One of the reasons that it is so tough to get clean and sober is due to the intensity of the commitment that is required.
I believe that every single alcoholic will underestimate this at first.
Every single one.
I am not exaggerating in the slightest. It is human nature to underestimate the disease of alcoholism or drug addiction, especially as it pertains to ourselves.
Allow me to explain this a bit.
Think back to your experiences growing up as a child. Think back to your teenage years. Think of all the challenges that you have faced in life other than your addiction.
You know probably know what it is like to get through school. You probably know what it is like to achieve something in sports. We have all faced various challenges throughout our lives of different degrees. Some of those challenges have been tougher than others. But for the most part, we have been able to succeed and overcome most of life’s problems by making a certain amount of effort.
Again, depending on the exact problem that we are facing, we have to try harder in some cases. But there is an average effort that we put forth in life. For the most part, if you put forth a modest effort in things then you get modest results. Give a little effort, get a little reward. Give a bit more and you get a little bit more results. Push yourself really hard and you can get exceptional results. And so on.
And so we condition ourselves throughout our lives to put forth a certain amount of effort in things. We tend to try “hard enough” to get passable results. We make a modest effort at most things in life, and we get modest results.
And I really believe that we are hard wired this way. The idea is that we are not just going to waste energy and effort in order to do something that can be done with less energy. To do so is crazy. It doesn’t make sense to put in a 100 percent effort into most challenges in life if we can get “good enough results” with an 80 percent effort. Or with a 60 percent effort.
And this is where the problem comes in when it comes to alcoholism and recovery.
If you try to apply this approach to recovery you will end up failing.
If you come into recovery with the attitude that you are fairly smart and therefore you should be able to make a modest effort in order to succeed, you are setting yourself up for failure.
And this is what I mean when I say that most alcoholics are not prepared for the full, 100 percent commitment to recovery.
They are treating this experience like they treat the rest of their life experiences. They are looking at alcoholism the same way that they have looked at all of their previous life challenges.
And this is a huge problem.
When generally happens is that the alcoholic will make a modest effort. They will put forth an 80 percent effort or a 60 percent effort, and they will relapse as a result.
You see, recovery from alcoholism is pass/fail.
You cannot get a “C+” grade in recovery.
Getting an average “grade” in recovery from alcoholism means that you relapse.
There is no average grade. You either take a drink and relapse fully, or you find the path to personal growth, surrender completely, and build a new life in sobriety.
There is absolutely no in between.
If you find someone who believes that they are “in between” these two extremes, then I can assure you that they are in danger of relapse.
If you listen closely at AA meetings you can hear this same theme. This is evidenced by the commonly heard phrase: “You are either working on recovery, or you are working on a relapse.”
Sobriety is pass/fail. There is no in between.
My first two tries at recovery and why they failed
I tried to get sober three times in my life. The third time was the charm, as they say.
What went wrong on the first two tries?
In a nutshell: I simply wasn’t ready.
I was not at the point of full surrender.
And because I had not surrendered fully, I was not in a place where I could commit to a new solution in my life.
There is this idea that if you are going to overcome an alcohol or drug addiction that you have to replace it with something.
You cannot just remove the drugs and the booze and expect for it to all work out. You can’t just strip away the alcohol and expect for life to magically change.
It doesn’t work that way.
Many alcoholics have tried to go cold turkey, and without working some sort of program or taking special action (counseling, therapy, meetings, sponsorship, religion, etc.) they generally don’t do very well.
No, recovery requires action.
The first two tries I tried to get sober I did not follow through and take massive action.
The first time I went to rehab. Residential treatment. I believe it was about a ten day thing. Maybe two weeks at the most.
They exposed me to AA meetings for the first time. I was too nervous and scared to really share at the meetings. I did not like the idea of going to the meetings every day.
I wanted to take the 12 steps, work through them real quick (like in a single afternoon or something) and then be done with it forever. Go home and be sober, without any more meetings or therapy or follow up or anything at all.
