How does an alcoholic go about quitting an alcohol addiction for good? Why do so many people struggle with addiction and continue to relapse?
At some point the alcoholic must make a decision that they want to stop screwing around and get serious about building a new life for themselves in recovery. Their willingness to do this is always based on the depth of their surrender. If they have not surrendered fully to their disease yet then it is not likely that they are done drinking yet.
Why surrender is the most important part of your early recovery
One of the biggest challenges with recovery is the fact that it is pass/fail. There is absolutely no middle ground at all when it comes to recovering from addiction. You are either stuck in addiction or you are working on recovery. That’s it. If you believe that there is a middle ground in between those two extremes then what you are really doing is just fooling yourself.
It takes most alcoholics and drug addicts some time for them to learn this concept and really understand it. You are either “all in” or you are “all out” when it comes to recovery.
When I first tried to get some help for my alcoholism I had no idea that this was the case. I figured that recovery worked much like the rest of the world worked. I imagined that you could put in a modest effort and get out modest results. I imagined that if I put in a few hours of effort into my recovery each week that this would produce some average results for me. I was wrong.
It doesn’t work that way. You are either all in, or all out. Recovery is entirely pass/fail. You are either drunk or sober. There is no in-between for the alcoholic.
Just think for a moment about the nature of the alcoholic or drug addict. They tend to take things to the extreme anyway. So why would we ever believe that a middle path would work well for them in recovery? Of course it wouldn’t. They would have to commit fully to something or not at all.
Several times in my journey I tried to get help for one reason or another. For example, I started attending counseling at one point and spoke with a therapist once a week. At another time I went into a rehab facility that had a full medical detox. In fact I did that three times total. And so nearly all of these efforts were pretty much useless because I had failed to surrender to my disease first. I was not yet ready to get clean and sober because I was not ready to embrace the big changes in my life. Something was holding me back from embracing sobriety and it boiled down to a lack of surrender.
I had not had enough drinking. I had not yet had enough misery and chaos in my life. I believed that the only way that I could be happy was to self medicate. I knew what it was like to stop drinking for a day or two and I did not like it. So I projected the misery of withdrawal on to the entire rest of my life, onto the whole of “sobriety.” So I believed that sobriety would be even more miserable than I already was in my addiction.
When I finally reached my point of surrender I was completely miserable. I had no hope left for a better life. I was ready to throw in the towel on just about everything. So I was willing to give recovery another chance because I just did not care much anymore. I did not care about myself, about others, about anything. I was sick and tired of life and everything in it. This is what the state of surrender felt like to me.
Understanding the recovery process
The recovery process is quite simple but actually navigating it and implementing it into your daily life can be complex. I don’t think I have ever met a recovering alcoholic or drug addict who said that it was easy. For most people I think it is the most difficult challenge that they have ever faced in their life. But of course it is always worth it. Sobriety is always worth it.
The process starts with surrender and it ends with personal growth.
We might break the recovery process down like this:
2) Disruption and detox.
To be honest most of these are dead simple and you can implement much of it by going to rehab.
Most people are not going to check into a residential rehab unless they have surrendered to begin with. On the other hand many people still relapse because they had failed to reach a state of total and complete surrender. They have a reservation and this causes them to relapse in the future.
If you check into rehab then you get a strong dose of all of that other stuff on the list. They will take you through a full medical detox so that you get off the drugs and the alcohol from a physical standpoint. Then they will try to teach you this new way of life by having you go to lectures and meetings all day. And of course they will emphasize the importance of support in recovery and encourage you to attend AA meetings and go to all sorts of different aftercare programs such as counseling and outpatient services.
But one of the biggest problems is that the last thing on the list, personal growth, is very difficult to teach in a rehab setting. The problem is that the people in rehab are not in a position to apply that knowledge just yet. They are not yet at that point in their recovery development. They need to learn how to crawl before they can walk. So the emphasis is on going to meetings and finding support. Each day is a victory if the person does not use or relapse. This is how success is measured in early recovery.
