One of the other advantages of going to inpatient treatment for alcoholism is that it connects you with a group of your peers in recovery.
“Why is this important?” you may ask.
I admit, I did not think that it was important either when I was struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. I wanted to believe that, if I were to overcome my addiction, that I would be doing so entirely on my own. What would anyone else have to do with it? Wasn’t it an entirely personal struggle?
Well, yes and no. I found out later that I couldn’t do it alone. For one thing, I tried. Many times.
You cannot do it alone or you would have done so already
If I could recover on my own then I would have done so a long time ago. Believe me, I tried.
Of course, it was strange, because when I was struggling with my alcoholism I actually was fooling myself. What I was actually telling myself was that I did not really WANT to stop drinking, so all of those times that I “tried to quit” were not real. I wasn’t actually serious. I had not given it my true, 100 percent effort because deep down I wanted to keep drinking. Or at least, this is what I told myself when I failed to control my drinking. It was not that I was incompetent or couldn’t quit, it was just that I did not WANT to do so. Right?
This is denial. When your life is falling apart around you and your relationships are suffering and you are unhappy 99 percent of the time, you cannot justify your drinking and maintain that “I could actually quit if I really wanted to do so, but I just don’t want to right now.” That is a lie. You are lying to yourself at that point. And I was in that exact position for several years and I was lying to myself the entire time. The truth was, I was miserable and I made repeated efforts to cut down, to stop outright, to switch from one drug to another, and so on. These are all games that alcoholics play and I tried all of them. Of course nothing worked in the end because the real problem goes beyond the drugs or the alcohol. The real problem is that the alcoholic or drug addict has a “total sickness” that is spiritual, physical, emotional, mental, and social. It infects every area of their life and it just happens to manifest itself in the form of drug or alcohol addiction. But when you take away the drugs and the alcohol it does not magically cure the person. The disease can come back and express itself in a million different forms of fear, anxiety, and anger (if you let it). Of course the alternative to this is to take positive action, seek personal growth, and get involved on some sort of path of recovery.
If you can figure out how to do this alone, by yourself, without any sort of help, then (as they say in AA literature) “my hat is off to you.” Well done. You are a better man than I am and I wish you good fortune on your journey. Please consider spreading your message of hope and teaching other people how to recover as well (and how to do so without any help at all!).
For me, this was not the case. I had to have help. I had to ask for help and I had to have a group of peers who was going through the same thing that I was. This was a huge part of what gave me the strength that I needed to recover. Peer support sounded like a lame idea when I was still drinking, but it made all the difference in the world when I had actually surrendered and was trying to turn my life around.
It is human nature to try to figure out our problem by ourselves, rather than to ask for help from others. We would rather save face. So we try to do so, and those of us who cannot beat the addiction on our own are what we refer to as “real alcoholics” or “real addicts.” We need help in order to recover…simple as that.
Connecting with others in recovery is vital to the early recovery process
When I finally surrendered to my disease I checked into a detox and a short term rehab center. To be honest this time in short term treatment was just a drop in the bucket and I don’t really remember a whole lot of it. I remember going to groups and meetings and I vaguely remember the guy that I roomed with in residential treatment.
After leaving this short term rehab I moved into a long term rehab facility. I stayed there for 20 months and I believe that I had about 9 different roommates while I lived there, and the place housed 12 people total so I probably lived with roughly 35 to 45 recovering alcoholics and addicts. It was quite an adventure.
I can remember talking with my peers in that recovery house into the late hours of the night. I can remember arguing about the 12 steps, arguing about spirituality, debating about how to actually recover and avoid relapse, and so on. I can remember talking about the other peers that were not in the room at the time and evaluating who we thought would “make it” and who would relapse.
This was all part of the recovery process. I don’t know how I could have survived if I did not make these vital connections. We helped each other to struggle through and remain sober.
