If you are a struggling alcoholic who is seeking help for their problem, what exactly can you expect to learn while in rehab?
I wondered about this myself when I was facing the idea of a 28 day program in order to get my life back on track. What exactly were they going to teach me during those 28 days? What would I learn?
I think some alcoholics and problem drinkers might feel more easy about going into rehab if they knew what they were to expect from it. So I have tried to outline what you can realistically expect in rehab here.
The biggest lesson that needs to be “learned” is really hitting bottom and surrender to the disease itself
There are certain things that an alcoholic needs to learn in order to make it through the process of sobriety. One of those things that must be learned is surrender.
Of course surrender is not so much something that you learn as it is something that you experience.
In other words, you don’t just decide that you will surrender one day. Instead, you hear about the concept and then you wonder how you can force yourself to surrender. When that doesn’t exactly happen, you continue to endure more chaos and misery with your drinking until you finally reach a breaking point. That breaking point is what AA calls the “turning point” when the alcoholic decides to face their fear of sobriety rather than to continue on with the misery of their addiction.
This is not a happy place to be in your journey. Surrender is not something that you do with a big smile on your face. At least that is not my experience with surrender, nor is that what I observed while working in a rehab for 5 plus years. In fact, the people who came into treatment with a big smile on their face never stayed sober. They were not at a point of true surrender.
Now that might sound like a very negative thing for me to say–that people who are happy and smiling cannot be ready to recover from alcoholism. But I really believe that to be true, and this is simply based on my observations. The people who had a real shot at recovery were completely beat down from the disease. They had reached a bottom. This was necessary in order to build a foundation in sobriety. If a person had not reached this point of despair then they did not seem to have the willingness to take the appropriate actions and follow through in recovery.
Recovery is about change and that means you have to take action. Lots of action. Taking this sort of action and making massive changes in your life is difficult to do. It is uncomfortable. Therefore the average alcoholic is not going to want to do these things unless it is a last resort. This is why alcoholics struggle for years before they finally “get” recovery. Because recovery just is not a very appealing choice at first.
Think about: The best advice you could follow in early sobriety is to sacrifice your ego and simply do what other people tell you to do.
Really, that is about the best possible approach that you could take in order to beat your alcoholism.
You want to quit drinking, it is simple. Go to rehab, surrender completely, and stop making decisions for yourself. Let other people make your decisions for you. Sacrifice complete control of your life for a year or two to the whims of others.
Does that sound like fun? Even a little bit?
Of course it doesn’t sound like fun. This is why no one wants to do it.
And the only way that most people will do it is if they are at such a complete state of misery and despair that they no longer care about their own welfare. They are so miserable and so desperate for change in their life that they will do anything. And they are beating themselves up because they know that they brought on their addiction and their problems all by themselves. The alcoholic knows that their disease is entirely self made. Deep down they know that they cannot really blame others for their problems, even though they most certainly will try on the outside.
So this is the first thing that the alcoholic must learn; they must learn to surrender.
And this is not an easy lesson.
It takes people a lifetime to learn this lesson. Or it may take half of a lifetime. Or a decade. Or several years.
But most people do not learn how to surrender after one or two bad drinking episodes. If they did then “alcoholism” as we know it would not exist.
But the fact is that alcoholics tend to live in chaos and misery for years and years before they finally realize that they are sick and tired of it all.
You want to surrender right now? You want to change overnight? It is possible. But you have to get sick and tired of your drinking first. Really, truly sick and tired of it.
And I am not sure that this is something that you can “learn.” It is a lesson that is taught to the alcoholic over time, sure. But you can’t just sit a bunch of alcoholics down in a room and then draw an outline on the chalkboard of how they surrender, and then tell them to go do it. Surrender doesn’t work that way.
Nevertheless, the alcoholic will not make any real progress towards a better life until they “learn” this lesson. You have to hit bottom and surrender to your disease if you want any hope of permanent change.
How to live your way into sobriety
One of the things that you should know about addiction recovery is that it is a process that is lived, not something that is just a theory but it is action that you take every day.
