We already examined what the perfect rate of challenge in recovery is, and believe it or not, you have to push yourself a bit more than just coasting through recovery without a care in the world. Some growth is required for success, and you are responsible to make that growth happen.
I am in a unique position in that I have seen a tremendous amount of data when it comes to early recovery from addiction.
Not only have I been to three treatment centers myself and lived in a rehab for almost two years, but I also worked in a detox and short term residential facility for about six years.
I have lived it myself, and I have seen early recovery play out thousands of times over again while working in detox.
And I’ve got news for you:
Early recovery from addiction and alcoholism is really tough.
I’m not sure if that is coming to you as much of a news flash or not, but there is a lesson to be learned here regardless.
When we realize just how difficult early recovery can be for most people, we can adjust our strategy and act accordingly (thus increasing our chances of staying clean and sober).
Comparing recovery to other things in our life
Most people who arrive at the decision to try to sober up or get off drugs have no idea what they are up against. I have experienced this for myself first hand, but I have also watched it thousands of times over as people have come to detox to try to kick their habit. The first thing that you realize when you start to actually pay attention is that people overwhelmingly underestimate their addiction while simultaneously overestimating their own ability to conquer it.
This is important because it is a double whammy of sorts that really puts people at an extreme disadvantage. In my opinion almost no addict or alcoholic can ever really “get it” it on the first try because their expectations are going to be so out of whack when it comes to overcoming their addiction.
First of all, everyone underestimates their addiction itself. They believe that it is a trivial matter compared to the real challenge that they are facing. The main reason for this has to do with their conditioning. What else have they dealt with in their life? Other problems that they have faced in the past were met as a challenge and overcome when they made a certain amount of effort. When people apply this sort of comparison to addiction they are always in a for a nasty shock.
Why? Because overcoming addiction is likely much harder than anything they have ever faced before! Unless they have successfully modified a major lifestyle change in their past (such as losing weight, quitting smoking, etc.) then they have no idea what they are up against. None whatsoever. The typical addict or alcoholic believes that changing their addiction will be the equivalent of creating a new tooth brushing routine.
Now there are many addicts and alcoholics who are much more realistic about how difficult it is to overcome their addiction, but not when they first try to get sober. If they are new to recovery then they are in for a shock. They have never tried to get sober before and therefore they have no idea just how difficult it will be to conquer their addiction.
So this is just problem number one: the addict and alcoholic tends to grossly underestimate their addiction at first. There is another problem, though. They also overestimate their own ability.
How the addict overestimates their own ability
Every addict who is new to the idea of recovery tends to do this as well, which is similar to the first problem but slightly different: they overestimate their own ability to overcome an addiction.
How do they do this? They do this by having too much confidence in their ability to buckle down and just make something happen and produce the result they want. Recovery does not work this way and you cannot just suddenly make it all happen in a single afternoon. Suddenly getting serious about your recovery and putting in a huge effort one afternoon is not going to magically change your whole life forever. And yet this is the attitude that a newcomer in recovery generally takes towards their addiction.
Why do they do this? Because they have conquered other goals in their life like this before. They have met other challenges in this way. And they may have drew on a certain amount of willpower in their past that allowed them to meet various goals and achieve things.
But beating an addiction is different than these other goals. It is a unique challenge in that it requires an entire lifestyle change. Trying to apply willpower to the problem of addiction is like pushing back against an enormous sumo wrestler. It’s just not very effective and in the end it just creates a lot of struggle.
Addicts and alcoholics who have had success at anything in their life tend to approach recovery like a determined sumo wrestler. They push and they push and they push and they believe that sheer force of effort and willpower will help them to overcome their problem. Addiction is more cunning than that and we know that such approaches pretty much never work. You cannot just out-will your desire to drink and self medicate with drugs. Instead you have to find a way to sidestep the problem of addiction entirely and build a new life for yourself that drives you with passion. Doing this is not so much an exercise in self motivated will power as it is a careful path of surrender and support from others. Everyone’s path in recovery may be different but almost no alcoholic or addict simply decides to quit drinking one day and then beats their addiction single handed with just sheer force of stubborn willpower. This is what the addict and alcoholic is assuming that they can do when they first try to get sober and this is why they overestimate their own ability to beat their addiction.
