What is the real process of overcoming addiction?
The key in that question is the word “process.”
Everything is process. If you have no process then you are not accomplishing anything of lasting value.
Our secret hope in recovery is that it will be easy. That it will come to use without any process. We fear the idea that there will be a lot of hard work. That we will have to sweat the details. That it will be a long and difficult journey.
But this is what you are up against. You don’t recover overnight. You do not wake up one day and just walk away from decades of addiction or drinking. It takes effort. It takes action. You must engage in a process.
If recovery were an event then we would have a cure for alcoholism. Think about this carefully because it reveals an important truth. If recovery from alcoholism were NOT a process then we would simply have the disease cured. You could take a pill or go to a 28 day program and after you were done then you would never have to think about recovery again. Because you attended a specific event you would be cured forever without any chance of relapse.
Of course we know today that this idea is a fantasy. We know that it simply does not work that way. And so if recovery does not exist as a stand-alone event, then it is a process. It is an ongoing process in which you must evolve and learn and then reinvent yourself all over again.
That’s what recovery really is: Continuous reinvention of the self. You are discovering yourself again in recovery, over and over again, on deeper and deeper levels. You have probably heard the analogy of “peeling back the layers of an onion” when talking about this process of self discovery.
This is obviously not a one time gig. It has to keep happening, over and over again, so that you can keep learning and growing in recovery.
It takes willingness and it takes commitment. But more than anything you have to take action. Massive action. If nothing changes then nothing changes. And if you are seeking recovery then you have a whole lot of changes to make.
The solution is to start taking action.
The biggest stumbling block for alcoholics in early recovery
I lived in a long term rehab for the first 20 months of my recovery. After that I worked in a residential treatment center for 5 years or so. During those times I made a lot of observations about people in recovery. In particular I was studying people in early recovery who were struggling to get sober.
You can frame the problem of relapse in many different terms. For example, you can look at someone who relapsed and declare “Well, they did not want it badly enough.” Or you can look at someone who relapsed and decide “They were not willing enough.” The list of potential excuses goes on and on. We can look at the problem from many different angles.
Ultimately what I learned over time was that it all boiled down to one thing: Taking action. Making changes.
Who was willing to take action in their lives? Who was willing to make massive changes in order to overcome their alcoholism?
It turns out that not many people who go to a rehab are actually at their full bottom. They may go to treatment for many different reasons but most of them are not actually ready to embrace this massive level of change. They are not ready to take action.
And so what happens is that they are in rehab, they are hoping that some of “this good stuff” will magically rub off on them. They are hoping to get recovery through osmosis. They want the positive results of recovery but they are not willing to do the work. They want the benefits of recovery but they are not ready to commit to taking massive action. And so they wither and relapse. They falter after leaving rehab. Some of them will even leave rehab early. Their heart is not in it. They are not dedicated to sobriety.
And ultimately they do not take action. They don’t go to the meetings. They don’t follow up with aftercare. They don’t dive in and get a sponsor and talk with therapists and start working on changing their life. They don’t build new relationships with their peers in recovery.
The person who is setting themselves up for relapse in recovery is going back out into the world after rehab and they are trying to go back to their old life, just without the alcohol. This will never work in a million years. I have tried it and I have watched so many people in recovery try to do this. They want to change just one thing: their alcoholism. They are trying to quit drinking by simply focusing on quitting drinking.
That doesn’t work.
This should not be surprising. Alcoholism is cunning, baffling, and powerful, right? So of course you cannot just slide back into your old life and expect everything to work out.
I was actually angry and indignant that this was not possible. When I first tried to quit drinking I was actually resentful at people who were telling me these things. That I could not just go back to my old life but remove the alcohol. I resented this. I was mad at the idea. Because I wanted the easy way out. I did not want to have to work for it. I did not want to take massive action.
The key, of course, is to change much more than just your drinking. You have to change everything. And this is the message that people generally don’t want to hear. They don’t want to do the work. They don’t want to take massive action.
Taking action is a hassle. It takes work and effort. The results are worth it and you get to save your life. But it does take real work.
