This is one of the most typical patterns in the world—seeing the struggling addict or alcoholic go in and out of treatment centers.
If you ever get the chance to actually work in a drug rehab, you will notice that in many cases, the same people come back more than once.
The outside observer might conclude “perhaps treatment does not really work” because obviously anyone who comes back for more treatment has gone out and relapsed after their first attempt.
But the truth is that addicts and alcoholics do recover, treatment actually does work, but it does not always work as quickly or effectively as we would hope it to. If there is a better solution out there then please introduce me to it. In many respects, inpatient rehab is still the best idea we have going when it comes to helping the struggling addict or alcoholic.
Wishing to be sober versus true surrender
There is a difference between wishing to be clean and sober and finding true surrender. Addicts and alcoholics who have struggled with their addiction for many years are bound to find the first condition (wishing to be sober) long before they actually get to the point of “true surrender.”
True surrender is not saying “oh boy, I sure wish I was not drinking or using drugs all the time. Wouldn’t that be nice.” That is nowhere near what true surrender is really like. Instead, the sort of sentiment that you might express would be more like “I am either going to kill myself or get sober. It is one or the other. I don’t want to live like this any more.” THAT is a lot closer to what true surrender is all about. That is much closer to someone who is actually willing to make s ome real changes.
So the problem comes in when an addict or an alcoholic is starting to notice that they actually do have some problems with drug or alcohol abuse. They are starting to experience some consequences due to their use and maybe they have been miserable for quite a while now. Even at this point, they are not really to that full breaking point of true surrender.
Sure, they wish that things were different. Sure, they imagine a life where they do not need to spend their time and money and mental energy on their drug of choice, and they imagine that this would be a nicer way to live. But they are nowhere near taking the full action necessary to make that happen. They are still clinging to their drug of choice, still clinging to the idea that they are unique and that they have to self medicate in order to be happy. They still believe that the only way that they can be truly happy is to continue to medicate with drugs or alcohol. They are not at a level of full surrender, even though they do see some consequences from their using and they wish that things were different.
So when this person goes and checks into drug rehab, what do you think happens? They basically make a half hearted effort at staying cleaning sober, because their heart is only half into it. The other half of this person wants to keep using their drug of choice. They have only half surrendered.
This is exactly the kind of situation that produces people who go in and out of treatment centers. They are not fully surrendered to their disease yet, but they are experiencing consequences and so they wish that they might change and so they go to rehab anyway. In some cases they may also be getting pressure from friends and family to go to treatment when in fact they are not fully ready to change just yet.
And so we get this “revolving door syndrome” with some people in the rehab system because they are simply not ready to fully surrender yet. It is not a matter of a broken rehab system or faulty treatment centers. Instead, it is the fact that some people want to change and they wish things were different, but they are not ready to take serious enough action to really make it happen.
They are not willing to change everything. They still hold out reservations about what they will and will not do for their recovery. Until they can let go absolutely, they will struggle with relapse, and therefore be in and out of rehabs until they finally “get it.”
Why people relapse after leaving treatment
People relapse after they leave rehab for a number of reasons. Almost all of them boil down to the fact that they have not fully surrendered yet to their disease. If they had surrendered fully, they would do the things that they need to do in order to build a new life in recovery. Instead, because they have not fully surrendered, they end up relapsing due to a lack of follow through.
Recovery is all about change. If you do not change then you are going to fail. The addict or alcoholic is stuck in a pattern of addiction; a cycle that has them trapped in which they continuously self medicate. They have to change their entire life or they will simply revert back to these old ways and these old behaviors.
For the addict, self medicating with drugs or booze has become the norm. It is their baseline of existence. It is normal and natural for the addict or alcoholic to get high. This is what they are used to doing.
So it takes a real effort to NOT do this. It takes a real effort to overcome the triggers and cravings and urges when you leave rehab. It takes a lot of action and a lot of follow through in order to do the things that you need to do in order to stay clean and sober.
