What is the best advice for beating an addiction or alcoholism? In my opinion such advice can never be very simple, because the nature of addiction is complicated to begin with.
I think that most of us have this deep need for solutions to be simple. We want to be able to comprehend and understand the solution. We want for it all to be so easy, to be straightforward. And I think that most things in our lives are actually like that. But I really believe that addiction falls into a special category.
For many years my alcoholism and drug addiction baffled me as something that I could not figure out or overcome. In this regard it was different, it was special. I could not overcome it using my usual approach that seemed to work for everything else in my life. For some reason it proved to be a much greater challenge, so I had to learn and adapt to that. I had to learn a whole new approach to problem solving. I had to find a way to fully immerse myself in a solution, one that would actually produce sobriety and not cause relapse eventually. This was harder than it seems on the surface because there are so many forces working against you. For example, just breaking through denial and acknowledging that there was a serious problem took me several years. And even after I realized the true depth of my problem (and how bad and dangerous my addiction was) I was still not in a position to do anything about it. I was still stuck even after I realized that I was heavily addicted. Even from the point of that realization, it took me another few years before I would become willing to surrender fully to my disease.
So in a sense the best advice for overcoming alcoholism or drug addiction has be to in layers. This is because there are so many steps in the process of recovery. Traditional recovery programs such as AA or NA break it down into no less than 12 steps. I believe I can break it down into less than that, but it is still more than a one step program. There are many points at which a person may relapse. There are many points at which you may choose addiction instead of recovery. So each one of those critical points in the journey requires some sort of guidance and advice.
Therefore my advice is broken into stages. In some ways such advice resembles the journey through traditional recovery, and this should not be shocking to anyone, as there are several universal principles of recovery. In other words, something like “surrender” cannot be avoided no matter how you try to recover. You have to do it no matter what if you want to get healthy. Therefore any real “program of recovery” is going to include the concept of surrender, as it is universal. And therefore it also happens to be my first real piece of advice: you must surrender fully in order to overcome addiction.
When I was still struggling with drug addiction and alcoholism, I used to get frustrated when I would hear people talk about the need for surrender. It was annoying to me, to be honest. The reason that I was annoyed with it is simple: I did not really understand what they were talking about.
So here I was in treatment, in a detox center, drying out from alcohol and drugs. I was there because my family had begged me to go and I actually did feel like my life was spinning out of control. Mind you, this was a few years before I would finally surrender fully to my disease and really turn my life around. So at this point I was sort of at a point of “half surrender” at best. I was willing to stop drinking for a weekend, go to detox, and try to figure out what was wrong with my life. But I was not at a point of total surrender.
Therefore I found it frustrating to hear people talk about “full surrender.” They said that I had to surrender in order to recover. They said that I had to be desperate and want to be sober more than anything in the whole world. I was frustrated because clearly I was not at that point yet. I was not fully surrendered and I was not desperate to be sober forever. I just wasn’t ready yet. And no one had a good answer for that. No one could tell me what to do at that point that would have helped me. Because unfortunately the only real answer is something that they could never tell you at a rehab, which is:
“You are not ready to get clean and sober because you have not surrendered to your disease yet. Go back out there and drink some more until you get really miserable. At some point you will become so desperate that you will be willing to do anything to get sober. At that time, come back to rehab and then you can start your new life in recovery. Right now is too early, you are not ready yet.”
That is really the most accurate way to put it, but they could never say that to you in rehab. And I have to admit that I would hold out hope for the struggling addict that maybe they can make it work anyway. They are here now in treatment, they are dried out and sober, so maybe they can give this recovery thing a chance anyway and make it work for them. Certainly it is worth a try, no? But in reality I think that I know better. If you are not ready then you are not ready.
Getting to the point of “total surrender” is the most important thing in early recovery. Either you have done it, or you have not. And if you have not then you are likely wasting your time trying to get clean and sober. I know that sounds like a horrible thing to say but in my experience with addiction and in working in rehab for 5+ years I really believe it to be true. There is no point in trying to get sober if the person has not yet surrendered.
