I am always contending that overcoming any addiction requires massive action.
What this really means is two things (at least, maybe more):
1) That you need to make big changes to beat an addiction.
2) That those changes must be consistent.
Sometimes people get one of these concepts but not both of them. When that happens they relapse.
For example, a struggling alcoholic might make the big change of going to long term rehab. They are actually living in treatment. And of course one of the requirements of living there are that you must remain totally abstinent from all drugs to include alcohol.
I don’t think anyone would argue that this is not a massive change. Living in rehab is a big deal. And yet, many of the peers that I lived with in treatment did not “make it” in long term sobriety. They relapsed.
So what was the problem if they had taken massive action? The problem was that they were not consistent.
It does no good to take massive action and make huge changes in your life if you do not follow through with this changes. Consistency is key. Persistence is key.
And so this is part of what it means to take “massive action.”
I like the analogy of training up for a marathon. You don’t just go out one day and run a few miles and declare yourself to be ready. Instead, you have to keep hammering away at the training and running further and further distances leading up to the big race. You have to keep pushing yourself. And you have to be consistent. You can’t just take a few weeks off in the months leading up to the race and expect to be able to follow through with things.
It is the same way in addiction recovery. In order to overcome alcoholism you have to build this new life in recovery, one day at a time. If you start “taking days off” in this process then you will not get the results that you want. If you slack off and revert back to your old behaviors then you lose any and all progress that you might have made in recovery.
Recovery is pass/fail. You either remain sober or you relapse. Those are the only two possible outcomes.
Take the example of any struggling alcoholic who tried to get sober and then later relapsed. What went wrong?
We can point to a number of potential factors: “They stopped going to AA meetings, they did not follow through with treatment, they did not want it badly enough, they failed to surrender, they did not turn their will over to a higher power,” and on and on and on. We can point to any number of reasons that a person might fail to stay sober but the bottom line is that they failed to take the necessary actions.
Any alcoholic or drug addict can get sober. I have watched this happen with myself and I worked in a rehab for 5 years and I watched it happen with hundreds of other alcoholics. Some of them were in a lot worse shape than I was in, which I never thought was even possible at first! And so all of that experience teaches me that it is possible for any alcoholic or any drug addict to turn their life around if they are willing to take the necessary actions.
And what are those actions? Believe it or not, the details are not that critical. Sure, you have to follow directions. You have to go to rehab and get cleaned up in detox. You have to go to meetings and counseling and therapy and all of those other sorts of things.
But these are just details. What is important is that you:
1) Surrender to your disease. You give up on trying to control it.
2) Ask for help.
3) Follow through when people try to help you. Be open to new solutions.
4) Actually take action. Be consistent. Follow through.
5) Keep taking action and advice at 30 days sober, at 90 days, at six months. The journey never ends and you keep learning.
Notice that this does not necessarily depend on AA or any other specific recovery program. You could try to get help in many different venues and the results will likely be the same if you are consistent and you follow through. In other words, the stuff listed above is what really matters (willingness, persistence, follow through, etc.) and the details are not so important.
The key is to make big changes and then to follow through with them consistently. This is hard to do, which is why most people do not pull it off until they become seriously desperate.
You cannot overcome alcoholism by taking small actions or little effort
I once went to rehab in order to try to stop drinking. Here was my plan and my follow through:
1) Go through detox, listen to suggestions about attending AA but decide not to go.
2) Go through residential treatment, but ignore the idea that “a drug is a drug” and decide to keep smoking marijuana post-treatment and just give up alcohol.
3) Go to counseling for one hour each week in order to help me quit drinking. Continue to abuse marijuana.
You can probably guess what this resulted in. Total relapse and total failure. It was a complete disaster.
Of course, the silver lining is that I learned something valuable for my future efforts.
But back to my point. Look at what I actually did: I went to rehab for two weeks and got detoxed. Then I decided to only quit the alcohol but continue to abuse another drug. At the same time I also turned up my nose at the idea of daily AA meetings. And my entire aftercare plan for myself after treatment consisted of just one hour of counseling each week.
One hour per week!
You cannot overcome an addiction by putting in one hour of effort each week. That is not going to make a dent in your life.
