This is a very common problem among struggling addicts and alcoholics. Most people who are trying to get clean and sober have to try and fail at it several times before they finally “get” recovery.
Just from talking with various people in recovery in my own life, I would guess that the average number of recovery attempts is probably at least three. I am sure there are some people out there who have become clean and sober successfully after just one single try, but to be honest I don’t believe I have met any.
Instead, I have met dozens and dozens of people who had to make several attempts at recovery before it finally stuck for them.
Why are we so stubborn? Why does it take so much trial and error before we finally surrender fully to our disease?
I think part of the problem is that the experience of total surrender is very foreign to us. Most of us have never had to go through something that is so ego-crushing before, and the experience is entirely new to us. We are not familiar with the problem of having to give ourselves so completely over to a new way of life, to take direction from others, to fully “get out of our own way.” Up until this point, most of us have been firmly planted in the driver’s seat, and had no reason to take advice or guidance from others. The need for a recovery program or a serious level of surrender is actually shocking to most of us. It is a huge blow to the ego and so many people come to total surrender in a series of stages.
I know I did not surrender all at once–in fact it took me several years to do it. At first I admitted that I was an alcoholic, but this was not really good enough to create sobriety. All it was good for was a trip to rehab and then some more denial. I knew that I had a problem but I was not willing to take action in order to fix it. I did not want to take action, I was not willing to face the meetings, I was not willing to live in rehab or a halfway house. I clung to the idea that I was still in control of my own life. And yet I did not deny the fact that I was alcoholic. I knew that much was true, I realized I had a huge problem. But for several years I stayed stuck in this limbo where I was not willing to ask for help and follow through on it. I was alcoholic and I knew it but I was too scared to seek real help for it.
Have you fully surrendered to your disease yet?
Ask yourself: “Have I fully surrendered to my disease?” In other words, have you accepted on a very deep level that you are an addict or an alcoholic, and all of the consequences that come along with that? The main consequence is that things will never get any better, and that they will only get progressively worse. This is the key thing that you must accept and embrace if you struggling with addiction. The realization has to come at some point that things are never going to get any better, that no matter what you do with your drinking or drug use that it is just going to be an endless game of misery. Until you can clearly see that then you will just be chasing your own tail in addiction.
At some point you have to surrender fully. You must give up the struggle. You have to let everything slide, not just your addiction but every part of your life that you are clinging to and holding on to. Your desperate need for control is actually keeping you stuck in addiction.
Sometimes we think that we have surrendered but in fact we are kidding ourselves. When I first went to rehab I went at the request of other people (it was not my decision or wish to attend, but I went anyway). While I was in treatment I heard people talking about the concept of surrender and I wondered if I had done so. After all, I had agreed to come to rehab, even though I really wanted to keep using drugs and alcohol. So had I surrendered fully? I was not quite sure at the time.
I got news for you–if you’re not sure if you have surrendered fully or not, you HAVEN’T.
You will know, trust me, you will know when you have reached that bottom. You will know what full surrender is when you get there. The experience is not really one that you can mistake. Everything slides away from you….you let go of everything in your life. You stop caring about all of it. Suddenly nothing matters so much any more. You are not longer driven to try to be happy in every single moment by self medicating. You just let it all slide. All of your life, your relationships, your responsibilities, it all just sort of melts away. They call it the “turning point.” It is halfway between being suicidal, and between having hope for the future. When you reach the point of full surrender you may not know for sure which it is. But you will realize that it is definitely a turning point.
In this moment of full surrender you will get a glimpse at your possible future. And you will see that there is no hope if you continue to self medicate. You will finally see through your denial and realize that drugs or alcohol are never going to bring you lasting happiness. For the first time you will clearly see that and understand it. This is what happens in the moment of full surrender: you realize the futility of addiction. You project into the future and you honestly realize that it is never going to get any better (if you don’t change). And you will likely realize that if you stay on your current path that you are going to die soon. Therefore a choice will be forced: death or recovery? You will essentially make a decision to “choose life.” This is the moment of surrender.
If all of your efforts at sobriety continue to fail, then the first problem (and perhaps the only problem) is that you have not fully surrendered to your disease yet. Until you can surrender, nothing that you do is going to be effective. I went to 2 rehabs before I had fully surrendered, and therefore neither of those visits worked out well for me. I was still hanging on to my old life, still hanging on to the need to control things, still hanging on to the idea that I might be happy again while using drugs and alcohol. Before I could find a successful path I had to let go of all of that stuff.
If you continuously fail at recovery then it is likely that you need to surrender more fully, or more deeply.
But how can you do that? Read on.
Have you worked through your denial by measuring your misery accurately and honestly?
The most important thing that you can do in order to surrender more fully is to break through your denial.
Our denial says that we are just fine and able to enjoy our life just fine in spite of our alcoholism. We deny the fact that we are actually miserable because of our drinking.
