Is it possible to recover from alcohol addiction entirely on your own?
The answer to that question is both yes and no. If you ask people who are heavily involved in traditional recovery programs (such as Alcoholics Anonymous), they will tell you “Of course you cannot recover on your own!” They have reached a point in their understanding that if someone tries to leave AA they equate this with suicide. In their minds, everyone who tries to leave AA is doomed to relapse.
On the other end of the spectrum you have struggling alcoholics and drug addicts who are stuck in denial and cannot seem to help themselves. They are telling themselves something like: “I could sober up on my own if I really wanted to, I just don’t want to!” This is denial, plain and simple. The person clearly needs help in order to recover, and they also need to hit bottom and surrender.
So of those two extremes, which one is closer to the truth? Let’s see if we can get some clarity on this issue. Can you recover on your own? Is it even possible? And, should you attempt to do so?
Alcoholism is often defined by the need to get help from others
First of all, let’s define alcoholism itself.
Obviously there is a clinical definition of alcoholism as defined today by modern medicine and psychiatry. But what we are really interested in here is the functional definition as it pertains to people who are seeking help for their problem.
I am reminded of this bit of obvious wisdom: “If there is no problem then there is no problem.” Profound, right?
The alcoholic will stay stuck in denial even as they are losing their family, their job, their vehicle….all the while blaming others for their misfortune, and refusing to see that their drinking is the number one driver of all the chaos. But what about people who just realize that they need to stop drinking, and so they do so on their own, without making a big production of it all? What about people who simply drift away from alcoholism without going to rehab, without checking into detox, without going to AA meetings every day for years or decades at a time. Do we even label such people as alcoholics?
The truth is, no, we don’t label such people as alcoholics. If you decide that you don’t like what alcohol is doing for you and you drift away from it without asking for help, we don’t diagnose that as alcoholism. Maybe we throw around terms like “problem drinker” but we clearly would not label such a person as a hard core alcoholic, right?
And that seems to define the disease, in a way. If you don’t need any help to quit drinking, then is it really alcoholism?
I say “no.” No, it’s not alcoholism….not if you just walk away from it on your own, without any outside help.
In my experience, and this is just my opinion, but alcoholism and drug addiction are really defined by the need for outside help. In other words, the disease of addiction is defined by someone who is trapped and cannot stop on their own. The key phrase here is “on their own.” If you can stop on your own then great, I am happy for you, and I am glad that you have improved your life in that way, but I do not believe that you have this thing that we call “addiction” or “alcoholism.” People who earn that label have a certain degree of hopelessness in which they cannot just stop on their own, they cannot walk away from their disease, they cannot fix their own problem.
Perhaps that is most critical: The true alcoholic or drug addict cannot fix their own problem. They spiral out of control, they are lost in a world of chaos and fear and pain, and they cannot figure out a way out of the mess by themselves. Their best solution is to self medicate or to further self destruct in some way. And therefore the solution for such people is to stop everything, throw up their hands in surrender, and to ask for help from others.
This is the hallmark of a recovering alcoholic who is starting their journey. They ask for help.
I have worked with recovering alcoholics and drug addicts for over eight years now in a professional capacity. I am convinced that if someone is asking for help then that person is essentially “ready for change.” On the other hand, if that person is in treatment or at AA meetings but they are not really asking for help then that person is setting themselves up for failure. I have watched this over and over again with consistent results. It is about willingness. You are either 100 percent willing to recover, 100 percent willing to do the things that you need to do, 100 percent willing to listen to others tell you how to live your life, or you are not.
And I have watched many people who were 99 percent willing. And we say that such people have a reservation, they have something or some bit of their lives that they are not willing to relinquish control of, something that they are clinging to, some bit of denial that they will not let go of. And eventually that trips them up and leads them back to their drug of choice. The only solution for this condition is to let go absolutely, to let go of everything, to surrender completely and give up all self will. For most people that idea leaves a bad taste in their mouth, because they don’t like giving up so much control. But this is the path to sobriety, especially in early recovery. More on this in a moment. But first, let’s talk about willingness.