Now contrast this with what actually got me clean and sober a few years later: I went to rehab and then I lived in long term treatment for 20 months. I went to meetings every day, I volunteered to chair meetings, I was in group therapy twice a week with an individual counseling session each week as well. And I had a sponsor in recovery while also talking with my peers about recovery every day as well. My entire life revolved around recovery for at least the first two years! Each and every day.
That is the difference between taking massive action in your recovery and, well….not.
Now I am not suggesting that anyone who is serious about recovery has to go live in long term rehab. That is not my point. My point is that you need to do more than just go to one AA meeting each week. Or one counseling session each week. Somehow you have to dive into recovery and make it your own.
Knowing what I know now, could I go through early recovery and remain sober without going to long term treatment?
I believe that I could. Though my strategy would be much the same as when I lived in rehab. I would still immerse myself fully in recovery each and every day. I would be going to multiple AA meetings each and every day for massive support. And I would be getting phone numbers from people in AA every day, finding myself a sponsor who is willing to take an active role in my recovery, and trying to find other ways to get direct help. For example I would try to get in to outpatient rehab or counseling sessions on a regular basis. My philosophy on this would be “more is better.” If they offered me 3 counseling sessions per week then I would go to 3. If they said 4 I would go to 4.
This is what worked for me in the past. This is what finally did the trick for me and allowed me to turn my life around. I had to change my attitude completely.
In the past when I was still stuck in denial my attitude was completely different from this. I would have said something like: “Really, four counseling sessions per week? That seems like an awful lot of time, maybe we could just do it once or twice per week instead?”
That was my attitude when I was still in denial.
Now I understand what it really takes. So today I would respond and say “Four times a week is great, but is there any way we can do it each day and go for five? Or are there other ways I can get support or help on the days that I don’t have a therapy session?”
That is the right attitude for someone who really wants to get sober. I believe in AA literature they describe it as “clinging to the solution the way a drowning man clings to a life preserver.” I am paraphrasing but I think that is what it says in the Big Book.
And so that is how you have to approach your recovery. You can’t be trying to cut corners on this stuff and expect to remain sober. Instead, go the other way with it. Ask yourself: “How can I dedicate my entire life to recovery today?” That is the attitude that will give you a chance at sobriety.
Recovery requires massive amounts of change
If you ask someone who has several years sober: “What did you have to change in early recovery?” they will almost always exclaim: “Everything!”
Seriously, if you ask lots of people in recovery they will all give you this same answer. After a while you will start to realize that they are telling the truth, they are not just trying to make a funny joke about it. It really does seem to them as if they had to change everything about their life in order to get sober.
So you should take note of this and learn from it.
How much work does it take to change everything in your life all at once?
How much effort would that require for someone to change everything?
We all know what the answer to this is. It takes a lot of darn work. Tons of work. Tons of effort.
So you should treat your recovery accordingly. Go into it with the knowledge that this is the hardest thing you have ever had to do. That doesn’t need to be scary or intimidating. It is simply the level of effort that you know you are going to have to make.
Think back to the greatest challenge of your life other than your addiction. How did you overcome it? How much effort was required?
Now, realize that you are going to have make an even greater effort in order to beat your addiction. Again, this is not to try to scare yourself. We are just being realistic about how hard you are going to have to push yourself. We are trying to be realistic about how much you are going to have to dedicate your new life to recovery.
Just look at me, I was annoyed that they wanted me to “waste an hour every day going to AA meetings.” But when I finally surrendered I actually lived in rehab for almost two full years! Just think about that shift in attitude. Realize that this is the sort of leap you are going to have to make if you want to get sober.
You have to dive into recovery completely and embrace it with all of your energy. Dedicate your entire life to sobriety.
Nothing less will work. I’m sorry that it is like that, but it is. Recovery is pass/fail, and if you relapse then you get nothing. No rewards. The only thing that you might get is a lesson on what NOT to do next time. That is what I learned the first two times I attended treatment. I learned what wasn’t going to work in keeping me sober. So then the third time I went to rehab I had a better chance at figuring it out. And in this case, “figuring it out” meant that I had to surrender fully, listen to other people, and take massive action in changing my life.
