There is a very pervasive myth in addiction recovery, and that is the idea that recovery is simple.
If you go to plenty of AA or NA meetings you can hear this myth pop up from time to time.
It sounds correct, so nobody ever challenges it.
Someone will be speaking at an AA meeting, and they will say something like:
“You see, it’s real simple. You just have to surrender. That’s all it is. Once you surrender, everything falls into place, and you come to these meetings and you work these steps and your life gets better and you don’t drink. But don’t complicate it, people! Because this is a simple program for simple people, and we alcoholics like to complicate everything, but in reality it is a very simple program.”
Or they might say something like:
“AA is real simple. All you have to do is find a higher power, and the rest takes care of itself. Alcoholics like to complicate this process, and we like to create drama and we like to try to convince ourselves that things are complicated, but in reality it is a very simple program. Anyone can get sober if they just follow this program. It is a dead simple program and it is laid out in plain steps and anyone can follow it if they just stop complicating everything and just do the work.”
So people try to claim that the program is simple.
They do this over and over again in the meetings. And I never heard anyone challenge this idea, because it “sounds correct.”
But in my experience, I have found that recovery is probably not best labeled as being “simple.”
What these people are doing is they are focusing on one aspect of their recovery, and then equating that with the idea of “simplicity.”
And they tend to do this with something that sort of unlocked the whole process for them. So one person who finally surrendered to the disease of addiction after years of denial, they might frame everything in terms of surrender. “I finally surrendered and then everything fell into place, so the program is simple and it is all about surrender and if you want to recover then this is what you need to focus on too.”
Someone else might struggle for years with the higher power concept, and just not “get it” and continue to self medicate. Then one day they “see the light” and they are able to stay clean and sober after finding their higher power, and so they decide that the program is really simple and all you have to do is to find your higher power. So they go around preaching about how simple it is and how the only thing that people have to do is focus on finding their higher power. The rest will take care of itself, they believe (because this is how it finally worked out for them).
In no case did I ever find someone in an AA or NA meeting who really seemed to drive at the truth, and come up with an accurate portrayal of how recovery is complex, varied, and may be “unlocked” by different people in various ways. But this is what I believe the truth to be after sitting in literally thousands of 12 step meetings and working in a treatment center full time for over five years.
The recovery process is not “simple” by any means.
The reason it is not simple is because the point of focus keeps changing over time. You cannot just “set and forget” your recovery. In fact, no one can just suddenly decide to get clean and sober and insure their success anyway; just breaking through to successful long term sobriety is a complex process that must be “unlocked” by the individual in a way that ultimately works for them.
Think about how limited our experience really is when we look at our own journey and recovery. We may have “unlocked” the process of surrender, asking for help, and living a life of personal growth in long term recovery, but is it realistic to believe that all people who find success in recovery have followed our exact path?
The overall concepts that lead up to a successful recovery may be the same for everyone, but after this the details of how we achieve surrender, how we break through denial, how we mentally arrange our policy for total abstinence in our minds–these details and how we achieve those things is going to vary greatly from person to person.
Even though we all WANT for recovery to be simple, it’s not.
Successful recovery is complex for another reason too. Not only does each individual arrive at these processes in various ways, but the processes of recovery itself are numerous.
If recovery ended with the concept of surrender, things would actually be pretty simple.
But many people surrender fully to their disease, then end up relapsing at a later point based on some problem that they experience in their recovery. Just because they surrendered does not insure success. There are other challenges to overcome in recovery.
For example, take the example of a person who has been clean and sober for over twenty years in their recovery. They get complacent in their recovery and they end up relapsing, even though they had over twenty years of continuous sobriety.
Could we really say that this person did not surrender? Or that they did not surrender fully? This is not a fair statement. Twenty years is a long time, and the person surely had a full surrender twenty years ago in order to find their way through early recovery.
In other words, the problem was not simple. It was not a lack of surrender. This person mastered the concept of surrender and they did it well enough that they were able to stay clean and sober for twenty years.
