Early recovery is typically lost, rather than won.
It is a lost because of relapse due to a critical mistake that newcomers make in recovery. They believe they are on the correct path to healing and to a new life in recovery but they make this error and therefore they fail.
In reality, you might believe that there are a million and one possible mistakes that people could make in early recovery from addiction. This is partially true, but really it all boils down to the same one mistake.
Fixing this one common problem can clear up all of the other potential pitfalls in early recovery, and help the newcomer to avoid relapse.
In the end, there is really only one mistake. There are at least 3 or 4 ways of commonly “framing” that mistake though, so I will do my best to communicate exactly what it is very clearly.
The critical mistake: lack of surrender/commitment
There really is only one mistake in early recovery and that is a lack of surrender and/or commitment. As I said there is more than one way of framing this problem and it might manifest itself in all sorts of different ways, but really it is all the same mistake.
A newcomer wants get clean and sober and so they make a decision that they are going to stop using drugs and alcohol and then find a new way to live and a new way to deal with things. This is all well and good and so they make their decision and then they take action. The only real mistake at this point is if they fail to follow through on that action. They have already made the mental decision so that is not necessarily the problem. The only thing that they have to do now is to take their decision very seriously (commitment) and then follow through with taking positive action so that they are able to maintain sobriety.
Overcoming an addiction is a battle because the natural tendency is to self medicate and to use drugs and alcohol. The addict or alcoholic is locked in an epic struggle of massive change. They have to change their life, they have to change how they cope with stress and how they deal with things, they have to change how they relax and unwind after a tough day, and they essentially have to change everything. This is a huge struggle and so what really becomes important in the long run is the follow through on the positive actions that they are taking in order to recover. If they follow through and stick to their recovery plan then they will do just fine. If they fail to follow through then they will undoubtedly end up relapsing.
Two levels of commitment
There are essentially two levels of commitment here, or rather, there are at least two ways of framing the problem. Keep in mind that we are still talking about the one and only mistake that the newcomer can really make in early recovery.
The first level of commitment is the mental surrender. The addict has given up their struggle against addiction and then they have agreed to seek help and to change their life. This is the first level of surrender and it is entirely mental and internal. This has to be very strong in order for the second level of commitment to work out well.
The second level is about the action and the follow through. It’s about taking positive action and seeing it through to the end. This is where you can judge the strength of your internal commitment.
The critical mistake in early recovery is really about two things, but it is all the same problem:
1) Lack of mental commitment to sobriety.
2) Lack of follow through on the actions that would serve to keep you sober and build a new life for you in recovery.
One part is about action in the real world, the other is about the mental commitment to follow through in recovery. They are really two sides of the same coin though. If you fail to follow through in the real world by not taking the proper actions, then this simply points to a lack of mental commitment. It is the same problem and it all boils down to a lack of real surrender.
Focusing on elimination rather than surrender
Sometimes you can spot this problem in the newcomer by observing what they say and what they do. One of the telltale signs in my opinion is when they focus heavily on the concept of elimination rather than on the concept of surrender.
This is a newcomer attitude and mindset and it just shows that this person has probably not tried to get clean and sober in the past. They may have to learn a few lessons as they attempt to get sober that will allow them to get a good foundation for recovery in the future. I personally had to do this with my own recovery journey: I learned the first few lessons in spurts, while relapsing. I was figuring out what did NOT work for recovery. Apparently I had to do it that way so that I could eventually find the one true path that would work for me.
So the elimination mindset is the alcoholic who is focusing on the idea that they just need to quit drinking. They might say something like “I don’t need to go to rehab, what I need is to just stay away from that alcohol!” Or they might say the same thing about AA meetings or counseling or therapy. They are arguing that the solution is merely elimination, and that all they need to do is to eliminate the problem (alcohol) from their lives.
Obviously if this were true then the person would not really have a problem at all, they would simply walk away from the booze and their life would be fine. But this is not an option for a true alcoholic or an addict, and so focusing on elimination as the primary solution is really just a distraction.
