You can learn a great deal from rehab, or you can walk away from treatment without really gaining much at all.
The difference in in your attitude.
There are basically only two ways to go into treatment: Extremely desperate to find a new way to live, or not. Those are the only two polar opposites that we are interested in because that will essentially determine if you stay clean and sober or not. They “gift of desperation” will make you humble enough to absorb the lessons and information that they are giving you while in treatment.
If you want to live a different way then you have to be desperate enough to learn that new way of life. This can only happen if you are truly desperate to escape from the pain and misery of your addiction.
In order to do that you have to surrender.
All learning in recovery starts with surrender. You must surrender your old ideas to the new ones that will teach you how to live in recovery. For example, how we deal with stress has to change a great deal in recovery. Our old idea about this was to simply self medicate our stress and anxiety away. In recovery, we can’t do that anymore. We have to find a new way to live, a new way to deal with our anxiety, and a way to avoid our drug of choice while we are doing that. So we need a new solution for this particular problem in our life. And we can’t get that solution from ourselves, we have to get it from outside of ourselves. We need new information in order to recover.
There are a million and one little decisions like this in early recovery. All of these things that depend on our sobriety, and we need to know a new way to deal with life in every situation. Now it is probably true that if you only had to deal with one single issue (such as the issue of anxiety) then you might be able to figure out how to overcome that problem without drinking. You might get lucky on a single issue. But in early recovery when you are suddenly without your drug of choice you have to deal with everything all at once. It is overwhelming. For the real alcoholic, it is not just that you have given up your drug of choice, it is that you are no longer self medicating hundreds of tiny problems throughout the course of each day. Everything changes. And this is because being drunk affected everything! So you have to learn how to deal with life again, anxiety, stress, having fun, dealing with emotions, interacting with others, and so on. Everything changes when you get sober, all at once, and you cannot possibly have all of the answers for how to deal with it all.
This is why you need rehab. This is why you need new information. This is why you have to get humble, surrender, and listen to other people. If you try to do it all on your own in early recovery then you will fall flat on your face. Every alcoholic and drug addict learns this the hard way. No one wants to admit that they need professional help in order to overcome their addiction. They would rather do it themselves, quietly, on the sly, without anyone knowing that they are struggling with something like substance abuse. So people try to deal with their addiction in secret. They try to control their drinking or drug use by themselves, without any professional help. And this nearly always leads to relapse.
Luckily this problem is self correcting, eventually. If you keep trying and failing to get sober on your own, eventually you will reach a point where you realize that you cannot do it yourself. You will reach a point of what we might call “true surrender” or “total surrender.” You see, in the past you knew that you had a problem and so you tried to cut down on your drinking, or you tried to get your addiction under control through your own devices, but this did not seem to work out for you. Things just stayed the same or even got worse. So you tried and failed, tried and failed. Eventually you reach the point of total surrender where you realize that you cannot overcome your addiction through your own power.
Now realize that no addict or alcoholic is suddenly going to reach this point of “total surrender” unless they have tried, tried, and tried again to overcome their addiction on their own. This is why alcoholics and addicts are destined to struggle so much. As an outsider to addiction, someone might say “well it doesn’t have to be that way! At the first sign of addiction, simply surrender to AA and you will change your life without having to go through all of that pain and misery for years and years.”
They are somewhat correct in this statement but they are also misguided. They don’t realize what it means to reach a point of “total and complete surrender.” You can’t just snap your fingers and be in a state of surrender. You have to earn it. It goes back to the idea of the “gift of desperation.” It is a gift when you become incredibly desperate for change. It is not something that you can just suddenly turn on and off with a switch based on how you feel that day. You have to go through a whole lot of pain, misery, and chaos before you become truly desperate. You have to try and fail, try and fail, several times before you will realize that you cannot overcome addiction on your own.
So each addict and alcoholic must reach this state of total surrender before they can become willing to attend treatment. If they attend treatment before they reach this state then they are most likely wasting their time.
Abstinence is the key to surrender
If you reach a point of total surrender then that also means that you will embrace total abstinence as your solution.
