There comes a time when most alcoholics realize that it is time to make a change.
This doesn’t happen with everyone, of course. Some people never really get it. They just keep chasing happiness with alcohol, never figuring out that it is actually the source of their misery.
The fact is, there are many levels of denial. In fact there at least two distinct stages of denial that I had to go through in order to reach that critical point of surrender in my own journey.
The first level of denial is obvious. It is the level when you are in complete denial that you have any problem at all, when you cannot even conceive of the idea that you might be a “real alcoholic.” That only happens to other people, right? You’re no bum!
This level of denial is finally broken through when enough consequences finally pile up in your life. Your friends and family and peers will likely tell you that they see a problem, and this will happen over and over again. Typical denial will have you being defensive in this case, but then at some point you will break down and be forced to agree with them. Alcohol really is causing your problems, there is no more denying it. After enough consequences, most alcoholics will inevitably reach this point.
But unfortunately they are not finished at this point. This is not the end. They have only cracked that first level of denial. They are not necessarily at a point where they are willing to take action.
When I reached this point I was still very much stuck in my disease. I knew that I was an alcoholic and I readily admitted it to others. Yet I was still stuck. I did not believe that treatment could help me. I had already tried treatment twice at this point. I had been to see therapists. Counselors. I had tried to do the AA meeting thing but I was terrified of them. Nothing seemed to work. I wanted a solution that did not exist. I told the therapists that AA was not a good fit for me. They told me that I was probably going to stay stuck in addiction if I could not get past that particular block. So for a while there I completely gave up hope. Because I was past that first bit of denial and I realized that I really was a true alcoholic, and yet I was not willing to embrace the solution. I was holding myself back based on this second layer of denial.
I knew I was an alcoholic. And yet I did not believe that recovery could work for me. I felt hopeless, because everyone told me that AA was the only real solution, and I did not feel that I was compatible with that solution. So I stayed stuck in denial for several more years.
Getting honest with yourself about consequences
In order to break through all levels of denial (not just if you are an alcoholic, but also that there is a solution out there that can help you), you need to be able to get honest with yourself about the consequences in your life.
This can be a tricky thing to detect. The reason it is tricky is because your alcoholism will slowly erode your integrity over time.
For example, maybe you have a series of excuses that sound like “yets.” For instance, you may say “At least I have never had a drunk driving arrest.” Or you may say “I have never gone to jail over my drinking.” And if you think about it, every one of those excuses has a “yet” on the end of it. Implying that at some point, if you keep doing what you are doing, then eventually that excuse will get smashed to pieces. You will end up in jail. You will get into trouble with the law. You will suffer consequences, it is just a matter of time.
And so these “yets” will slowly start to accumulate. And you will realize that the alcoholism doesn’t care, it just takes over and you keep drinking and you somehow justify the madness that has occurred. So maybe you do go to jail over your drinking. Or you get a drunk driving ticket. So you rationalize it and you make excuses and you just keep drinking.
This is alcoholism. This is denial. “Normal” people will change their behavior after something like this. A “normal” person who gets pulled over for drunk driving will put a stop to this behavior so that it never happens again.
The alcoholic does not have this choice. They have lost the power of choice in their life and that is what makes them an alcoholic. So they continue to drink, in spite of the consequences they have suffered. They do not have a choice. Their disease propels them forward into certain disaster. The only question is “when,” not “if.”
In order to put a stop to this cycle you will need to get really honest with yourself about the consequences in your life. You have to stop rationalizing them away and making excuses about them. You have to get honest and place the blame squarely on your alcoholism if you ever want to break free from it.
Getting honest with yourself about happiness and joy in your life
Perhaps the biggest “consequence” of your drinking is the misery that it brings along with it.
In order to realize this you have to let go of those good times that you had in the past. Most alcoholics do not realize that they are “time traveling” when they think about the good times that they have had with alcohol. These moments are always in the past. They have yet to get drunk in the future, and they are miserable in the present moment, and so they cling to a past memory of when drinking was actually fun. And the alcoholic mind believes that this “happy time” can be recreated at will, just with a cheap bottle of booze. That was the promise that alcohol made to the alcoholic so long ago, in the beginning of the addiction.
In the beginning this promise was actually true. Alcohol did its job, it did what it promised. It made the alcoholic happy after a few drinks, and kept them buzzing all night long, and life was good. Maybe a little hangover but nothing too serious. A couple cups of coffee and you could make it through the day, only to drink again the next night. It worked for a while, and it was fun.
But eventually it stopped being fun. This is the critical piece about which the alcoholic must get honest about. It stopped being fun. Getting drunk every night was just a chore, and it no longer made you “happy.” Not like it used too. Now it just brought you back to “normal,” and even that was fleeting. Most of the time you are just miserable as alcoholism progresses. The fun times get squeezed out of the equation entirely.
If you are in denial about your alcoholism then you are clinging to the past memories of when drinking was a lot more fun. This is denial. I have news for the typical alcoholic: It is not fun any more. If it were then there would be no problem–just cut down a bit and enjoy the ride. But this doesn’t work. You are miserable even if you don’t cut down. And if you do cut back, you are miserable then as well. Nothing works. The only solution is to go full abstinence (the thing that the alcoholic fears the most) and embrace a new life in recovery. This is how you get back to “fun.”
