There is a pretty straightforward process for kicking an addiction to alcohol. I believe that the path to sobriety is fairly simple even though it is not easy for any one individual.
Of course there are details. Recovery can be complicated in fact, but that doesn’t mean that the surrender process has to be complicated.
A lifetime of sobriety will have many details and it will be far from simple. But the moment that you finally surrender doesn’t have to be complicated at all.
What follows is the recovery process as I understand it and went through it myself. But it is also the process as I see it in others, as I work with (and have worked with in the past) many others who are on a path of recovery.
We are all unique in our journey, of course. But there are also certain fundamentals that never seem to change. Perhaps it is those fundamentals that we should focus on.
Surrender is fundamental to the recovery process
It doesn’t matter if you go to a religious based recovery program, a twelve step program, or a behavioral based approach. All of these strategies for sobriety seem to share one thing in common: They all have the element of surrender present.
This is the basic idea that the alcoholic has to stop fighting against their disease, they have to accept that they are alcoholic and that they cannot control it successfully.
Because up until that critical point of surrender the alcoholic is desperately trying to both enjoy and control their drinking. They cannot do both. They can do one or the other but never both. And that is the crux of addiction. You are either miserable and wanting to be medicated, or you are over-medicated and out of control. There is no perfect in-between.
And every alcoholic and drug addict clings to denial.
What is denial? Perhaps it is best explained by the fantasy that they can have the best of both worlds. Because every alcoholic can remember a time when they got drunk in the past and things turned out well. They did not lose total control. And they can remember that they had a great time and they enjoyed themselves and no one got hurt.
And that was real. It happened. Every alcoholic has had the perfect buzz at one time.
But you can’t go backwards. And it is the great fantasy of every alcoholic and drug addict that if things would just go their way for once that they could get back to that perfect buzz.
And believing that this might happen one day, having this hope that they can achieve the perfect buzz again, that they might even be able to do it consistently in the future….this is insanity. This is denial. It will never happen.
Alcoholism and drug addiction are progressive. They erase all hope that you might achieve that perfect buzz again some day for any length of time. It might happen once in the distant future, but only after years or months of misery. And then that perfect buzz will be followed by years or decades of more misery in which you try to achieve the perfect high all over again.
This is really what defines addiction. This is what denial is all about. Hanging on to that hope.
And so when you surrender, you let go of that hope. You just let it go. You let go of the idea that you might be happy some day while drinking or using drugs. You let it all go. You release it completely.
I was afraid of AA, afraid of rehab, afraid of sobriety itself. And I let go of that fear. That was surrender. I just let it all go. I just didn’t care any more.
Why did I let it go? Because I was so incredibly sick and tired. I was tired of the games. I was tired of chasing happiness in the bottle. So I finally let go.
And this act of surrender, this process of letting go, this is fundamental to recovery.
Meaning that every person who successfully recovers has to go through this. They have to let go. They have to surrender.
You have to surrender to 2 things, to be clear:
1) You must surrender to the fact that you are alcoholic, and that you cannot drink successfully ever again.
2) You must surrender to a new solution in your life. Someone is going to tell you how to live. You must listen to them.
It doesn’t really matter who you surrender to so much, as long as they are positive, abstinence based, etc. Specific recovery programs don’t really have any magic in them. The magic is in surrender, in taking positive action, in rebuilding your life from the ground up. It is hard work no matter what program you follow.
But everyone has to surrender. Before you can turn your life around and get to the good part (the rewards of sobriety), you have to surrender. You have to let go. It is fundamental.
Asking for help and disruption
A lot of struggling alcoholics and drug addicts go to rehab.
I went to rehab. I went three times. It obviously did not work on the first two tries. It worked very well on the third try. I lived in long term rehab for 20 months. Not everyone has to stay that long. Many people just go for 28 days or even less. The length of treatment is not as important as some might think. Surrender and actually getting some help is what really matters.
So you finally surrendered and you decide that you want to change your life. Your next item of business is to ask for help.
Who do you ask? What if they give you bad advice? What if they send you to program A when they should have sent you to program B?
In my experience those questions are not important. They are just fears to keep you stuck. Don’t bother yourself with those sort of doubts.
