In my experience, and in my opinion, there are 3 critical life lessons that everyone needs if they are going to succeed in sobriety.
The first life lesson that is critical is really the entry ticket into a life of recovery. Without this first lesson you cannot even get started on a path of personal growth.
This first lesson would be that of surrender.
The problem that an addict or an alcoholic is facing while they are struggling with addiction is an internal battle of denial. Somehow they have the behavior that they display in their addiction all rationalized up in their mind. This is how denial works.
Now their denial could take many different specific forms. For me, it was essentially telling myself that if I quit drinking alcohol that I would be even more miserable than I already was, and that since I was practically suicidal with misery already (thanks to my drinking), that if I were to try to sober up that my misery would increase even more and thus push me over the edge. I actually argued with people that if I sobered up it would kill me because I would go over this supposed “misery threshold.”
That was my own delusion and that was how my own denial personally worked. I put it all in terms of happiness and misery. And I was convinced that the only way that I could possibly get any tiny bit of happiness in the world was if I was drinking or taking drugs. Threaten to take that away from me and I would be hopeless, with no prospects for the future of ever being happy again. That was what I was telling myself and that was how I was stuck in denial.
For you, your own personal brand of denial may be slightly different. For example, someone who had chronic pain issues and started out taking Vicodin as prescribed by a doctor, then later moved on to shooting heroin from the streets–their brand of denial might be different from mine. For that individual, they may be telling themselves that they only way that they can possibly medicate their pain is if they pump enough opiate based drugs into their body–whether that is legal prescriptions such as Vicodin or illegal street drugs such as heroin. And so that person may be telling themselves that if someone forced them to quit all of the opiates completely that they would be in an extreme amount of pain and that this would actually kill them.
Without necessarily envisioning their own suicide, that person is probably imagining that going without any opiates or painkillers is the equivalent of death, or a fate worse than death. That is how my own denial worked when someone threatened me with the thought of sobriety–my mind equated this with a fate worse than death. I would say “I would rather die than be forced to live sober.” So much drama, but that is denial for you. We cling to our coping mechanism even though it may not be all that effective any longer.
And such is the case with any addict or alcoholic–their drug of choice started out as being super effective at doing exactly what the person wanted it to do.
I repeat: Drugs or alcohol worked great for the addict in the beginning. Of course it did. That’s why they got addicted in the first place. Of course it worked great. No one is disputing that.
What happens over time, however, is that tolerance swoops in like a thief in the night and steals your ability to self medicate.
As any addiction progresses the drugs or alcohol become less and less effective at doing what you want them to do. Which is why people start taking more and more of their drug of choice over time, until they are taking a dangerous amount which could lead to overdose.
So the first life lesson is that of surrender.
Surrender is the antidote to denial.
Surrender is the breaking point, the moment of truth, in which the struggling alcoholic realizes that if they keep chasing after happiness by drinking alcohol every day, they will never truly be happy.
And suddenly the person sees the truth in that statement. It is a dawning realization. And when they reach this point they realize that they might just as well give sobriety a chance. They have nothing to lose, because they finally see that their path of addiction and self medicating only ends in misery.
Up until that point, they had a secret hope that one day they could be happy by drinking booze. Now they see the truth.
Getting to this point is not something that can be chosen or arranged. Surrender just happens to a person after they have finally had enough. Surrender happens when the person is sick and tired of being sick and tired. It is a moment of transformation that, unfortunately, cannot be forced.
Now the second life lesson that I discovered during my first year or two of sobriety is that of holistic health.
If you go to AA or to rehab then they will likely present a spiritual solution to you for the problem of addiction or alcoholism.
There is nothing wrong with this, however, the solution is actually larger than just spirituality.
The solution is also about improving your physical health, your mental health, your emotional health, and your social health.
If you neglect all of those areas of your health and only focus on spiritual growth then you will still end up relapsing. Or you may just pass away young because you neglected your physical health (I have watched this happen in AA many times).
So as I as going through AA and long term treatment, everyone was telling me the solution. I heard the solution at meetings, and I listened to what people were saying. They said “the solution is in the steps.” Or they said “The solution is spiritual.”
And yet I also watched what was happening with my peers in AA, and I started to watch the results unfold around me. And I realized that the unspoken truth was that your overall health matters. Not just spiritual health, but all of the other areas of your life as well.
Hence the term “holistic recovery.” Your whole life is important, not just the spiritual aspect of sobriety. It all matters.
The final life lesson that I discovered is that the number one threat in long term recovery is that of complacency.
So I watched several people relapse in early recovery, and that was honestly no great surprise. Newcomers struggle. That is not a shocker.
But I was rather shocked when someone in AA with multiple years sober would end up relapsing. And I watched it happen over and over again, to the point that I started thinking about it and investigating.
So what was really happening is that people were getting complacent. They might still be showing up to AA every day, but were they really pushing themselves to improve their lives? Were they really on a path of growth?
My observations were telling me that those who stayed engaged in a process of personal growth–those were the people who stayed sober.
Another thing I noticed was that the people who were complacent were also in denial about it. So you couldn’t really tell them anything, because they got defensive and pointed out how they still went to AA every day, or whatever their excuse was.
Therefore I realized that I should just assume myself to be complacent, and then act accordingly. Which just means that I hustle more in order to stay engaged in a process of personal growth and learning.
Those are the life lessons in recovery that I have discovered. What about you?