Most people who leave rehab do not follow through with their recovery plan. Most people who leave rehab do not embrace the tools that they learned about in rehab. This is the whole key to a successful transition into long term recovery. The addict must embrace a new way of life and embrace the massive changes that need to happen in early recovery.
In my own particular example I was able to do this by entering long term treatment and living there for several months. Now do not be misled here—not everyone has to live in rehab in order to get clean and sober. This is just what it took for me to be successful. Living in long term rehab is what I had to do in order to follow through and make the really big changes in my life.
My previous attempts at rehab had failed me because I was never willing to follow through. The therapists and the counselors made recommendations for me to follow up with my recovery program, and I ignored these suggestions. In order for me to actually follow through and make these important changes, I had to be held accountable and that meant living in rehab for the long term. It was the solution that finally worked for me.
Later on when I worked at a treatment center for several years, I got a chance to see the recovery process up close with hundreds of individuals, first hand. And I developed a sense of which people had the right attitude and which people were simply not quite “getting it” yet.
The people who were not quite getting it yet might say things such as:
“Do you think I can stay sober by going to three or four meetings a week instead of one per day?”
“Do you think I can just go to counseling once a week instead of doing this outpatient stuff that seems to just drag on and on?”
“How soon can I go home?”
“I need to leave rehab as soon as possible so I can get back to work and start making money again.”
“AA meetings are not for me. They make me want to drink.”
Now you may call me a cynic or you may say that I am not being helpful or optimistic, but I would argue that anyone making any of the above statements has basically already failed at recovery, and they are destined to relapse.
Think about how each statement shows that the person has not fully embraced recovery yet. Read them again and think about how the person speaking is looking for a shortcut, they are looking to do the bare minimum, they are hoping to cut corners, to minimize their effort in recovery, and so on.
When I was working in a treatment center for several years, it would always amaze me when people would ask me these sorts of questions or make these sort of statements. I just wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake them really hard and say:
“Wake up! You are fighting for your life here, you are gonna die if you do not get this recovery thing to work for you, you need to put all of your effort into this program and into staying clean and sober and this is by far the hardest thing you have ever done!”
I want to tell them somehow that they already have a failed attitude, that by attempting to cut corners or minimize their recovery effort they are setting themselves up for failure.
Unfortunately I do not think that you can warn someone in this way and have them take note of your warning and make the successful changes that are required. It is a mindset and an attitude that they have to shift.
The way that they will change this attitude is, unfortunately, to go back out into the real world, outside of rehab, and get served up a huge dose of relapse. They have to fail in order to see that they were not serious enough yet. They may have to do this several times before they truly learn what level of surrender is required in order to stay clean and sober.
Most addicts and alcoholics that I have met (myself included) tend to learn very slowly when it comes to this stuff. We have to bang our heads into the wall several times before we realize just how much it hurts. We like to take the long and difficult path to surrender. That just seems to be the stubborn way of addicts and alcoholics. Unfortunately this makes for a rough ride at times, and that is one way that we tend to bounce in and out of rehab centers, seemingly not “getting it.”
An example of someone leaving rehab who stays clean and sober without any issues
I can tell you what an example of someone who leaves rehab and is successful at changing their life looks like, because I have done it once.
When I left my first rehab I was nowhere near true surrender. I had a drug problem and I had a drinking problem and I had decided at this early stage that my real problem was the booze. So my plan was to keep using drugs while simply laying off the sauce. You can imagine how well that worked out for me. This is typical addict or alcoholic type thinking. Why give up all drugs when you can just get rid of the one that is causing problems? So I attempted to get rid of the real “problem substance” (alcohol) while continuing to self medicate with other drugs. Obviously this was a huge failure, and I quickly returned to drinking alcohol as well.
