When I first got into addiction and recovery I was shocked to find that there were many people attending AA meetings with me who were chronic relapsers.
These people would get a few weeks or months sober and then they would relapse. Over and over again.
I had to wonder if that was a fate that might be in store for me. I was honestly worried about it.
Luckily, I haven’t gone through that particular pattern myself, and I have stayed clean and sober once I finally “got it” over 13 years ago. I am very grateful that I have not had to be on that particular roller coaster.
Also during this time of my sobriety I worked in a treatment facility for many years. While doing that I had the ability to watch others try to get sober too. Based on my own experiences, and also that of watching others, here is what I have learned about chronic relapse.
If you have a problem with chronic relapse then you need to focus your efforts on the process of surrender
Anyone who continues to relapse over and over again has failed to surrender.
Period. The issue is that of surrender.
For the sake of our discussion here, there are two kinds of surrender. Partial, and full.
Full surrender is obvious once you achieve it. You will know it for sure when you arrive at the point of full surrender. Because that is the point where you completely abandon the self and ask for help. You hold nothing back. You become willing to do just about anything to escape the misery you are in.
When you reach full surrender, you ask for help, and then you listen. You do not try to manipulate. You are done with that. You are done trying to control the situation. Instead, you realize that you are beyond control, that your way has failed you, that if you try to do things yourself you will only make yourself unhappy. This is total and complete surrender. You become willing to do it another way. You become willing to take direction from others.
Partial surrender is when you wish that things were different. Partial surrender happens when you wish that you could control your drinking a bit better while still being able to enjoy. Wouldn’t that be nice, if you could just drink a little bit less, but still enjoy the buzz? If that is how you are thinking then you are likely in a state of only partial surrender. You are, in effect, partially surrendering to the idea of abstinence. But not fully.
No, to embrace complete and total abstinence is just too much. It is like jumping off a cliff. It is too severe, too scary, to imagine a life without any alcohol in it at all.
But this is what you must do in order to surrender completely.
If you relapse over and over again then it is because you did not surrender fully and completely.
If you had, then you would not have relapsed. Simple as that.
People who get sober and then relapse had a reservation of some sort. They were holding back in some way, they were reserving the right to drink if certain things happened in a certain way. This is partial surrender. If you have a reservation of some kind when you get sober then it just means that you are reserving the right to drink in the future. You are saying to yourself “I won’t drink alcohol so long as everything goes perfectly for me, but if there is trouble in my future, then I give myself permission to drink again.”
Obviously this is not going to work well. If you have a reservation when you sober up then it is only a matter of time until you drink again. The random nature of life insures that you will find the excuse that you need in order to sabotage your sobriety.
So how do you focus on surrender? How do you make this leap from partial surrender to full and complete surrender?
The answer has to do with denial.
Breaking through the last bit of your denial and getting serious about recovery
If you are still struggling with your addiction then, by definition, you are in denial.
I never used to understand this when I was still drinking. I really didn’t. I thought that denial meant that you denied that you were alcoholic. I thought it just meant that you denied the problem existed.
That is not really what alcoholic denial is all about.
Of course that is one level of denial, when you deny that there is any sort of problem.
Or maybe you realize that there is a drinking problem, but you rationalize it and make excuses for it: “If you had my life then you would drink too.” Still a form of denial.
But really what denial is about when it comes to addiction has to do with solutions.
When you are in denial about alcoholism, it is not the problem that it is important. That’s the obvious part.
No, the thing that you must get past in terms of denial is the solution. Like going to rehab, going to AA, getting professional help for your problem.
Are you in denial of that? Are you denying that those things might work for you?
I can remember arguing with a family that genuinely cared about me, telling them that treatment would not work for me, and here is why.
I can remember arguing and telling people that AA would never work for me, and here is why.
I can remember arguing and telling people that I would never be happy if I gave up alcohol, and here is why.
So at those times, I wasn’t really in denial about the problem. I knew that I had a problem. I did not deny my alcoholism.
And yet, I was still in denial.
I was in denial about the solution. I was in denial about the fact that I might get help. That I might be able to become happy again if I were sober.
I denied all of those positive solutions. I denied AA and treatment. I denied anything that threatened to help me or take my alcohol away.