Why you probably can’t do it alone
Nearly every addict and alcoholic goes through the process outlined above when they start to face consequences in their life due to their addiction.
First they are enjoying their drug of choice, be that alcohol or other drugs. Then they start to use it and abuse it on a regular basis. Later on they are using it so much that it starts to produce detrimental effects in their life. At some point they admit to themselves that they might actually have a small problem with their drug of choice. It may take years or even decades after this that they finally admit fully, and accept fully, that they are a true addict or alcoholic. Then they have to accept that they only rational solution is to seek help and try to change their life, because they have finally admitted that what they have been doing all along is no longer working. Self medicating with their drug of choice makes them miserable, and they have finally accepted this fully.
So this is the process of surrender, described above, and once the addict reaches the point of full acceptance of their own disease and misery, then they are ready to attempt some sort of change.
Now you have to realize at this point that no addict or alcoholic who works through this process of surrender regarding their addiction arrives suddenly at the ego-crushing conclusion that they need to ask for help in order to overcome their addiction.
Think carefully about this for a moment. People believe that they are smart. Most addicts and alcoholics are actually smart people. So they believe (at first anyway) that surely they can overcome their addiction on their own.
Really, this is extremely common, and nearly every addict and alcoholic goes through this extra step in the surrender process.
So first, they surrender to the fact that their disease is making them miserable and that they need to change their life. This is only one level of surrender.
At this point, the addict or the alcoholic is going to desperately try to change their own life and fix their own problem, without asking for help.
This is an issue of pride, of the ego. Every addict and alcoholic will try to beat their addiction on their own FIRST. They have to try. They cannot help but try to save face as they attempt to learn how to overcome their addiction on their own.
The second step in the surrender process comes later, when the addict finally realizes that they cannot overcome their addiction under their own power, and that they need to ask for help. But this may take years to reach, given that they will be desperately trying to overcome their addiction under their own power first.
The problem is that most addicts and alcoholics still very much want to be able to use their drug of choice in some capacity for the rest of their life. The solution of “total abstinence” from their drug of choice is just too much for them to bear. So naturally, nearly every addict and alcoholic will seek “the easier, softer way.” What they do is instead of trying to abstain entirely from their drug of choice, they simply attempt to control their intake.
As you can imagine, this does not work well. Addiction is defined by our failure with this approach; with this effort to try to control our intake. If we could control it then we would not be addicts at all and we would be using drugs or alcohol just like “normal” people do (news flash: normal people do not have to struggle to control their drug or alcohol intake!)
But it is only natural for the addict or alcoholic to try this approach first. Who wouldn’t? Giving up your drug of choice forever seems like such a tough hurdle to overcome, so it is only natural that people would try to find a solution that would allow them to continue to self medicate. This is why addicts and alcoholics struggle for years to try to overcome their addiction on their own. They want the best of both worlds. They do not want to give up their drug of choice and they are trying to find that elusive balance that they can never fully have again: that point where they can both enjoy their drug of choice and also control their intake. They cannot have both. They can choose one or the other. You can either be wasted and out of control, or your can try to control your drug intake and be miserable. But you cannot be both happy and in control. This is what defines addiction.
The addict will finally accept that their addiction makes them miserable when they realize that they cannot have both (control and happiness). They will finally accept that they need to change when they see the futility in this struggle, that it will never end, that they will always be struggling to try to be in control while they self medicate to try to produce happiness.
It is at this point, when the addict sees only misery in their future, that they might actually become open to real change.
How to approach recovery successfully
So we have seen how most addicts and alcoholics approach recovery–they do so in the wrong way, but overestimating their own abilities while also underestimating the task at hand. They try to hang on to their drug of choice and their ability to self medicate by learning to control their addiction rather than to abstain entirely from it.
After a time most people will start to learn some things about recovery.
Hopefully the struggling addict or alcoholic will learn:
1) That they cannot overestimate their own ability to beat addiction any more, because they will have tried several times to conquer their addiction only to relapse and fail repeatedly. They will try for years or even decades to control their drug intake, only to realize that they cannot both control their intake and enjoy themselves at the same time. They will realize that their efforts produce only misery.