When I left my second rehab I was upset that the treatment center had recommended long term treatment for me. I believed that this was a “punishment” and so obviously I was not really surrendered to my disease at this point. I did not follow through with the recommendation to go to long term treatment and so I promptly relapsed.
When I went to my third rehab I was finally ready to actually change my life. I had achieved true surrender. This was more than just wishing that things were somehow different. Now I was miserable enough to actually want to change. As a matter of fact I never really left my third treatment center because at this point I begged the counselors and therapists to find me placement in long term rehab. They did exactly that for me and I ended up living next door to the detox center in a long term program for the next twenty months. This was the willingness that I had to develop that I had never been able to find in the past. This was the follow through that I needed in order to make a serious change in my life. In previous attempts at getting sober I was never willing to follow through. I had never before been willing to take action after leaving rehab.
In previous attempts at sobriety, I viewed rehab as an event, rather than as a process. I though to myself “I should be able to check into rehab, get clean, and then leave and go back to living a normal life right away.”
Instead, it was a process that I had to embrace, not a single event like 28 days in rehab. The trip to rehab was just a start, it was a tiny little blip on the map that was this enormous journey into recovery. I can look back now over my last eleven years sober and the rehab at the beginning was just a small part of my recovery process. In fact I was really just in a fog for that first year or two and I did not really start to figure out life or recovery until I had been gone from rehab for several years.
“Real world recovery” happened after I had left rehab, when I was fully willing to continue the learning process, the recovery process, and no longer had this limiting attitude that rehab should “fix me” instantly. Instead, I had now become willing to learn and to grow and to embrace a life of change for the long run. I realized that recovery was a process and not an event. I had embraced the idea of change, the way it is really meant to work. Positive changes that happen over the long run, not this one time event of rehab that will hopefully cure everything. This is the shift that I had to make in order to find long term sobriety.
The slow process of learning what true surrender really is
Unfortunately for me, learning what true surrender was like took me several years. I suppose some people may learn it much faster than I did.
I had to go to three rehabs and lots of counseling before I finally “got it.”
It was a learning process that was slowed down by my own denial. I did not want to let go of my attempt to control my own drug and alcohol intake, because I really believed that I could not possibly be happy without self medicating.
I had to become miserable enough in my addiction to let go of my chase for happiness. Think about this for a moment and realize just how far down you have to be beaten in order to truly surrender.
All I ever wanted was to be happy in this life. Probably much the same as other people, right? We don’t necessarily want money or fame or fortune or whatever, we just want to be happy. And when we first tried our drug of choice and got really lit up with it, we were happy. And so in our addiction we chase that happiness over and over again, trying to bottle it up and somehow preserve it perfectly. We hope that we can get high and be happy on command for the rest of our lives. We try to outsource our happiness through ingesting chemicals.
Of course it works at first, and it continues to work until we build tolerance and it stops working so well. Then we become miserable in our addiction while still believing that we are chasing happiness, that we can still bottle up our happiness and access it whenever we choose.
So we chase happiness and we rely on our drug of choice to deliver it and our denial has us believing that the ONLY way that we can be truly happy in this life is to get high.
We become miserable in our addiction and then we eventually have to let go of our chase for happiness.
We have to be so miserable and so sick and tired of chasing drugs that we say “I don’t care what happens to me, and I accept the fact that I will never be happy again. I am tired of chasing that next high. I want a new way to live.”
Of course in recovery, every single addict or alcoholic learns to become happy again without drugs. This happens in spite of ourselves. Our denial told us that happiness was impossible without our drug of choice. If we are miserable enough to surrender fully then we will soon see that we were wrong, that we CAN be happy again in recovery.
Developing the willingness to go to any lengths for recovery
And so your willingness is what defines your surrender. If you want to stop going in and out of treatment centers then you have to become willing to follow through and do what they tell you to do.
You have to be willing to change everything.
You have to be willing to let go of the chase for happiness, and start taking some direction and doing what they suggest, and allow happiness to find you. This is the path of success in recovery.