Anyone who is struggling with addiction or alcoholism should follow the basic strategies outlined here.
Recovering from addiction is not rocket science, but on the other hand it is not easy to do either. And sometimes I believe that the recovery process can be more complicated than people give credit for. For example, a common thing heard in traditional recovery meetings such as AA is something to the effect of: “This is a simple program for simple people.” They are trying to convince you to get out of your own way and just do the work in order to stay sober.
But in reality the recovery process is actually someone involved. At the very least, you have to contend with redesigning your life from the ground up while also learning how to take care of yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually…..all on a day to day basis! This is not as simple as many people in the meetings would have you believe at first.
In my opinion a few guidelines are necessary. If you go the traditional route and go to AA or NA, then the 12 steps are your guidelines but it is actually much more than that. Because those programs actually have a lot of implied guidelines that go outside of the actual 12 steps themselves. For starters, the idea of total abstinence is actually implied and not clearly stated, and right off the bat that makes me wish that there was more clarity there (step one should, in my opinion, state something about a commitment to total abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances).
So what follows are my own personal guidelines as they pertain to me in my own recovery journey. Whether or not those guidelines can help you is up for interpretation. I have also spent a great deal of time working with others in recovery and my hope is that these ideas are consistent with what others experience as well. In other words, based on my observations, the following ideas and concepts are valid. They hold up to testing. So you would not be wise to ignore these ideas if you are trying to recover from addiction or alcoholism.
The first critical decision is to let go of everything and just surrender to your addiction
Surrender is a fairly universal concept.
There are actually recovery programs that do not involve surrender. So instead of admitting that your addiction has you beat, you try to assert your power over your drug of choice and attempt to control your use of it. Seriously, such programs do exist. They attempt to teach moderation.
Such programs never have outstanding success rates, and many people question if they are ever effective at all for any serious alcoholic or drug addict. In a sense, this is what we all tried to do when we were stuck in our addictions: We tried to control it. We tried to moderate. At some point, however, we had to surrender to the fact that we could not seem to drink or use our drug of choice successfully any longer.
That is what surrender is, at the core: We admit to ourselves that we can NOT control it.
When you surrender, you accept the idea of total and complete abstinence into your heart. For me, this was like driving a spike into my heart. It was painful for me to accept the idea of total abstinence. It was like a form of spiritual death for me to finally concede defeat in this sense. I did not want to do it. I struggled for years and years in order to avoid having to surrender to my disease. I wanted to drink and use drugs forever and keep running away from my fears.
But eventually the drugs and the booze stopped working so well. I was experiencing all of the negative side effects but the “fun” was long gone. It just wasn’t fun any more. I wanted the old days back, when I could take a few drinks and laugh with friends and have a good time. But those days were gone forever and they were not coming back. Instead of having “fun” in my addiction I was just trying to medicate my fears. And in the end, even that stopped working so well. I was sick and tired of being afraid. I was tired of living in fear. There had to be a better way.
That better was involved surrender. I had to stop trying to control things. I had to let go of everything, all of it. I had to just let it all slide. I cared about nothing. I cared about no one, least of all myself. You could have put a gun to my head and I would have shrugged my shoulders. I was living in fear and in pain and I wanted it all to stop. And I had very little hope for a life in recovery. I did not believe it to be possible for me to be sober and happy. I was hopeless.
I realize that is quite a dark corner I have painted just now. That is what surrender is like. That is what the moment right before you surrender is like. It is always darkest right before the dawn. “Hitting bottom is not a weekend retreat.” It is going to be dark. It is going to be painful and full of fear. But that is what you have been living through anyway, so there is really nothing to be afraid of in terms of hitting your bottom. It is a transition to a better life. Once you hit bottom and surrender, everything starts to get better.
And this is where the magic happens. After you surrender and have hit your bottom, everything starts to get better, one day at a time. Recovery is an amazing journey. You will be happy again. you will feel real joy in your heart. But it all starts out in this very dark place, in this place of total fear and pain, and you have to give yourself over entirely to it. Surrender totally and completely. Become willing to give yourself over to a new life, to a new direction, to anything other than the madness you have been living in.