Now there is another layer of denial whereby the alcoholic does not believe that this is even possible. They think they are so unique, that they are the only person who has ever fell in love with alcohol before. This is denial. Of course there have been thousands of alcoholics who came before them that were also very much in love with being drunk. And those alcoholics learned how to embrace abstinence and find a new happiness in life. You are not unique in that sense. Any alcoholic, indeed ANY alcoholic, can sober up and find a new happiness in life. But you have to be willing to smash through your denial. All levels of it. And you have to realize that you are not so different, and that other alcoholics have paved the way for you. There is hope. You just have to accept that there is really hope. You must believe it and then take action.
When everyone is telling you something, they are probably not all wrong
I am not a stupid guy.
But denial is very powerful stuff.
When I was trapped in addiction, all of my friends and family were telling me that I needed to get some help. They were telling me that I should go to rehab and get help for my drinking.
But I could not see this. I thought that everyone was stupid, or short-sighted, or that they simply did not understand my issues. How could they not see that alcohol was the only thing that made me happy?
I really thought that everyone was misled, and that I was right, and that I should keep drinking alcohol.
Really now, you have to ask yourself at some point…..even if you happen to be really, really smart, would everyone else in your life all be wrong about the same thing?
Because this is what you have to assume if you keep drinking. And all of your friends and family are saying “look, you are self destructing, you need to go get help for your alcoholism.”
And yet you persist with the idea that they are all wrong, and that you are right.
This is madness. This is blatant denial. Yet we cannot see it when we are the ones who are stuck in it.
If everyone is telling you that you need to change, or to do something, then you really need to take a look at what they are telling you.
If just one person mentions it, then it is their word against yours. They could be wrong, and you could be right.
But if everyone is saying it, you must really pause for a moment and think. Would everyone be wrong about something? Not usually.
Going to rehab before you are truly ready to change
There is a problem with some people in early recovery in that they have been coerced into rehab before they were truly ready to stop drinking.
If this a problem for you then I would suggest that you just go to rehab anyway and deal with it.
Now why would I suggest that? Because:
1) Most people have to go to rehab more than one time anyway. So don’t expect to just go once and be “cured” forever. It rarely works that way. For example, I went to treatment 3 times before it finally stuck.
2) The benefit of becoming sober far outweighs the cost of being wrong about surrender. In other words, if you go to rehab and you were wrong about it and you are really not ready yet, then there is generally no harm in that. It is worth a try. But if you just keep drinking and never even try to get help, well, that is all bad with no potential upside.
3) Timing is impossible to get right in every case. Better to try a few times and fail then to never try at all. People who never even try to quit drinking stay drunk forever with no hope at all.
In other words, if you are not sure if you are ready to get sober yet, just go to rehab anyway. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Think about that for a moment. You really have nothing to lose by trying to get sober. What could you possibly miss out on? A few weeks of drinking time? So what? Who cares? You can just go back to drinking when you get out of rehab if you want. No real loss of “happiness,” if that is what you are still calling it.
I could not get this when I was stuck in denial. I thought that if I went to rehab then I would be miserable from not drinking during that time, and that this misery would somehow accumulate and make me much more sad in the long run. I could not see that it was an opportunity for real happiness.
What to do when you finally surrender
When you finally surrender I suggest that you ask for help.
Ask the people you trust in life. Ask your family or friends or people who you may know that are already in recovery. If you don’t have anyone who cares about you even a little bit then just call an addiction hotline or a local treatment center.
Start asking questions. Call up a rehab and ask them what you need to do in order to be admitted. If they can’t take you then ask them who can. Ask them who you can call. Ask them what agencies might be able to help you. Keep asking questions until you figure out your next step.
You may have to jump through a hoop or two in order to get into a rehab. This is no excuse not to take action, however. Notice that if you do not go to rehab, you still have to keep jumping through hoops in order to drink and stay medicated. You are hoop jumping either way. Life takes work no matter which path you choose. So you may as well try to find some real happiness in life, right? If you just keep doing the same old thing with drinking then you are just going to keep getting the same old misery and chaos in your life.
If you get an appointment with a treatment center then your next task is to simply show up. Go to treatment and then follow through. Do what you are told to do and listen in all of the groups. This is not rocket science. You just have to show up and be willing to listen and participate. Be nice and follow the rules and your life will start getting better and better.
My philosophy is that you do not want to make your own decisions to often in early recovery. For the first year of sobriety you should be letting other people dictate your recovery. This may sound like a dangerous way to live but actually it works out very well. Other people can easily tell you want to do and your life will get better and better. Of course in order to pull this off you have to trust in other people and actually follow through on their advice. Doing this in practice can be a lot harder than it sounds. Hitting bottom and really surrendering to your disease is a key step in being able to let go of the need for control.
If you go to a typical rehab center then you will probably be back out in the real world in just 28 days or less. If this is the case then you will want to make sure that you dive head first into a community of support. The most typical example of this is the 12 step program, but there are other potential communities that can help support a person in early recovery (think religious communities, etc.).
At some point in early recovery you will need to learn how to push yourself to take action. In the beginning it is fairly straightforward because you simply take advice and do what other people tell you to do. But in the long run this is not going to be sustainable so you will need to learn how to self motivate as well. You can do that by learning how to evaluate your life and then look for ways to improve it over time. Personal growth is the key to long term sobriety.
Ultimately you will know when to stop drinking when you get so sick and tired of it all that you feel like you are about ready to just throw in the towel. Life will seem overwhelming to you no matter what path you choose (keep drinking, try to get sober). It is at that point that you should ask for help and go to rehab. The alternative is to just keep toiling through your addiction and being miserable for the rest of your days. There is hope. Any alcoholic can get help and turn their life around, if they are willing to ask for help. It takes guts though to actually follow through and take action.