This mindset also leads to the idea of trying to control drug or alcohol intake. Why eliminate the drug altogether when we would just moderate it, right? That will fix the problem! Such thinking does not work for the true addict and just leads them back into more problems. They believe that they are doing well to focus on moderation and reducing their intake when in fact they are just perpetuating the problem. When they try to moderate they are still in the “elimination mindset” and this is never going to get them to a new life in recovery.
What the alcoholic or addict will eventually learn is that it is not just about elimination (or moderation). If that was a viable solution then it would already be working for them as it is dead simple.
In fact the typical alcoholic needs a more complicated solution and that involves surrender. This is the core of the critical mistake that newcomers tend to make in early recovery. They focus on the idea that they need to stop drinking when in reality the whole key is to surrender to a new way of life. They cannot just push hard and become “anti drinking” without also finding something positive to fill into their life instead. The focus on quitting drinking is a distraction from the real issue that they need to surrender to their disease and surrender to a new way of life.
Part of the problem is that I am not so sure that a person can CHOOSE to surrender. It may be a response to a life of chaos and misery and being eventually pushed over the edge. At some point, the addict naturally surrenders to their disease, but I am not so sure that they get to choose when or how this happens. It certainly does not feel like I chose when it happened….instead, it just happened. That said, if you are the loved one or the friend of an addict or an alcoholic there are some things you can do and there are behaviors you should avoid if you want to see the alcoholic or addict in your life move closer to the point of surrender. We cannot force someone to change or surrender but we can nudge them in the right direction with our actions. More on that later though….
Learning things the hard way
What typically happens in early recovery is that a process will unfold over the years as people go through these learning stages. I think what is really happening is that people are slowly warming up to the concept of surrender. It rarely happens all at once and so it may just be a process that takes months, years, or even decades depending on the person and their personality.
For example someone might have some sort of crisis in their life due to their addiction and so they allow their family members to talk them into attending treatment of some sort. They go to an inpatient rehab and they get dried out in a medical detox and then they might do a few days or short weeks in a residential rehab unit. While there, they are probably going to be exposed to AA meetings as well.
At this point the addict might be a bit put off. They might think to themselves “These people are crazy, I am not like these people, they are talking about some crazy stuff, this guy drinks half gallons every day and drives drunk, this other guy drinks way more than me, all of them seem to do drugs and take pills and smoke weed…and I don’t do any of that stuff, I just drink! And they are all crazy and this must not even be the right place for me at all!”
So you can probably see that this thinking is preventing our virtual addict from really surrendering fully to their disease, because they are making comparisons with the other people in rehab and therefore they are making excuses as to why they should not be there, why they do not need rehab, and why they do not fit in with this lunatic crowd.
They are setting themselves up for failure and they are going to be learning things the hard way very soon.
So they leave rehab and they probably do not really follow through with their ACTIONS because they had mentally convinced themselves that they were in way over their head, that this was not the right solution for them, that they were not this sick and these other people were just plain nuts and so on. So they do not follow through and attend the AA meetings and they do not come back and follow through with outpatient treatment and so on.
Of course they end up relapsing with this kind of attitude and due to the progressive nature of their disease (addiction always gets worse over time, never better) they find themselves getting into more and more trouble down the road. At some point they will probably get into another crisis situation or their family will confront them again and it will be back to the rehab.
So you can sort of see the progression here and the building up of true surrender. This second time around the addict may realize that things got much worse and that they started to do a lot of the things that they said they would never do. The people in rehab that they used to think were crazy are now pretty close to their own behavior in addiction. Things got worse and so they can no longer judge the other people in rehab so much.
The addict is slowly breaking through their denial and they are having to come to grips with the fact that their addiction REALLY IS that bad. That they are no different than the other people in rehab and that they need to be there just as much as the next guy.
But understand that this realization is a process and it has to unfold in its own time and it may not all happen overnight like we want it too.