They have a saying regarding this concept: “You can’t think your way into good living, instead you must live your way into good thinking.”
In my experience this is absolutely true. You can’t expect to think your way into a better life.
I tried to do this many times when I was still drinking and taking drugs, and it failed for me every time.
The problem is that every alcoholic is just too darn smart for their own good. And no one really wants to sober up, so they find ways to sabotage their own recovery efforts. Their brain is their own undoing. They trip up over their own ideas.
Total abstinence is just too darn simple, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Who would want to totally give up alcohol forever, anyway? It just doesn’t sound like much fun, I know. Especially when your definition of “fun” is to get blasted drunk.
So I could read the big book of AA when I was still stuck in my drinking days, and I could even understand the concepts it was explaining to me. But to apply those concepts in my daily life and see the changes manifest in my life? No. That was not happening yet. And it was not going to happen unless I found some way to make some huge shifts.
I like to put recovery in terms of “action.” I am fond of saying that you need to “take massive action” in order to recover.
If you are thinking about recovery, or simply reading a book about how to become sober some day, then this is not “massive” action by any means. In fact you are not doing a thing, really. This has nothing to do with actually living a new life.
It is like the difference between reading a recipe out of a magazine, and actually baking a cake and sticking it into the oven. You can’t just sit there and read a recipe and call yourself a chef. So why would thinking about recovery or reading about recovery be any different than this? It’s not. You have accomplished nothing.
Instead, you must live recovery. You must live your way into a new life, into recovery.
How do you do this?
I can tell you how I did it.
What I did was to try and fail, twice. I went to rehab two times and when I left I did not exactly follow through.
Had I followed through, I could have possibly lived my way into a new life. But instead I went back to my old patterns, my old behaviors, my old life. Instead of adopting a new life I slipped back into the old one. So those two efforts were somewhat wasted and the treatment did not work for me.
The third time I went to rehab, things were different.
First of all I had “learned” the most important lesson: That of surrender. I had hit bottom.
So now I was willing to do whatever it took in order to recover. I was willing to take massive action.
So instead of just thinking about recovery, or reading about it, I started living it. I started doing what people told me to do.
And one thing that they told me to do was to live in long term rehab. This is certainly one form of taking massive action.
Does this mean that everyone has to go live in long term treatment? Not necessarily. But it was part of the “massive action” that I had to take in my own personal journey.
Your version of taking massive action might differ from that. You can still “live your way into recovery” without living in treatment. For me, that was what it took though. I had to live in rehab for almost two years. Other people have found different paths that worked for them without being so extreme. It all depends on your personal situation and how screwed up your life is at the time. Mine was very screwed up so I needed a lot of help.
When I finally became willing to follow through and to take massive action, my life got better in a hurry. In fact, it only took a few weeks for me to realize that things were a whole lot better. After a few months I realized that things were even better than when I was having “fun” in my addiction. And after a year or two I was really flying and totally amazed at the new life that I was building.
So this cannot necessarily be taught, because it has to be lived. You have to experience recovery rather than just read about it.
And as you go through these motions your thinking will start to change. Your new living will start to reflect on your thinking process. This is how you “live your way into good thinking.” Your external reality will help to direct your thoughts. The cycle will feed itself if you are taking the right actions, because this will lead to better thoughts.
Essentially what you are doing is killing your ego, then rebuilding it from scratch.
In early recovery you stop making your own decisions. You ignore your own ideas about living because they no longer worked for you. Instead, you listen to other people’s ideas about what you should be doing. And your life starts getting better and better. After a while you start to slowly learn what are good ideas and what are (your old) bad ideas about living. And this is how you live your way into good thinking. By following directions from other people and taking their advice you start to learn what makes a good idea versus a bad idea. You learn to discern this over time in recovery.
What you can’t really learn at a rehab center
You can learn the basics of staying clean and sober at rehab, but it is much more difficult to learn the mechanics of long term sobriety.
One reason for this is because teaching long term sobriety is a bit out of place in early recovery.
