What is the single smartest thing that you can possibly do in order to overcome alcoholism or drug addiction?
In my opinion it all comes down to one single principle:
Getting out of your own way.
We are our own worst enemy in addiction recovery. We are the only thing that holds us back from success.
Just look at how much self sabotage is a problem for people in early sobriety. Just look at the way that people screw up their own efforts at sobriety.
Therefore, the smartest thing that you can do is to ask for help.
Asking for help is the single best choice you can make
The problem with this solution is that it feels wrong. It is counter-intuitive, at least to me.
That is because asking for help from other people doesn’t feel smart. It makes me feel stupid, in fact.
Why is this?
I’m not sure what the problem is, and some of it may be cultural. Here in the Western world we don’t like to take advice so much or listen to our elders and so on. We would rather plod along in the dark and figure it all out for ourselves. The problem is that doing things this way can increase the amount of pain that you experience. How many times do you have to bang your head into the same wall before you figure out that it is not helping you?
Looking back at my own journey through addiction, I had to bang my head into the same wall quite a few times. I just didn’t get it. And I thought that I was smart enough to figure out the key to my own happiness.
This is a critical point: I thought that I was the only one on the earth who was smart enough AND who cared enough about my own personal happiness.
Think about that for a moment. You want to be happy, right? Everyone would like to be happy.
And are you willing to just hand over the keys to your own happiness to someone else? No? Why not?
To me it is obvious: How would someone else really know what is going to make me happy? They don’t know me.
I can just see myself screaming this out like a bratty little child: “They don’t know me! How could they possibly know what will make me happy?”
And this was exactly the attitude that I had when I was wrestling with the problem of getting clean and sober.
I was terrified to face sobriety because I was so afraid that I would be unhappy forever.
In my mind, the only thing that could possibly make me happy in this world was getting drunk and high on drugs. That was it. This is what my addiction had reduced me to. That was my entire world. I had put on these blinders that said “The only way I can possibly be happy is if I am drunk and using drugs. Everything else is false, it is all fake, there is no real happiness outside of getting drunk and high.” That is what my addiction did to me. That was the exact mindset that it produced. And I put up these walls and I told myself that this was the truth, that this was in fact my highest truth in life, that the only way I could be happy was to be medicated.
And if someone tried to tell me different, or suggest that there was a better way, I just wanted to put my hands over my ears and scream “LA LA LA I can’t hear you!” and stomp my feet like a little child. How dare someone else suggest that I could be happy while sober? Impossible! They don’t really know me.
And on and on.
That was the world that I was trapped in during my addiction.
And so I had to get to this point where I was able to step outside of that mindset.
I had to get to this point where I could finally surrender, where I could give up the fight. The fight to be in control of my own happiness. The fight to be able to self medicate every day and be so darn sure that getting drunk and high would lead me to happiness. Because it wasn’t working any more. So I had to get to that point where I could let it all go.
And that point was a very desperate place in my life. I was miserable. I was sick and tired of everything. I was sick and tired of all of it. Of trying to get drunk and high all the time, of trying to be happy, of trying to keep enough money coming in to pay the bills and still stay medicated. I could suddenly take a step back and look at all of it and I was just horrified. Because suddenly, in my moment of surrender, I glimpsed the future and I could see that it was never going to change. It was never going to get any easier. I was always going to be chasing that next high, that next buzz, and it was always going to produce more misery after I achieved that buzz. I could finally see the never ending cycle for what it truly was.
I don’t know why I broke through my denial at that moment. I don’t know the entire process that led up to that point of surrender. I know that it was based on a whole lot of pain and misery and suffering. You don’t quit drinking when things are going well. You quit when you are miserable beyond all recognition. I was sick and tired and I suddenly realized that alcohol was not helping me any more. At all. Not even a little.
And it was at that moment that I realized I needed help. I realized that everything I had tried up to this point, everything that I had done to try to escape from my misery, all of it had been my own ideas. It was my thinking that got me to this point of misery. It was all my doing. I had to take full responsibility for my unhappiness. I couldn’t blame it on anyone else.
Actually, some of the important people in my life at that time were gone on an extended vacation. This may have helped me to finally realize that it wasn’t their fault that I was unhappy. I could no longer blame others because those people had left on vacation. I was all alone and I thought I would be so happy with my booze. But I was miserable. And that led me to finally surrender to the disease.
