You can’t just accidentally slip and fall one day and beat your alcoholism with no real effort.
It takes serious work. It takes a serious commitment. And in long term sobriety it requires a persistence effort over time.
That might sound like a real drag, but the truth is that the rewards of recovery are well worth the effort. You can live a pretty amazing life in sobriety that you never even dreamed of when pre-addiction.
But in order to get there you are going to have to learn some things. About yourself, about recovery, and about what things you have to do for yourself in order to avoid complacency.
And that journey to gain new knowledge and wisdom starts before you even get clean and sober, when you are working through your denial.
Breaking through denial is the start of wisdom on the path to recovery
The first thing that you have to do on this journey to new knowledge is to let go of your denial.
This is really tough to do. I am not even sure that it is possible to do this on command, to simply choose to do so at will. Rather, I believe it is a process that only happens naturally after the alcoholic has finally had “enough.” What defines enough is subject to change though and is based on the individual.
I finally had enough when I realized that the fun was really gone forever, that I would never be able to drink again and have a good time like I used to do. Those days were gone for good. I realized that I actually could have a fun couple of hours with drinking, but only if I first took several days off of alcohol and drugs completely before that.
So the math didn’t work. What good was it to deprive myself of drugs and alcohol for several days, only to have a few hours (at best) of “fun?” What good was that?
When I had first discovered my drug of choice it was different. I could drink alcohol all day long and it was fun all day long. If it stopped being so much fun then I could simply drink more (or add more drugs on top of whatever I was already on).
But that stopped working. My solution was to put chemicals into my body until I became “happy.” But the solution no longer worked. It didn’t scale up too well. It worked for a while (a few years?) and then the tolerance started to shift. My tolerance betrayed me in the end. The drugs and the booze were no longer fun. It was work just to stay buzzed, just to feel medicated, just to feel normal. The party was over.
Realizing this was my path out of denial. This is definitely the start of wisdom, this is a path of learning, a path towards important new knowledge in your life. Your old solution of getting drunk or high is no longer working. It takes real courage to realize that. It takes guts. You don’t have to be smart to learn this particular lesson, you just have to have the guts to be honest with yourself. To realize that your old ideas have failed you.
This is why they call it surrender. You are giving up. Your old ideas failed to bring you the happiness that you thought they would. And so you have to admit to yourself that you were wrong all along, that your way was not working for you, and that you need help. You need a new path.
Realizing that you do not have all of the answers
If you try to get clean and sober on your own without asking for any help then you are likely to learn quite a bit about yourself.
Nearly every alcoholic tries to do this at first. Why ask for help and feel humiliated when you might be able to fix your own problem in secret? Why call attention to yourself if you can solve your own problem instead?
So every alcoholic and drug addict tries to fix their addiction themselves. They do this out of pride. They don’t want to ask for help. We have a million reasons why we don’t want to ask others for help in this case. So we try to control our drinking. Or we try to cut back. Or quit entirely. Or we switch to a different drug other than alcohol. And so on.
I believe that this is one of the points that defines addiction. If you can solve your own problem at this stage, and it is truly solved and you go on with your life and have no more struggles with substance abuse, then great. You solved your own problem and you can go live a happy life. But you are not an alcoholic or a drug addict. That label is reserved for people who tried to solve their own problem, and they failed. Again, that is just my own opinion and my own working definition of addiction and it is far from being official. But my theory is that if you need help in order to stop then you are a true alcoholic or drug addict. If you can quit on your own then all you had was a “drinking problem” or a “drug problem” but you were not really addicted. Just my 2 cents though.
So for the real alcoholic and drug addict, they get to this point where they have tried several times to get control of their problem (using various approaches) and they have failed repeatedly. And so they start to get honest with themselves at some point and realize that maybe they do not, in fact, have all of the answers. More likely at this point they will believe that they are unique in that they are the only person who ever lived who was hopelessly addicted to drugs or alcohol. They will think that they are special and unique in their extreme love of alcohol. And therefore they may not have much hope that other people could potentially fix their problem.