There is an idea out there called “the path of least resistance.” In that book the author describes how everyone (including animals) will generally take the path of least resistance. People are normally rational in this and they do not want to make extra work for themselves.
So think about recovery for a moment. You believe that it might be possible to quit drinking. This is subtraction. Why not just subtract the alcohol from your life? Why go to the bother of “taking massive action” or of trying to “change everything?” What is the point of all of that effort if all you really need to do is just get the alcohol out of the picture?
The answer lies in the fact that you cannot just quit. If you could then you would not be alcoholic. The real alcoholic or drug addict has a serious problem when they remove their drug of choice. They cannot live in their own skin without self medicating. And so we need a deeper solution. We need a more complicated solution.
If recovery were super simple then the solution would be: Quit drinking!
This doesn’t work for the true alcoholic. Therefore the solution is necessarily more complicated than that.
The alcoholic has to go above and beyond mere abstinence. If they simply abstain then they will find their life spinning out of control again as they go back to their drug of choice eventually.
The only way to sustain recovery is to make major changes in your life. You must change your thinking and you must change your life situation. You must change everything. It is only through these changes that you can sustain recovery. And those changes require action.
You have to take action.
How to get out of your own way and just do it
If you are struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction then there is a clear and simple path forward.
That does not mean that the path forward is easy. But it is simple.
You merely have to ask for help. Then you have to follow through. Simple? Yes. Easy? Not for most people.
If you are in a state of full and complete surrender then this step should come naturally for you. Simply ask your friends or loved ones for help and then be prepared to do what they suggest. If they send you to an AA meeting then go to the meeting and listen and take suggestions. If they send you to a rehab then go into it with an open mind and follow through on what they tell you to do. It really is fairly simple. But it may not be easy!
If you find that you are not willing to ask for help just yet then you are still in a state of denial. You have not surrendered yet. How can you move closer to surrender at this point?
The way to get closer to surrender is to focus on the misery in your life of addiction. That probably sounds like terrible advice, as almost no one would advise people to “focus on the negative,” right? But if you try to focus on the positive things when you are stuck in addiction then what you are really doing is simply justifying your addiction. When you focus on the positive you are also minimizing the negative stuff. And if you are living in addiction then there is definitely a lot of negative stuff that you are pushing to the side. This is denial. You are minimizing the bad and focusing on the good.
In order to break through denial you have to reverse that trend. You must learn to embrace the misery. You must not minimize or manipulate your mind away from the chaos and the misery of addiction. You must learn to accept and embrace the misery of your addiction. This is how you smash through denial.
Think about it this way: If you are happy in your addiction then are you really going to “change everything” and go check into rehab and put in all of this effort to rebuild your life? Would you really do all of that if you were happy?
Of course not! It’s too much darn work. Remember the “path of least resistance.” We are not about to go giving ourselves extra work and hassle in life for no good reason. There has to be a good reason. A really good reason. And this is why denial keeps the alcoholic sick for so long. Because they are in denial about their misery. They deny the negative stuff in their life. They try to minimize the consequences of their drinking. They focus on the good times instead.
If you want to take action and recover then you need to move past your denial. You must reach the point where you can honestly assess your level of happiness. If you are truly happy with your drinking then it would be foolish and stupid to change. But the true alcoholic is never really happy with their situation. Their life is miserable and getting worse all the time. This follows naturally as a result of heavy drinking. It stops working over time and you are left with pain and misery. This is how alcoholism progresses. It is a disease of misery. So your job as a struggling alcoholic is to get real and accept that misery. See it for what it really is. Realize that it is never going to get any better. Reach that point of total despair.
Because it is out of that point of total despair that you can finally start to heal. That is “the turning point.” It is a not a happy moment. Instead you are filled with total and complete misery and you realize that you want to change.
This is how to “get out of your own way.” You must first get honest with yourself about your lack of happiness in your drinking. You have to realize that alcohol is never going to make you happy in the long run. Start measuring. Start getting honest with yourself. How happy are you really? How long are you happy each day while you are drinking? While you are not drinking? Is it still fun? Is it still a party like it used to be? This is how to break through denial. Focus on the misery. Accept your lack of happiness.
