What is the path to making the best decisions possible in early sobriety?
How can an alcoholic find the right path when they are trying to sober up so as not to make mistakes, overcome the temptation of relapse, and generally begin to rebuild their life in way that eventually leads them to peace, contentment, and happiness?
It’s not small order. Let’s take a closer look at the art of making decisions in early recovery.
Because quite honestly, it is pretty important!
Every alcoholic and drug addict who first gets sober has suffered from a long history of poor decision making!
First of all it is important to realize what the baseline is here.
Every single alcoholic and drug addict who is coming into recovery has been making poor decisions for a while now.
That isn’t necessarily a judgement against anyone; that’s just the way it is. Addiction causes us to make poor decisions because we are under the influence of a chemical. We do not act rationally because we prioritize the drug or the alcohol over other things that would normally be a priority for us instead.
So when you get to the point of surrender and you decide that you need to do something serious about your alcohol problem, you have to realize that this is the best decision that you have made in a very long time. Up until this point, your decisions have mostly been bad ones that only serve to feed your addiction more.
Addiction and alcoholism can, of course, rage on for years or even decades before you reach the point of surrender. That said, you may be very out of practice at making healthy decisions when you first get to recovery.
So let’s think about this for a moment. Let’s say you are an addict or an alcoholic and you have been making bad decisions for several years now due to your addiction. You reach a point of surrender and you finally cave in and realize that you need serious help. At this point, should you:
1) Make all of your own decisions by yourself without relying on anyone else for help, advice, or insight, or….
2) Ask for help from others.
If you guessed option number two, you would be absolutely right.
The best way to turn around your string of poor decisions
The best way for an alcoholic to screw up their recovery efforts is to rely only on their own ideas and their own judgement without consulting anyone else.
I have watched that happen so clearly in my life over the years. Actually it has been over a decade now that I have watched this unfold over and over again.
I worked in an alcohol treatment center for several years. I lived in a long term alcohol rehab for almost two years. I have a lot of experience watching other alcoholics try to get clean and sober. I have a lot of experience watching them struggle, watching a few of them succeed, watching the different traps and pitfalls of the recovery process, and so on.
What I have learned is this:
Those who try to “go it alone” in recovery do not do well. At all. Ever.
Every recovering alcoholic who has walked away from conventional wisdom and tried to do their own thing in early recovery has later regretted it. Every single one of them eventually pops back up later and conveys the idea that their past behavior was a mistake.
When I worked at rehab I watched a lot of people walk out before their stay was technically over. Maybe they were authorized for 28 days but they got antsy after a week or two and they bolted. From what I was able to observe in all of those cases, not a single person made the right decision when they left treatment early against the advice of the therapy staff. It was a disaster every single time (that I knew about anyway).
So the secret of early recovery is pretty simple when it comes to decision making. Most of us don’t really want to hear this secret though, because it is a pretty big blow to the ego.
And the secret is this:
Don’t make your own decisions for a while.
Stop making your own decisions in early recovery.
Remove yourself from the driver’s seat. You have been driving this bus (your life) for too long now, and it hasn’t been working. You are miserable and you are not happy and your life is spiraling out of control and you have no one to blame but yourself.
Because of your denial you may have tried to blame others for a long time, but now you realize that it really was all you, it was your alcoholism, and this is the real source of your unhappiness. Once your each that point you are in a state of true surrender. You stop fighting with yourself and you let go completely.
Now you are ready to listen to others.
When you surrender, you throw up your hands and say to the world: “I don’t know how to live any more. I don’t know how to be happy. What I have been doing is not working for me. Please help me. Please show me how to live.”
That is real surrender. That is what precedes sobriety. Anything other than that is not likely to produce long term sobriety in the alcoholic. Because anything less than that means that you are probably not willing to do the hard work that is necessary to turn your life around.
And it’s a lot of work. Don’t get me wrong, it is all well worth it. Life in recovery is great. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is a whole lot of work, and it can be tough to get started, and it can feel (at times) like an uphill battle at first. So if you are not at the point of surrender then it is likely you will not persevere.