The moment of surrender is a moment of ego death. Your old self dies and a new self is born.
And that can be very scary.
Ask for help and be willing to abandon your “self” and do whatever you are told to do to recover
How do you know when you have surrendered fully and completely?
How do you know when you are finally done with denial?
You can tell by the fact that you will do the following two things:
1) Ask for help.
2) Do exactly what you are told to do.
Not very exciting, right? No one likes to do either of those two things, generally speaking.
We don’t like to ask for help. It is a sign of weakness, or so we tell ourselves.
And we don’t like to be told what to do. Again, another form of weakness. We can figure out what we want all by ourselves, thank you very much. Or so we believe.
But the truth is that in early recovery, you need help. And you don’t know what to do.
The problem is that you cannot just fake it. You can’t just be struggling with addiction and decide that you will go through these motions and hopefully recover. So maybe you ask for help and they tell you to go to rehab, so you go. But then later you leave treatment and you relapse.
What went wrong?
You left out the most important part–the surrender. You never surrendered fully.
So it is tricky. We can fool ourselves, but it doesn’t do any good.
We can fool ourselves by not hitting bottom, not surrendering to our addiction, and then going through the motions.
People go to rehab all the time and they are not truly ready to change. They are still in denial. And yet they go to rehab. Or they ask for help. Or they go to AA. But they are still in denial and they have not yet surrendered fully to the solution.
Keep in mind that there are at least two key areas of denial that you have to work through.
When you get past denial you surrender to it.
So you may be in denial that you are an alcoholic. And then later on you accept this and you surrender to the fact that you are, in fact, a real alcoholic. You are no longer in denial.
However, you may still be in denial of the solution.
I was at this point myself for a long time. I knew I was an alcoholic, yet I had not surrendered to the solution.
I was no longer in denial of my alcoholism, but I was still in denial of the solution. I did not believe that rehab or AA or anything else could possible work for me.
So this is the difference between being partially surrendered, and in experiencing “total and complete surrender.”
When you finally surrender completely you are willing to do anything, accept any solution, try anything that you are told to do in order to recover.
When I was struggling with my alcoholism I was not willing to abandon my “self” in order to recover.
I was terrified of AA meetings. I was afraid of rehab. I did not want to do those things. I wanted a different solution in my life.
There were no other solutions. I was stuck. And yet I was clinging to these fears, to this anxiety, about not wanting to face AA meetings and not wanting to go back to rehab.
These fears were a part of who I was. They defined me. They were part of why I kept drinking and kept myself medicated. I was medicating my fears away every day. I did not want to face reality.
So for me, the breakthrough finally came when I was miserable enough.
I was so miserable and I was so sick and tired that it was as if I had abandoned my “self.”
My ego died. I was nearly suicidal. I no longer cared about myself at all. I was so full of fear and I was tired of being miserable. I hated myself and what I had become.
This was my moment of surrender. This was way beyond admitting that I was an alcoholic. Now I was admitting that I needed serious help, and becoming willing to actually follow through with it.
I was at the point where I could admit to myself that I had no idea what I needed in life. I knew that I needed help but I no longer had the authority to make judgments, to say what would work and what would not work for me. I had proven to myself thoroughly that I did not know what was good for me. I could no longer trust myself.
This was where my willingness came from. It came out of a dark place of total fear and misery. I was sick and tired of being afraid, and I was finally willing to follow directions. I was saying to the world: “Show me how to live, I can not figure it out.” And I was willing to face my fears.
That is the key point of surrender. You become so miserable that you are now ready to face your fears. Your greatest fears. Which for me was to face the world sober, to sit in an AA meeting and be expected to speak, to go to rehab and expose myself to the world. To become vulnerable. To stop hiding behind the booze and the drugs. To show my real feelings to people, to break down and cry in front of them. These were the things that terrified me about sobriety. These were the things that kept me stuck for years, in denial, self medicating with alcohol.
And when I surrendered, all of this stuff just fell away in a single moment. I abandon the self and became willing to face my fears. I no longer cared. I was choosing to face the fear rather than to live on in misery.
If I kept drinking then I knew what to expect: more misery. If I chose recovery then I was getting an unknown; it would be scary, but at least there was a chance that I wouldn’t be miserable.
