Early recovery from addiction is all about fear.
Most people don’t like to admit that. They don’t want to believe that it is fear that keeps them trapped in addiction.
They don’t want to hear that it is their own fears that keep them from doing the things that they need to do to take care of themselves in recovery.
Nobody likes to admit to their fears. We feel like it is a sign of weakness. So we try to cover it up. Hide it. Run away from it. We don’t like to admit that we are afraid.
But getting sober is scary. There is no way around this, because it is a journey into the unknown.
The recovering alcoholic or drug addict has no idea what to expect out of sobriety. How could they? They have been living in a completely different world for years or even decades. Being sober is completely alien to them. It is uncharted waters.
So there is bound to be fear.
The key is to move past the fear and embrace recovery anyway.
The question, then, is how do we do that?
Getting past the initial fear of sobriety when you surrender to your disease
Every alcoholic has at least one major hurdle in terms of getting clean and sober, and that is the initial moment of surrender to their disease.
There are actually two points of denial here. Let’s break it down and be specific.
The first point of denial is the part where you accept the fact that you are a real alcoholic or drug addict. This is when you break through your classic denial. You admit to your disease.
That is the first part of this process.
But the second part is equally important, and many people do not even realize that there is this difference. The second part of denial is about accepting a new solution into your life.
That is all about fear.
It was one thing for me to admit that I was alcoholic. I finally did that. I accepted it fully. I knew that I was beat. Alcohol had whipped me.
But it was another thing entirely for me to admit that I needed to turn my life over to something else completely. This was a whole other level of fear for me.
And I was not willing to do that at first.
So I was past the first part of my denial, but not the second part. I accepted my disease finally, but I had not yet accepted a solution in my life.
I was terrified of AA meetings. I did not like them at all, because I did not like being put on the spot and expected to speak.
Some people have pointed out to me over the years that you can defer the speaking, you can just pass your turn, or tell the group that you are “just there to listen today.”
But doing that is virtually the same problem for me. It is still anxiety. I still have to speak to the group, to tell them that I am too afraid to speak in front of them. It is actually almost easier just to make a few comments at that point rather than call attention to yourself about the fact that you are too afraid to speak up.
So I was afraid of AA. I was afraid to go the meetings and sit there and be put on the spot. That moment when everyone looks at your expectantly, knowing that you are about to speak out loud. Even if it is just to say “I am only hear to listen today.” I could not handle that moment. I was terrified of it.
So this was my specific fear that kept me drinking for many years. Because the solution was AA, and every other solution seemed to incorporate AA to some degree, and I was simply terrified of the meetings.
And so I told myself that I was doomed to be a drunk until the day I died, because I was never going to get past that fear of speaking in an AA meeting. I was never going to be comfortable doing that.
And so I was very depressed, because I did not see any alternative solutions outside of the AA program, and I was too afraid to face the meetings and make that my recovery solution.
That was the fear that kept me from full surrender. I could not surrender to a new solution in my life because I was so afraid of it.
Getting past the fear of treatment or going to rehab
Eventually I faced that fear of speaking in front of AA meetings.
Eventually I went to rehab, knowing that they would have AA meetings every day, knowing that I would be sitting in AA meetings and feeling uncomfortable.
I felt that fear and I went to treatment anyway.
Why? What had changed?
What had changed was my level of misery.
There is a balance between fear and misery for every alcoholic who is struggling.
On the one hand, their addiction is making them miserable. After a while it is impossible even for the alcoholic to deny this. They know that their addiction creates misery. At some point every alcoholic realizes this to be true. It just ain’t fun any more.
On the other hand, the alcoholic is afraid of sobriety. Afraid of recovery. Afraid of facing life sober. Afraid of facing themselves and finally getting honest with themselves. Afraid to face who they have become without running away from it all. Fear keeps them drinking.
So there is this balance. So in my own experience, I was afraid of AA, and I was also miserable in my drinking. But at some point I reached a critical moment. A tipping point. My misery overflowed and I was so completely sick and tired of being miserable that I no longer cared.
This is important. I no longer cared about anything. I didn’t care about you, about myself, about my fear, about anything. I was completely sick of it all.