I couldn’t do it alone, and in fact I never wanted to even try
I found that when I was struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction that the real problem was that I did not want to get sober.
That probably sounds funny. But let’s break it down.
Clearly I was suffering during my drinking and drug days. I was miserable and I realized that the booze and the drugs were at least part of that misery. But I wasn’t fully convinced that they were the sole cause of the chaos.
This, of course, is denial. Because what I would do is to rationalize all sorts of nonsense in my head about the world and how it worked. So maybe I drank too much and it caused me to get into trouble at work, and I had this huge resentment over it all. And in my mind I would blame the boss who got angry at me, and I felt like the boss could have cut me some slack. Maybe the boss cut someone else some slack and I felt like I was being treated unfairly, even though I was the one who screwed up and got drunk at an inappropriate time.
This is how the mind of the alcoholic or drug addict works. Their suffer from consequences due to their addiction, but then they have to somehow make it in their minds like their drug of choice was not at fault. So they start with the premise that it was clearly not the fault of the drugs and the alcohol. Then they start twisting things around in their mind to somehow make sense of it all.
I got busted once for possession of drugs. I resented the cops and I resented society itself and the drug laws that existed at the time. And I thought a whole lot about how wrong this was, about how my crime was not a violent one, about how wrong it was to persecute someone just for possessing a substance. I spent a great deal of mental energy telling myself that THEY were wrong and that I was right. That I was justified in my actions.
This is crazy. This is fantasy, it is denial. What did all that justification get me? All it did was to make my mind say to itself “You weren’t wrong for doing drugs. The world is wrong for prosecuting you. You should keep doing drugs if you want to!”
So that is how the alcoholic mind works. That is how denial works. The mind starts with the basic idea that it is not the fault of alcohol or drugs. The alcoholic mind rationalizes and justifies all sorts of behavior based on this simple premise. The premise is always the same, that it is not the fault of the alcoholic, it is not the fault of drinking, it is not the fault of drug use. That is the one truth that the alcoholic will cling to above all others.
So think about this. The alcoholic has their highest truth, which is that they are innocent, that they just want to drink and get high, and that it is not the fault of the alcohol. Anything that happens in their world will get blamed in some other way. The alcoholic just keeps pointing the finger at other factors, but never at themselves and at their own drinking.
This is the world of denial that I was stuck in while I was drinking and using drugs. My main premise was that it wasn’t the fault of the drugs or the booze.
Based on that belief, I could not possibly help myself.
What could I have done from that standpoint? I actually did try to help myself, but nothing worked. And the reason that nothing worked was because my entire premise was wrong. I believed that other things were to blame in my life, I believed that outside factors beyond my control were making my life miserable, I believed that the only bit of happiness I had in my life came directly from drinking or taking drugs. Those were my beliefs.
And so I tried to help myself based on those beliefs. I tried to help myself based on this premise. And because my premise was so deeply flawed, because it was so clearly false, nothing worked.
For example, I quit drinking one time and instead I decided that I would just smoke marijuana every day instead. “Alcohol is my problem, it is creating the bad consequences.”
No. The truth was, I was my own problem. Alcohol and other drugs were just a symptom of something deeper, something that was flawed on the inside. Alcohol and drug addiction were but one manifestation of my deeper problem.
So that obviously failed. I could not smoke enough marijuana to properly self medicate. It worked for a week or two, but eventually I resorted back to the bottle, and on to other drugs as well.
I had tried to overcome my addiction on my own and I had tried to find ways to control it. I tried to drink only beer one time. That quickly failed. I tried to switch to other drugs that I considered to be less harmful. That failed as well. Nothing worked because my premise was dead wrong.
And my premise, again, was simply this: “It is not the drugs or the alcohol’s fault. The rest of the world is the problem.”
How do you escape from this trap of denial without someone else stepping in and telling you just how screwed up you are, just how wrong your basic premise is?
I will tell you the truth:
You cannot escape from this sort of denial on your own. That’s the whole point of denial, that’s how it works….you are stuck in your own flawed belief system and you can’t get out of it on your own. That’s what being in denial means. That is what defines it. You are trapped in a prison of your own making, and you can’t get out.