That is how you make a leap of faith and surrender. You choose the path of fear rather than the path of misery. And this happens once you get honest enough with yourself to realize that you are living in misery, and that if you continue to drink or drug you will always be miserable. You have to get real with that fact before you can make the leap into your fears, into sobriety.
It takes guts.
Following through by taking massive action in early recovery, getting lots of support, and doing the hard work
This stuff is just an extension of surrender.
If you hit bottom and completely surrendered, then you will do these next few ideas. If you did not surrender completely, you won’t, and you will relapse. It always comes back to surrender.
So after you are clean and sober you start to get a bit more stable in your recovery. Maybe you even get on that “pink cloud” that everyone talks about in AA. Things are going decent. Recovery is not so bad after all.
Now, how do you maintain this? How do become the person that you were meant to be in recovery? How do you evolve and grow as a person?
The answer is:
Recovery takes work. The rewards are amazing, you can have this awesome new life and you can experience real peace, joy, and contentment. You can be happy while sober. But you have to work at it. And you have to work for it. And that means you have to take an honest look at yourself and be willing to go through some discomfort.
If you are not uncomfortable doing the work then it isn’t really work, now is it?
No, in early recovery you have to push yourself a bit to be uncomfortable. That is why so many people hesitate to do a fourth and fifth step in AA, where you basically write down all of the dirt from your past and share it with another human being. That’s hard work. No one wants to do that and get that uncomfortable. I can remember doing it and it felt really horrible. Everything in my mind and my body was telling me not to share these horrible things with another person. Yet I did it, and I can look back now and see how I am a stronger person for having done it. Much stronger. Someone heard the worst of my past and they judged me to still be a good human being. And so I don’t have to drink over those bad memories today. It’s not the end of the world and I can move on and try to become a better person in the future.
Doing a fourth and fifth step are just one example of “doing the work.” But there is a lot more to it than that.
I had to identify what my brain was doing in order to sabotage my recovery efforts. What I figured out was that I tended to engage in self pity. And I realized at some point that this would eventually drive me to relapse if I did not figure out a way to counteract it.
More work. I had work to do. Here was this defect of my brain, a pattern of negative thinking, and I had to find a way to overcome it.
So I had to ask for help. I had to do research on how to overcome this defect. And I had to start doing the work, making gratitude lists every day, pushing myself to take positive action so that I could eliminate this tendency.
And I had to stay vigilant. I had to ask for help and take advice. I had to do the work.
This is the meat of recovery. Sure, you surrender, and that is really important. You can’t even get started without surrender.
Then you ask for help, and maybe you go to rehab. You start taking advice and direction.
But then you get to this middle stage of recovery, where you have to sink or swim. Do the work, or get lazy and relapse.
Get uncomfortable and face your fears, or go back to hiding, just like you did in your addiction.
Engage in person growth, or avoid the uncomfortable questions and drift slowly back towards relapse.
You know that you are doing the work by two major indicators:
1) Feeling uncomfortable. Facing your fears.
2) Taking advice from others and acting on it. Taking suggestions.
If you are doing both of those things then you are on a powerful path in recovery.
If you are not doing those things then you may be flirting with disaster in the form of relapse.
Personal growth is relapse prevention
I know a lot of people in the 12 step program who have done very well for themselves.
I also know a lot more people in the 12 step program who relapsed. And who continue to relapse.
What is the difference?
In my opinion it all comes down to personal growth. This is the outcome of all of those other things that we have talked about so far:
2) Asking for help.
3) Following through.
4) Doing the work.
5) Being uncomfortable and facing your fears.
If you are doing all of the above, then the output of that is something we can loosely call “personal growth.”
If you stop doing any of those things for too long then we could label that as a “lack of personal growth.” Or we might call it stagnation. Or complacency.
So the key is that if you want to do well in recovery then you need to prevent relapse. Once you are sober and stable, the name of the game is relapse prevention.
And you prevent relapse by reinventing yourself, over and over again. Doing the work, facing your fears, pushing through the discomfort. Destroying your weaknesses to become stronger.
What about you, have you found a path of strength in your sobriety? What are the guidelines that got you there? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!