If you decide that you want to get sober and change your life then doors will probably open for you. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
I used to work at a drug and alcohol treatment center. When someone called up and asked for help, we immediately tried to get them the funding or access that they needed to come in to treatment. And if they did not qualify, we referred them to another facility or agency that could help them.
Later I learned that this is standard procedure everywhere. If they can’t help you, they generally refer you to someone who can.
That’s pretty awesome when you think about it. I know that the phone can weigh ten million pounds for someone who may be struggling with addiction. But if you just pick it up and make that call, you are bound to get the help that you need. And even if you don’t, they will likely direct you to someone else who can help. How cool is that?
So you have to ask for help. I would recommend that you seek out professional help. For most people that will probably mean inpatient rehab. Of course inpatient treatment is not a magic cure, but it is still the best solution for most people in my opinion. And ultimately it saved my life when I did not even really want my life to be saved.
I think every alcoholic and drug addict who is struggling needs some form of disruption.
You need to disrupt your life. You need a way to disrupt your lifestyle.
I was stuck in addiction. I was stuck in a pattern of abusing drugs and alcohol every day, just to get by. I was stuck in a job where all of my coworkers drank or got high with me. I was stuck living in a place where I was around people who drank or used drugs. I was stuck in a lot of different ways, and I needed a way to disrupt my life.
So I could have just started going to AA meetings. That might have helped. But that is not really a way to disrupt my entire life. That does not change my job, my living situation, the people who are around me at home and who influence me. That is a small amount of change but in my situation at the time I doubt that it could have been enough by itself.
Now don’t misunderstand me here, I am not knocking the AA program or anything. I am just saying that my life at that time needed a major form of disruption, and going to one AA meeting per day was not going to make a big enough impact for me. As it was, I ended up living in long term rehab for 20 months, and I also started attending AA on a regular basis. So I simply needed more help than a single 12 step meeting every day. I needed more disruption.
I would give you a rule of thumb when it comes to treatment and the idea of disruption:
If you try something and you end up relapsing, next time try for MORE disruption.
In other words, I once went to a 28 day program. They told me to go to long term rehab and I refused. Then I relapsed.
So a year later I decided to take their advice (finally). And it was then that I finally checked into long term treatment.
If at first you don’t succeed, then try more intensive treatment. Try going for more disruption in your life. For me, that meant living in long term rehab. For you, it might just mean going to counseling, going to AA meetings, or going to short term treatment.
I am not suggesting that everyone should go to long term rehab. All I am saying is that if you have tried and failed to get sober in the past, you might consider the idea that you did not try hard enough. Seek out more disruption. Seek out more intense treatment. It worked for me when I was at my worst point.
Trading in an old set of habits for new habits
So you surrender, ask for help, and find some form of disruption (probably treatment).
In my experience this is where the real work starts. After you go to rehab and get turned loose back into the world you have to learn how to live your new life in recovery.
So what does that even mean, to build a new life in sobriety? What does it mean to start living a new life in recovery?
My explanation is that it is trading in an old set of habits for a new set of habits.
So I used to hang out at the bar and use drugs with a certain group of friends. Those were my main habits. I had to change those obviously.
So in order to do that I had to take suggestions. I could not just use my own ideas for this. I had to reach out and listen to other people and take their advice. I had to follow directions. I had to take suggestions and try some new things in life.
So I started going to meetings. Of course I was living in long term rehab, but that came with a lot more freedom than you might imagine. I also went back to college. I got a new job. I completely walked away from all of my old drinking buddies.
I got a sponsor in AA and I started going to sponsorship groups. I was in therapy and working closely with a counselor. I had new goals in life. I was pushing myself to try new things, to listen to suggestions, to see what worked for me.
At one point I quit smoking cigarettes. That was a great boost to me in sobriety.
At one point I started distance running. Again, this was a huge game changer for me.
At another time I started a daily journal and I also started writing about recovery. That had a huge impact on my life as well.
So when I got clean and sober I basically stopped almost all of my bad habits in life immediately. Then it was my job to start filling back in my life with positive habits. That has been a learning process and it required a lot of experimenting.
And I think this is the path that we should all strive for in recovery. Eliminate the negative habits and establish new positive habits. Personal growth is the goal.
My opinion is that all recovery programs are basically a vehicle for personal growth. They may talk of spirituality or behavioral changes, but deep down it always comes back to personal growth. You are either improving yourself or you are stuck and sliding towards a relapse. Your choice. No one gets to stand frozen in place though. You are either getting healthier (personal growth) or you are headed for relapse.