How do you know if you are in a state of full and complete surrender? You will just know, because you will be so down and feel so low and be so miserable. You will almost not care what happens to you at all because you will feel so bad. But on the other hand you will be willing to give recovery a chance, just to see how it turns out. In terms of faith it is like having just one tiny thread of faith left to hang on to. But that is all it will be–just a tiny thread. If it were more than that then you would not be at full surrender, you would not be desperate enough, you would not be willing to do nearly anything to find a new path in life. You have to be really, really desperate for change. You may not know what the answer is, but you have to be positive that you don’t want more of the misery that you have been getting due to addiction. That is full surrender. You are so sick of the cycle you are stuck in that you are willing to follow other people’s advice in order to escape from it.
I once heard a piece of advice regarding business: “In order to succeed in this business, you have to get a little bit nuts.”
Today I realize that this advice actually applies to pretty much everything. Getting clean and sober is not a “business” I realize, but it is still an enormous lifestyle change that is likely the hardest thing that you have ever done in your life. Certainly getting sober was the biggest challenge that I had ever faced in my life. Nothing even compares to it that I can think of off the top of my head.
So realize that this is not some little change. This is not like deciding that you are going to do sit ups and push ups every day. It is not even fair to call it a “lifestyle change” because it is actually a bit deeper than most lifestyle changes. Addiction is complex because it affects so many different areas of your life–physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual, and so on.
Therefore if you want to succeed in recovery then you have to get a little bit nuts. For example, you may have heard suggestions that you should attend AA meetings in recovery. You may have also heard the suggestion that you should go to 90 meetings in 90 days. This probably sounds a bit radical to the newcomer. And that is the whole point–if you want to get good results then you need to take massive action. The majority of people who go to their first AA meeting are not sober after 90 days. The statistics are stacked against you, they are not good. So what are you going to do about that? Get radical. Get nuts. Actually commit to doing the 90 meetings in 90 days. Maybe then you will have a real chance at this sobriety thing.
I personally thought it was crazy that I would go to rehab for 28 days, and miss out on 28 days of my regular life. I could not see at the time that my life was a wreck anyway and that all I did was waste my time by getting drunk and high all the time. I could not see that though and I thought that “wasting” 28 days was crazy. So you can imagine what my reaction was when I heard that they wanted me to go to long term rehab, and live there for 6 months to 2 years! I thought that was absolutely insane. I just could not wrap my head around that sort of time frame. Why would anyone willingly subject themselves to 2 years of treatment? It made no sense to me.
Now here is the key point:
It finally made sense a few years later when I was miserable and had surrendered fully. It was then that I became willing to give long term rehab a chance, because I was so desperate for change in my life. I no longer cared that long term rehab seemed so ridiculous. I was beyond caring. And so I was willing to do it, and in doing so it changed my life.
I had to become willing to get a little nuts. To get radical. To fully embrace recovery, to make it my whole world. In doing so I found a path to success.
Stop driving the bus for a while
This saying is straight out of the AA meetings, but it is absolutely true and it can help anyone.
When you are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, you are in control of your life and you are making all of the decisions by yourself. And normally you are doing a very poor job of it, trying to keep yourself happy by using drugs and alcohol. But the key point is that you are in control of your decisions and you are essentially “driving the bus.”
When you finally surrender and try to get clean and sober, you need to let go of that need for control. You have been struggling for so long to be happy, and you thought that the secret to this was to gain even more control. But that has not worked, has it? So instead you need to go the other way–you must let go entirely. And that means you have to get out of your own way, and stop driving the bus.
They talk about having faith in recovery, and in letting your higher power drive the bus. I don’t care if you have a higher power or not, you can still benefit from simply getting out of your own way and letting someone else make decisions for you. You do not have to make it into a spiritual or a religious thing if you do not want to. Simply stop making your own decisions for a while, and then carefully watch your results. You will be amazed.