But something still tripped them up. Why? Because recovery is complicated. It is NOT simple. And so they had to change, they had to evolve, and they had to keep pushing themselves to make growth in their recovery if they wanted to stay clean and sober forever. And they failed to do that at some point.
You see, in order to be successful in recovery we have to change, but then we have to keep changing. It is more than just a one time event where we stop drinking and then get on with our life as normal.
Instead, recovery changes you forever, and if you want to maintain sobriety then you have to keep evolving, you have to keep growing as a person. This is not simple.
In order to be successful in long term recovery you are going to have to shift your focus from time to time.
Just consider the person who has been sober for less than a week and is currently in rehab. Now consider someone who has been sober for over twenty years. Are these two people doing well to focus on exactly the same things in their recovery?
Of course not. The people in AA meetings who say that everything is simple might try to argue that they actually should focus on the same things. I think this is ridiculous. Admit that recovery is complex and that it evolves over time. Admit that the process is one that creates an evolution for us as individuals and that we go through several processes as we remain sober. Admit that getting through week one of sobriety and being overwhelmed with early recovery is completely different than being twenty years sober and facing the subtle but deadly threat of complacency.
And most importantly, admit that the solution is different and unique depending on your situation in recovery. Stop saying that everything is so simple. It’s not. Just admit that we might have to think, we might have to be flexible, and we might have to adapt and change and explore new processes in our recovery journey if we are to remain strong and sober for the duration.
First point of focus: surrender and breaking through denial
As I said many people in AA and NA meetings will talk about what “unlocked” their early recovery for them. They usually do not use the term “unlocked” though. Instead, they might talk about “the turning point” because this is one of the phrases in AA literature.
But it is important to realize that everyone who winds up successful in long term sobriety once stood at this turning point. They were nearing the point of surrender and they felt like they were going crazy because they could not imagine their life without alcohol, and they also could not imagine the idea that they would continue to drink and invite more chaos and misery into their life either. They felt stuck and hopeless and scared because they could not see themselves continuing on either path–more drinking or sobriety.
So at this turning point something happens inside of them and they make a decision to surrender. No one knows this exact process or how to precipitate it at will and if they did then we would have a cure for addiction and alcoholism. The fact is that many people who stand at this turning point simply decide to go back to the chaos and the self medicating instead. The other half of us suddenly break through our denial, realize that if we continue to drink it is never going to get any better, and so we make the decision to ask for help and try to change our life.
Sometimes this point is reached after a significant event, such as when an alcoholic is sitting in jail (again) after being arrested for drunk driving. But other times this moment can be reached without any precipitating event involved. Sometimes people just surrender, and decide that “enough is enough.” If it were simple, we could surely pin this down and duplicate it at will, but we cannot. It is nearly impossible to figure out when a person will finally surrender to their disease.
So if you are an alcoholic who aspires to get sober, your first point of focus is to simply break through your denial. Nearly every alcoholic at some point wishes that things were different, and they wish that they were living a nice life of sobriety where they were happy without having to drink all the time. However, this wishing is very different from actually taking action and quitting drinking and asking for help. In fact, there may be a very large gap between the time that an alcoholic wishes that things were different and the time that they actually surrender fully and honestly try to quit drinking. They may continue to drink and to self medicate for years or even decades while they continue to wish that things were different.
This is why your first important point of focus on your journey is in breaking through denial. Once you successfully break through your denial you will be at the point of surrender and then you can stop drinking and ask for help from others about how to live a new life.
The process of breaking through your denial will involve a realization.
You will need to realize that your drinking causes your misery. You will need to realize that it is never going to get any better.
You need to realize that drinking is fun for you about one percent of the time. The other 99 percent of the time your drinking just makes you miserable, and you are constantly chasing the one percent of the time that is forever elusive.
Maybe once a week or a once a month you arrive at this “happy” place with your drinking, and you are pleasantly buzzed and feeling good and everything is right in the world. You must realize that you only achieve this state of happiness about one percent of the time.
You must realize that the rest of the time you are just clinging to the memory of when you had that perfect buzz, and that you are under the false assumption that if you just drink enough booze in the right quantity that you can recreate that perfect buzz whenever you want. You must realize that this is a fantasy now, that you are alcoholic and that achieving that “happy buzz” is exceedingly rare these days.