Thus, many addicts and alcoholics will have to seemingly learn things the hard way, because they can not just decide to up and surrender all at once. They have a tendency to surrender only as much as what they believe is necessary, because to do more than that is to destroy the ego and feels like sacrifice. There is a natural aversion to complete surrender and so it is only normal that addicts and alcoholics would hang on to their pride for as long as possible. Again, this is the only real mistake that is ever made in early recovery. It is many things and the problem can be framed in many ways: too much pride, not being humble, ego too big, ego not deflated enough, comparing yourself to others and feeling superior, and so on. But the problem is really all one and the same: the addict has failed to surrender fully and to commit to a new life.
Because recovery is pass/fail (you either relapse or you stay sober), surrender and this commitment that you make is 100 percent pass/fail. This means that there is absolutely no grey area, no in-between. You either surrender fully or you did not. You either commit 100 percent to recovery or you did not. It is pass/fail. The outcome of sobriety or relapse points to the truth.
How to avoid making the critical mistake
So if the only real mistake in early recovery is lack of surrender/lack of commitment, how can we avoid making it?
Like I said earlier, I am not so sure that the individual can CHOOSE surrender. It may just happen in its own time.
It is very possible that the addict wishes that things were different, but they are not yet fully surrendered and prepared to commit fully to a new life in recovery. There is a continuum there and at one end the addict is saying “I wish I did not use drugs and I wish things were different but I am not willing to change a darn thing yet!” and at the other end of the continuum is the addict who is completely devastated and utterly destroyed and is at complete rock bottom and they are willing to do anything in order to stop being miserable from addiction. If you are like the second one then you are going to be successful in recovery. If you are closer to the first one then you are going to relapse. Somewhere in the middle of that continuum is a fine line that defines surrender. If you fall on one side of the line then your wishful thinking that you were sober will not be enough, and you will relapse. On the other side of the line is enough misery from addiction that you will be able to commit fully to taking positive action, and you will succeed in recovery.
The only way to avoid making the mistake is for you to be closer to the “utterly devastated rock bottom” end of the continuum. If things are still going pretty well for you in life and you just wish that you did not have a drug or alcohol problem, then you are probably NOT in a position to be able to surrender fully to your disease.
But this does not mean that you should not try, in my opinion. Meaning that you should take every opportunity that you can to try to overcome your addiction. Even if you are not really ready to do so yet and you are not fully surrendered, it can still be a useful exercise. This is because you will then learn what is really required, you will see just how committed you have to be in order to follow through with the changes.
I had to go to 3 rehabs before I finally “got it.” If I would have skipped the first two rehabs I do not believe that I would have got clean and sober at the third one. I believe all of those attempts at treatment were part of my journey, and were all ultimately important. I had to first see what I was up against. I had to try the “marijuana maintenance program” and fail at that. I had to do the things that I did in order to get to where I got! And that included some failed attempts at recovery, so that I could learn what the full commitment and the full state of surrender was really like. That is why I say that “we have to learn things the hard way.” It is only natural for humans to try to find the easy path, to make the least amount of effort necessary. The hard truth is that recovery takes a TON of effort and it takes a very deep and full commitment and no one wants to believe this at first. Why would we? It would be a waste of energy for us to over-commit to something that we had not yet tested first. This is why so many people have to try and fail several times with overcoming an addiction before they finally “get it.” They are testing the waters and figuring out just how deeply they have to surrender (and therefore commit) in order to recover.
How to convince others not to make this critical mistake
If you have a struggling addict or alcoholic in your life then what you want for them is to find their own surrender. This is most likely to happen after they have found much chaos and misery in their lives. Do not deny them of their consequences (don’t go out of your way to make their life miserable either though!).
You can learn more about how to set healthy limits and boundaries by attending an Al-anon meeting. The key is that you do not want to be enabling the addict in your life. If you can behave in such a way that you are no longer enabling them, this may move them closer to surrender, and speed up their process of finding recovery one day.