At least not on your own.
Getting out of a self made prison requires outside help.
I think it was Einstein who said “you cannot solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it” or something to that effect. Meaning that if you are stuck in denial and you have this flawed belief in your mind, you are not going to solve the problem unless you somehow shift your mindset and get a new belief. And that requires an act of surrender.
You surrender because you give up your premise. You let go of everything you believed, and agree to view the world through a new lens.
This is how you conquer denial. By letting go of what you believe, and becoming willing to listen to others.
Other people are willing to tell you how to recover. But of course you must be willing to listen. And you cannot listen if you are still clinging to your old premise in life, the premise that it is not your fault, that it is not the fault of the booze or the drugs.
The difference between “on your own” in short and long term sobriety
Let’s talk for a moment about short and long term sobriety.
Because quite honestly, they are different.
I would say that roughly the first two years of recovery are “short term.” Everything after that is “long term.” This time frame my vary from person to person, however. For some it may be six months. Or it may be the first five years. We all learn and recover at different rates.
In very early recovery you are quite vulnerable. I recommend being at an inpatient treatment facility, at least to start with. And even when you leave a 28 day program, you are still very early in the recovery process. You are just barely out of the nest at this point. You still have a great deal to learn about recovery, even after 30 days, 60 days, 90 days.
Early recovery, in my opinion, requires a great deal of support from other people. You can’t do it alone. So you ask for help, and you make connections with people in recovery. You can do this through AA or NA, you can do this through treatment centers, you can do this through a religious community. It doesn’t necessarily matter, you have to find what works for you, and you have to make these new connections in your life. If there are toxic people that you used to drink or get high with, you must eliminate them from your routine. Simple as that. Trade out the unhealthy relationships for new positive people who are trying to recover.
This is a basic fundamental strategy in early recovery. If you don’t do this to a certain extent then I think you set yourself up for failure.
In early recovery especially, you cannot do it alone. There are at least two reasons for this.
One is that you need to identify with others. Meaning that you need to hear that you are not unique, that you are not alone, that you are not going crazy. So we tell stories in recovery and we relate to each other. And you hear people who are addicted just like you were, and you hear their stories, and you learn from that. You realize you are not crazy. This is really important, this concept of identification. It is why we tell our personal history to the newcomer at an AA meeting–so that they can identify with us and realize that they are not alone, that they are not crazy.
Second of all is the need for new information in your life. Remember that your premise is wrong, dead wrong. You come into sobriety having the wrong information. You don’t know what you are doing. You don’t know how to live a clean and sober life. Or rather, you don’t know how to be happy while living a clean and sober life. Because any alcoholic or drug addict knows how to be clean–you just don’t put drugs or alcohol into your body. But the trick is to learn how to love your life while sober. That is what a recovery program attempts to teach you. The not drinking part is pretty simple. You just don’t drink. But then, how do you live with yourself? How do you learn to love yourself, and to love your life? That is the challenge of recovery.
So for those two reasons, you need other people to help you in early recovery. Learning new information about how to live sober, and so that you can identify with others and know that you are not crazy.
In long term sobriety, this is not necessarily the case. In long term sobriety, you have already gained a great deal of information about how to live your life sober. And you no longer believe that you might be crazy due to your addiction. So the need for new identification is gone completely, and the need for new information is greatly diminished. But because life is always changing and evolving, you may still need to find a way to learn new things. And so that is what defines long term sobriety–we continue to grow and to learn new things about ourselves. So if you have the right mindset and you remain open to learning then you don’t necessarily need tons of support in long term sobriety. It is much more important in early recovery to have lots of support and lots of help from other people.
It is OK to ask for help in early recovery
If there is one thing that you should know, it is that it is OK to ask for help.
We have this secret belief that if we ask for help, then we are weak. Or that others will look down on us.
This is wrong. In fact, other people will realize that we are strong if we ask for help. They will see this as strength, because we obviously want to improve ourselves.
So my suggestion? Get over yourself. You don’t have to do this alone. And you probably can’t. So give yourself a break, and ask for help today.
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