2) That their addiction is much more powerful than they first believed, and that beating it is not just the trivial act of eliminating drugs or booze from their life. They will start to respect their addiction and realize that overcoming it is more of a lifestyle change rather than just merely eliminating a substance.
3) That their efforts at overcoming addiction using their own willpower always fail.
4) That they cannot conquer their addiction all by themselves without any help.
Learning these things may take several years of struggle on the part of the addict.
I know for me that I had to learn some of these things in stages. For example, I had learned the first two things on that list at one point and had a new respect for addiction and realized how tough it was going to be to ever beat it, but I had not yet learned #3 and #4 on that list yet. I was still of the belief that if I really, really wanted to beat my addiction and quit drugs forever that I could probably do so. This was a form of denial and I was of course just deluding myself.
Later on, after more struggle and chaos and misery in my addiction, I came to the realization that I could not–even if I really wanted too–overcome my addiction on my own.
This is the point of defeat, the point of TOTAL surrender. Not only was I completely miserable and defeated by my addiction, but I had finally arrived at the realization that I could not overcome my problem by myself. I had finally concluded that if I was going to get out of this mess that I had created that I was going to have to ask for help.
And this is the key to successful recovery, at least in the early stages.
You have to ask for help.
Asking for help
Why is it so important to ask for help in early recovery?
Because your way has failed. Your ideas about getting clean and sober do NOT work.
Think about this carefully for a moment before you dismiss this idea.
If you really want to be clean and sober, then take action and make it happen. Do whatever you think is necessary to change your life and become clean and sober.
How is that working out for you? Can you magically change your life under your own power and beat your addiction all on your own?
If so then that is great. As they say in AA, “our hats are off to you!” If you can beat your addiction without any help then I admire your strength and determination.
But I happen to be a strong willed and stubborn individual, and I found that I could NOT beat my addiction on my own.
I found that I had to have help in order to get started on this new life in recovery.
So at some point I made the ego-crushing admission that I needed help in order to recover.
I asked for help and then I took direction.
People gave me advice and I followed it willingly.
This is how asking for help really works. You throw up your hands and say “show me how to live” and then people tell you what to do. Then, you do it.
This is the secret to success in early recovery.
Not very seductive, is it?
I know it is not what most people want to hear.
Instead, they want to hear that there are secret techniques that will allow them to muster extra willpower and to overcome their addiction all on their own.
They want to hear that they can find their own path in recovery and that they never need any outside help at all in order to build this new life for themselves in recovery.
They want to hear that they can learn to beat their addiction in complete isolation just by using a few mental tricks.
But none of that is true. The truth is that you have to ask for help and take direction.
Ask for help. It really is that simple. Seek treatment, seek professional help, seek rehab programs, and ask for help. Do what they tell you to do.
How to make early recovery easy
Early recovery is nearly impossibly difficult if you are trying to hold on to your own self will.
The way to make early recovery easy is to let go completely.
Surrender to your addiction.
But then, surrender further than that.
Surrender to the solution as well.
You do NOT know what the solution is. You have tried to conquer your addiction, and failed repeatedly.
So, ask for help (by seeking treatment) and then do exactly what they tell you to do.
Stop trying so hard to figure it all out for a while. Sit back and relax. Get detoxed. Ask for help and then take their advice, right down to the letter.
This will make recovery easy.
Almost no one does this at first.
They might do this later, after struggling with their addiction for years, trying to figure it out the hard way, by using willpower and self will to try to control their drug intake.
But eventually after being fully beat down by their addiction, some addicts and alcoholics are lucky enough to stumble on the real solution.
It is a rare thing because it is so ego-crushing to ask for help, and to really mean it and be humble and take the advice and allow someone else to tell you what to do.
But this is the secret to early recovery.
If you want to make it easy on yourself, then squash your ego. Ask for help, seek treatment, and then unquestioningly do what they tell you to do. Stop struggling for control and just do what you are told. Take the advice. Go to rehab. Embrace recovery.
I was stubborn and it took me years to finally do this.
You can do it right now, with a simple decision. That you will ask for help and then get out of your own way.