For example, it doesn’t make sense to talk to the newcomer in recovery about living a holistic life. You don’t take someone who has 3 days sober and tell them that they need to work on proper nutrition. This is my opinion anyway, some people will certainly disagree with this. But my experience is that the newcomer in recovery needs to focus. They need to focus everything that they have on simply not taking a drink or a drug.
Early recovery can be like that. It takes everything that you have just to avoid relapse. So you cannot exactly throw too much on their plate when someone first sobers up.
How much are they going to retain if you try to overwhelm them with new knowledge in the first week of their sobriety? They are still scrambled from their addiction, for one thing.
First things first.
And the first thing about recovery is surrender. Then you probably need to focus on the following concepts for early recovery:
1) Support from peers in recovery, reaching out to others, finding fellowship in recovery.
2) Spiritual transformation, seeking a higher power, practicing gratitude.
3) Housekeeping in terms of character defects, cleaning up the negativity in your mind. Doing internal work.
So with the holistic approach to recovery, you might talk about exercise, proper nutrition, healthy sleep patterns, and other things like that.
But is all of that stuff really helpful to someone who has 4 days of sobriety under their belt?
No it is not. It is only helpful to people who have established a foundation of recovery by exploring those three concepts listed above.
In other words, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk. While “proper nutrition” may be part of a holistic approach to recovery, it is not going to keep anyone sober if they are struggling during their first week of sobriety. While those 3 things listed above (peer support, spiritual transformation, removing character defects) may all play a critical role in sobriety right from the start.
Do you see the difference? It has to do with the difference between early recovery and long term sobriety.
In long term sobriety you have a foundation and you can start to consider the finer points of holistic health in your journey. After a year sober you can start to look at nutrition, exercise, and so on.
And I admit that these things could potentially help you sooner in your recovery journey as well. But the important thing to note is that proper nutrition is not going to keep you sober if you are struggling at day 4. Or week two. Whereas some of these other concepts have the power to do that.
Therefore if you are in early recovery then you need to focus on the right things.
Those things are best taught a rehab center: Peer support, 12 step meetings, spiritual transformation, and so on.
Do they teach you how to overcome complacency in rehab? Not really. Why would they focus on something that is only a problem after years or decades of recovery? You need to learn the basics first. So that is what rehabs focus on teaching you. First things first.
The longer you stay, the more you can adapt to a sober lifestyle in a protected environment
Unfortunately the addiction treatment system is largely tied to health insurance. Therefore some people can stay for longer time frames and other people may have to leave after only a few days or a single week.
This is unfortunate because the longer you stay the more you can adapt to sobriety in safety.
It is easy to stay sober in rehab. It was easy for me to stay sober every time I was in rehab. This was true even when I had not yet surrendered fully to my disease. As long as I was in rehab, staying clean and sober was quite easy.
Therefore if you can stay in rehab for longer periods of time then this should give you an advantage in terms of your recovery. If you only stay in treatment for 5 days and then you go back home then your old behaviors will still be quite fresh in your mind. You will not have had much experience at living sober yet.
But if you stay in treatment for 28 days then you build a much greater foundation. Now you have several days of “sober living” under your belt, even if it is in a controlled environment.
The data that we have about treatment seems to support this. The longer you stay, the better your chances are of remaining sober in the long run.
More treatment is generally better than less treatment.
My own personal experience confirms this as well. I finally “got it” when I stayed in long term rehab. My other 2 stays in treatment were 2 weeks and 28 days. But at those times I had not fully surrendered to my disease either.
There are no magic shortcuts to sobriety
If there was a magic shortcut to recovery then the treatment industry would be a whole lot more efficient. But the fact is that “it takes what it takes” for people to recover, and the process is not always smooth.
That said, going to inpatient rehab is probably the best step that any alcoholic can take for themselves. You can only “learn” certain things by doing them, and when you check into rehab you start living the sober life, even if it is in a controlled environment.
What about you, have you found treatment to be helpful? What did you learn in rehab? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!