There are a number of key concepts that rehabilitation centers will attempt to teach to alcoholics. But some of these key concepts cannot be taught directly, they have to be experienced first hand by the alcoholic themselves.
For example, have you ever tried to convince someone in denial to see through to the truth of their situation? Not very practical, right? The ability to overcome denial is essentially an internal journey on the part of the individual. We can try to steer someone in the right direction but they will often have to make those conceptual leaps themselves, in their own time, as they experience consequences in their lives.
I knew when I was in denial and I was powerless to stop it. That may sound crazy but it is true. I knew that my life was a mess, I knew that I was addicted to alcohol, and I still did not have a way out. Nor could I see a solution that would help me. I was trapped by denial because I really believed that I would be even more miserable if I went to rehab and became sober. I was not denying that I was alcoholic. Instead I was denying that I might build a new life of sobriety for myself. I did not believe it to be possible at all. This was the root of my denial. So I felt justified in continuing to drink myself silly, because I believed that there was no hope for a better life.
At any rate, if any alcoholic chooses to go to rehab then they are going to have to grasp the following 6 concepts and embrace each one of them in their life. If they get hung up on one then it is likely that they are just not ready to be sober yet and they will inevitably return to drinking. In such cases they may reach a lower bottom and a new level of surrender and then come back to recovery at some later point and be successful at it.
First key concept: Surrender
This first concept is the most important one by far and I talk about it all the time. This is because it is the gateway to the other five concepts listed here. Without full and total surrender the whole recovery is in jeopardy and is not sustainable.
What does it mean to surrender fully and completely? It means letting go of your old life entirely and not having any reservations about getting sober whatsoever. It means leaving your old life behind with complete abandon. Saying goodbye to everything that you used to know and love, if necessary. Really letting go.
Surrender is deeper than those surface level changes that you have to make in your life, however. It is about letting go of the way that you used to deal with thing, with the way that you reacted to the world, with the way that you dealt with everyday stress. It means figuring out a new way to live your day to day life. It means that you have to trust other people and stop thinking only for yourself.
Surrender means that you must get out of your own way, and allow other people to dictate your life and your decisions. This is really hard to do for most people, because we are used to being in control, we are used to having to think and fend for ourselves, we are used to not trusting our lives to other people. But this is exactly what you have to do in early recovery if you want to remain clean and sober in the long run. You must turn everything over, let go of everything, and trust in the process of recovery.
You will be learning something new in order to build a new life in recovery. This new way of life will be different and foreign at first. Your old way of life is more familiar and easy to slip back into. So it takes a great deal of conscious effort to listen to your new teachers. It takes a conscious effort to surrender completely and allow yourself to be taught by other people.
In terms of treatment, the act of surrender is best defined as: “I screwed up my life with alcohol, I don’t know how to fix it. Please show me.”
That is surrender. You have to admit and accept that your own ideas are no good right now. For the present time (early recovery) your own ideas are worthless. Ignore them. This is how you “get out of your own way.” Stop believing that you can think your way out of addiction. Stop thinking that you can be smart enough to overcome alcoholism. You can’t beat it yourself. You need help in the beginning. You get that help by listening to other people as they tell you how to live and what to do.
Recovery is complex and yet the process of surrender is fairly simple. You accept that your life is a mess and that you cannot fix it yourself. Therefore you ask others to help you and then you do what they tell you to do. It is punishing to the ego and therefore most people will not do it unless they are truly beaten down and desperate.
Second key concept: Willingness
Willingness is the hinge on which the entire success of recovery works. Without any willingness you will fail and relapse. Simple as that.
This is why surrender is so vital as well. If you lack willingness then you can be assured that you have not fully surrendered yet. A lack of willingness indicates a lack of surrender.
What do you need to be willing for at all? In order to take orders from other people and build a new life in recovery, of course.
The idea of “taking orders” from other people probably leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It sounds awful, doesn’t it? But this is an accurate description of what successful people do in early recovery when they go to rehab. They listen to what they are being told to do and then they make decisions and take action based on the information they receive. In other words, they ask for help and then they take the advice they are given and they act on it. You can dress it up however you want, but essentially you have to take orders and do what the professionals tell you to do if you want to live a sober life. It is what it is. You need direction when you are first getting sober, and the only way to get that from other people is to take orders from them.
