Is there actually a cure available for alcoholics at drinking rehab?
Most treatment center would like you to believe that they can actually cure you. This is not exactly true but at the same time it is not false either.
The real truth lies somewhere in between those two absolute extremes.
What rehab offers is 3 basic concepts:
1) Disruption (interrupting your pattern of abuse).
2) Learning (teaching you how to live without alcohol).
3) Support (exposing you to AA meetings so that you have a way to follow up after treatment, etc.).
If you go to rehab and you seriously give it your best effort and give special consideration to these three ideas then you can indeed look back one day and say that “rehab cured you.”
I went to rehab three times. The first two times it obviously did not turn out well for me. No one would look at those results from my first two rehab experiences and call that a “cure.”
But this last time through treatment was different. I was at a point of real surrender and I was willing to listen. I was willing to follow directions. And now it has been over 12 years and I have yet to take a drink or use an addictive drug. So would people call that “cured?”
Obviously that is a dangerous label for any alcoholic to be using because it hints at the idea that you are cured forever and you no longer have to make any effort at recovery. Nothing could be further from the truth. As soon as you believe that you have your disease completely beat the tables will turn and your addiction will try to sneak back into your life somehow.
No one is ever cured. But obviously there is a standard of success that we want when someone goes into rehab and that standard of success is (for me anyway) complete abstinence.
But of course it goes further than that. It is more than just not drinking. If all it took were not drinking then it would be an easy problem to solve. But many alcoholics white knuckle their disease only to find themselves completely miserable. Some relapse at that point, some find other outlets for their addiction (which are usually destructive), and some simply stay miserable but sober. Obviously we want to avoid all of those outcomes.
So what then is the solution?
Abstinence is the baseline for success but we obviously have to build on top of that a great deal in order to really be happy in recovery. It is not enough to simply abstain. We have to learn, to grow, and to challenge ourselves in recovery. We have to keep reinventing ourselves as we maintain sobriety.
I have been told that some alcoholics have found a way to moderate successfully. I was never able to achieve that and so I use a label for myself which is known as a “real alcoholic.” I was a hopeless drunk and I could not overcome my problem under my own power. I tried to moderate in a million different ways and nothing ever worked (in the long run, all of it worked for a day or two, which is how I was able to fool myself for so long and stay stuck in denial).
No, there is no such thing as a cure.
Functionally speaking, you were “cured” of alcoholism if you:
* Stopped drinking and using addictive drugs at some point.
* Never drank or used addictive drugs again until the day you died.
* Continued to pursue personal growth, improve your life, and take positive action every day in order to continuously reinvent yourself.
Does that last point sound a bit overwhelming? Does it sound like a rather tall order?
It should. Because it absolutely is. That is the standard of growth, learning, and positive action that you must learn to take in recovery if you want to stay sober in the long run and actually be happy.
If you go to a dozen AA meetings you can find people who are sober and happy, but you can also find a handful of people who are sober and rather miserable.
You don’t want to end up miserable. Whether you are sober or drunk, in AA or outside of AA….no one wants to be miserable.
You can be happy in recovery. It just takes a whole lot of work.
Why there is really no such thing as a cure at any drinking rehab
There really is no such thing as a cure at any rehab.
This is somewhat misleading though because you could still turn your life around, learn some important concepts, and functionally you could leave rehab and never drink again and be happy. But this is not really “cured” in the sense that they eliminated your alcoholism. It is still there, it lies dormant, it is under arrest.
In the program of AA they talk about how you are never cured and all we have is a daily reprieve from alcoholism. They are absolutely right. What they don’t tell you is that there are many different ways to go about achieving this daily reprieve. The 12 steps of AA are not the only path to sobriety. If they work for you then that is great, by all means, keep doing what is working. Don’t let me stop you. Personally I found the daily AA meeting circuit to be lacking and so I sought to find out what the real mechanisms were that kept people sober.
In other words, here are a bunch of people in AA. Many of them are sober for years or decades while the rest of the group struggles with relapse. What is the real difference? That is a question that I explored for many years on many different levels. I wanted to know WHY a recovery program worked so that I could model it in my own life without all the meetings, stepwork, and cliches to fill in the gaps. I knew that there was a deeper truth in recovery but no one in AA seemed to be willing to look beyond the dogma and the teachings of 12 step recovery. They told me “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” That was not good enough for me.