This is a crushing defeat to an alcoholic, to realize that they must entirely give up their drug of choice. It feels like a loss of a friend. So there will always be a part of the alcoholic that realizes that they do not want to stop drinking forever.
Keep that in mind: it is normal for a recovering alcoholic to still have some yearning for alcohol. That part of the brain is never going to be shut off entirely. Just because they are desperate for change and an escape from their addiction does not mean that they are never allowed to crave alcohol again.
This is what makes addiction so baffling and powerful. Even if you are desperate to find a new way to live, the old craving is always going to be there in the back of your mind. Which is why any recovery effort must involve a continue practice so that you remain vigilant against your addiction.
In order to surrender fully you must embrace abstinence as your solution. This is a crushing blow to the ego to think that you can never drink or use drugs again. But you have to go through this process if you want to gain freedom one day. Freedom will come in a few months when you realize that you just went through a whole day without even thinking about drinking or using drugs. Yes, you will get to that point in less than one year. And I really believe that this is true freedom, when the obsession to drink or self medicate with drugs has been so completely removed from your life that you don’t even think about it for a whole day. After years of sobriety you will go entire weeks or months without thinking about drinking or drugging. This is a miracle and it is the gift of freedom that you will gain by becoming clean and sober.
Why detox is so important for early recovery
When you first check in to nearly any rehab facility the first thing that they do is put you in a medical detox. This is the part where your body is purged of alcohol, drugs, chemicals, and so on. You have to get through detox before you can start to learn a new way to live.
Obviously, detox is a necessary step in the recovery process because if you are not clean and sober then you cannot really learn and retain new information. You won’t be open to new ideas or see how to apply them if you are still self medicating. If you are still ingesting your drug of choice then the drug tends to over ride everything else. So detox is a necessary step in the recovery process.
Many new treatment models have sprung up recently in which treatment centers attempt to teach moderation rather than abstinence. I believe that this idea is absolutely insane and I cannot imagine that it will ever work for “real” addicts and alcoholics. I wonder if they tell you to bring some of your drug of choice (even if that is alcohol) to treatment with you so that you can learn how to moderate your use of it while there? This seems entirely strange to me.
The problem is that there are plenty of people out there who are not “real” addicts and alcoholics. They may have drank too much one night and were unlucky enough to get pulled over while driving home. They may have got smashed one night and really gone overboard with the booze but they are not real alcoholics. Yet such people may be in the wrong place at the wrong moment and end up being pushed into the treatment industry. If this happens, even on a very small scale, then some of these “non-alcoholics” may very well end up attending these new treatment centers that attempt to teach moderation, and you know what is going to happen? They will of course learn to moderate! (Because they were not real alcoholics to begin with). And so the treatment center will feel validated, because they successfully “cured” someone and taught them how to moderate their drinking, even though they were not real alcoholics to begin with.
In the long run I don’t think this will be a real problem, however, because enough “real” alcoholics will probably attend these moderation centers, experience a brief success, and then eventually go back to uncontrollable drinking and total chaos. Thus, a line needs to be drawn between “alcoholics” and “problem drinkers.” Perhaps that line has already been drawn. Real alcoholics cannot learn to moderate (or, by definition, they were not alcoholics to begin with!).
You can’t do it alone
If you are a real alcoholic (or drug addict) then you will hopefully realize at some point that you cannot do it alone. If you could, then you would have figured it out long ago.
But we need help in order to recover. We need to draw from the experience and strength and hope of other people in order to recover. This is especially true in early recovery when we are totally overwhelmed with all of the necessary changes that we are facing.
Look at the suggestions that you get from the typical treatment center. Nearly all of it is geared towards getting you to interact with other people in recovery and avoid isolation: Go to AA meetings every single day. Get a sponsor and call that sponsor every day. Call your peers in recovery. Get phone numbers at the AA meetings and use the phone numbers. Call people up. Go to aftercare and do group therapy.
