The first step is definitely the toughest. Making that first move in addiction recovery can be overwhelmingly difficult.
This is what kept me stuck in my addiction for years or even decades. I did not want to face the music and get honest with myself about my problem. I did not want to ask for help and take action and follow through.
Avoiding this responsibility–even though you know that you need to do something and take better care of yourself–is being in the state of denial.
So in order to take that first step towards recovery you have to break through your denial.
Working through your denial
So how exactly do you work through your denial?
I can remember being stuck in my addiction and slowly figuring this out. I can remember thinking “shouldn’t the drugs and the alcohol make me happy every single time that I use them? Isn’t that why I am so convinced that they are the ultimate solution for me? Why aren’t they working every time?”
This was the start of the process for me. I was questioning myself because I could no longer deny that I was miserable in my addiction. Yet I clung to the belief that drugs and alcohol could make me happy at any given moment, regardless of what was going on in my life at the time. But that was turning out to be false, and I was slowly discovering that for myself, and it was not matching up with what I had originally believed.
Because my opinion of drugs and alcohol was formed earlier in my journey when times were going good. I was having fun. And the buzz was nice and easy and it lasted a long time and no one got hurt. And so back then I formed my opinion about drugs and alcohol. Of course I thought that they were terrific. Because they could magically alter my mood and make me happy! Nothing else in my life compared to that sort of magic. They worked on me in a way that nothing else had ever worked. They just instantly medicated my mood and that was so impressive to me. So amazing.
And so early in that process I had made this decision. It was as if my mind had said to itself: “OK, these drugs and booze are amazing, they make me happy in a way that nothing else has ever been able to accomplish, and therefore no matter what happens, you can’t convince me that they are bad. There may be some drawbacks to drugs and booze, but they still do this amazing thing where they make me instantly happy. And that has infinite value in my book!”
Now the problem with this is that eventually the drugs and the booze stopped working. They stopped doing their job. Suddenly I was realizing that they were not making me instantly happy any more. Instead of being “instantly happy” when getting loaded I was just feeling normal.
For some reason I could never see that this was the only possible conclusion with drug addiction. The idea is simple: If you are drunk or high for every waking hour of your life, is it fun any more?
At first, the answer is “yes,” it is still fun. You can keep medicating in the beginning and have more and more fun. It works for a while. This is the lure of addiction.
But at some point it becomes old. At some point you have maxed out the amount of drugs or booze that you can put into your system without dying, and you have hit that “peak experience,” and now it is just a matter of trying to stay that medicated all of the time. So you continue to medicate and you try stay high all of the time and eventually it becomes normal for you.
This is the reason that every alcoholic and drug addict eventually ends up miserable. Because it gets old. It gets boring. If you are high every single hour of your waking life, there is nothing to compare it to.
I stumbled upon this once when I was in a unique situation for a while. I couldn’t get high every single day as I was in a bit of trouble. So I could only sneak off and get high like once a week or so. And what I realized during that brief time period was that the high was so much better, so much more intense.
This is a clue. If you go a whole week completely sober and then you “party,” of course it is going to be really intense. This is about tolerance as well. Physical tolerance.
But if you use your drug of choice every single day then it is no longer fun. In the long run there is no way to avoid this, other than to force yourself to go through periods of sobriety in order to lower your tolerance again.
In other words, if you take a week off and feeling sober is normal again, then your high will be much more intense when you finally drink or use drugs.
But this is a sad reality for the alcoholic or drug addict who basically needs and wants to be medicated all of the time.
You can’t have it both ways. If you drink every day then it is no longer fun. This is what addiction does to you. It takes the fun away because you are forced to use your drug of choice all the time, just to feel “normal.” The pain and discomfort of withdrawal fuels your addiction. Where did the fun go?
This was how I started to work through my own denial. I had to realize that the fun was all gone and that it was not coming back any time soon. I had to admit to myself the good old days were over, back when I could drink every single day and it was still fun every single day.