Think about it: If you reserve the right to reject their advice and not follow their orders, where does that leave you? You may as well go try to get sober on your own. And we all know how well that works by now, right? You’ve tried that, and failed. Over and over again. We can’t overcome alcoholism by ourselves. It doesn’t work. (If you can overcome it, then by definition you are not really alcoholic anyway, right? Go live a life of sobriety if you like, our hats are off to you! etc.).
So you can’t really pick and choose when you are trying to get sober. If you do then you will simply pick and choose your way right back to a drink or a drug. This is why your surrender must be total and complete. You cannot leave yourself any wiggle room when it comes to making decisions for yourself. If you are going to be willing to recover, then be willing to do whatever it takes. If you are going to surrender to your disease, then be willing to follow through and take advice so that you can build a new life in recovery.
Every single person who has relapsed after leaving treatment can trace their relapse back to a lack of total surrender. And in turn, this will lead to a moment in their recovery when they were NOT willing enough. They may have been not willing to call their sponsor, not willing to reach out to others and go to a meeting, not willing to call their peers in recovery, not willing to take advice (orders) and learn a new way to live, or any number of other examples. They relapsed because they were not willing to do what they needed to do in order to remain sober. They lacked willingness. And the reason that they lacked willingness is because they did not surrender fully and completely.
Every key concept here can be traced back to your surrender (or lack thereof).
Third key concept: Change
Recovery is nothing if not change.
What is the point of recovery if nothing changes? Completely pointless, right?
Of course it is all about change.
They have a saying in traditional recovery circles, that you only have to change one thing in recovery: Everything.
It’s an old joke because it is essentially true. Successful people in recovery can look back at their journey and say “Yes, I really have changed everything.” Because what happens is that they hear this phrase and they think it means that all of their external stuff in their life is going to change (get new clothes, a new apartment, new car, etc.). But that isn’t what it means at all. What the phrase means is that everything on the inside will change. The way that you react to life and deal with stress will change. The way that you handle emotions and communicate your feelings to others will change. Everything changes because YOU change, on the inside. Your friends, your job, your family…these things may actually remain fairly constant as you become sober. But what changes is how you perceive and react to all of those things. Hence, “everything changes.”
I like to label recovery as a series of “positive changes.” Of course things are always in a state of flux. In our active addiction things are always getting worse and worse over time. The downward spiral of alcoholism is a series of negative changes. Things just keep getting worse.
In recovery we want to simply reverse this trend. Of course that starts with abstinence from drugs and alcohol, which is the basic point of alcohol rehab. You stop drinking for a few days, things start to improve rather rapidly. Because you are in a foggy haze at that point, you might not even notice right away. But over the next few weeks things should really start to improve, even though you are dealing with the challenge of learning how to cope with stress without self medicating. After a few months or a few years your life should be completely transformed, so long as you stick to sobriety and keep taking positive action.
Think about it. If you take positive action each and every day, that is 365 days of personal growth each year. So long as you are consistent and you are not “backsliding,” just imagine how much progress you can make over long periods of time. I have been doing it for over 12 years now and things just keep getting better and better. My life today is totally amazing and this is a result of the constant accumulation of benefits.
You take positive action, you get a benefit for doing so. You make a change, things get better. You improve your life, one tweak at a time. Lock in the positive changes. If something doesn’t work out so well, you shrug and move on. Lesson learned. Go on to find the next positive change that you might make. Keep doing this for several years. Your life just keeps getting better and better.
There are actually people who disagree with this philosophy. This works for me, and I am a real alcoholic of the hopeless variety. I have to keep working on two things:
1) My life (making changes to myself, how I deal with things, etc.).
2) My life situation.
Most people in AA tend to disregard the idea of changing your “life situation.” They would say that it doesn’t really matter. And they are half right–you can be sober no matter what is going on in your particular life situation. There are no valid excuses for relapse.
But my point is: Why tempt fate? Why set yourself up for failure if you don’t have to? In other words, why not try to improve your life situation in order to minimize the temptations to relapse? Why not try to improve things so that you are not tempted to self medicate?
The same thing is true of the holistic approach when it comes to physical health. I know so many people in recovery who have relapsed because they got sick first. They fell ill or got an injury and this spiraled out of control. It escalated. Maybe they were laid up for a while and couldn’t work. Or maybe they had to take addictive medicine for the pain. Or whatever. But people who get sick often relapse. It is just a trend that I have noticed over the years.