That was my real denial. That was the denial that was keeping me sick.
So that brings us back to the original question:
“How do you surrender?”
The way you surrender is to get through the last bit of your denial. You have to let all of it go. Everything.
What does that mean, to let it all go?
It means that you let go of the need to control things, and you instead ask for help.
Let that sink in slowly for a moment. What you need to do is to let go of all need to control the situation. Let go of it completely. Whatever happens, happens. You are not going to worry about what happens to you, you are not going to worry about how happy you are, you are not going to worry about if you are medicated enough. Let go of everything. Can you do that?
Can you truly let go of everything? Let it all slide, and just walk into the future without any fear at all? Can you do that?
If you can do that, then the solution becomes very simple. Ask for help.
Let go completely, and then ask for help.
That is what it all comes down to in recovery. When you let go in this way, you become willing to take on a new solution in your life.
So you ask for help and they direct you to AA, they direct you to rehab, they direct you to professional help for your drinking problem. In fact, the details at this point don’t even matter that much. What is important is the depth of your surrender and your willingness to embrace a new solution. To embrace a new way of life.
This is how you surrender. You let go completely, then you ask for help and take on a new direction.
Recovery can be very simple. Someone tells you what to do, and you do it. You follow directions. And if you do that for a long time then your life will get better and better. This is because your own ideas get you into trouble, and if you follow someone else’s ideas, you won’t get into trouble that much. And your life will get better. And you will become happier.
That may sound overly simplistic. I promise you that it is simple, but it is not necessarily easy. Because no one really likes to follow orders. No one really wants to become that humble. We would all prefer to keep our pride intact, and think that we are in control, and that we are able to produce our own happiness in life.
But surrender is not like that. Surrender is when you say: “I give up. I don’t know how to be happy any more. Please show me how to live.”
And then when someone tells you how to live, you listen. You listen and you obey. And your life gets better and better.
It really is that simple. Surrender is the key.
How to take massive action
Addiction recovery is fairly simple. You sober up, you go through detox, and then you are suddenly back out in the real world, with all of its temptations.
Now you just have to stay sober. Prevent relapse. Maintain.
How do you do that?
You prevent relapse by taking massive action.
So what exactly does that mean, taking massive action? Let’s define our terms.
When we talk about massive action, we are talking about going to 7 AA meetings each week rather than 2 or 3.
Massive action is going to long term rehab and living there for a year instead of doing a 28 day program.
Massive action is getting a sponsor in AA and actually using them on a regular basis and working through steps in a very active way with that person.
Massive action means that you dive into recovery head first and you dedicate your life to the program. Whatever program, it doesn’t matter. It is the willingness and the commitment that matter, not the specific program. There is no magic in any recovery program. But there is magic in dedicating your life to any of those programs. It is all in the footwork. Do the work and you remain sober. Slack off and you relapse.
This is what you must learn when we speak of massive action. It also implies the idea of consistent action. If you slack off in recovery then you run the risk of relapse. If you stop doing the work then you might end up drunk again.
People who relapse failed to take massive action. They failed to take consistent action.
I worked in a rehab for over five years. People would leave treatment and then come back a few months later. Or a few years later. And they would always say the same things to me.
First of all, they felt guilty that they were back in treatment. Because of this, they felt the need to explain themselves, to explain why they relapsed. And how it happened.
In every case, you could tell that they had failed to take truly massive action. They were not consistent. They may have started out with every intention of going to AA meetings, or of going to therapy, but they fell by the wayside. Their efforts petered out. They did not follow through with massive action, and as a result they relapsed.
In order to remain clean and sober you have to follow through. Consistent, positive action. Each and every day.
You must commit to it fully. Then it becomes a habit. Then those habits become a lifestyle.
If your lifestyle is based on positive action and personal growth, this helps to insure that you remain sober.
You are either moving forward or you are sliding back towards relapse. There is no middle ground. Relapse or recovery.
You get to choose.
Every single day of your life, you are making a choice. You are either working on recovery, or you are working on relapse.
This is true on the day that you get out of rehab. It is also true a year later. It is also true ten years later.
You are always facing the same basic choice in your recovery journey: Positive action, or do nothing. Personal growth or complacency.