That was my denial. I still had alcohol and drugs up on this pedestal. They could do no wrong because I had already decided that they were amazing and that they were the only thing that could ever make me happy.
I had already decided that in the past. I had white-listed drugs and alcohol. And yet they eventually stopped working for me.
I just had to realize that.
That is the point where you break through your denial. When you finally realize that you are miserable because of the drugs, not in spite of them. And you finally put the blame where it deserves to be: On yourself and on the fact that you keep putting chemicals into your body that are no longer making you happy. They used to make you happy, but they have stopped working. Time to move on.
How to know when you have reached a point of total and complete surrender
If you can ask someone for help and they tell you to go to treatment and you agree to go, then that is real surrender.
If you agree to get professional help and you follow through on that and actually go get the help, then that is real surrender.
If someone takes you to an AA or NA meeting and you stop medicating and decide to turn your life around and it actually works, then that was real surrender.
You can’t really judge surrender going forward. You can only confirm it looking backwards.
I learned this when I lived in long term rehab. We had to interview people who wanted to move in and live in this long term sober house with us. So we were basically trying to test their sincerity, to see if they really wanted sobriety or if they were just looking for a flop house.
So while I lived there we probably interviewed about 30 people or so who wanted to move in. We basically let all of them move in who wanted the help, but we told ourselves that our interview screening process was weeding out the people who were not serious. In reality we just let everyone in I think.
And I can remember talking with people who lived there with me, my peers in early recovery, about who we thought was going to “make it” and who was going to relapse.
We couldn’t help but size people up. We couldn’t help but talk about people and guess who was going to do well and not. This is human nature I think.
And it was surprising to see how difficult it was to pick the winners. To figure out who was going to do well in recovery. It was pretty easy, I think, to spot someone who was headed for disaster. But it was much more difficult to pick out someone and say “They will be sober forever” and then be proven right. That was more difficult to do because quite a high percentage ended up relapsing.
And the other part of that equation is that it is very difficult to really measure someone’s state of surrender in advance. You can see their surrender in retrospect very easily. For example, I asked for help and I went to rehab and I followed through and I took direction and advice and I am sober today. It is pretty easy to say “Yup, that guy surrendered fully to his addiction.” Easy to see this in the past. But very difficult to see it accurately going forward in someone.
Because we fool ourselves all the time. It is so easy to fool yourself. It is so easy to believe that you are finally serious this time, that this time it is going to be really different, that this time you are going to listen to others and do the hard work of recovery. It is very easy to fool yourself in this way.
So here is the thing that I learned in my experience. The first two times I went to rehab, I was not sure. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be sober. I honestly believed that I might be ready. How could you know for sure? So I thought: Maybe I am ready.
And I wasn’t ready. I relapsed both times. If you are not sure about your state of surrender, then guess what? You aren’t. You have not yet surrendered.
The third time I went to rehab I had a totally different feeling. I felt like I was willing to die rather than to face a lifetime of drinking ahead of me. I was done fighting. I had given up all hope it felt like. I had nothing left to give to anyone. I was completely defeated.
At that point, I knew that I was fully surrendered. There was no question. It was a slam dunk. You could have sent me off to the other side of the planet to go to rehab and I would have agreed to go. I was willing to try anything, to do whatever was suggested to me.
I was truly desperate. And I knew, finally, that I did not have all of the answers. I knew that my own solutions would never work for me.
They way that you know for sure is based on willingness. Are you willing to ask for help, to take advice, to do what people tell you to do in order to get help? Are you willing to subject yourself to professional treatment and to follow directions? That is real surrender.
If you say “yes, but….” then you are not in a state of full surrender. Anytime you say “yes, but” to those ideas then you are setting yourself up for relapse. If someone says “you should go to this treatment center and get help for your drinking problem” and you retort with “yes, but” then you are headed for certain relapse.
Instead, surrender is when you say:
“Yes, please help me. Show me how to live.”
That is real surrender. That is how you know that you are ready to recover. It has to do with willingness. Total and complete willingness.
Do baby steps work in early recovery from addiction?