So I had gone to rehab and I was grateful to have been through detox, residential, and even long term treatment. The disruption from doing that was a huge key in overcoming my addiction. But after a while on the daily AA meeting circuit I found myself wanting something more. I wanted personal growth rather than just venting in a meeting each day. Something was missing.
So I set out to find what it was.
The next best thing to a cure: Continuous reinvention of oneself
As I mentioned above there is no cure for alcoholism, but there is most definitely a “functional cure.”
You are “functionally cured” if you are happy in your life and you help other people and you never drink alcohol again. I don’t really care if you call that “cured” or not because it is really the goal of people who try to overcome alcoholism. They want to be sober and they want a happy and healthy life. So if an alcoholic does certain things and they achieve that goal and they stay sober until they die then we can most definitely say that they were “functionally cured.” From all practical standpoints they may as well have been cured. They never drank again and they figured out how to be happy and to grow in their life.
If this is the goal then it is what I hope to show people how to do. I have done it myself so far with the exception that I have not yet died while sober. And of course there is no assurance that I will die sober because there is really no such thing as a cure and anyone can potentially relapse. I am not invincible. But what I do know is that I have been clean and sober now for over 12 years and I am also living a pretty amazing and happy life at this point. So what I have been doing has been working. Out of the 12 years of my recovery I went to meetings “full time” for only one of them. For the last 11+ years I have attended an average of less than one 12 step meeting per year. So basically I don’t go to meetings any more and have not done so for 11+ years.
I say this not to bash the 12 step program, or to try to dissuade people from attending meetings. What I am attempting to do is to deconstruct successful recovery. If you read through the thousands of articles on Spiritual River you will see this exploratory theme in my ideas. I am not just writing but I am exploring what it means to be successful in recovery. I am evaluating what works and what does not work in recovery. And for 5+ years I worked in a drinking rehab and had the chance to watch several thousand people attempt to get sober. I was also lucky enough to find out how most of them fared. This helped me to form a better opinion about what sort of attitude actually works in early recovery (answer: not cocky, but humble and defeated. It’s all about surrender).
So for me the cure in recovery has really become about reinventing yourself. That means that you cannot just coast through your recovery. It means that after you go to rehab and disrupt your drinking pattern and go through detox your real task in sobriety is only just beginning. In fact the first year or two of recovery is really a gimme in some ways. After that you realize that you have some serious work to do.
I recently learned from a very skilled therapist something that I probably knew all along but never had the right words to put to it.
Everyone in recovery has this big mess of crap in their brain. Some of us may have more junk than others that is running around in our heads and making us want to drink or use drugs. But we all have something. You might have abuse issues from childhood. Or you might be prone to self pity like I was (even though I had very few, if any childhood issues). Or you may be prone to resentment. And so on. Everyone has at least some issues in their life and they don’t want to look at that stuff.
Even after you get sober it is just easier to ignore these issues. The 12 steps attempt to get you to work through these sort of issues. But the truth is that you don’t necessarily need a 12 step program to tackle that stuff. On the other hand, you probably need to dive into it at some point and deal with it all. Because if you don’t then some day you may be in a different sort of space in your life and something from your past may come back to bite you. If you deal with it and process it then you take that power away from it.
But most people don’t want to do this. It is uncomfortable to dig through all of that “stuff.” It takes guts and honesty and courage to look at yourself honestly.
There are two tasks for you in sobriety:
1) Improve your life.
2) Improve your life situation.
One is internal, the other is external.
You have to do both. If you skip one then it will cause you to relapse.
If you have a problem with resentment and you never take care of it and you just keep resenting the same old things then you will drink some day. Or if you work through your resentments but you stay stuck in your old pattern and you create new resentments then you will drink over those as well.
On the other side of the coin if you have toxic people in your life or you hang out around people who influence you to want to drink then you will eventually relapse as a result. This is the external stuff that you have to change. “People places and things.”
If you don’t change both the internal and the external then either one of them can definitely lead you to relapse.
Now think about this for a moment.
You are in recovery, you are sober now, and you are trying to live a better life.
Every day you take positive action and you try to improve your life (internally) and also your life situation (externally). Every day you are trying to improve yourself and your life.
When you succeed in either of those tasks you are, in effect, “reinventing yourself.”
So maybe you change an old thought pattern that is negative (like self pity or resentment). That is one way to reinvent yourself.
Or maybe you stop hanging around with someone that makes you want to drink. Again, this is a completely different way to live your life. It changes you. Perhaps forever. You become a new person because you eliminate a toxic relationship. It is another way to reinvent yourself.
