What is the smartest choice that an alcoholic can possibly make for themselves?
To get help, of course. But the process of doing that is not always straightforward, especially if you happen to be stuck in denial.
Let’s try to break it down a bit and see what is involved in turning your life around.
Get super honest with yourself and break through your denial
The first and hardest part of getting the help that you need begins with getting honest with yourself.
This is really tough for a lot of people who are addicted to alcohol precisely because they do not like the person that they have become.
I know that when I was struggling with alcoholism I did not want to face the truth, I did not want to face the reality of what my life had become over time. I no longer liked the person I had become, how I treated others, what my values were, and so on.
At some point though you may not have much of a choice. Reality has a way of smacking us against the head. Of course this doesn’t happen with every alcoholic–some of us will simply self medicate over and over again until we meet an untimely demise through “jails, institutions, or death.” But hopefully if you are a struggling alcoholic you will see the light and realize that you no longer have to suffer. You can make a different choice today. And that choice involves asking for help.
But you have to get honest first. If you are still telling yourself the story that “alcohol can make me happy instantly” then you have no real hope of getting sober yet. You are still operating under the fantasy that alcohol is the solution to all of your problems today. That is can cure you, that it can create instant happiness, that it is the answer to all of the stress and anxiety in your life.
I used to live in fear and drinking alcohol covered that fear up. It medicated that fear. It made it so that when I got drunk I was no longer afraid, my anxiety was gone. And I wanted to feel like that all of the time. Therefore the goal was to simply stay drunk all of the time.
The problem is that this solution does not scale very well. Sure, you can try to apply this solution of “stay drunk, avoid anxiety and fear” to your entire life, but eventually it starts to wear down on you. It is really hard on a person to be alcoholic, to abuse your body, to stay drunk all or nearly all of the time. It is not a healthy way to live and it has such a negative impact on so many different areas of your life (relationships, physical health, spirituality, finances, etc.).
But we stay stuck in denial because we are so afraid of change.
I was terrified of getting sober. I was really afraid that someone was going to lock me up one day and take my booze away. They were going to lock me up and not give me drugs or alcohol ever again. This was my greatest fear. And so going to rehab was basically facing that fear head on. I was very much afraid to take that plunge.
My denial told me that the only way that I could ever be happy was if I was drunk or high on drugs. Period. That was my only option for happiness.
I was basing this on the fact that when I stopped drinking for half a second, I realized that I did not enjoy the withdrawal process. It made me uncomfortable.
Well, duh. Of course the alcoholic is going to have a rough time when they stop drinking suddenly. Of course they will feel uncomfortable.
But you don’t feel that way forever. But my denial told me that I would feel miserable forever in sobriety.
So for me, it was a choice between:
1) Getting sober and being uncomfortable and miserable forever (so I believed).
2) Staying drunk and high and being miserable most of the time, but every once in a while having a fun time when everything went just right.
That was how denial worked for me. I chose option number 2 because it was familiar, because I knew that I could squeeze a tiny bit of happiness out of my addiction, and because I was terrified of facing the unknown in sobriety. And I honestly thought that if I sobered up that I would feel the discomfort of withdrawal for the rest of my life.
So at that point in my addiction, the smartest thing that I could do for myself was very counter-intuitive.
And that was to focus on the negative stuff in my life, during my addiction.
I had to get honest. I had to look at my drinking and realize that it was bad. Really bad.
I had to look at my life and realize that it was a train wreck. I had to accept and get honest with myself. Things were messed up.
Embrace the negative. This is the only way you are going to hit bottom, is if you acknowledge that you are at your bottom.
If you just continue to ignore every new bottom that you hit then you will never get sober. Instead, you must embrace the negative. Realize just how bad things have become.
Why would you work hard to change things unless they had become bad?
Focus on the negative. Embrace the train wreck that is now your life. This is how you will become motivated to change.
Alcoholics are, unfortunately, motivated by pain and suffering. That is why you must hit bottom first. But don’t stay in denial forever….realize that you are at a bottom right now. You can only do this by getting honest with yourself about your situation.