This, then, is the secret of early recovery. Once you surrender and agree to get help, stop making your own decisions after that. Consult with others, listen to the therapists, the counselors, the professionals in the treatment centers. Listen to your peers in recovery and the people at AA meetings. Get out of your own way. Stop believing that you are smart enough to come up with the answers for yourself, because those answers have not led you to happiness.
This is a huge blow to your ego. Trust me, your ego is NOT going to like this when you do it.
And you can do it right now. You can make a decision, this instant, that you are no longer going to trust yourself at all to make decisions, that you will only do what others tell you to do (people that you trust in recovery).
What is amazing is that after you make this humbling decision (to only trust others and not yourself) that you will instantly start to become happier in life.
I repeat: Outsourcing all of your decisions to other people will actually make you happier.
When I was still drinking and taking drugs I never would have believed that in a million years. And when I first got sober I still did not believe it.
But then I did it.
Then I took the plunge. I took the leap of faith.
I said to myself “No more driving the bus for a while. Instead, we are going to let others drive our bus. I am going to ask others for advice, and I am going to follow it. I am going to get out of my own way, because I know that I am my own worst enemy.”
And so I did that. I made an agreement with myself.
And that is what I want you to do if you are struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction.
Surrender. Surrender to other people, to people you trust to help you.
Go to treatment and listen to their advice. Do what they tell you to do.
This actually works and you will be happier as a result.
But in order to make that leap of faith you have to let go of everything.
General advice that works for nearly everyone in early sobriety
You may believe that general advice is useless for sobriety.
I don’t believe that though. Here is the general advice that I think applies to everyone:
1) Surrender is critical. The first part of your journey involves breaking through denial. Embrace the negative consequences in your life and accept them fully, acknowledge them. If you are unhappy then accept that you are, don’t deny it. Accept the fact that the alcohol doesn’t work so well any more. This is how you break through denial and eventually surrender. You have to realize the truth, that the alcohol and drugs just aren’t as effective as they used to be in the past. Where did all the fun go? You have to get real about this with yourself.
2) Ask for help. Simple. Get on the phone and call up treatment centers. Ask questions. “How do I get in there for some help?” If you hit a dead end, be polite and ask them if they can refer you to someone else, or to another agency that might be able to help. Keep pushing until you get an answer where they are willing to help you with your problem.
3) Take action and follow through. Again, simple. No one really wants to humble themselves to this point if they can avoid it, but you will be willing to do so if you have hit bottom and are truly miserable. Your misery fuels your recovery and allows you to overcome your fear. It is fear that keeps people stuck from making healthy decisions. But once you get miserable enough and realize that you are miserable (break through your denial) then you will be motivated to change.
4) Support. I think that in early recovery especially, support and networking is critical. I don’t necessarily do the AA thing myself, but I do believe that it is valuable in early sobriety. Also, there are other ways to find support from people in recovery outside of the 12 step programs, though they are not always obvious or widespread.
Get out of your own way yet take massive action at the same time
Part of the problem with decision making in early recovery is that many people do not follow through. It’s all about taking action in the end.
I can remember living in long term rehab when I first got sober. I stayed there for 20 months total and I watched about 30 different people go in and out during that time.
The vast majority of these people did not stay as long as they intended to, nor did they get the results that they wanted initially.
They had obviously made a decision at one point to check into long term rehab with the intention of turning their life around, but then something happened along the way.
They did not follow through. They did not follow up this decision with massive action.
When I say “massive action” one thing that I am referring to is the idea of consistent action. I think it is pretty obvious (to me anyway) that building a new life in recovery is all about consistency. Essentially what you are doing is trading in one set of habits for another.
Your old habits involved unhealthy behaviors and putting chemicals into your body. Your new habits involve (hopefully) avoiding those chemicals, but also in avoiding those unhealthy behaviors that may have led to the desire to self medicate.
In other words, you can’t just remove the drugs and the booze and magically heal the alcoholic. You can’t just expect the problem of addiction to fix itself once the chemicals are out of the equation. It doesn’t work like that, unfortunately.