This was definitely my own attitude at the time when I was struggling. I could not really relate to other people because I was convinced that I was the only true alcoholic in the world. “If other people loved alcohol as much as I do, then no way could they ever get sober, I don’t care how many AA meetings they went to.” That was my lousy attitude. I really thought that I was special, that my addiction must be worse than everyone else’s. Very naive of me, I know. But I think this is a common mindset among all alcoholics and addicts.
The moment of surrender is when you finally break through the last of your denial. This is the turning point. It will change your life if you admit that you need help and that you do not have all of the answers. Getting to this point is a long, hard road. It is difficult to summon up that much courage and humility. Most people will only do it when they are truly desperate, when they are completely sick and tired of being miserable all the time.
It is only at your moment of greatest misery when you become willing to face your greatest fear. And no alcoholic likes to admit this, but their greatest fear is sobriety itself. They are terrified of facing life sober.
Not that it makes them anxious or nervous. But that it terrifies them. Real, raw, fear.
Like I said though, people don’t like to admit that. That they are afraid.
But they are. And this is what keeps people stuck in addiction.
Once the misery gets bad enough, they become willing to face their fear, and to ask for help.
Another step in the process towards real wisdom.
Getting out of your own way and learning from others is a lifelong process
So what happens next? Hopefully the alcoholic will ask for help and then follow through.
Hopefully they will take the advice they are given and go get the help that they need. Maybe that will be professional help at a treatment center or perhaps it will be to AA meetings or therapy sessions.
The bottom line though is that you need other people to help you learn about the recovery process.
I really do not believe that you can learn and implement recovery entirely based on book knowledge. This is because book knowledge is not dynamic enough. It just sits there. You can read the concepts, just as surely as you are reading this website, but the knowledge doesn’t really come to life until you apply it.
And I think there is a need (especially) to relate to others in recovery. This is doubly true early in your recovery journey. You need to relate. The personal stories in the back of the AA big book are not good enough for this, at least not for me. Reading those stories could not have replaced the verbal stories that I heard in rehab and at AA where people told me about their addiction and their recovery process. I had to hear it first hand for it to really take root in my brain. Maybe others are different and they can simply read the big book of AA and that is enough for them. But I needed the people. I needed the interaction. It had to be more than just reading about the concepts. I needed dynamic instruction.
Later in my recovery I got a sponsor and started working directly with him. He gave me advice and I tested it out. Again, this is dynamic. He told me to go back to college. He suggested that I quit smoking. And so on. The advice was tailored to my unique situation in a way that I do not believe written material could have achieved.
There is a human element to recovery, and much as I hate to admit this, I think it is important. We need people in order to recover. We need help.
So I started taking suggestions from real people in my life and I started doing experiments. For example, I started meditating at one point at the suggestion of my therapist. Seated meditation. This helped for a while but it was not going to be my ultimate solution or even part of my path. I abandoned seated meditation when I discovered distance running. Is that a fair trade? I don’t really care because I tried them both and I used the solution that worked best for me. With you it might be the exact opposite. Which brings us to an important point:
Keep learning from other people and experimenting in recovery!
This is the path to wisdom. This is really how you can take a huge shortcut to really learning a great deal more about yourself. This is better than just “knowing stuff” or “learning stuff,” as this is applying the knowledge directly to your own life (by taking suggestions) and finding out what works for you and what does not. Thus you discover who you really are.
This works best as a lifelong process. Don’t just expect to do this once and take some advice (such as go to AA meetings every day) and then be done with taking suggestions. Don’t stop there.
Instead, keep doing it. Keep doing more experiments and learning more about yourself. Keep seeking out advice and asking for feedback from people. This is an iterative process. Once you start doing this more and more you get into some great feedback loops. You start to see what works and what does not, and therefore you get a better idea of what new areas you should explore. Your intuition is honed.
Finally, as you keep working hard on improving yourself and your life, the concepts and the ideas that you have pushed to take positive action on start to interact with each other. This is called synergy. So now your goals in the various areas of your life start to align with each other. If you are seeking advice and suggestions from people they may even pick up on this and direct you towards areas that will enhance your life even further based on the actions you have already taken. In other words, they will guide you towards your aptitudes.