So what happens when the person finds stability in their life but they get sort of sick of all the daily meetings? What happens when they get bored with life in recovery and they get tired of following the advice of others? These things can keep you sober indefinitely but they may also lead to burn out. This is why the recovery process ends with “personal growth.” You have to find a way to push yourself to make positive progress in your life, on your own, without being pushed by another human being.
If you want to quit alcohol for good then you need an incentive to do so. You have to create this incentive out of thin air. The only way to do that is to raise your self esteem and get excited about living a life of sobriety. How else could you avoid alcohol in the future? The only way is to create a superior alternative.
No one stays sober but secretly wishes that they could drink every day. That doesn’t happen. If it does happen, then the person ends up drinking. We can’t lie to ourselves forever.
So think about it. Maybe you get sober and you go to rehab and you become stable after a few weeks. But deep down you really want to drink again. And you are sort of on the fence, because you sort of realize that things will go back to the way they were before and your life will get all screwed up and you will be unhappy if you drink. So what do you do?
You have two choices. One is to build a new life and put your energy into creating something positive. This takes work. It takes serious effort. And to do so you must go beyond the basic support structure of daily AA meetings. That is not enough to keep you sober by itself. Sure, you could work through the 12 steps and implement those concepts. But you also have to find a way to improve your life and your life situation on a regular basis. You may get that experience simply by working the 12 steps. I had to go beyond that in my personal experience. I had to do more. I had to work on changing my life situation in addition to just changing myself.
Your other choice in recovery is to NOT build this new life for yourself. To not take positive action on a regular basis. To not push yourself to make positive changes. That is the only other choice and it will lead you to relapse in the end.
In early recovery the process is very easy to embrace by simply going to rehab. But in long term sobriety there is more personal responsibility to take action and do something positive. You cannot just sit in meetings every day for the rest of your life and expect that good vibe to rub off on you enough to keep you sober. It only works like that for a short while, but eventually relapse will threaten your sobriety. Instead, you have to build a protective barrier around the threat of relapse. To do this you have to change your life and also change your life situation. If you are not doing this actively then you are lowering your defenses against relapse.
Why most people end up relapsing
People relapse at different stages of the recovery process.
In the first stage they fail to surrender. This is really the core problem that all other relapses can be traced back to as well. They fail to surrender so they don’t even try to recover. Or they may make a small effort but their heart is not really in it and they may be trying to get sober for the sake of another person (rather than for themselves).
The second part of the process is disruption. This is actually the easy part. Just go to detox and leave the rest up to them. Anyone can go to detox. All it takes is courage. Although I suppose I have watched many people walk out of detox and decide to give up at this point (though it is quite rare). It is rare because detox is actually easy.
The next phase we might call “learning.” Many, many people give up at this point and go back to drinking. They get overwhelmed by what they must learn in order to stay sober, and they realize that their heart it just not in it, so they give up. When I worked in a rehab for several years I watched many people walk out of treatment with this sort of frustration. They just weren’t ready yet for the message. What message? The message of hope, that they could enjoy life sober if they are willing to do the work.
The next phase of relapse is the “support phase.” I would label this as being the time in recovery after the first month but before the second or third year. So early recovery, once the alcoholic is past detox and is somewhat stable. They are probably going to meetings every day (following the suggestion to go to 90 in 90). I met several people who would reach this phase of recovery over and over again, only to keep relapsing. They could get through the earlier stages but they could not seem to break through to long term sobriety. They would get a few weeks or a few months sober and then they would relapse.
Finally there are people who have a year or more sober, and yet some of them still relapse. You would think that such people would be immune to relapse, but it still happens, and it happens probably more frequently than most people realize.
The reason that people in long term recovery relapse is due to complacency. It is the number one problem in long term sobriety and if you can overcome complacency then you know how to beat alcoholism for good. It is the final key to the puzzle.