So how does this work? Simple. You ask for help. Say to your friends or family members: “I am alcoholic (or addicted) and I desperately need help. Please help me. Find me a place to go that can help me.” Then when they tell you what you should do and where you should go for help, you actually listen to them and follow through. Really, it is as simple as this. Then you go to rehab or you go to counseling or you go to meetings and you repeat the process: Ask them what you should do in your life and what direction you should head, and then take their advice and follow through. There may be several layers of this. For example, you ask for help and they tell you to go to rehab. So you go to rehab and ask for help and they send you to AA. You ask for help there and they tell you to get a sponsor. So you get a sponsor and he tells you to keep going to meetings and to do some work. So you keep doing all of this stuff and you keep asking for feedback and advice from others, and adjust as you go along. And in order to do all of this you have to make an agreement with yourself. You basically have to agree that you are not going to “drive the bus” for a while. Instead you are only going to take suggestions from other people, but not from yourself, not your own ideas. So you agree to do this for six months, or a year. And the results will amaze you.
Because we have this belief that no one could possibly care about us the way we ourselves care. And so therefore their advice could not be as useful or helpful as our own ideas. But this logic is clearly wrong, and you will prove that to yourself if you agree to “stop driving the bus” for a while. You will take other’s advice and be amazed that it could transform your life for the better so quickly.
Embrace personal growth
Once you are somewhat stable in your early recovery you have a challenge laid before you. You have to build a life around your sobriety and you have to find a way to keep challenging yourself to learn and to grow in recovery. Some people get stuck at this point and end up relapsing because they get complacent. There is only one way to overcome complacency and that is by taking action.
Therefore my advice to you as you are exiting this stage of early recovery is to find a way to embrace personal growth. You have to embrace the process of growth itself. We need to do this in order to protect ourselves from relapse.
In a way, each piece of advice given here is a way to prevent relapse. It is just that you have to do different things at different stages of the journey in order to avoid and prevent relapse. After you have a foundation in early recovery, there is still a threat of relapse, and in fact it becomes even trickier at this point. Now that you know how to basically live sober, it is easy to become complacent and lazy. Therefore you need a strategy to help you avoid doing that.
My best advice to implement that strategy is to find your own “points of misery.” We all have sources of frustration in our lives. Your goal should be to eliminate those negative sources. But you can’t just do it all at once, and you can’t just expect for your recovery to take care of itself. You need a deliberate plan and a steady approach in order to make positive changes.
My suggestion is that you prioritize. Figure out all of the negative stuff in your life that you want to eliminate, and then put it in order. The order should be in terms of the positive impact it would make if you fixed each point of misery. So for my own example, the biggest impact that I could have made in my early recovery was in quitting smoking. That was my biggest point of misery, therefore that should take priority.
What I would have you do is to take all of your energy and focus it exclusively on fixing your biggest point of misery. This is, paradoxically, the path to happiness. You cannot chase happiness directly or it will always elude you. The way to achieve it instead is by going at it from the opposite angle. Simple eliminate the misery in your life and you will be left with contentment and peace. This is much more effective than saying “I want this in order to be happy” and then chasing that thing and realizing later that the happiness was fleeting.
If you can live this way and embrace this method of personal growth then your life will get better and better. Not only that but your life will get better very quickly, because you will be prioritizing and making the most important and highest impact changes first. This will also be a huge confidence boost for you in recovery because you will start out with a large accomplishment if you can meet your first goal (whatever that may be). In this way you can build momentum and gain the confidence that you need to make future changes.
Take suggestions and seek feedback
So how do you eliminate these points of misery in your life when you cannot even see them all? When we first get clean and sober it can be a rough enough time to even get our bearings and start to live this new way of life. How are we going to then examine our lives and know exactly what changes to make?
My advice is to take suggestions from others. Remember the thing about not driving the bus for a while? Yeah, that applies here as well!
So the way that this might work is through sponsorship in AA or NA. Say that you get a sponsor and ask them for advice and guidance. Here is a radical idea: actually take their advice and follow through with it, then see how that impacts your life! If you do this then you will realize that your life just keeps getting better and better, even though you are not depending on your own ideas. Instead you are looking to others for guidance and advice, but in following that advice you are unlocking a new world and a new life for yourself. Thus the path to personal growth can come at the advice and guidance of others.
In early recovery, this is a very strong approach to use. I highly recommend it.