So…..protect yourself. Don’t get sick. Or, don’t get sick as often, or as frequently. How do you do that?
By living healthy, of course. All of that holistic garbage that you thought was a bunch of hooey. Eating right, staying fit, not smoking, getting plenty of sleep. You know, all of that basic health stuff that you were taught as a kid and have long since ignored. That is the idea behind the holistic approach to recovery.
If you want a project for personal growth, I would start with those basic ideas for better health. You could certainly do worse.
“If nothing changes, nothing changes.” Said in thousands of AA meetings, many times over.
Recovery is change.
Fourth key concept: Action
So what happens after you decide that you want to make positive changes, and then you proceed to do a whole bunch of nothing?
Exactly that: nothing happens.
It’s like the old joke about the frogs on the lily pads that decide to jump off. But then they are still sitting there because they only made a decision. They did not actually jump.
Recovery is all about action. You have to actually DO something in order to achieve meaningful sobriety.
I used to work in an alcohol rehab center. I watched thousands of people come through treatment over the years. Many of them relapsed. Do you know how I realized that they relapsed?
Because they came back. Many of the people that I saw in treatment had already been there before. This trend was so overwhelming that it practically was a slap in the face. I would say that at least half of the people in treatment had been there before. To the same rehab center. Over half of the clients I met in treatment were on their second, third, or fourth go round.
So obviously each time they came back, they had recently relapsed. They had tried and failed.
And so I got to know many of these people, saw them at meetings and such, and watched them come back and go in and out of treatment. Some of them even lived next door at the long term rehab (where I myself used to live).
And I heard their stories. They knew me, they remembered me (because I worked there for many years), and so they talked to me. They told me their story. They felt like they had to justify why they were coming back to rehab. They had shame, and they tried to alleviate some of that shame by explaining themselves to me.
What they all said basically amounts to the same thing: They had failed to take action.
They were in rehab, they learned what they needed to do, and then they left treatment and failed to take any action.
No action, no recovery.
You have to surrender.
Then you have to become willing.
Then you have to want to change, and be inspired to change your life.
Then you must take action.
Many people in treatment get through several of those concepts. They walk out rehab being fully inspired to change their whole life. They feel like they are willing to embrace positive changes. They are ready to take positive action, each and every day.
For whatever reason, they fail to act.
They don’t go to that first AA meeting.
They don’t find a sponsor and call them every day like you are supposed to.
They don’t go to their first counseling appointment.
They fail to act.
No action, no recovery.
Failure to take action results in relapse.
And again, you can trace it all back to a lack of surrender.
Had they surrendered more deeply, they would have taken action.
Fifth key concept: Follow through
So let’s say in the example above that the newly recovering alcoholic actually does go to that first AA meeting.
I did this once. I left (my second) rehab and I actually went to an AA meeting. I did not even realize what was going on because I had never been to an outside, real-world AA meeting before. But what was happening was that it was actually a monthly speaker meeting, and they were giving out clean time chips. So everyone was clapping and cheering as they handed out sobriety coins, and to be honest my impression was that was what all of AA was like. I had no idea that people actually talked about stuff in real meetings. I thought it was all hoopla after that.
So I attended that one meeting and then I left AA, not to return for several more years. I wrote it off as being worthless and stupid.
In addition to this, I did not do another single thing for my recovery. I relapsed shortly thereafter.
This is a lack of follow through.
I failed to follow through.
I took action by going to a single AA meeting, but then I failed to follow through.
Again, you can trace this problem back through the concepts. No surrender, no willingness, no change, no action, no follow through.
It all starts with surrender.
Sixth key concept: Growth
So what is at the end of this chain? This chain that starts with surrender and then leads to positive action?
The end of the chain is personal growth.
Sometimes people who have been sober for years or decades end up relapsing.
Such people have stopped growing. They have stopped challenging themselves to make positive changes. They lack action. They have lost willingness.
It all crumbles together.
And the result is a lack of personal growth. They stop making progress.
You are either moving forward in recovery, or you are in danger of relapse. No middle ground.
And if this should happen, your life crumbles, you relapse, you go back to square one and start over.
And hopefully this time you surrender totally and completely.