What it means to fight complacency for life
Most of the recovery process is dead simple, and parts of it are easy to implement as well. Simply surrender and go to rehab. Do what you are told to do. Follow directions for one year and suddenly you are on the cusp of long term sobriety. The only challenge left is “the rest of your life.” You must learn how to overcome complacency. This is the last major challenge in recovery, and it never ends. This is why they say that you cannot “cure” alcoholism. The only way to really “cure” it is to constantly re-invent yourself in recovery. Not exactly a one stop fix.
Becoming complacent in recovery means that you became lazy. It means that you stopped growing and you stopped learning about yourself.
In order to keep making positive changes and making personal growth, you have to keep learning about yourself as well. The two things go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other.
And so the real answer to life long sobriety has to do with personal growth and positive action. If you stop pushing yourself to make positive changes then you fall into the “danger zone” of potential relapse.
Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight. If you have been sober for ten years then you will not suddenly relapse one day just because you stopped working on recovery the day before. It doesn’t work that way. You did not get sober overnight and you will not relapse overnight either. It may take months or even years to fully unwind.
If you listen to people tell their story who have relapsed then you will understand what you are up against. Of course these people did not believe that they were in any danger of relapsing. They did not realize that they were undoing their own recovery. They did not believe that they were taking any risk by getting lazy in their recovery process.
So some people believe that they answer is to be more active in recovery. To stay active in recovery for life. They are essentially correct in this–you have to keep taking positive action. If you are in AA then you might take most of your action in that outlet by sponsoring people, going to meetings, working with newcomers, and so on. But even people who are engaged in these patterns have fallen victim to complacency.
In my opinion you need to ask yourself two questions in order to overcome complacency. Those 2 questions are:
1) How can I improve my life?
2) How can I improve my life situation?
Those are two separate ideas. Improving your life means looking inside to make internal changes. Improving your life situation means looking at your overall life circumstances and figuring out what you would like to be different.
Both of these questions are important. Many people in recovery get distracted and only focus on one or the other. They fail to look at and consider both things.
Finding balance and growth in long term recovery
When I was in rehab and had all of 10 days sober they had a class about “balanced lifestyle.” I thought that was the stupidest thing I had ever heard. I did not understand the importance of balance for recovery, and they could not convince me of it. For one thing, I was heading into long term rehab to live for the next 20 months. What does that have to do with balance?
Looking back though, I think that this was a lesson presented too early for me. It was the right lesson but the wrong time. Today in long term sobriety, I see the importance of balance more than ever before. But in early sobriety I did not see the importance of it.
One of the trickiest things to balance in recovery is between acceptance and growth.
Are you practicing acceptance today? Do you accept yourself fully? What about all of your bad points? Could you possibly change any of those things rather than accepting them?
What about your life situation? Are there things in your life that you wish were different? Is it right to just accept them, or should you put effort into changing them?
I think most people do not realize how much time they have in recovery. You have tons of time. You have lots of energy now that you are sober. Use that energy to make positive changes. Consider the fact that you can probably make bigger changes in your life than what you initially believe.
In the long run this resembles a cycle. The cycle is one of personal growth. I believe that this cycle is the key to overcoming complacency.
You cannot just push, push, push every single day in order to make growth. If you do this then you will burn out at some point and that is dangerous. You don’t want to burn out.
On the other hand, if you don’t get fired up and intense about personal growth at times, you are never going to achieve the sort of things that can help protect you from relapse.
So what is the solution?
The solution is balance. You must embrace the cycle of growth.
How do you do this? Prioritize.
Figure out what goal in your life is most important to you. What change would have the most positive impact on your life today? Figure out what that is, then make a plan to tackle that particular goal.
Once you have that goal and that plan of action, you can then push yourself to achieve it.
Once you complete such a goal, you get to rest and reflect on it. Was achieving the goal worth the effort? Planning your next challenge will depend on your answer to that.
In this way, you can embrace the cycle of personal growth and reflection. Without the down time (to reflect on your progress) you run the risk of burn out.