That was my idea. And they were also telling me that I would have to give up other drugs as well, and I did not like that idea either. I was determined to keep getting high, even if I was serious about getting rid of the alcohol.
So you can guess how badly that all turned out. Needless to say I did not do well.
My second attempt at rehab was a bit different. This time, I knew what I was up against a bit more, and I realized by this time that “a drug is a drug.” I knew that it was all or nothing for me, that I would have to quit everything if I was serious about it.
And I was on the fence at this time. I was half committed to the idea of lifelong sobriety. I was not quite sold on it yet. I was not done being miserable in my addiction.
And so I relapsed immediately. I just wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to commit to a solution.
Denial can be a tricky thing. It is easy to get confused about denial.
When we talk about an alcoholic who is denial, we can mean one of two things:
1) An alcoholic who denies that they have a problem, or
2) An alcoholic who denies that a solution could help them (such as AA or treatment).
So I was at the point when I realized that I was most definitely a real alcoholic.
I was not in denial about this.
I knew I had a problem. A big problem. I was no longer trying to deny that part of it.
But, I was still in denial.
How was this possible?
It was because I was in denial of the solution.
People were offering me help. They were telling me to go to AA, to go to rehab, to go live in long term treatment. They were offering me solutions, and I was basically saying “that won’t work for me, because (INSERT EXCUSE HERE).
I was different. I was unique. I was wired different from everyone else. God made me strange, he made it so that I have to drink in order to be happy.
And I had already gone to treatment twice before. I had been to a few AA meetings. I had done lots of therapy and counseling. I had tried these things and I was still a drunk.
I was doomed to fail! I had every excuse in the book.
But I knew that I was a real alcoholic. So by my own logic, I was technically not in denial.
Big deal. So what, I realized that I was an alcoholic!
The truth was that I was still in denial.
I was in denial of the solution.
The first two times I tried to get sober I was not ready. I had not surrendered fully yet. I was in denial of the solution.
And because of these things, I was not ready to commit to a solution.
If you want to get sober then you have to make a 100 percent commitment to yourself.
What does massive commitment and massive action really look like?
When I was finally willing to make this massive commitment I held nothing back.
I was willing to do whatever it took.
I was willing to live in long term rehab.
In the past I was scared of the idea of living in treatment for months or even years. It was a scary idea to me because my mind equated it with being in jail or prison. Why would I want to do that to myself?
But then when I finally reached that point of true surrender, I opened up to the idea of living in long term rehab. It suddenly did not seem so bad any more. Maybe it could actually help me. And the idea of being “locked up in treatment for a long time” was slightly better than being dead.
And that was the point I had to get to. I had to be at the point of misery, where I no longer cared about myself or others. This is also known as “hitting bottom.” When I felt like I finally could not get any lower in my life. I had reached my bottom.
The nice thing about hitting your bottom is that the only way to go from there is up. You can’t go any lower. So at least you have that going for you, right?
And so when I hit that bottom I asked for help. And it really was different this time, because I was willing to follow through. And I knew that I was willing.
It was almost a little funny to me at the time, because my family had heard me “cry wolf” so many times before, that I knew they did not think that this would be any different. But I had surrendered fully this time, and I was willing to make a supreme commitment. I was willing to do whatever it took, to go live in long term treatment, to go to any length necessary.
Because I was just so sick and tired of chasing my tail, of being afraid, of living in chaos. I was sick of it all. And I wanted out.
“Willing to go to any length”
One way to know when an alcoholic is full of crap when they are asking for help is if they put all sorts of stipulations and limitations on what they are willing to do.
Alcoholic: “I need help to stop drinking.”
Family member: “How about we call up this treatment center and get you into detox?”
Alcoholic: “No…..I don’t want to do that. Can’t we go to counseling or do some meetings or something else instead?”
This is a clear example of someone who is not at a point of full surrender. They are not willing to go to any lengths.
And who is to decide what is reasonable? Who is to decide what length the alcoholic should be going to?
Maybe someone suggests counseling and another suggests daily AA meetings and another suggests that they live in a long term rehab for 2 years. Who is right? Who should be trusted?
