Fundamental Principles of Alcoholism and Addiction Recovery

Fundamental Principles of Alcoholism and Addiction Recovery

What does advanced addiction recovery look like?

There are certain principles in recovery that are universal. They are fundamental.

In other words, if you compare a few recovering alcoholics that are working completely different recovery programs, those alcoholics are going to share some of the same characteristics.

Let’s assume that they are using two completely different recovery programs. Yet if they are both successful in their recovery efforts then this means that they are sharing some similarities.

The things that they have in common (even though they are working different programs) are the fundamental principles.

In other words, these are the concepts that you cannot possibly avoid, even if you wanted to. They are fundamental to sobriety.

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The concepts are:

* Surrender.
* Disruption.
* Massive action.
* Holistic health.
* Personal growth.

If you are missing one of these in your recovery journey then I believe you are headed for relapse. You can’t get to successful recovery unless you tick of all five of these boxes. They are all fundamental to successful recovery.

Let’s take a closer look at them.

Denial and surrender

The real truth about alcoholism and drug addiction is that everyone has to break through their denial at first. At some point every alcoholic has to face reality and stop kidding themselves. Are they really happy drinking alcohol? No they are not. Yet they have been telling themselves that drinking leads to happiness for years or even decades. In order to break through this denial they have to get honest with themselves. This is actually very difficult to do.

So how exactly can you choose to surrender? How can the alcoholic or addict challenge themselves to break through their own denial? It can only be done through honesty. The alcoholic must examine their life and take a hard look at the facts. Most of us would prefer not to look at ourselves and our lives this closely. Most of us are not used to being this honest with ourselves. It hurts to admit that your best ideas about living have made you miserable. And yet this is the realization that the alcoholic has to come to grips with. They are trying to be happy through their drinking and it hasn’t worked. The experiment has failed. They have been wrong all along about alcohol. It did not lead them to happiness.

The only way to break through denial is to measure. The alcoholic has to measure their life, they have to measure their happiness. They have to measure the effect that alcohol is having.

In classic denial the alcoholic will realize that they are miserable, but they will cast the blame for this misery on all sorts of different things. Anything but blaming their unhappiness on alcohol. They will protect their alcohol because that is how they protect themselves from fear. They are afraid to face life sober and therefore they make excuses for the alcohol instead of realizing the full damage it is causing them. Their denial is fueled by fear. They are afraid to admit that alcohol is no good for them. They are afraid to admit that they might be happier without alcohol and drugs. Fear is what keeps them trapped.

So if fear is what keeps the alcoholic stuck in denial, what finally sets them free?


Pain and misery are what set the alcoholic free. This is another fundamental principle.

Alcoholics do not run into recovery with their arms wide open and a smile on their face, saying that they are delighted to be starting this joyous new journey. That is not how surrender works at all. In fact, that is about the complete opposite of what surrender really feels like.

Real surrender to alcoholism is a rather dark experience. Or at least, getting to the point of real surrender is quite dark and negative. The alcoholic must hit bottom. They are at their lowest point. The amount of pain and misery in their life is at a maximum. They are completely sick and tired of being sick and tired. This is surrender. They are not jumping for joy. They are not even necessarily hopeful that recovery will make them happy. I, for one, was quite skeptical of the idea that I might ever be happy again. I really believed that if I was sober that I would be miserable forever. Luckily I was wrong. But I did not have much hope at all for happiness in long term sobriety. When I surrendered, I just wanted to escape the pain and misery of addiction. But I did not really think that I would be happy some day. I was just sick and tired of the pain.

I know that paints an awfully dark picture of the surrender concept, but this is what I have learned to be true in recovery. We don’t surrender when things are going well. We surrender when we hit bottom, at our darkest moments, when we feel like we want to die.

Anyone who fails to surrender totally and completely is in risk of relapse in the future.

Complete surrender is fundamental to successful recovery. That means you surrender to:

….the fact that you are alcoholic or addict.
….the fact that you need total abstinence in your life.
….the fact that you need help; you need a program of recovery.

That is total and complete surrender.

