once. It is too intense of a move to take all at once, to embrace total abstinence and get it perfect right off the bat.

Accepting abstinence as your only solution

So at some point the addict or alcohol must embrace total abstinence as their solution. If they do not do this then they are just going to keep spinning their wheels as they return to their drug of choice over and over again. They may have brief periods of abstinence or control as they attempt to moderate, but they will not have any long term success until they make this full surrender, this total leap of faith that they must embrace 100 percent total abstinence as their solution.

So many people get confused about the importance of abstinence in their lives. Really it all boils down to a simple math equation, really. Let’s state it simply like this:

You + drugs and alcohol = bad.
You – drugs and alcohol = good.

Now of course it is a bit more complicated than that, but I would urge people to keep it this simple for the purposes of maintaining their own recovery.

The reason that we even need to emphasis this concept of abstinence is because so many addicts and alcoholics get it screwed up. They start to put other things in front of their abstinence.

One very popular example of this is with the whole spiritual aspect of the program and seeking a higher power. Many people in recovery, upon finding their higher power, instantly realize the supreme importance of this supernatural being and instantly put their higher power on a pedestal as being the most important thing in their life. They will say things like “Without my higher power, nothing is possible. With my higher power, all things are possible.”

This is fine and there is nothing necessarily wrong with it, except that it gets a little dangerous for the typical addict to go replacing their highest truth about total abstinence.

Meaning just this:

Your highest truth in life is that you can not use a drink or a drug today, no matter what. That is number one in your life. Start putting other stuff in front of that and you are going to relapse. Do not get distracted.

It is sort of like suicide math. I hear a lot of people in meetings get this one wrong too. They say “I would kill myself before I went back to drinking or drugs.” What an idiot. You may believe that a relapse is a fate worse than death, but you are simply confused. You have made a math error. Suicide = zero. At least with a relapse you have a chance again at finding peace and happiness some day. I realize that a relapse could bring much pain, torture, and discomfort to someone. But the math is pretty obvious here. Suicide is a big fat zero.

And so it is with your zero tolerance policy in your recovery. You cannot afford to use a drink or a drug today, no matter what. This is your highest truth and it is the most important thing in your life and if you want to put something else in its place as being more important then you are risking relapse. I have seen it happen before and I have seen it happen with higher powers and or religion. Now obviously this does not mean that if you pursue a higher power in your life that you are going to relapse. What I am saying is that I have seen people in recovery who lost sight of what was MORE important than this spiritual seeking….and that is 100 percent abstinence.

Your highest truth is 100 percent total abstinence. Never, ever put anything else in front of that. Nothing is more important.

Where is your higher power going to be in your life after you lose sight of what is most important and end up relapsing? Where will your higher power be when you are wasted on drugs or alcohol? Think about this carefully. Your sobriety and your abstinence have to come first, or you lose everything. All spiritual connections are severed once you relapse.

The most important thing in my life today is…..

The most important thing in your life is 100 percent total abstinence from all mood and mind altering drugs. This has to remain your highest truth and your greatest priority in life, always. If you go to 100 AA or NA meetings and you listen carefully to everyone speak, not many of them will echo this idea. Not many at all. Most of them have it backwards, and will talk about how the most important thing in their life today is:

….the 12 steps.
….their higher power.
….the program.
….daily meetings.

And so on. All of it just serves to be a point of confusion. But do not get confused about this. Your highest truth in recovery is about YOU remaining 100% drug and alcohol free.

Mistaking your highest truth in life and losing sight of what it is truly important

So the “zero tolerance policy” is simply about you getting this straight in your own head.

Make a pact with yourself, today, that your greatest goal in life, now and forever, is your commitment to 100 percent total abstinence.

Do the math. Realize that a relapse will cost you nearly everything. Realize that everything good in your life flows from your abstinence.

Then, make it your highest priority. Make it your highest truth. Do not be confused when people make suggestions about what you really need to focus on in your life.

You already know what to focus on. You need to focus on maintaining abstinence. All else is secondary to this, because all else hinges on your continued sobriety.

Zero tolerance. Do not allow yourself the luxury of relapse, ever.

This is how to mentally arrange your recovery and gear it for success. You have to make abstinence your highest priority, period.


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