Asking for help is the natural first step due to your severe lack of information
Every alcoholic who is trying to sober up has a serious disadvantage:
They don’t know what in the heck they are doing.
No struggling alcoholic really has a clue as to what they need to do in order to get sober.
Even if they have a vague knowledge (or an expert knowledge for that matter) of the recovery process, they don’t know it in terms of experience. They might have read about it, they might understand the concepts of recovery, but they haven’t lived it.
This is true for someone who is alcoholic and then sobered up and had years or decades of successful sobriety, and then later relapsed. If they are drinking today then they do not have the knowledge that they need for recovery. They must get it from other people. They have forgotten the principles that led them to a better life. They may know it in terms of “book knowledge” but they no longer know how to apply the concepts in real life. They need help.
So when I say that a struggling alcoholic needs information, I am not just talking about reading a book or a website. What I am talking about truly is the learning process that comes from experiencing something first hand, from really living it.
You don’t get that knowledge from sitting down and reading the big book of AA, or other recovery literature, or a website such as this one. Sure, those things can help, and they can be useful. But you don’t really get the knowledge of how to live sober until you have experienced sober living.
That is a very important point so I want to make sure you are clear on it:
Reading a book or a website about recovery is not the same level of knowledge as actually living a sober life and achieving sobriety first hand. In order to really learn about the recovery process you have to experience it for yourself and thus learn as you go along.
This is generally accomplished by struggling through early sobriety with a great deal of support at your side. Some people go to AA meetings, some people go to inpatient treatment, some people go to organized religion, some people go to therapy, and some people use a combination of tactics. Either way, you will probably need some level of support and help along your journey, because the learning process is not just done by sitting down and reading for a few days and then closing the book and saying “OK, I’m done, I got what I needed to know!” That is not how recovery works. Instead, the learning process lasts for a lifetime. You are always learning more about yourself and adapting. The process never ends. If you stay sober for ten years and then get lazy and stop learning, you will most likely relapse eventually. Not good.
Therefore we must always be learning. And in early recovery you definitely need to reach out to get help and support from others. You cannot get all of the knowledge that you need simply by reading it. There is an important element of sobriety that is based on human interaction. We need dynamic information in order to remain sober. This is because our life and our life situation is constantly evolving.
Willingness to follow directions even though you are scared
OK so let’s talk about this process.
You get honest with yourself and admit that your life is a total train wreck. You focus on the negative stuff for a while and you realize that alcohol no longer makes you happy at all. It used to work but it no longer does. You finally realize this. You break through denial.
Then you ask for help. Hopefully your friends or family members will have the sense to direct you towards inpatient treatment, AA meetings, or both. Of course there are some other solutions as well. Massive action is the key. Taking initiative is critical.
But then once you do this, you are far from finished. In fact, the process is really just beginning. Breaking through denial and then asking for help is just the tip of a massive iceberg.
Now you have to follow through.
What does that mean?
To me it means that you have to follow directions. That you have to take the advice you are given and then act on it. You have to take action.
In my journey of addiction and recovery, I made three attempts total at going to treatment in order to overcome my alcoholism.
The first two trips to rehab failed obviously. I did not manage to remain sober those first two attempts. The third time worked of course, and I am (gratefully) still sober to this day.
So what went wrong the first two times?
Well, a couple of things to point out. One is that I was simply not ready the first two times, even though I believe that I might be. I wasn’t sure. I knew that I was miserable and I knew that I was trapped and I wanted a different life. I could even admit that I was alcoholic. Was I still in denial? Actually, I was. I was in denial of the solution. I was not yet willing to embrace AA and do the work. I was not willing to live in long term rehab either, which was something that I was going to have to do in order to untangle the mess that my life had become. (Not everyone needs long term treatment, but I certainly did).
So the first two times that I attended rehab, I simply did not follow through. I was not willing to follow through. Quite frankly, I was afraid of AA meetings and I was not willing to sit through them and expose myself to them. I was scared to share and I was even scared if someone addressed me in a meeting to ask me if I wanted to share. My anxiety and fear kept me stuck in my addiction.