Note that you can surrender to the first item on that list without having surrendered to the last two. I did this once, went to rehab, then relapsed. You must surrender to all three of those concepts in order to recover.


As an alcoholic or drug addict, your entire life revolves around your addiction.

After you surrender completely, you ask for help and then attempt to change your life.

How do you change? What happens next?

In my opinion it is necessary for most people to seek some form of disruption.

In other words, I had to make a lot of changes in my life other than simply eliminating the intake of drugs and alcohol.

Sure, stopping the chemicals in my body was priority number one. But if that was the only thing I did I was never going to make it. I had to make other changes as well.

Going to inpatient rehab and staying for 28 days is a form of disruption.

Going to long term rehab and living there for 20 months is a more severe form of disruption.

Going to jail is a disruption.

Going to the hospital is a disruption.

Some forms of disruption are better than others. In my opinion, the most ideal form of disruption is to attend inpatient rehab. Go to professional treatment. Go through detox.

This is a simple concept. Your life revolves around self medicating every day. You drink or use drugs constantly. Therefore, you need to disrupt your pattern long enough so that you can have a chance at recovery.

Being in rehab for 28 days is a great way to do this. You go through a medical detox which is safe. You stay in a protected environment where you are not tempted to use drugs or alcohol. It is easy to be in rehab.

This is another universal truth that I learned while working in a treatment center: It is easy to be in rehab. Even for the most hard core alcoholics and drug addicts, it is easy to be in rehab. In my five years of full time work at a rehab center, I never found someone who found it to be difficult to be in rehab. No one was climbing the walls saying that they needed to go drink right now this very instant. People were kept comfortable. There was no threat of immediate relapse. Once you are in rehab, it just is not that difficult to stay sober for 28 days. They make it easy for you.

Which is the entire point. And that is why inpatient rehab is the best form of disruption.

If you are going to recover then you have to find some way to disrupt your pattern of abuse. After considering the options, I think you will agree that going to treatment is the best one. There are other ways to disrupt your life but none of them have the advantages that inpatient rehab have.

Heck, you will actually have fun at times in rehab. Who could have imagined that, or ever predicted it? Most alcoholics believe that the experience will be miserable. But I can assure you that it is not that bad.

Massive action

This fundamental principle sort of builds on the one before it. You have to make changes in order to recover (disruption), but you also have to make massive changes.

It is not enough to pick the correct direction in recovery. We also have to deal with the issue of volume, or intensity.

You can’t just take action. You must take massive action in order to recover.

Now why would I say that you need “massive” action?

It’s pretty simple really. You have been living your life up to this point and facing various challenges, right?

You have a problem in life and you find a solution, then you implement the solution. You fix things. You take action.

And all of those experiences had a certain level of intensity. You had a certain level of dedication to the solution in all of those cases.

Now what I am telling you here is this:

The amount of intensity and dedication that you apply to your addiction problem has to be greater than anything you have ever done in the past.

So you have tried to do things in your life before, right?

Now you must try harder.

You must make a greater effort now than ever before.

You must dedicate your entire life to recovery and make the maximum effort.


Because if you don’t then you will relapse. Simple as that.

If you don’t try harder at recovery, if you don’t make the biggest commitment of your life to staying sober, then you will fail.

You can test this for yourself easily enough (but simply ignoring the advice), or you can even test the theory based on observations.

Go work in a short term rehab for a few years, as I once did. Watch people go in and out of treatment. Watch them come back after failing and relapsing.

Why do people relapse? They are not committed enough. They are not trying hard enough. They are not dedicating their entire life to recovery.

Some of them come back later and what do they do? They try harder. They commit more fully. They take more action.

If you are not trying harder than anything you have ever done in your life before then you are going to relapse.

What does this mean in the real world?

You hear a suggestion during treatment that you should attend 90 AA meetings in 90 days.

And maybe you think to yourself “That sounds a bit extreme. I think I will go to maybe two per week or something.”

This is a perfect example of someone setting themselves up for failure. They are willing to take action, but not massive action.

In order to recover you have to dive in to recovery head first. You can’t just work on your recovery for a few hours each week. You must eat, sleep, and breathe recovery. You have to immerse yourself in recovery.