So you keep doing this in recovery, every day, and you keep pushing yourself to find ways to improve your life.
Always seeking out the negative thing and reducing or eliminating it.
This is how I lived the first 2 or 3 years of my recovery. I concentrated on improving everything that I could in my life. I started exercising and quit smoking. I found new positive friends. I found a more positive job. And so on.
Change, change, change. If you don’t change then you will go back drinking.
Ask any alcoholic what they had to change in order to become sober and they will tell you “everything!”
Internal and external. You have to do both.
How to start reinventing yourself in recovery
The way to reinvent yourself in recovery is to start by getting feedback and direction from other people.
You can do this even if you are falling down drunk. Just ask for direction from someone who actually cares about you and see what you should do next. Listen to what they tell you to do, and then do it.
Seriously. It sounds crazy but it will work. Just keep taking advice until you fear that you will become a complete non-person because you no longer make any decisions for yourself.
Does that sound pathetic?
It’s not. The amazing thing is that it is the most empowering thing that you can do.
Let’s say that you are a hopeless drunk and you want to get sober and have a great life and amaze yourself by doing so.
Here is what you do:
Ask a friend or a family member what you should do about your drinking. Take their advice and follow through with it.
Most likely they will refer you to treatment, to detox, or to AA.
Go to whatever they suggest and tell them your entire story and be honest. Again, ask for advice. Then follow through.
If you went to detox then they will probably tell you to go to AA.
If you go to AA and ask for advice they will tell you to get a sponsor and come back to more meetings.
Keep doing what everyone tells you to do. NEVER do what you think you should do unless someone else in recovery gives it to you as advice.
I actually did this. I lived it. I forbid myself from making decisions in my life. I was drunk when I decided this. And since I did that, I have not had another drink since.
This “cured” me.
It was very humbling to do so. But I didn’t care.
The reason that I did not care was because I was so sick of being miserable from my drinking. I no longer cared about myself or my life. I did not care if someone killed me at that point. I was so miserable that I had lost the most basic fear of death.
And that was my turning point. I decided to stop listening to myself and to only listen to other people’s advice.
This turned out to be a great decision.
You may think that you are smart. I thought that I was smart. But I wasn’t.
Everything that I did was ruining my life. Everything that I did in my addiction made me suffer more and more, to the point where I no longer cared about life at all.
So the key was that I:
* Asked for help.
* Took the advice.
* Kept asking for more advice and doing what I was told to do.
Sounds too simple to work, right?
Just try it. I double dare you. Your life will start getting so good that you will feel like a criminal. You will ask yourself at some point: “What have I done to deserve all of this happiness?” And all you did was to get out of your own way.
Just get out of your own way.
Stop making decisions and let someone else make them for you.
This is a very, very tough pill for the typical alcoholic to swallow. Pride gets in the way.
That pride must be crushed out first by misery, unfortunately. But that is how you let the light in. That is how recovery finally wins out in the end. Misery gives way to surrender.
How to keep reinventing yourself even after several months or years in recovery
In early recovery it is actually pretty easy to keep reinventing yourself (if you actually reached a point of true surrender).
But then something happens. You get stable. You go through the tough part and you made it through and you get your bearings in sobriety.
Now there is one last sneaky hurdle and it never really goes away:
This claims more alcoholics than anything else in long term sobriety.
People get lazy. And so they relapse.
Simple as that.
Don’t worry so much about “why” this happens. Just know that recovering alcoholics get lazy at times and when they do they run the risk of relapsing.
So your job in long term sobriety is to avoid complacency.
How can you do that?
I can tell you how NOT to do it first:
Don’t wait for it to appear and then react to it.
If you wait for complacency to pop up then you will be drunk before you realize what hit you. That is just how it works. It is too late to stop it once you know what is going on.
Therefore you must be proactive.
You must continuously battle against complacency in your everyday life.
It is a daily battle to overcome complacency.
And therefore you need a daily practice.
Staying grounded through the daily practice
You can be healthy in recovery or you can be sick.
Recovery is really nothing other than reclaiming your health. Specifically we usually talk about sobriety and abstinence from drugs and alcohol.
But true recovery goes beyond that. It is about making your whole body and your entire person healthier.
This is the “holistic model” of health in recovery.
In traditional recovery they only focus on spirituality. This is a mistake and a limitation.
Your daily practice should be positive action and habits that you establish so that you are always trying to increase your health in the following areas:
If you focus on improving your health in all of those areas on a daily basis then you have a strong plan in place to proactively prevent relapse due to complacency.