We all have certain hang ups, certain character defects, certain things about us that make us that person who used to drink and self medicate.
It is not really all about why we drank to begin with, that is somewhat misleading. Instead, it is about how we later become used to the buzz and how it allows us to escape from ourselves every day.
So in other words, maybe you have an excuse as to why you started drinking in the first place. Maybe your family drank and there were issues with abuse and therefore it was quite natural for you to start drinking as well.
Some people might believe that you have to deal with those past issues in order to overcome your alcoholism. Deal with the abuse and process it fully, they would suggest, and you can then cure your cravings for alcohol.
Doesn’t work that way.
At some point, the medical industry studied alcoholics enough to realize that alcoholism and drug addiction are primary, rather than secondary. They don’t actually need a cause to exist.
And furthermore, this is really important, because it also means that any excuse that you used to start drinking is pretty much irrelevant when it comes to recovery. It doesn’t matter why you drank, or what made you start, or what trauma you were escaping from at first.
Because in the end, you drank or used drugs or years or even decades, and that original excuse that you may have used when you first started is long gone.
You drink because you are alcoholic. You drink excessively because you have an allergy to alcohol.
So when it comes to recovery you have to put in a great deal of work, but not always in the way that you might expect.
It is not necessarily about going back and finding those original causes like many people expect.
Instead it is more about looking at your day to day habits and realizing that you need a new way to live if you expect to remain sober.
And this is where the action comes into play. They say that you have to change one thing in recovery, and that is everything. It’s sort of an old joke, but there is also a bit of truth to it.
In fact what it means is that you really have to change everything when it comes to your attitude.
You have to find a way to turn selfishness into gratitude.
Therefore the statement “My life is crappy and I deserve a drink today” becomes something more like “My life is amazing and I am grateful just to be alive and well today.”
How you get to that point involves a bit of work. Obviously it doesn’t just happen in an instant. You have to work at it in order to be able to turn your selfishness into gratitude. It is a journey that takes real effort. And of course, you have to be willing.
Do you ever get to make your own decisions again? Absolutely.
Do you ever get to make your own decisions in life again?
I say “yes,” you can. But in order to get to that point you have to be willing to be humble for a long time first.
I suppose that people progress and learn at different rates in recovery. After about two years I was getting to the point where I was ready to trust in myself again.
Up until then I was very nervous to do so. In fact, when I finally did start to trust my own decisions again, I was very much afraid at first. It took me over a year before I really had any amount of confidence back in myself.
And looking back, I believe that this is how it should be.
How many people have I watched relapse who were so much cockier than I was in early recovery?
How many people have I known who relapsed because they thought that they were smart enough to figure everything out for themselves?
Even today, after 13 years of continuous sobriety, I am very likely to get other people’s input and advice before making any decision with any real significance. I love taking advice because it improves the results that I get.
If you ignore the advice of others you are basically saying “no” to free bits of wisdom. Not everything that you are told will turn out to be wise and important for you, but some of it surely will. And so you have to learn to take this input from others and weigh it carefully when you are considering things.
I don’t think I ever really try to act alone any more. I would much rather consult with someone, get a second opinion, hear a different piece of advice, get a new angle on things. It just makes sense to do this when you are rebuilding your life because other people have already made lots of mistakes for you. If you are willing to ask for help then you don’t have to make those same mistakes yourself. You can avoid them and live a happier and healthier life because you were willing to slow down, humble yourself, and ask for feedback from other people.
All this really costs you is time. People love to give advice, it makes them feel good. So don’t hesitate to find people that you trust in recovery, people that you look up to, people who are already successful in sobriety and in life. Find those people and ask them for advice, ask them for direction, ask them their opinion. Then, take that information and run with it. Consider it carefully and then apply it to your life as you see fit.
The results that you get will amaze you.
This has worked for me when my own ideas and efforts have failed. What have you got to lose?
Ask for help.
What about you, have you struggled with decision making in early recovery? Have you learned to ask for help? Has that helped you at all in your recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!