It is a question of momentum. After you go to rehab you are in the middle, hanging between two points. One of those points is relapse, and at the other end is successful sobriety. You are in the middle of these two when you first go to rehab.

And when you walk out of treatment, you are still smack in the middle of these two outcomes. Some people probably think that when they successfully complete rehab that they are “cured.” Not even close. The journey is just starting. You still need to take a lot more action. You still need to take massive action.

Start taking suggestions. Every day, listen to advice from people who are sober and then act on that advice. Actually put the ideas into action.

Don’t just take action. Don’t make a half-hearted effort. Make a full effort. Take massive action.

Holistic health

Another thing that you should know about recovery from alcoholism is that it is based on holistic health.

What that means is that your overall health in recovery is extremely important.

Not just your physical or spiritual health, but also mental, emotional, and social health.

Think about your health and recovery for a moment.

Honest question: What good is sobriety if you are dead?

I have an answer for you: It’s not all that great to be dead and sober. I have direct evidence of this from friends and peers I have known in my recovery. When you’re gone, you’re gone!

Therefore, your health is really the ultimate currency in recovery. And not just your physical health, but all forms of health. That is why we talk about “holistic” health. The holistic part just means “whole person.” As in, all aspects of your overall health.

And you will notice if you stay in recovery for long enough that when certain people neglect one aspect of their health it can get them into serious trouble.

For example, when I was living in long term rehab, I was amazed at the number of people who relapsed because of a relationship that went bad. Really this was shocking to me. Nearly every peer of mine who relapsed during early recovery was doing so because of a relationship.

Therefore if you have relationships that are causing you stress or emotional turmoil then you are in danger of relapsing.

The health of your relationships in recovery is one measure of your overall holistic health. You cannot have a toxic relationship in your life and be completely healthy at the same time. The bad relationship compromises your overall health, and puts you in danger of relapse.

The same can be said of the other aspects of holistic health. Physical health is another big trigger for relapse. I have known many peers in recovery who feel ill or got an injury and they ended up relapsing as a result. So things like sleep, nutrition, fitness–all are a factor in preventing relapse. Some things prevent relapse more directly than others, but in the long run all of this stuff is important.

This is why a good long term strategy for recovery should focus on holistic health. If you are ticking off these check boxes each day in your mind then you will be stronger in your recovery for it. In other words, ask yourself every day if you are taking care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. If you ask yourself that question every day and you don’t have a good answer for each category then at some point you need to take more action. Because if you neglect one are for too long then you will become vulnerable to relapse because of it.

Remember that relapse is very sneaky. The disease of addiction is very sneaky. It can find different ways to attack you and this is why we need to consider our holistic health. If you are taking action in all five of these areas every day then you are well protected from the threat of relapse.

Personal growth

The final fundamental principle of recovery is that of personal growth. This is the overall theme of recovery in my opinion.

You want to recover from alcoholism or drug addiction then that means you must make changes in your life. Recovery is change.

Are the changes positive or negative? Well obviously they will need to be positive changes. We must change for the better if we expect to recover.

“Personal growth” is just another label to put on these positive changes.

There is a balance in every person’s recovery between acceptance and personal growth. The serenity prayer speaks to this directly. On one hand, we can accept ourselves just as we are right now, and do nothing to try to change. On the other hand, we can demand that we improve in some way, and then take positive action to try to change something. “The wisdom to know the difference” is in learning what we should try to change and what we should just accept.

In my experience you should error on the side of trying to push yourself to change. If you accept to readily then you fall into a trap that can lead to relapse. On the other hand I do not see too many people who have burned out in recovery from trying to make too many positive changes. That doesn’t happen, or if it does, I don’t see any evidence of it. When people strive to make personal growth then the efforts that they put in come back to pay them back over and over again.

In other words, recovery is a lot of work but it is also very rewarding. And the rewards are well worth the effort that we put in. But you still must acknowledge the fact that the effort you must make is truly massive. Recovery is hard work, but it is well worth it!

What about you, have you found these fundamental principles to be true in your recovery? Why are why not? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!

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