In order to do this you can’t just muscle your way through recovery and grab at what you want.
Instead, you have to listen. You have to feel your way along, listen to the guides, listen to the people in your life. Find people who are living the life that you want and ask them for advice. Give it time, move slowly but surely, realize that it takes time to build something positive.
But do the work. Above all, do the work in recovery. It takes positive action. This is the path to real wisdom. You have to try and fail, try and fail. Experiment and take suggestions, try new things. If something doesn’t work out for you, simply shrug it off and move on. Try something else.
Learning to find your own process and listening to your inner voice
Is it possible to find your own knowledge, your own wisdom, your own process of recovery without relying on the suggestions of other people?
I think that it is.
First of all, don’t try to do this when you have 3 weeks sober. You will screw it up. When you are early in recovery, listen to others exclusively. Outsource all of your decision making to other people. That is how you get out of your own way.
When you are early in recovery you do NOT know what you want in life yet. There is too much noise, too much static, too much negative stuff swirling around.
You have to clean that up first. You have to create a blank slate first. Don’t try to figure out what you want in life when you have 30 days sober. It is too early. Be content at that time to want sobriety. That is enough.
And so you start doing the work. What work? Ask others! Ask for advice and suggestions and guidance. They will tell you what to do. Then, do it. Do the work.
This creates the blank slate. I am not sure how long it took for me to reach this point, I suppose it was around 2 years or so perhaps? That will vary greatly by individual. I was taking my sweet time to be honest. I did not do the work as quickly as some people do it. I can be a slow learner in that regard. Or rather, I let fear hold me back more than some people.
So after you have done much of this “foundation work” in early recovery (working through the 12 steps of AA certainly qualifies for this) then you are in a position to start finding your own process.
Meditation can be a huge part of this process if you want it to be. It doesn’t have to be though. Really you just need to aware of what is going on inside of you. Specifically, what your fears and anxieties are. If you can identify what those are and you have the tools and the knowledge to eliminate them then you are more in a position to “fly solo” at that point. But honestly if you made it to that point then you have probably had a great deal of help from other people so the idea of “flying solo in recovery” is probably not all that important to you any more.
Creating original though is difficult or even impossible. But I still think that you get to a point in recovery where your brain is no longer your enemy and it can help you to come up with ideas that help and enhance your recovery. This is in stark contrast to what my mind was like during the first few months of my journey when it was essentially trying to get me to relapse every day (mostly through self pity). I had to learn how to overcome that liability and to do that I had to “do the work” and learn how to eliminate that particular character defect. Self pity was not serving me well so I had to eliminate it.
Accumulating rewards of recovery over time
As you make this journey in recovery and you start to learn more and more, the rewards of sobriety start to compound. In other words, the rewards start to build on each other in order to give you ever greater gifts in recovery.
I’ll give you an example. I quit drinking alcohol and a few years later I had the courage and the knowledge to tackle my nicotine addiction as well. After quitting the cigarettes I got into fitness and I finished three marathons, even though I was never much of a runner and I have suffered from severe asthma my whole life.
That was an amazing reward in my experience based on the gifts of sobriety. It wasn’t just getting sober. It was that I later was able to kick the cigarettes too, and then got into fitness. So it was a chain of events. It was an accumulation of positive things that happened over time.
And this happens in recovery in a million different ways as you stay clean and sober. The rewards of sobriety start to build on themselves. It’s not like you get sober and things get a tiny bit better. Instead, things start getting better every single day, in many different areas of your life, until they start compounding and creating new benefits that you never could have predicted. This is a really amazing process that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Later on you will realize that the holistic approach creates these unpredictable rewards in the future. So you will intuitively know that a healthy idea that, while not benefiting you directly or immediately, may pay enormous dividends to you in the future. So you can’t explain exactly why it is a positive thing to do, but deep down you know that the future benefit of that action will outweigh the cost.
How else could you define wisdom then by having this amazing intuition?
Have you become wiser in sobriety? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!