There is a balance between pain and fear. When the alcoholic has had enough pain in their life, they will become willing to face their fears and thus recover.
They teach this pretty clearly at Al-anon. The alcoholic is not going to get sober until they have had enough. Enough what?
The answer is: Enough pain. They are motivated to quit drinking by pain. If things are going well they are not going to quit. Why would they quit and subject themselves to all of that fear? Remember that they are afraid to sober up, they are afraid to face reality, they are afraid to experience a life without alcohol. It is fear that keeps them stuck in addiction. It is pain that motivates them to (possibly) face that fear and go get the help that they need anyway, in spite of their fear.
So once the pain becomes great enough for the alcoholic they will eventually be able to overcome their fear. They will act in spite of their fear.
I can remember this moment for myself when I finally surrendered and agreed to go back to rehab. I knew that there would be AA meetings. I knew that I would have to face my fear of sobriety. But I didn’t care any more. Because I was so sick and tired of being afraid.
So I went. I asked for help (just like I had done twice in the past), but this time I followed through. I took action. I listened.
And that is what made all the difference. I actually took the advice I was given and acted on it.
Removing your ego from the early recovery process and getting out of your own way
Kill your ego.
This is critical for early recovery.
I am so lucky that in my first few weeks of AA meetings while in rehab, I figured something out.
Here is what I learned:
People were relapsing because they took back control of their lives. The problem was one of self sabotage. They got an idea and their own mind led them astray, led them to relapse.
How was I going to avoid this? How would I be able to prevent myself from relapse, from tricking my own self into taking a drink?
And so I made an agreement with myself. I made a decision.
And in reality, if you take a broad understanding of the steps and the decision that I made, this was really the third step of AA that I was putting into action.
What I told myself was something like this:
“I am no longer in the driver’s seat of my life. I am relinquishing all control to the wisdom of others. Instead of making my own decisions and using my own ideas I will defer to other people in my life–including my therapist, my sponsor, my peers in recovery, and my loving and caring family. I will not act alone, at all. I will not use my own ideas. I will double check with others before I act. I am no longer in the driver’s seat of my life. I am letting others drive for a while.”
I did not realize it at the time, but this was really the mechanics of the third step of AA. You are turning your life over, so that you are no longer in control of it. And in doing so you give yourself permission not to sabotage your own recovery efforts. It really does work.
What I noticed then was that my life just started getting better and better, really fast. I mean it was crazy! I could not believe how happy I became in a very short period of time. And all the while I was doing this experiment, mentally, where I was no longer in charge. I had given up control.
And the amazing thing was that I really thought that this would make me miserable. I had believed that I would be unhappy if I were no longer in the driver’s seat of my life any more.
Nope, not so. I was happy as good be. And it just kept getting better.
I felt like I had discovered a secret, and that I was somehow cheating the world out of this happiness, because it was all so easy. I wasn’t even doing anything, other than listening to other people and doing what they told me to do. And my life just kept getting better and better. It was really amazing.
And I thought: “How lucky am I to be living this life in recovery. How lucky am I to be blessed with this easy happiness, where I don’t even have to plan my life out, I can just listen and take advice and direction from others and things work out so nice and I get happier and happier.”
How ironic, that the smartest thing you can do for yourself in recovery is to decide that you are no longer in charge, that you are going to listen to others tell you how to live your life instead. Very counter-intuitive. No one wants to do this until they don’t have a choice, until they are completely miserable. And then they do it and they are happy. It really is amazing.
Get honest. Break through denial. Realize how miserable you are.
Ask for help. Reach out. Take advice and suggestions.
Follow through. Go get the help you need. Go to meetings, rehab, therapy, whatever it takes.
And surrender. And then keep surrendering, keep learning, keep taking advice and suggestions.
This is how you succeed and grow in recovery. This is how you find that ray of sunshine, of happiness.
It’s a lot of work, but what is the alternative?