If you boil it down all the way then it becomes the simple dichotomy between life and death. Recovery is life, relapse is death. Working on recovery extends and enhances your life, sliding back towards relapse brings you closer to death.
Disruption, learning, support
So let’s say you keep relapsing, and you want to break out of your pattern.
What do you do?
First of all, focus on your denial, focus on surrender. Think about this every day. Get honest with yourself about how happy you are, about how happy your drug of choice makes you. If you push yourself to get honest about your happiness then this will move you closer to surrender. Hint: The goal is to wake your brain up to the fact that you are actually miserable. Once you realize how miserable you are all the time, you will hopefully want to take action and change your life.
After you break through denial and surrender, the plan should look like this:
Those are the fundamentals of sobriety. I don’t care what recovery program you choose to endorse. I don’t think it matters in the end. They all work, if you work them.
So let’s take a closer look.
Disruption is treatment. Go to rehab, disrupt your pattern of abuse. Simple.
Get on the phone and call up a treatment center. Ask them if you can come there, if you qualify, if your insurance covers it, and so on. Or maybe you don’t have insurance. Call them up anyway, ask them questions. Maybe they know someone who can fund you, who can help you, a different place to go, and so on. Get on the phone and start asking questions. Get yourself to rehab, to detox. This is step one. Disrupt your addiction.
Two, you need to learn how to live a sober life. This takes a lifetime. But in reality you need a quick crash course in how to do it. I lived in long term rehab. You might go to AA and get a sponsor. You might get a therapist. You might find some other recovery program and learn a bunch while you are there. And so on.
You need new information in order to recover. You can’t do it with your own self knowledge. That is evident by the state of your addiction. You don’t have all the answers. Therefore you must learn new things in order to change your life. Early recovery is definitely about learning. Soak up everything you can. Get a sponsor, go to rehab, go to AA, find a program, find a therapist, do whatever you can to learn how to recover.
Support. You need support to stay sober. You need people who can help you. You need people who you can identify with, people who are alcoholics just like you. You can find these people in AA, or you can find support in other ways too. But if you are all alone in early recovery without any sort of support, that is not good. Find the support that you need.
Growth. As in, personal growth. You need to push yourself to improve your life and your life situation. Again, this is a lifelong process. If you stop doing this part then you might relapse. This is the biggest part of relapse prevention, in my experience. If you push yourself to improve your life then this will protect you from the threat of relapse. Anyone who keeps relapsing over and over has definitely not mastered this principle of personal growth. We want to make continuous self improvement in our lives so that we feel good about ourselves. It is the resulting boost in self esteem that helps us to value our own sobriety more and more.
A strong plan for relapse prevention
Everyone who is trapped in a pattern of relapse has, in a sense, been around the block a few times. Meaning that they know the game, they have been to rehab, they have tried to sober up several times, and yet they continue to fail. They are not new to recovery and they are not new to treatment and professional help.
The problem is that they have never taken that help seriously enough in the past.
I repeat: The chronic relapser has never given treatment the fair effort that it deserves. If they had, they would be sober. But they continue to relapse, so therefore their effort is lacking.
The solution is simple: They must dive into recovery head first, and commit to it with more willingness than they have ever had in the past.
They have tried to sober up before. They did not try hard enough.
If you are struggling with addiction then you might argue with this idea. You might argue that you have tried as hard as you can, and it still wasn’t enough.
And I call BS to that. Because I was in that same position at one time. I had been to rehab twice before. I had gone through a 28 day program. I was making every excuse in the book as to why I could not remain clean and sober. And yet the solution for me was very simple: Suck it up and go to rehab, and be serious about it this time. Surrender fully, give up, let go completely, and listen to what they tell me to do.
If you want to prevent relapse then you need to do something different.
You have tried in the past, and whatever you did was not good enough. You must try harder.
Surrender more deeply. Abandon your self completely. Give your life over to a program. Let go entirely. Let people tell you what to do, and then actually do it. Follow through.
Do the work. Commit to yourself that you will listen, that you will do the work, that you will let go of the need to control and you will see where it all takes you.
What about you, have you managed to avoid chronic relapse? What is your secret of success? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!