Why I failed to get sober for years and years
The reason that I failed to get sober was a lack of action.
I was still in denial and I had not yet reached “full surrender” and so I was not willing to take massive action.
At two different points during this journey I went to rehab before I was ready to change.
I thought that I might be ready. But I wasn’t. I went for the wrong reasons. I was not desperate to change my life.
As a result I relapsed after leaving those treatment centers. I was in and out of counseling and I was not ready to follow suggestions that the therapists made for me.
I was stuck in addiction and people were telling me what the solution was but I was not willing to embrace that solution. I was not willing to take action.
This finally changed when I got miserable enough and I could no longer blame others for my unhappiness. I was alone and miserable and I could not seem to drink enough or use enough drugs in order to get happy. So I finally reached that point of desperation. I was unhappy and I could not make it stop. I realized that my addiction was making me miserable and that it was not anyone else’s fault but my own. This was my own turning point. I was completely miserable.
So at this point I asked for help and I have not had to take a drink or use any drugs since that moment. The solution was to take action. I asked for help and they found a rehab for me to go to. I went through detox and then they told me to go to long term rehab. So I went there as well and lived there for a long time. My life got better and better because I was following directions.
It is a blow to the ego at first to do this. My trick was to simply set my ego off to the side. I would say “OK, I am really still in charge of my life here, but I am going to step to the side and let other people tell me how to live for a while, even though I will still be in control.” So I did that and started taking advice and direction from other people. Every time that I was going to make a decision for myself I would pause and seek counsel first. It did not really matter who I asked for advice, so long as I was looking for help outside of myself. This is the trick to “getting out of your own way.”
The alternative to this is to rely only on your own ideas in early recovery. This never works, from what I have observed. The reason it never works is because of “self sabotage.” The alcoholic has that little devil sitting on his shoulder that makes him want to drink. The only way to shut the thing up is to take advice and listen to others instead.
You don’t have to do this forever. You just have to do it for a few months in early recovery. After that you will develop a sense of what is a healthy thing to do in recovery and what could jeopardize your sobriety. But in early recovery you do not have that discernment yet. You must rely on the guidance and advice of other people to help guide you.
If you don’t believe this then just try to get sober on your own a few times. By definition, the true alcoholic will not be able to do this and they will continuously relapse when left to their own devices. The only way to move past this is to ask for help and then follow advice. You cannot keep your ego intact and get sober at the same time. The ego is too strong and will always lead you back to drinking. The solution is to push the ego aside and ignore it for a while. The way to do that is to take advice from other people instead of taking your own advice.
How positive action accumulates in long term sobriety
The thing that is difficult to describe to the newcomer in recovery is how exactly it “gets greater later.” You can tell them that it gets better and better but they don’t really have an appreciation for just how awesome recovery is.
Positive benefits in recovery are cumulative. So you don’t just experience nice things. You build a better and better life. It just keeps getting better! This is because you are no longer sabotaging your own efforts or tearing your life down due to alcoholism.
You take action and you make progress. Then you get to keep that progress. You get to build on that progress. All of the benefits of recovery stay intact as you move along your journey. You keep building and building a better life for yourself.
In addiction things just keep getting worse and worse. The disease is progressive. It always gets worse. It is a downward spiral.
Recovery is the same way. This is the gift and the joy that is difficult to describe to the newcomer. Things just keep getting better and better.
Of course it still takes work. Action is required. But that is a small price to pay for the benefits that you receive along the journey.
And think about it this way:
Even if you choose to go back to drinking, you have to take action anyway. It is a hassle to stay drunk as well. The only difference is: “What are you accumulating?”
If you drink then you accumulate misery and chaos. Things get worse and worse.
In recovery you accumulate positive experiences. Things get better and better.
The only problem is that there is a delay in recovery. During very early recovery it is often difficult to see that things are getting better. You are too close to the problem and you cannot often see your own progress. Only over time can you look back and realize just how far you have come, and how much better your life is in sobriety.