My first treatment episode occurred after I finally realized that I had gone from having fun with my addiction to full blown dependence.
I believe it took at least another year or two before I would become willing to go back to rehab. But even though I agreed to go to treatment a second time, I was agreeing for the wrong reasons. The tough thing about addiction was that I knew it at the time, and I realized that my heart was not in it–that I was not fully surrendered yet or ready to get clean and sober, but I agreed to go to rehab anyway. Not too surprisingly, it did not turn out well.
Going to treatment for the wrong reasons
It was not that I did not need the help at this point, because I almost certainly did. I was a complete mess. I was experimenting with other drugs when I could get my hands on them. And I was drinking dangerous amounts of booze on a regular basis.
The problem had to do with two things:
1) My fear of sobriety and of the recovery process.
2) My level of surrender.
My first exposure to treatment had sort of shown me a glimpse of what the recovery process involved. I had seen 12 step meetings and I had been expected to share in them and speak in front of other people. Probably not a huge deal to most people but for some reason this gave me a terrible amount of anxiety.
I also coupled this knowledge from my first rehab experience with what the counselors and therapists were telling me all along: that AA and NA were the solution. That lifelong recovery was based on regular meeting attendance. This seemed to be the consistent message that I was getting, over and over again. The experts all pointed in the same direction. Those who avoid 12 step programs do not fare well.
Now couple this with the information that I was being given while IN the AA and NA meetings: People were sharing information about their success in AA and their previous relapses based on fear. They were a self selecting group and so they had this very clear message to the newcomer like myself: “If you leave AA or NA, you will surely relapse and eventually die. This is the only way.”
I heard this message get repeated over and over again at various 12 meetings. Note that this message is not necessarily a part of the 12 step programs themselves, those are actually laid out with very sound principles and are completely innocent. The problem is the people in these meetings and their fear based mentality. What they are trying to do is to reassure themselves that they can remain clean and sober. That is what they are doing when they say to the newcomer in recovery: “If you quit coming to meetings you will relapse and die.” They are not actually speaking to the newcomer. They are speaking to themselves, they just don’t realize it. And they are speaking based on their own fears and their own insecurities about staying clean and sober.
It is a very deep topic that I have written extensively about, but basically the fear based message that you hear in 12 step programs all boils down to this: people in recovery are scared, they are afraid of relapse, and they are trying to simplify a complex process (addiction recovery) into something such as meeting attendance. The key to sobriety is much deeper and more complex than simply attending meetings, however, so their fear-based message is misleading and inaccurate.
So I had already had exposure to 12 step meetings in the past and I had heard these sort of fear based threats about relapse and I felt like I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, I was terrified of meetings due to social anxiety and felt like I would rather die than to subject myself to them again. On the other hand I knew the statistics and I knew the facts and I knew what all of the counselors and therapists were telling me was most likely true: that the 12 step program was pretty much the only way for a young person like myself to make it in recovery.
So I felt torn and I did not want to accept the fact that the 12 step program was likely my only salvation. I resisted it for a long time and I promised that I would never face the fear of sitting through 12 step meetings ever again.
Today, I realize that the 12 step program is not the only path to success in recovery. I realize now that you do not have to depend on 12 step meetings in order to recovery successfully. I realize today that the fear based messages that you hear in meetings about how anyone will relapse and die if they leave are all false. I know that today because I walked away from traditional recovery over a decade ago, and nearly everyone that I knew in recovery has relapsed, and I have not.
But I could not have known that back then, in the beginning. I do not think I even would have believed someone like myself saying that it was possible to live a life in recovery that did not depend on the 12 step program. All of the evidence that I was being presented with back then pointed to the need for AA or NA. That was being offered as the only solution, the only possible way that I could save my life.
The reason that I finally attended treatment for a second time was not because I was willing to go to meetings. It was because my friends and family begged me to go. They actually organized a very formal intervention and scheduled me to check into a nationwide rehab after a plane ride. They set it all up in advance, got everyone together, and basically begged me to go check into treatment.