“My best thinking got me here.” That is a concept that every alcoholic needs to understand. You are running entirely on self-will when you are drinking or using drugs. It is all about “me, me, me.” You are doing whatever you can to make yourself happy, and at some point you have to admit that it is no longer working.
So if self will doesn’t work, what is the solution?
The solution is to get out of your own way.
The solution is to ask for help.
That is why the smartest thing that the alcoholic can do is to realize that they are actually their own worst enemy.
The smartest thing that the alcoholic can do is to ask for help, and ignore their own ideas for a while.
Instead, use someone else’s ideas instead.
This is the secret to early recovery. It is a profound truth that no one really wants to admit. The secret to getting sober is to shut up, sit down, and listen. The alcoholic has been running the show for far too long, and they are doing it badly. It is making them miserable. Their best thinking got them to the point of absolute misery and despair.
Time to listen to someone else for a change. That is the secret of surrender. Get out of your own way.
Following through on advice you are given is a smart choice as well
So then what happens in early recovery?
Say that the alcoholic has done the smart thing and they have surrendered. They ask for help. Someone suggests that they go to rehab, or to AA meetings, or to therapy, or whatever.
It doesn’t really matter what the suggestions are so long as the person is willing to listen and take action.
And not too surprisingly, this doesn’t always work out perfectly.
Many, many people get started on the path of recovery and then they screw it up. They take their will back. Their self will. They get a taste of sobriety and then they decide that they can run the show again. That they can be back in charge of their happiness again. So they take back their self will and before you know it they are flat on their back and drunk again.
So it is not enough to ask for help. It is not enough to ask for advice. It is not enough to just check into rehab.
You must follow through. This has to become a new way of life for you.
Real surrender, true surrender, is quite deep. It is not a fleeting whim that you just do for a weekend. You don’t just surrender one day and then decide to go out and party the next day. That is not how real surrender works.
When you surrender fully and completely to your addiction you give it all away. You let it all go. Your need to control things, your need to be right, your need even to be happy. You have to let go of everything all at once, and trust.
It takes trust to get sober. Blind faith. Hope. You have to have this element because there is no promise that you will be happy in the future. How do you know that you will be happy in sobriety? Nobody knows that for sure. No one can promise you that you will be happy and joyous and free in the future. I can try to convince you that this is the case, but you have to accept that promise on blind faith. You don’t really know. How could you? How could anyone? All you know for sure is that when you first started taking your drug of choice, you were happy, joyous, and free. As you continued in your addiction that freedom turned into slavery, and you became a slave to your drug of choice. And you were no longer happy or joyous in the end.
And now here is someone in recovery, promising you that if you jump through certain hoops (i.e., “work a program”) that you can get back to that feeling that you got from drugs and alcohol, only this time you will be sober. They are promising you the whole world, and there is no way that you can be sure that this will work out. You have to trust. You have to have hope, even if you don’t really believe that you will be happy again one day. You have to have some sort of blind faith.
What I am telling you is that having this bit of faith, or hope, or trust…..is the smartest thing that you can do. It is the right choice to make. To find that tiny little sliver of hope in yourself, and to hang on to it. That is the smartest thing that you can do in early recovery.
Taking advice from others in recovery and using it to test out new ideas in your life
As you progress in recovery, the wisest thing that you can do for yourself will begin to change over time.
After you are stable in recovery your needs will change. It is time to expand your horizons. Recovery is no longer about “not drinking” so much. That part is already pretty much mastered. Of course that doesn’t mean you are cured, it just means that after a year or two in recovery you have figured out how to live a somewhat normal life without getting wasted every day.
Now you have to find a path of personal growth.
There are two things that can happen to someone in alcoholism recovery. One, you can stagnant in your personal growth and eventually relapse. Or two, you can push yourself to keep moving forward and keep finding new avenues of growth, new ways to take care of yourself, new ways to become a better person.
You can guess which path is the better one to take in sobriety. Stagnation leads to relapse. Personal growth is the best form of relapse prevention. So basically you want to keep moving forward.
The question is, how can you do this?