Which is why it makes sense to talk of daily habits. Find a way to trade in your negative habits for positive ones. Start exploring new positive habits. Try them on for size. Take suggestions from others in recovery about what their positive habits are. This is the key to unlocking a better life in recovery. Your daily habits define your future. You become what you do every day.
Personal growth and holistic health is a model for long term success
Personal growth is a pretty vague term. It might help to define it a bit better and pin down the idea of what “positive action” really means to us.
Some people believe that the solution in recovery is entirely spiritual. I disagree with that. I believe that the solution is holistic.
Your addiction destroyed you from the inside out. It affected you physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. It isolated you. It made you sick in a million different ways.
So a recovery program that focuses only on spiritual growth is, in my opinion, a limitation.
We need to think bigger than that.
The solution, in fact, is holistic.
So when we talk about “personal growth” in terms of sobriety, we are really talking about taking care of yourself every day in terms of your:
* Physical health.
* Mental health.
* Social health (not isolation, eliminating toxic relationships).
* Emotional health (this is critical for sobriety. Stability is key).
* Spiritual health (faith, hope, but also gratitude).
To just focus on one of these aspects is a huge mistake in my opinion.
And I have watched the results of that over and over again. I have watched peers of mine in recovery who relapsed after they went through a tough break up (emotional health). I have watched peers in recovery who relapsed after getting physically sick and being put on dangerous addictive medications which led them back to their drug of choice. And so on.
So we have to learn to take care of ourselves in all of these different ways. We have to learn to take care of ourselves in a holistic sense.
Not in holistic in the sense of “I am going to get a stone massage and a mud bath today!”
But holistic in the sense that you are taking care of your “whole body,” in all of those areas listed above.
If you neglect one of those areas of your life for too long then it can lead you to relapse. Simple as that.
The final hurdle is complacency
The final piece of the puzzle is complacency. This recovery thing never ends (until you die, of course!).
So you don’t just finish up with this personal growth thing and then be done with it forever. You don’t just move on and go back to some sort of “normal” life again.
No, you keep working at it. Or you end up relapsing.
If you go to enough AA meetings you will hear horror stories of someone who had like 20 or 30 years sober and they relapsed and died as a result. Or maybe they did not die, they just relapsed and now they are back in AA to tell their story.
To warn you. To warn the newcomer that the disease never goes away entirely, and that you have to keep working at recovery for the rest of your life.
So how do you defeat the complacency monster? How do you convince yourself to keep doing the work that you should be doing?
I think there are a couple of ways to stay vigilant. One way is by working with newcomers in recovery. If you continue to work with people who are just trying to get sober, people who are really fresh and really raw, then it serves as a powerful reminder of your disease. This works well for a lot of people.
Another way is to sort of take the “personal growth” approach. You have to stay vigilant and be self motivated. Maybe you don’t need AA or group support or counseling in the long run, but you better keep working on yourself and trying to improve. If you stop growing and pushing yourself then bad things will eventually happen.
Another way is to use peer feedback. To accept criticism. To get advice from others and to keep seeking it out. If you can do this and actually use the advice to shape your actions and goals then it can help you to keep moving forward.
What you don’t want to do is to get stuck. You don’t want to get so stuck that you stop growing, stop learning about yourself, stop having to be honest with yourself.
This is what is so amazing about trying to help other people in recovery. If you are trying to help others recover and you are working with new people in sobriety then it forces you to stay vigilant. Otherwise you end up feeling like a hypocrite.
I experienced this recently when I went through a few life challenges of my own. I did not even realize how complacent I had become, or rather, I did not realize exactly in which ways I was complacent.
But I was too comfortable. And a situation came along and shook up my world, and it made me realize that I had to actually follow my own advice. All of the things that I talk about in terms of recovery and personal growth….I suddenly had to start applying those ideas again! And then it happened again, in a completely unrelated situation, and I had to admit that I was complacent in other ways as well.
So this is all part of the lifelong process. Sometimes we can get too comfortable in ways that we don’t even realize. And then life will throw us a curve ball and force us to wake up. And it is up to each of us in recovery to look inside of ourselves and find the strength to take positive action again. I am still in the process of learning this. I am constantly being reinvented. This is recovery.