Trying to get sober without fully surrendering first
At the time, I kept saying that “I was not ready to get sober” and that “I was not yet done drinking and using drugs.” But my friends and family knew that I was out of control, and they knew they had to do something, and so they staked their hope on this treatment for me. So reluctantly, I agreed to go.
This is definitely a case of going to rehab for the wrong reasons. Ultimately it is a question of timing. Nearly any addict can, at some point, go to rehab and get clean and sober and possibly make it stick. The question is: Are they truly ready to do that yet? Is it time?
Something inside of people determines their bottom. Something inside of people determines how much pain and misery they will tolerate before they will finally surrender and agree to get help and change their life. At this point in my life, I may have been out of control, and I may have been a total train wreck of a human being, but I was not yet at my “misery threshold.” I was still of the mindset that I could tweak the formula of self medicating and possibly still have some more fun with drugs. I believed that it was better to self medicate rather than to face the fear of getting clean and sober.
The fear of meetings and of AA is part of what held me back from success with this second rehab. I had known for a while how terrified I was of the 12 step solution that was constantly being pushed. I had argued for a long time that I wanted an alternative to this method of recovery.
The reason I failed is not because I was not given an alternative. That would not have made any difference in my opinion. No, the reason I failed is because I was not yet willing to face this fear of sobriety, this fear of meetings, this fear of social recovery.
It is not the responsibility of the world or of society to cater to my fears when I am trying to get clean and sober. That is not how it works.
The way it works is this:
The alcoholic or the addict is afraid to get clean and sober, and so they resist and they take the easy way out and they continue to self medicate. At some point, their pain and their misery and the chaos of addiction and their consequences from their drug or alcohol use becomes so great that it is worse than their fear of recovery. Their pain and misery has to become greater than their fear of sobriety.
Being sick and tired, but not enough to overcome the fear of facing life sober
This is the breaking point. This is why I failed to stay sober on my second trip to rehab. I was too afraid to face reality and get clean and sober. I was too scared to make the leap of faith. The way to overcome this fear is by enduring more pain, misery, and chaos in addiction. At some point, the addict will want to escape from all of that misery and pain and so they will surrender to their disease, fully accepting that it is never going to get any better. That is the process of surrender. It is an accumulation of fear, pain, and misery from the chaos of addiction and the consequences that continue to pile up. Once you reach a certain point, the addict realizes that it is actually the easier path to give recovery a chance.
When will an addict or alcoholic finally change? “When the pain of staying the same is greater than the fear of change.” I believe that quote is part of Al-anon.
Pain and misery is the motivator. It is not a very good motivator, and there are probably better ways to motivate people, but the addict does not have a choice. They live in pain and chaos and misery and their life is dominated by it. They use their drug of choice and get brief moments of relief from a life of misery. Denial keeps them stuck in this cycle because they believe that they are happy using their drug of choice most of the time. In reality they are miserable almost all of the time and it is their denial that causes them to believe that they are happy when they are clearly not.
My failed trip to rehab was based on a lack of surrender. I was too scared to take action and change my life. The only way to overcome this fear is to have enough pain and misery and consequences. I did not have that yet and I was still holding out hope for more “good times” with drugs and alcohol. I had not had enough misery. I had not endured enough pain yet. So I returned to active addiction instead of choosing the more courageous path of recovery. My fear won out over any desire to change.
Being willing to change but not quite willing to change everything
There is always a fine line when an addict or alcoholic takes the plunge into recovery. At least some part of them does not want to get clean and sober, some part of them wants to keep self medicating and using their drug of choice forever. This is only natural and is just part of addiction. Addicts love to use, even when their disease makes them miserable.
So what happens at some point is that the addict will start to experience consequences and they will wish that things were different.
This is not the same thing as wanting to change. The actual desire for change may be a long way off yet, but the addict can still wish that things were different.