Some of this forward momentum can come from yourself and your own ideas. But not all of it. And that is a very important distinction that you must pay attention to, or you might get tripped up later in recovery.
There is a little thing known as “complacency” in long term sobriety. If you get lazy and complacent, it might cause you to relapse.
Now here is the key:
That can’t happen if you are taking advice from other people and accepting various forms of feedback and criticism.
And therein lies another rub: No one really likes to hear criticism about themselves. No one wants to open themselves up to critique if they can help it. We would rather stay safe and sheltered and pretend that everything is just perfect.
But this is the path to personal growth. You can supply some of your own ideas, but not all of them. If you rely entirely on your own ideas in recovery then eventually it will get you into trouble. You have to have outside input, outside influence, feedback, criticism, advice. In the Narcotics Anonymous literature it says that “we are each other’s eyes and ears in recovery.” That is a profound truth that you can’t possibly understand on your first day of recovery.
It is only after living through some personal struggles, talking with peers, working on yourself and trying to improve, and taking advice from other people that you will realize just how true that statement is. There are opportunities for growth in your life right now that you cannot see.
Repeat: There are things you could do right now to improve your life that you simply cannot see for yourself. Other people can see them, but you cannot.
This is part of the human condition. We spot the flaw in others much easier than in ourselves.
So realize this. Learn from it. And use it to your advantage. It is part of how you will remain sober.
Because if you are headed for trouble with some part of your life and that may eventually lead you to relapse, then it would help you immensely if your peers pointed this out to you first. So that you can find the problem in your life and deal with it, learn from it, growth through the struggle. This is the path to long term sobriety.
There are many pitfalls in the long road to sobriety. You may avoid most of them by yourself but not all of them. For some of the challenges that lie ahead you are going to need help from other people.
This is a truth that I never wanted to accept for myself in early recovery, and before I got sober. I wanted to be told that I could sober up all by myself, without any outside help.
Not realistic. Not going to happen. We all need help in order to recover. In fact, this is what ultimately defines addiction. People who do NOT need help to recover never get labeled as an addict or alcoholic. Think about that one carefully. If there is no problem, then there is no problem……
But what will be left of me and my own self will?
I used to worry about this.
I used to worry that I would become like the hole in a donut if I were to surrender completely and follow the AA program and go to rehab.
But then I reached the point of surrender, and I no longer cared. I was so miserable and I was so sick and tired that I no longer cared about what happened in my future. I was done caring. So I was willing to risk going to rehab, and to AA, and to even live in long term treatment. I was willing to risk doing those things because I was so sick of being miserable.
And here is what I discovered:
When I got clean and sober and I moved into long term treatment, my goal was to completely surrender to everything. I was no longer in the driver’s seat, or so I told myself. I was ignoring all of my own ideas. I would only listen to my therapist and my sponsor. I would do what I was told to do. I was done trying to run my own life. I was turning it over completely.
And so I did that for a while. I lived in rehab. I went to meetings every day. I started working the steps, writing about recovery, and doing the work. I was taking suggestions and I was listening to people.
And then one day I realized something amazing. Even though I had turned my will and my life over completely, I was–in fact–still in charge.
There was still this voice in my head, or even deeper, there was a presence inside of me that watched the voice, that was still ultimately in charge. I was still in the driver’s seat, but I had tricked myself into believing that I was not. I had tricked my brain into agreeing to just go along with other people for a few months, to take their advice and not try to out-think everyone. To go with the flow and to trust in the process.
And that was when I noticed that I was happy, joyous, and free again. My addiction had been outwitted finally. I just had to get out of my own way, and listen to others and take their advice. And all along I realized that I was still in control.
So not only was I happy in sobriety now, but I also realized that I was free. I was still in control. And I was loving my life now.
How to let go and trust in the process
There is no way to force this other than to just do it. Let go. Let go of the need to be happy, the need to be right, the need to be in control.
I started this process by going to rehab. I ended up living in rehab for a long time (20 months).
And in doing that, I slowly learned that things weren’t so bad. I was happy in sobriety, I was even happy living in rehab!
The only way to trust in that process is to embrace it. Start taking advice and suggestions a little bit at a time.
What about you, have you been able to trust in the process and let others guide you in recovery? How has that worked out for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!