What is the Secret to beating drug addiction and alcoholism?
Drug addiction and alcoholism are complicated conditions. Period.
Many people like to argue that addiction is simple. They also like to say that the solution is simple as well. People in AA meetings say “this is a simple program.” Alcoholics claim that they drank because they liked to get drunk. All of this is based on our tendency to want to simplify things; to boil down the complex issues of addiction and recovery and reassure ourselves that it is all very neat and tidy, and that we have achieved the answer to overcoming addiction. It is all wrapped up in a neat little package in our minds.
We want for it to be very simple. And for the innocent bystanders, the poor souls who are not addicted, but instead have to watch their loved ones destroy themselves with drugs and alcohol, they desperately want for there to be a simple solution to it all. We all yearn for this simplicity, in order that we might reassure ourselves. It is a natural tendency. But addiction is a complicated disease, and therefore the solution (working a program of recovery that can elicit a spiritual experience–indeed a transformation of our very personality) is going to be necessarily complicated as well.
Seven years ago I entered a long term treatment center for men. I was living with 11 other alcoholics and drug addicts, all in the same boat that I was– all beat to hell from the monster that is drug addiction and alcoholism, the cunning disease that had ravaged all of our lives.
The twelve of us lived together in a recovery house, attended AA and NA meetings, and had group therapy sessions together. I stayed in this long term recovery house for almost two years, and watched about 30 other recovering addicts pass in and out of its doors. I can count on one hand the few who are still clean and sober today. Nearly all of these men relapsed….and at least four of them are now dead. With such staggering odds against the addict, I’m blessed to be celebrating almost 7 years of continuous sobriety.
And so I couldn’t help but notice this fundamental truth as I continued to live in the long term treatment center: nearly everybody relapses.
Photo by Marc Shandro
Now I know that is an uncomfortable notion for many people, and I want to be quick to point out that there are lots of people out there who are “making it” in recovery. I am still clean and sober. My sponsor is still clean and sober. I have a few close friends in recovery who are still clean and sober. And there are plenty of others out there too. But there are people (like myself) who are in a position to see lots and lots of addicts and alcoholics attempt to get clean and sober (I work at a treatment center, for example). There are others who go to daily AA and NA meetings and see hundreds of new people entering recovery over the course of a year. If you’re ever in a position to watch thousands of addicts struggle to get clean over a period of time, you know that the odds are not great. A handful of people do stay clean and find meaningful, long-term sobriety. Unfortunately, though, the vast majority will relapse.
Have you ever wondered about the people who relapse in recovery? There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes it seems like the people who want it the most, the ones who are truly dedicated and passionate about recovery–that those are the ones who inevitably relapse! On the other hand, there are people in recovery who just seem miserable, close-minded, and unwilling to do much of anything to help themselves, and some of them actually manage to stay clean….although most of them end up relapsing as well. So how is it that so many people fail to stay clean and sober?
I saw a large number of people relapse while living in long term treatment. Some of the men I lived with seemed to want recovery more than me. They seemed to be more dedicated to recovery; more enthusiastic than I was. In addition, many of them were smarter than I was, and some of them attended more meetings than I did too. It used to amaze me that nearly every single one of them eventually relapsed, and yet–for some reason–I was blessed enough to stay clean. I say blessed because I never could see the reason why I should succeed in recovery while others were failing all around me. I became determined to figure this “recovery” thing out….to understand what I was doing that some of the others were not.
Photo by WTL Photos
I was determined to find out what the “secret” to recovery was…even though I was staying clean, I was a bit nervous and self-conscious about my own recovery. I was so scared that I would somehow screw things up and relapse myself, and this is part of what has kept me vigilant through the years. On the other hand, I wondered about people who had long term sobriety and seemed to have a high level of confidence….they were “the winners” around the tables of AA and they had self-confidence, long term sobriety, and they were usually sponsoring some newcomers. They seemed to have all the elements going of of making real progress in their recovery from addiction. I also wondered about the balance between staying humble and vigilant in your recovery, while also becoming one of the “winners in recovery.” The two things seemed to be incompatible, and yet the combination seemed to be the whole secret to long term sobriety.