They might say things like “I wish I had never been born.” Or “I wish I had never tried drugs or alcohol.” So they clearly are miserable and they clearly are wishing that things were different and that they were somehow lifted out of their addiction.
But of course they are trapped, and they are in denial, and they do not believe that they can ever be happy again without their drug of choice. So they feel trapped and hopeless and like they have no choice but to continue to self medicate. This is denial in action. They really believe that they are unique, they are different, and that no human has ever loved drugs as much they do, because obviously they need their drug of choice in order to be happy, right?
And so the addict or alcoholic gets to this place where they are somewhat willing to change. They want for things to be different. They wish that they were not an addict. But at the same time, they are not fully willing to change everything.
And this is the definition of surrender, really. You must let go of everything, let go “absolutely.” If you hang on to any one piece of your old life then you are setting yourself up for failure.
I did this when I went to rehab a second time because I could not imagine a life without any friends. I thought that if I got rid of all of my drinking and drug buddies that I would just die from loneliness. This may sound like exaggeration but in my mind I was dead serious about this. I really thought that I would rather be dead than to leave all of my “friends” behind by walking away from my addiction.
So this was another block to my recovery, this idea that I had to leave my old life behind and get a new set of friends in my recovery. Again, this was a function of my fear and of my personality. I was shy, had some amount of social anxiety, and I did not make friends very easily. So who is going to tell me that I have to drop all of my old friends and get new ones all of a sudden? To someone who is shy this is a death sentence. You don’t even realize what you are asking when you say “just go make new friends in recovery!” This is ridiculous to someone who is shy and anxious and so they would much rather just keep the friends that they have and continue to self medicate.
It all goes back to the whole idea that your pain and misery has to be worse than your fear of change. This is how to achieve surrender. I was terrified of losing all of my friends who I used drugs and alcohol with and I could not imagine leaving all of those people and starting over, completely alone, and having to make new friends. When therapists and counselors told me that this would be easy to do if I just went to meetings and opened up a bit, I wanted to kill myself because, quite honestly, suicide sounded a lot more appealing than what they were suggesting. This is how fear can hold a person back from making the changes that they need to make.
Later I would learn that such social anxieties and fears were known as “irrational fears.” It is not rational for me to believe that making new friends in recovery is a fate worse than death. That is not rational. But I did not care about what was rational, and I could not be convinced to “not be afraid” just because it did not make logical sense.
I believe that the bottom line is this: If you fear something as much as death, you are not going to face that fear. The way to overcome such a fear is through enduring the pain and consequences of living with that fear. You have to get miserable in order to change. You have to get miserable in order to make a leap of faith. That is how people surrender to their addiction. They get fed up with the chaos, to the point that they become willing to face the unknown. It is only then that they make the leap into recovery.
Seeing long term treatment as a prison sentence
My attitude during this second trip to rehab was all wrong. This was simply a result of not having fully surrendered yet.
One of the common mistakes that I see over and over again in early recovery is one that I made myself. It has to do with how we perceive treatment.
During my second rehab experience, the counselors and therapists realized that I needed a lot more help than what they could give me. They wanted me to go to long term treatment and live there for several months.
My reaction to this idea tells a great deal about my level of surrender and my chances at success in recovery. At the time, I was horrified at this idea, and I was angry that it would even be suggested to me. I was outraged at the idea of long term treatment.
In my mind, I was already making some sort of huge sacrifice by going to rehab for 28 days. You would have thought that I was sacrificing 30 years of my life or something. Little did I realize that 28 days is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to recovery.
But this is part of the attitude shift that needs to happen in order to be successful in recovery. Treatment should not be seen as a punishment. Rather, it is more of a gift.
When I finally got clean and sober “for good,” I was begging for long term treatment. I knew that I needed it, and I wanted it.
So my second trip to rehab was not going to work out in a positive way. I relapsed immediately and would stay drunk for another full year before I finally surrendered. But it was all part of the process, and I also noticed that many people who get clean and sober finally do so after attending their third treatment.
Third times a charm…..