If there was one trait that I notice among people who relapsed in early recovery, it was isolation. I don’t think it is possible to isolate in early recovery and maintain sobriety. Or rather, I never watched anyone pull it off successfully. If you wanted to remain clean and sober you had to interact, you had to dive into the support community, you had to get involved in recovery. You could not stay on the outskirts of a recovery community and “get” recovery from it. This is what I was seeing anyway. The people who were not diving head first into recovery and into the community were always headed for relapse. It seemed inevitable.
Why identification is so important
One thing that I learned in particular about recovery and relationships was that you had to identify with others in order to recover from addiction.
This is really what made AA such a smashing success compared to anything that had come along before it.
If you learn about the history of AA and how it started, you will realize that before the concept of AA and fellowship came along, you could easily be an alcoholic in the world who felt completely alone and misunderstood. As an alcoholic before AA, you would most likely feel like you were a complete misfit who was not fit to go on living. And many people treated alcoholics this way for much of history. Then AA and the disease concept came along and changed all that.
So the founding principle of AA is simply this: One alcoholic helping another to remain sober. That is the fundamental idea behind AA. Everything else is just details. It is all window dressing outside of this one main principle.
You are an alcoholic and you struggle to remain sober. You find someone else who has the exact same problem. You meet each other and talk about your problem and your struggle and it gets a little bit better for both of you. This is the essence of AA and the idea of fellowship. This is the principle of identification.
Now you can go out into the world and find someone who is struggling with alcoholism and you can relate to them. You can say “Look, I realize you are struggling, and I have struggled in the exact same way. Here is what I did to get better.” And the person will listen to your story and they will either say “yes, that is just like me” or “No, I am completely unique and you obviously don’t understand me.”
Now it is possible for a real alcoholic to reject this process of identification, to hear of others who were just like they are and still not believe in a solution. That is very possible. And we have a label for that type of rejection. We call it denial. But after the alcoholic struggles for long enough they might reach a point where they are so sick and tired of their addiction that they are willing to give anything a try. And so they will finally ask for help and they will begin to listen and then they will hear people telling their story.
And this is why alcoholics sit around and tell each other their story. Because the struggling alcoholic who has never been to a meeting before might be sitting there for the first time that night, and they might need to identify in order to get some hope. They have to hear their own story from someone else and then realize that they, too, might be able to live a sober life.
Identification is powerful. And here is another interesting thing about this concept: You have to keep doing it.
Would you believe that it is actually possible to forget that you are an alcoholic?
It doesn’t matter how smart you are. It doesn’t matter if you are really good at remembering things, or you got all “A’s” in school, or whatever. If you are an alcoholic in recovery and you drift away from recovery for too long your brain will forget that it is alcoholic.
I am serious about this. And you can test it for yourself.
I was able to test this when I was going to AA meetings every day, and then I suddenly stopped going. And I noticed after a few days of not going to meetings that I was thinking about drinking more often. Not necessarily hard core cravings or triggers or anything, but just fleeting thoughts. Little drips. Thoughts of being drunk. Or high on drugs. Nothing serious. I was not ready to run off and relapse or anything. But I could see that my brain was reacting to the lack of meetings. It was like my brain had forgot that I was in recovery.
And I thought: That is really weird.
And so I had a mission. My mission was to figure out how to force my brain to stay “plugged in” to recovery, and stop having those little trigger moments, even without going to AA meetings every day.
And so I started to experiment. And I wondered: Were daily AA meetings really the only solution? I did not think that would be likely.
So I experimented. I talked to my AA sponsor at the time, and I asked him: “What things do you do for your recovery on a daily basis other than go to AA meetings?”
And he gave me some suggestions. He gave me advice.
Then I went to other people in recovery. I went to people that I considered to be “winners” in recovery. People who had the sort of life that I wanted. And I asked them the same thing. What do they do each day other than AA meetings? What really makes their recovery tick?
And I got more suggestions. And so I started to put these suggestions into action. I started to fill my life with positive action.
And eventually I reached a point where I was no longer having those triggers or thoughts of drinking. Even without the daily AA meeting attendance.