I suppose someone might be able to make an argument that baby steps can work in addiction recovery, but my answer is basically:
“No. No they don’t work.”
Baby steps do not work or overcoming an addiction because essentially the problem is far to big for baby steps to ever have an impact.
Addiction is a massive problem that affects your entire life. It affects every area of your life: Your physical health, your emotional stability, your relationships and social circles, your mental health, your spirituality, and so on.
Addiction is a deep problem. It is not just a surface level problem that can be easily swept away and forgotten about next week.
When I finally solved my problems with addiction I checked into a rehab and lived there for almost two years straight!
And of course many people overcome an addiction without living in rehab, and some do it without even going to rehab at all. But this does not mean that they do not have just as an intense of a recovery program as I did. In fact, they may have been even more dedicated to their sobriety than I was even though they did not live in treatment.
In other words, people who overcome an addiction do so by taking massive action. They put in a ton of real work. Their sobriety is not a mistake. They do not just luck their way into it. They have to fight for their sobriety with serious tenacity.
I took many baby steps before I was ready to get sober. For example, I went to counseling and therapy appointments for a few years before I was really ready to change. These were fairly worthless. I wasn’t ready to quit drinking and so I wasn’t making any progress. At all.
You see, recovery is entirely pass/fail. There is no middle ground. If you are drinking a little then you are drinking a lot. That is what addiction is. That is what defines addiction. There is no middle ground because an addict or an alcoholic is never going to be satisfied with the middle road. They want to get totally hammered and that is why it is an addiction.
So you can’t “sort of relapse.” You can’t “sort of be sober.” It is one or the other.
A normal person could sort of be sober, if they are really not an alcoholic. But a real alcoholic is either totally sober or totally drunk. There is no middle ground there, ever.
Sometimes someone might try to convince you that there is a middle ground, but that is just manipulation. Maybe they control the drinking or the drug intake for a short while and tell you that they have found a middle ground, but their addiction is about to unleash itself. There is no real middle path with a true alcoholic.
And therefore recovery is pass/fail. You either stay sober or you relapse. No in between.
What good, therefore, are baby steps?
What good are baby steps in helping someone to get sober if every time they take a tiny step backwards they fall of the cliff entirely?
What good are baby steps when the only thing that really works as a foundation for a new life is total and complete abstinence?
If an alcoholic tells you that they are going to take some “baby steps” towards recovery, this actually means they are going to get drunk some more. That’s all it means. Because taking baby steps doesn’t actually get you clean and sober. You might dabble in sobriety for a minute, you might dip your big toe into an AA meeting so that you can feel like you make some progress or something, but if you go right back to the bottle then what was the point? An alcoholic who claims they are going to take baby steps is someone who is going to continue drinking. They aren’t ready to change.
Real recovery is not about baby steps.
The beginning of sobriety is nothing like a baby step.
To be accurate, the start of sobriety and the moment of real surrender is more like jumping off a cliff.
Seriously, I have done it. I know what it is like to say goodbye to your old life in addiction. To get so sick and tired that you no longer care about anyone, including yourself. And then to cast your fears aside and check into rehab, not really knowing or caring what the future might have in store for you. At least with the alcohol you knew what to expect every day. But when you surrender and dive into recovery you have no idea what to expect. You jump off the cliff with no safety net. It is a scary thing to do without alcohol or drugs.
So do not seek to take baby steps in early recovery. Instead, seek to dive into the process head first. Make big changes.
How to build a foundation in early recovery
You build a foundation in early recovery by taking action.
You take action when you listen to other people and use their ideas.
In order for this to work you basically have to ignore your own ideas for a while. Because they haven’t been working for you.
You build a foundation through taking consistent and positive action.
You build a foundation when you take that first positive step towards a new life (by checking into rehab perhaps), and then by taking another. And another.
Ask for advice, implement the advice. Seek feedback, take action. Rinse and repeat. Find people that you trust and they will help you to build a new life.
What about you, have you taken that first step towards a new life in recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!