How does a struggling alcoholic or drug addict open their heart to the possibility of change?
This happens in stages, in my experience. The first stage begins when the struggling addict is still in a state of denial, and they are hoping and praying that their life somehow becomes different.
The problem is that they are still stuck in denial, and they are too afraid to make the leap of faith that is required to change their life. So they stay stuck and continue to self medicate.
But all the while, their misery and frustration is building as they continue on with their addiction. At some point they will reach a breaking point that people often refer to as “hitting bottom.” This is not necessarily just about the consequences of their disease, but also about how they are feeling and how “burned out” they are internally based on the ups and downs of their addiction.
So a critical point is reached and the addict or alcoholic finally says “enough. I cannot go on like this any longer.” At that point they become willing to ask for help.
This is different from previous times when they may have asked for help. In the past, the addict may have asked for help and it was really just manipulation, because they had no intention of being sober and they were just trying to get more money, more drugs or booze, or more resources to continue on the hamster wheel of addiction. So in the past when they asked for help they were really just trying to keep on going.
After this moment of surrender, things are different. Now they are genuinely looking for advice. They have admitted to themselves that they no longer know how to be happy. So they are at the point where they are willing to listen, willing to take advice, and willing to do whatever is suggested to them. They are in desperate need of direction, and they finally know it.
So at this point the addict asks for help and someone will most likely direct them to therapy, counseling, AA, or treatment of some kind or another. Hopefully if they are physically dependent on substances they will be directed to inpatient treatment, because going through withdrawal on your own can be a safety issue at times. So the recommendation should be made for the person to check into an inpatient treatment center of the 28 day variety. This is almost always going to be the most direct and best form of help that the struggling alcoholic or addict could receive: going to inpatient rehab. From there, they can begin to rebuild their life and start to get comfortable with the idea of making positive changes.
When you step back and look at the addiction recovery process, you realize that it is all about making positive changes. You are changing from drug abuse to abstinence, from hanging out in drug houses or bars to AA meeting halls, from associating with drug or alcohol users to AA and NA members, and so on.
But the changes go further than that–you realize that in your addiction you were selfish and self centered, so in recovery you try to reach out to others and be helpful.
On a personal level, as you begin to work a program of recovery, you realize that some of the negative junk up in your head is your own responsibility, and that you can do some work to take care of that stuff. Maybe you have guilt, shame, fear, anger, resentment, or self pity swirling around in your head when you get sober.
At some point you have to realize that you are responsible for your own mental and emotional well being, and that you cannot just blame your fear, anger, or frustration on the outside world.
Reaching this point of open mindedness is not necessarily easy. This is what it means to open your heart up to positive change in recovery. You must earnestly seek out feedback and advice, then follow that advice.
I can remember being in very early recovery–within the first 2 months or so–and making a decision in my mind that I was not going to trust myself for the first year of sobriety.
Why not? Because I was watching too many of my peers fail when they decided that they had all the answers.
I did not want to risk relapse at this point, and so I made the decision to no longer trust my own decisions, my own ideas, my own impulses. Instead I would double check all of my actions and choices with a sponsor or a therapist before I did anything in my recovery journey.
This worked incredibly well for me. My life started getting better and better as a result of this new “policy” that I had made for myself.
I could not believe how well it was working, because I honestly thought that I would eventually give up on the idea of taking advice and ignoring my own wants and desires at some point.
But I never gave up on it. Why not? Because things just kept getting better and better.
I realized one day that I had gone through the entire day without thinking about drinking or taking drugs. That was a miracle in itself, and I could really not claim any of the credit for it. How could I take credit, when I was only doing what others told me to do? These were not my ideas I was using, they were other people’s ideas and suggestions.
When I finally had this realization at around 60 to 90 days sober, I was awestruck by it. I realized that I could accomplish nearly anything in my recovery journey so long as I was willing to ask for help, take some advice, and dedicate myself to reaching my goal.
This was a very empowering moment for me. At this point, I was able to start designing my own life again, with the help and input from my therapist and sponsor. So when I said “I think I want to get into shape and run a marathon” they were willing to back me up on that. When I said “I want to start my own business” they were willing to support that idea of mine. This was a major shift from when I first got into recovery and I was too scared and timid to put my own ideas out there.
And that is how I believe people can find success in recovery–not by chasing their dreams immediately, because I do not think that will work. If you try to reach for the stars too soon, before you build a strong foundation, you are likely to struggle.
The key is to start slowly in recovery, meaning that you must not trust yourself at first.
Instead, trust your sponsor and your peers and your therapist. Trust the rehab center. Trust the AA and NA meetings. Trust the process of recovery and ignore your own ideas for the first year.
After you build that foundation and you do the work and you put in your “time” in early recovery, you will have a platform from which you can then start designing your own successful life in recovery. But you cannot skip the foundation building and jump right into your dreams and fantasies. That is the same sort of shortcut that we all sought through our addiction, and it proved to be problematic for us.