And I decided that this was a good path for me to go on. Because I did not want to be dependent on daily meetings in order to avoid cravings.
Now you may be asking yourself: “Well, what are the suggestions that people gave him that led to this great recovery?”
The answer to that spans this entire website and I am constantly refining it and exploring it deeper. And I think the answer is going to vary a bit depending on the person and their unique situation. Furthermore, the answer will evolve over time. We are always learning more and more about ourselves in recovery.
Getting help from others is how you build strength and wisdom in early recovery
If someone asked me “how do you recover from addiction and how do I get started?” I would tell them this:
Go get professional help and ask for advice. Then start following advice that you are given. Get your own ego out of the way and start taking suggestions from other people. Rely on the ideas of others for at least one year and ignore all of your own ideas.
I actually did this in early recovery. I made a deal with myself that I would not follow any of my own ideas for at least one year. And instead what I would do is to listen to my therapist, to my counselor, to my sponsor, to my peers in recovery, and to people in meetings. I had to get out of my own way.
“How do you recover?” You listen to other people and take their advice. Get out of your own way.
Think back to your initial efforts to quit drinking. What screwed it up? What was the problem? Our own ideas were the problem. We tried to outsmart the disease. We tried to have our cake and eat it too by continuing to drink alcohol while also trying to control it. Of course this never works in the long run because our disease takes over in the end.
When you try to recover on your own you basically don’t have much of a chance. You have to reach a point of surrender and ask for help. Once you do this you can start to rebuild your life from a place of strength.
It is fairly easy to look at someone else’s life and tell them how to fix it. Isn’t that true? Even for a struggling alcoholic, they can usually look at someone else and tell them what they are doing wrong. And yet to look at our own situation and see the hard truth of it is almost impossible.
This is what recovery is all about. Give yourself up. Surrender. Go ask for help. Go to treatment and tell them: “Please help me, I don’t know how to live anymore.” And you have to be serious about it. You have to really want their help. You have to be desperate for it.
You do this and then you listen to them. You do what they tell you to do. Simple. Effective. They tell you to go to meetings, to stay in rehab, to see a therapist. Or whatever. They tell you to do certain things, and you do them. You stay sober and you start taking action and putting one foot in front of the other. You maintain sobriety because someone is telling you what to do.
Of course you can try to do it all yourself, but it’s not so easy. When you take back control for yourself you find yourself getting into trouble. So you have to start from a place of strength instead. And you can find this place of strength by simply following directions.
I was honestly amazed at how my recovery progressed when I followed directions. I thought it was going to be boring and stupid to listen to other people in my early recovery. Seriously, I thought it was going to be awful.
But then something interesting happened. My life started to get better, little by little. And in the back of my mind I realized that I was becoming more powerful. That I was regaining control of my life. That things were starting to fall into place. That I was healing. And it was not my own doing! I was just following directions. I could not even really take credit for the results that I was getting in early recovery, because I had completely abandoned my own ideas. I had killed my ego. And so I felt like I could take no credit for my success.
This only lasted for a few months or maybe a year or two. Then I realized that I was responsible for much of my recovery and I started to give myself some credit for it. I also realized how dangerous this was and how it might lead to complacency. I also noticed some of my peers who had relapsed because they became complacent. And so I decided that I had better get back to work, to get back into positive action, and to start taking advice and suggestions again. And so the cycle continued. The strongest form of relapse prevention is personal growth. Everything else is just details. You are either moving forward in life or you are headed for relapse. No standing still.
If you don’t get support from other recovering alcoholics in rehab, where will you get it?
I have a very important question for anyone who is in early recovery:
Where are you going to get support from?
This is meant to be a helpful question. My hope for you is that you have a good answer for this question, and if not, then you start heading in the right direction. AA meetings are a strong tool that help a lot of people in early recovery. That said, I don’t go to AA any more (though I did in the beginning), and there are many other forms of support that are available. For example, a religious based community might be the right path for some people in recovery. Or you might even find support online in a recovery forum like the one here on Spiritual River.