This is what it means to hit bottom. You stop caring. You just let go. Completely and absolutely.
How do you know when you have hit bottom? When you don’t care about anything or anyone. If you still care, then you are not at your bottom yet.
I was at a point where I had ceased caring. About anything.
And so I realized that I could now face my fears. Rehab? Sure. No problem. Who cares?
AA meetings? Why not? I will sit through them. Who cares? I certainly didn’t. Put a gun to my head, see if I even flinch.
That was my mindset. I had stopped caring about everything and everyone. I was done. Done with everything. I just didn’t care any more.
And that was how I was able to face my fear.
I was so desperate at the time to escape from the misery, I was so sick and tired of being miserable, that I no longer cared about the fears that held me back.
So I simply stepped through those fears. I asked for help. I went to rehab. I followed directions.
And things started to get better. Simple as that. Surrender, ask for help, follow directions. Simple.
The fear of self honesty and self assessment in early recovery
After you get into recovery there are still more challenges that lie ahead.
Even after you surrender and finally take those first tentative steps towards sobriety, you still have more fears to face in the future.
If you look at the AA program and the 12 steps it involves quite a bit of work on yourself in terms of personal growth. You have to get honest with yourself. You have to do some serious soul searching.
This involves fear. Because we don’t like to be uncomfortable. We don’t like to look into those dark corners of our past and drag the dirty laundry out. We would rather be oblivious and feel safe and secure all the time rather than be exposed in the light of truth.
But that is not how we heal. In order to heal, you are going to have to do some of that soul searching. You are going to have to dig around a bit and drag up some of those old memories.
Because if you don’t do that sort of work, then those things can act as triggers in the future, and they might lead you to relapse.
Many people in AA have relapsed and later come back to explain what went wrong. A lot of them will say things like “I never did a fourth and fifth step.” That would be the moral inventory and the confession that goes along with it.
The steps that follow those are important was well, in my experience. That is where you start to identify and then work on purging your character defects. So all of the things that are part of your life that keep you unhappy, that keep you from experiencing pure joy and bliss, those things need to be eliminated. But again, you have do the work. You have to get honest with yourself in order to be able to identify those things. And you may even have to ask for feedback from others who then criticize you. Most people don’t like doing that. They don’t like the discomfort. But the reward for that discomfort is growth.
Face your fears and there is always an opportunity for growth hidden inside of that experience. If you want more freedom in your life then the secret is to face your fears, one at a time. Each time you conquer a fear you gain another piece of your freedom. Each fear that you keep in your life keeps you in chains, keeps you captive.
So even after you surrender and your stable in recovery, there is still work to do in terms of self honesty. You still have to identify your fears and learn to face them head on, to conquer them.
I have over 13 years sober today and I am still identifying and facing my fears and anxieties in life. This is still a source of personal growth for me. I don’t think the process ever ends.
Getting honest with yourself about the difficult changes that you need to make
No one likes to face the music. At some point every alcoholic realizes that they have some difficult changes to make in life. Facing that reality can be downright scary because you don’t know what to expect.
I can remember when I was in treatment and they were urging me to check into a long term rehab center. At the time I was not at the point of full surrender and I was terrified. I was all mixed up still. I equated long term rehab with going to prison. What was the difference? In my twisted mind there was no difference. This is because I felt like drinking alcohol every day was freedom, and anything else might as well be prison. I was still in denial.
Later on I surrendered fully and I realized that I needed long term rehab if I was ever going to turn my life around. I knew this was true because all of the therapists and counselors had told me that I probably needed long term care to turn my life around. They had been telling me that for over a year now. And I hadn’t listened because I was too scared to do so.
Long term rehab sounds like a death sentence. The programs have lengths like “six months to two years.” Doesn’t that sound like a huge commitment? To live somewhere, just to get sober? That was how I was thinking when I was still in denial. I was overwhelmed at the thought of living somewhere for six months. And two years sounded insane to me.
Well, it turned out that after I finally surrendered I actually did move into long term rehab, and I stayed there for a total of 20 months. Truth be told I would not have minded staying even longer, but it was time to move on.