The only thing you have to change is everything
The reason that we say that “you have to change everything” is because your whole attitude and mindset changes.
This is really what we mean when we say “everything.”
And this is a really big deal. It takes a lot of dedication to change the way that you think. It takes a real effort to change the way that you respond to the world.
It is hard to be good. It is hard to “grow up.”
It was hard for me to do those things. And it still is tough.
In order to change everything you have to start with the idea that you don’t have all of the answers. You must accept defeat when it comes to your own knowledge. You have to surrender.
This is really hard for some people to do. It was really hard for me to do.
The way that I did it was that eventually I was so miserable in my alcoholism that I had no other choice. I could no longer blame other people for my problems. I was isolated and alone and I had plenty of drugs and alcohol to self medicate with.
And yet I was still unhappy. I was stuck, and I had no one to blame but myself.
I realized at that time that I had been busy all along in my addiction blaming others. I blamed society, I blamed the people in my life, and I blamed circumstances. I even blamed my higher power.
But in my moment of surrender I realized that it was all me. I was doing this to myself. I was drinking myself into misery every single day. It was no one’s fault but my own.
And this was how I finally worked through my denial. I realized that I was miserable and that it was my own fault. I realized that drinking every day was not making me happy, as I had once assumed. I finally saw the truth of the situation. I was miserable.
So I had to change. I had to ask for help. And this was hard to do. I had to ask for help and then follow directions. I had to kill my ego.
No one wants to kill their ego. It is so much easier to protect our ego and self medicate.
When you “change everything” in early recovery what you are really doing is killing your ego, and allowing yourself to take advice and direction from other people.
And that is a really big deal. It is tough to do. And so it feels like you are changing everything, when in fact all you are doing is shifting your attitude and becoming open to new ideas.
Most people vastly underestimate their disease at first while also overestimating their own willpower
There are two big problems when a struggling alcoholic decides to do something about their addiction:
1) Most people underestimate their alcoholism or drug addiction. They do not give it the credit that it deserves. They don’t believe that addiction is that powerful.
2) Most people overestimate their ability to deal with addiction using willpower. They believe that they are stronger than they really are.
These two problems combine to keep people stuck in denial for a long time. The only way to overcome both of these problems is through the hard lessons of experience.
For example, I went to treatment three times, and obviously the first two times I did not learn what I needed to learn. I was not ready. I was suffering from the two problems listed above.
And in working at a treatment center for five plus years I saw more of the same. Many people failed because they thought that they were stronger than the average alcoholic.
Everyone thinks that they are smarter than average. And I believe someone did a study and sampled a hundred or so alcoholics and found that they were all slightly smarter than average.
But this actually works against them in recovery. Especially in early recovery. Because they think that they are smart and they can figure it all out. As in: “I don’t need to go to all of these meetings because I am generally pretty quick at picking these concepts up.” And the truth is that you don’t go to meetings every day just to learn, you go for the support and for the identification (These other people struggle with alcoholism just like I do, so I am not crazy).
So smart people in recovery think that it is all about learning, and therefore they don’t have to try as hard because they are so good at learning new things. This gets them into trouble because really it is about so much more than just learning. You could memorize the big book of AA and it isn’t going to help you one bit. Instead, you have to apply the knowledge, you have to do the work, you have to learn about yourself. And these things do not necessarily come easily to anyone (including people who may or may not be smarter than average).
So most people make this error at least once in their journey, sometimes more. They overestimate their own power and they underestimate the disease of addiction. I did this at least twice. And the solution was for me to truly surrender at some point and say: “I give up. I cannot outsmart the disease, it has beat me, and I need serious help. I need advice and direction. Please, someone, show me how to live.”
That is what real surrender is like. You are no longer trying to figure things out. You are beyond that. You have been defeated. And so the only thing left is for you to throw up your hands and ask for guidance.
If you reach this point then you are ready to take massive action. When you surrender fully then you are prepared to do the work and to follow through with it. And this is the secret to success in recovery….doing the work and taking consistent positive action every single day.
What about you, have you taken massive action in your recovery? Have you been consistent in your efforts? How have your actions rewarded you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!