Well, a couple of points about this argument.
One, the alcoholic themselves is usually not a good judge of how intense their treatment needs to be.
So for example, I should not be the one to make out my treatment plan and decide how much rehab or therapy I need. When I went to my second rehab they suggested long term to me. I refused. But then when I went back for my third rehab I knew what the solution was. They had already told me in the past that I needed long term and in fact I was now much worse off. So I knew for sure what I had to do: I had to go to long term.
Note that this will not be the solution for everyone. It was just what I needed in my own life and my own situation. Your needs may be quite different.
Second all, if everyone is telling you the same thing, then you should probably listen. For example, if multiple people tell you that you need detox in order to dry out. Take the hint and go find a medical detox. Most rehabs include these but some do not have them. Call around, call up rehabs, ask questions. Get the help that you need.
Third of all, be honest. Call up a rehab center and be completely honest with them and it is their job to tell you what services you need and where you should go to get help. If you are not honest with people then they cannot help you. By the way, this is why the first rehab I attended did not tell me that I needed long term treatment. Why not? Because I lied to them! I was not honest about drinking and drug use, so they could not recommend the right help for me.
So at some point every alcoholic has to ask themselves:
“Am I willing to go to any length in order to get sober?” This is not a question that only pertains to AA, it is actually fundamental to sobriety itself. The question was still relevant before AA ever existed. So you might get sober in AA or you might find some other method of recovery, but the question is always going to be strong indicator and you will need to answer it for yourself. You will need to say “Yes, I am willing to go to any length, and here are the actions I am going to take and the commitment that I am going to make to myself.”
What does it take to turn your life around and get sober?
So what exactly does it take to get sober?
The answer varies from person to person. That is why you will hear people say “It takes what it takes.” This is just another way of saying: It varies.
And therefore you have to have this willingness deep inside of you. You must be at the point of full and complete surrender.
Without an extreme level of commitment, you will fail and relapse. It is as simple as that.
Sobriety is pass/fail.
In fact, the actual program that you attempt to follow in recovery is not that important.
That probably strikes most people as being a bit funny. But it’s true. Just look at some of the different recovery programs out there that attempt to help alcoholics and drug addicts.
Consider the diversity of such programs.
For example, you have people who are staying sober in:
1) AA and NA, 12 step based program.
2) Religious based programs.
3) Counseling or therapy.
4) Group therapy but not 12 step based.
5) Groups like SMART recovery or Lifering.
6) Exercise based programs
7) Creative arts based recovery programs.
You may notice that those examples got more obscure and remote as we moved down the list. Most people have heard of AA. But not everyone has heard of running marathons or painting to stay sober. Yet there are people out there who are doing, who have written books about it, who have published studies about some of the alternative methods.
And so the fact that these alternative exist and that they are so varied and different should prove to you that it is all about one thing:
The program itself is actually just a minor detail.
You could take an alcoholic and stick them in Narcotics Anonymous.
You could take a drug addict and stick them in AA.
And you could take any alcoholic or addict and stick them in any of those other solutions.
And some people would relapse and some would stay sober.
Now admittedly, some of these solutions probably do, in fact, work better than other solutions.
However, it still proves the point that it is all about commitment. What is driving you? How honest are you, and how willing are you to go to any length in order to make your recovery work?
This is the only real question in sobriety.
Recovery is pass/fail.
And your success in recovery is based almost entirely on the strength of your commitment.
This is not the same thing as your willpower.
Rather, it is about your willingness to ask for help, to seek out a plan, to give yourself over to a new solution in life.
It is your level of willingness that determines your success, not your willpower.
If it were up to willpower alone then we would all fail. We would all relapse. None of us would succeed.
At some point you have to stop making excuses and start taking action. It is not about having enough willpower. It is about having a simple willingness. It is about being so sick and tired that you become willing to face your fears, to ask for help, to try a new way of living.
This is how you break free in recovery.
It is a leap of faith. Because you are not going to know if it will work or not.