And of course my fears were completely unfounded. Long term rehab was nothing like prison. In fact it was a really amazing experience and I would do it again in a second if I had to.
I had a great deal of freedom while living in long term treatment. On top of that, I gained a lot more freedom through the mere fact that I was now sober. I no longer had to self medicate every day and slowly ruin my life. I got a job, got a new car, went back to school, completely got back on my feet. It was amazing. Instead of being a “virtual prison,” long term treatment gave me total and complete freedom.
Learning how to love yourself in long term sobriety
Perhaps the biggest challenge in long term sobriety is to learn how to love yourself again.
I don’t mean that in a sappy emotional way. I mean that in a practical sense, in terms of taking care of yourself, in terms of facing your fears and doing the things that you need to do in order to recover.
I had to learn how to take care of myself all over again. From scratch.
So I started eating healthy meals three times per day. I (obviously) stopped putting toxic chemicals into my body.
I started sleeping every night like a normal human might do (my hours while alcoholic were absolutely insane).
I started to take care of myself physically, by exercising on a regular basis.
I started taking care of myself spiritually, by working a recovery program, meditating, praying, and practicing gratitude on a daily basis.
I started taking care of myself mentally. I went back to college, finished a degree, started to generate ideas every day. I wrote down new ideas every day. I kept making lists, forcing my brain to come up with new ideas.
I started taking care of myself emotionally. I eliminated sources of stress in my life. I incorporated new ideas that reduced stress, like exercise and meditation. I eliminated toxic relationships. I said “no” to people who were no good for me.
I started taking care of myself socially. I surrounded myself with positive people who cared about my recovery welfare. I stuck with the winners. I avoided toxic people.
I had to learn how to do all of this stuff from the moment that I first got clean and sober.
And it took time. Learning is a process. This stuff did not just all happen overnight and magically I was a sober and happy person.
Instead, it was a painful transition. Some of it was painful anyway. There were some tough moments in my early recovery. There were days when I thought that I might end up relapsing, that I might not “make it” in long term sobriety. It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. I had some dark moments.
But I learned to hang on. The old timers at the AA meetings would say “just hang on, don’t drink no matter what, and keep doing what you are supposed to be doing and eventually it will get better.”
There really is no better advice than that. Facing your fears is never going to be easy. No one enjoys facing their fears or getting honest with themselves. So there are times when you just have to grind it out. When there is no way to make it any easier. Sure, you can reach out and find support. You might go to an AA meeting and talk about it, or you might call a friend in recovery or a sponsor. But there will also probably be times in your recovery journey when it is just you and the universe and your drug of choice. And there will be no defense against that first drink other than your faith, your willingness, your conviction. This is when you have to hold on like it is your only job in life. If you can make it through then there are brighter days ahead. They have a saying in AA: “It gets greater, later.” Very annoying to the newcomer! But also very true. It does get greater, later on. Because the work you are doing in early recovery slowly compounds over time. Every day that you remain sober and take positive action starts building a stronger future for yourself.
And that is scary. This is why having faith is important in early recovery. Because without faith and hope, what do you really have at 5 days sober? What do you have to look forward to? There is only fear and sobriety and the great unknown laying ahead.
They told me that it would get better if I just held on.
To be honest, I did not believe them. I flat out refused to believe that my life would get better or that I could be happy in sobriety.
I was too afraid to believe that.
But I did it anyway. They told me what to do and I did it anyway, because I was fresh out of options. Drinking and drugging was leading me to misery. I was done with that path.
So I followed directions. I asked for help and I did what they told me to do. I followed through. I listened.
I faced my fear of the unknown and I plowed ahead. Why not? What was the worst that could happen?
I expected more misery in sobriety. What I got was completely unexpected. The old timers had been telling the truth. I wasn’t so unique after all, and I could actually be happy while sober.
But getting to that point was like jumping off a cliff. I had to face my fears, all of them at once, and dive head first into sobriety.
But it worked out.
And it can work for you too, if you are willing to let go.
What about you, have you faced your fears in early recovery and conquered them? What has that journey been like for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!