There were a lot of people in recovery who were merely “talking the talk,” but there were also a lot of genuine “winners” in AA who I looked up to. These were the people who seemed to have what I was looking for. They were working a genuine recovery and had achieved a lasting sobriety. Surely, I thought, there must be a pattern among these people who had found success in recovery. The winners in AA tried to explain this pattern to me…but I was never really satisfied with the answer. “Meeting makers make it,” they would say. Or they would talk about working the steps and finding a spiritual connection with a higher power. But I saw constant evidence that these things did not ensure success in recovery. Lots of meeting makers would relapse constantly. Some of the more spiritual beings that I met could not seem to string together any meaningful clean time. And so it seemed that there was no single answer, no guiding principle, no one thing that I could wrap my mind around and say that it was the whole key to recovery.
There was a saying I heard around AA meetings that “clean time does not equal recovery.” In other words, just because you’re clean and sober from drugs and alcohol does not necessarily mean that you are emotionally “sober.” There are lots of dry drunks running around who are just plain miserable. They are not living a life based on spiritual principles, and they are certainly not very happy either. We have all seen angry people like this in recovery…they are hanging on and not drinking or using drugs, but they aren’t exactly recovering, either. And so we are left with only half a definition here: physical sobriety is a prerequisite to beating drug addiction, but there is obviously something “more” to living a happy life without chemicals. Any attempt to define that something “more” brings up a whole slew of suggestions from people in recovery:
– connection with a higher power
– a deep network with others in recovery (such as at AA or NA meetings)
– living life based on spiritual principles
– working the steps
– helping others in recovery
Consider the complexity that explodes from this issue. People who say “just don’t drink” already have their solution….they don’t need a “program of recovery.” The rest of us who have tried to “just not drink” and failed needed a better solution–and a necessarily more complex one. “Just not drinking” is the starting point of a recovery program; it is the prerequisite to a life of meaningful sobriety. But the real magic happens when you start “just not drinking” each day and then learn how to be happy and content with a life of sobriety.
Photo by Bob Jagendorf
Many will argue that “this is a simple program” when referring to twelve step programs like AA and NA. That might be true, but working a twelve step program and living a successful and happy life in recovery might not be mutually exclusive for each and every person. Even if the twelve step program is “simple,” there are many recovering addicts and alcoholics who have dual diagnosis issues, and therefore need additional help in treating their problems. This is evidenced by data that shows better rates of recovery among dual diagnosis addicts who also received mental health services along with treatment for substance abuse. Drug addiction and alcoholism are complicated conditions. Some might argue that their addiction is not complicated, and that “I drank because I wanted to get drunk!” This is, of course, is a cop-out. If your reasons for self-medicating are that simple, then the solution invariably will be as well: just don’t drink. If that doesn’t work for you, then chances are you might need an entire program of recovery.
So where is this all leading us? The secret to beating drug addiction is necessarily complex, because drug addiction is a complicated condition. Almost no expert would argue that an alcoholic or addict is simply born with a bum gene, but instead they are molded and shaped and sculpted into a life of addiction. Alcoholics and addicts aren’t born, they are made. This “making” process takes a lot of time and effort to overcome. The problem of addiction is not a problem that can be easily fixed with a single tool.
This is a lot like the “secret to making a million dollars.” Is there really a secret to it? Well, yes and no. There is no easy answer….making all that money is a lot of hard work. Period. The same is true for beating drug addiction: it’s a lot of hard work. It’s not easy. You have to be thorough and persistent and pour an awful lot of energy into it.
Overcoming an addiction is not a trivial effort. You don’t just slip and fall and accidentally stay clean and sober for ten years. It’s a lot of hard work. Does that qualify as being a secret? Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t, but one thing is for sure: it’s not a very satisfying answer. We are all looking for the quick and easy fix, that million dollar lotto ticket…..just give me a magic pill that makes my addiction go away and makes me happy and content for the rest of my life. It ain’t gonna happen.
The real secret is in your level of conviction and commitment to staying clean and sober. A program of recovery will help you deal with life once you are clean and sober. For a detailed explanation as to how I overcame my addiction, click here.
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