All of these suggestions are pushing you to avoid isolation. Because if you are by yourself in early recovery then that is a very dangerous place to be. Your mind is working overtime to try to convince itself that you really need a drink or a drug. The way to silence this mind is not to try to fight it directly (because that will never work, you are not a Zen master!), but instead to go connect with other people. People are doing something positive, who are also in recovery. Get outside of yourself. This is how to solve the problem of the addictive mind in early recovery. Get outside of your own head by getting involved with other people. This is why they push the idea of support so heavily at treatment.
If you just leave rehab after 28 days and go back to the same old routine you were in before (just without the drugs or alcohol) then you are setting yourself up for failure. You have to do something different. You have to try new things, to connect with new people, to get outside of yourself a bit. In a way, you have to learn to “get out of your own way” in early recovery. This is because your own ideas will lead you back to relapse if you are not careful.
Think about that carefully: Left to your own devices, you will relapse. Do you finally believe that? This is why total surrender is so important. The person who believes that they might be able to figure it all out for themselves believes that they might be able to overcome addiction on their own. They believe that their own ideas may be enough to overcome their problem. They believe that they can avoid relapse by themselves without any outside help.
True surrender means that you realize the need for help. The idea is that you throw up your hands and say “that’s it! I cannot figure this out on my own, I cannot learn how to live a sober life, there is no hope for me to figure this out!” That is the level of desperation (and perhaps frustration) that you need to be at in order to do well in early recovery. Because if you are at that level of frustration then you will finally be willing to listen to other people tell you how to live.
That is a hard thing to do, and it is a crushing blow to the ego. To let other people tell you how to live. But this is the most important measure of surrender. If you are willing to “get out of your own way” by letting other people dictate your life, then you can do well in early recovery.
Don’t worry, this doesn’t last forever. You don’t have to become a mindless robot for the rest of your life. You just have to take orders for a few months. Maybe the first year or two. After that you are allowed to think for yourself again. Sound harsh? Don’t take my advice then, just go try to recover on your own, without any outside help, and see where it gets you. For most alcoholics and addicts this will only result in an even lower bottom. They will hit new lows in their life, they will lose more things in their life due to their addiction, and eventually they will be even worse off than they were before. Addiction is progressive and fatal. It keeps getting worse. So if you try to do it on your own and you fail, you will eventually reach a new bottom and thus a new level of surrender. This is why the problem is “self correcting.” Eventually it forces you to realize that you cannot figure it out for yourself. Hopefully by the time you realize it you will not be dead or in jail. At that point you can then surrender fully, ask for help, and start doing exactly what people tell you to do.
Which is what you should have been doing all along, but of course we were too stubborn to take advice when people argued with us during our addiction. Our loved ones tried to convince us to stop, but we were not having any of that. So we stayed in denial and continued to self medicate until we reach a point of total despair. Of course they were right all along, we should have stopped. But we couldn’t. Thus is the nature of addiction. We can only stop after we have tried every last thing to control it on our own, and failed. We have to exhaust all possibilities first so that we can try to salvage our pride and our ego. But our ego cannot be salvaged. It has to be crushed if we are to be saved. That way we can “get out of our own way” and stop relying on our own ideas (which don’t work and lead to relapse) so that we can take advice and direction from others.
It is surprisingly easy to tell someone else how to live a good life and stay sober. Even a drunk can do this, while drunk no less! But it is surprisingly difficult to actually do it, to live it, to let go of everything and take direction from others and get out of our own way.
What you can’t learn from rehab, and why that is so important to understand
Rehab can teach you how to dry out and get detoxed.
Rehab can teach you how to find support from other people. To go to meetings, to get a sponsor.
Rehab can teach you how to follow through with your aftercare. To get involved. To be committed.
But rehab cannot actually do any of these things for you. It cannot give you the gift of desperation, the state of surrender that is necessary to go through with all of these things.
You have to earn that “gift of desperation” on your own. And you earn it through pain and misery.
Once you have had enough, you will finally become desperate enough to change.
And then you can ask for help, go to rehab, and start a new life in recovery.