You must realize that the fun times are over with your drinking. You must remember how it was fun in the beginning, and how it was fun nearly all the time when you first discovered alcohol, but that things have changed. You must realize that you can never go back to when it was fun all of the time. Now your drinking is only fun about 1 percent of the time. You can never go back to the good old days, when you could get drunk and have fun every single time you drank. You must accept this fact fully and realize that it will never be fun again.
This is your first point of focus in your journey to sobriety. You must break through your denial by realizing that drinking makes you miserable, and that it is not fun any more, and never will be again. You must realize that drinking is no longer worth it, and no longer serves you.
Second point of focus: disruption and breaking free from the cycle
My second point of focus was to ask for help and take action. For me, this meant that I had to seriously disrupt my old life in recovery.
What this meant for me was that I had to break free from my old life and my old patterns of drinking.
I had a job where I drank all the time.
I had friends and drinking buddies that were no good for me.
I had to walk away from all of this and find something new in my life.
Because I was fairly young when this happened I chose to go live in long term rehab. This was enough disruption from my old life that I was able to break free fully from my old patterns.
For you, it may not require long term rehab. Maybe you can get away with less disruption. Perhaps just attending meetings each day or going to short term rehab will be enough of a disruption to get you started on the right path.
But for me this was a major point of focus in my journey. I went to short term rehab twice but it was never a big enough disruption for me to really break free from my old life.
Third point of focus: getting your commitment straight in your head (zero tolerance policy)
I realized in early recovery that most people relapsed. They all talked about what was important in their recovery and what they needed to focus on but most of them ended up relapsing.
Because of this, I realized that I needed to get clear in my own mind what was truly important to me.
I did not want to relapse.
So this became my greatest objective and my primary area of focus.
I needed to get it mentally straight in my own mind that NOT taking a drink or a drug was the most important thing in my life.
So what I did was to create a mental construct for myself. I called it my “zero tolerance policy.”
The idea was simple. I made an agreement with myself that I would not take a drink or a drug, no matter what.
This had a very powerful psychological benefit:
When I would notice that I was romanticizing the idea of taking a drink or a drug, I immediately shut these thoughts down. I did not allow myself to indulge in the idea of getting drunk or high.
This required an increase in awareness. I had to pay attention to when I was romanticizing my addiction. I had to focus on my zero tolerance policy and stay vigilant in fighting off my cravings.
The reason that this was important is not because my romanticizing of being drunk was leading to an immediate relapse. Instead, I simply noticed that when I indulged in the fantasy of getting drunk or high, it made me miserable.
Therefore, my “zero tolerance policy” included the idea that I had to shut down these fantasies of getting drunk or high. I could not afford to think about them even briefly, or it would make me miserable.
Fourth point of focus: Sticking to a path of holistic growth and personal development
We recently examined how fear can keep people stuck in their recovery and hold them back from making personal growth. In fact, fear of change can even lead to an eventual relapse in long term sobriety, even if a person seems relatively stable in their recovery.
This happens due to complacency. As mentioned previously, it is still possible for someone who has achieved several decades of successful sobriety to relapse. The reason this happens after such a long time period is almost certainly due to complacency.
This brings us to another point of focus.
If you are in long term sobriety, you should focus on overcoming complacency.
The idea here is simple:
You must challenge yourself to keep growing in your recovery so that you do not get lazy and end up relapsing as a result of this.
People who get too comfortable and stop pushing themselves to grow in recovery end up becoming complacent. You have to keep pushing yourself to discover new challenges and to achieve new things in your recovery.
My method for doing this has always been to consider holistic health. Look for areas in your life that you can improve your health, and treat these opportunities as a potential growth experience. Push yourself to become healthier in recovery.
What you focus on in recovery will necessarily change over time. This is not simple or easy in most cases. Nevertheless it is still possible to achieve long term sobriety if you are willing to commit to the goal of total abstinence and be willing to work hard for it and make changes in your life.