So in order to get through this denial we simply have to recognize the truth for what it is. In order to do that you have to increase your awareness.
How does an alcoholic continue to punish themselves with misery for decades and decades? They do it because they have lowered their awareness, lowered their consciousness, and blocked out the fact that they are actually miserable. They keep doing it because of their denial. That is the only way that they can continue–they have to convince themselves that they are actually happy, or that happiness is only found in the bottle.
The way to see through this denial is to start measuring your happiness and your misery. If you are alcoholic then it is likely either one or the other–there is rarely any room for being in between. You are either miserable or you are ecstatic. These extremes occur because you have polarized your happiness based on your disease. If you are completely drunk then you are “happy.” If you are not in that state of mind then you are pretty much miserable. The longer you struggle with alcoholism, the less “middle ground” there is for you to be content. The middle path gets squeezed out over time. In the end you are either completely drunk or completely miserable. Have you noticed this much? Have you realized the truth in this?
It is not enough just to acknowledge the truth in what I am saying. Many alcoholics are beyond the point of caring about such things–they just want to medicate their pain away. In such cases this technique may not work so well. If you no longer care about your own happiness then I probably cannot sell you on the idea of recovery. But if you want the chaos and pain and misery of addiction to go away, then there is a reason to give recovery a chance.
In order to break through your denial you have to measure your misery. Really, how often are you happy while drinking? The answer may surprise you if you actually care to start keeping track. My suggestion to the struggling alcoholic is to start writing it down. Keep a daily journal that logs your happiness and misery. Seriously. I am not joking about this. If you write it down then the answer will be staring you in the face after a few days or weeks. The reason this works is because you are then forced to realize that the drinking really doesn’t make you any happier. It only makes you think that you are happy, or that you can get drunk whenever you want and achieve instant happiness. But the truth is that you are miserable 99 percent of the time.
You can force yourself to break through denial if you are willing to take an honest look at your true level of happiness. Why are you drinking? Why do you continue to drink? Most alcoholics will say that it is the only way that they can feel good, that they can have any amount of happiness in their life. Well, prove it to yourself. Start measuring how often you are happy. This is the most effective way to break through your denial.
Have you given yourself over to suggested solutions?
If you continuously fail in your recovery efforts then you are not following directions.
Plain and simple. You are not following directions.
There are plenty of people, counselors, therapists, and rehabs that will tell you exactly what you need to do in order to recover. If you are willing to take their suggestions and follow through on their advice then you can recover. If you choose to ignore all of this advice and wisdom then it is likely that you will stay stuck.
You can measure your success in early recovery by the extent to which you are taking direction from other people.
This can be a hard truth for many people to swallow. The problem is that their ego gets in the way, and they want to maintain control. You must let go of that control in order to achieve success in recovery. This is especially true in very early recovery efforts.
I used to be terrified of long term treatment. Just the very idea of living in rehab made my skin crawl. How could anyone voluntarily live in a treatment center, I thought. Would this not be just like volunteering to go to prison? How could anyone possibly be happy living in long term treatment? Why would they do it? It truly baffled me. But even more than that, the idea outright scared me.
Because I had not fully surrendered to my disease, I recoiled in horror at the idea of long term rehab. When I went to short term treatment the therapists suggested that I find placement in a long term facility, and the idea just outraged me. How could they be so cruel as to suggest something like this? It was like prison, or a death sentence. I refused to go. I thought it was an outrageous, stupid idea.
Most people would argue at this point that I was still in denial. I don’t think that was the case today though. There is a subtle difference here but it may be an important one. At this point in my story, I had reached a point where I had fully admitted that I was alcoholic. I knew that I was beyond all hope and repair, that I was a total mess. I really grasped that fully. I want you to understand that I did not have any illusions about this, I was not secretly thinking in the back of my mind that I might somehow be successful at drinking in the future. I really knew fully and completely that I was alcoholic.
But just because I had admitted to this fully (and therefore broke through my denial) I was not yet at the point where I was willing to take any suggestion in order to change my life. I had so much fear in me at the time and I was terrified of long term rehab. This was the solution that everyone was pushing me towards and I was too scared to accept it.
I was not giving myself over to the suggested solution. I admitted to alcoholism, but I would not embrace the solution. So I stayed stuck in my alcoholism for another year. I went back out and drank some more, got some more misery for myself. This was what I needed in order to move past that final bit of fear that was holding me back.
I worked through that last bit of fear by becoming more and more miserable in my disease. Perhaps this is squashing an even deeper level of denial. To me it seemed like I just had to become so miserable with my drinking that I no longer cared about my fear of the solution. I was afraid of long term treatment, but when I finally surrendered I was willing to attend it. In fact I even suggested it when I walked into my last detox center. I said “I know that I need long term rehab in order to recover successfully.” It was the solution that I had never been willing to accept in the past.
Now understand that your solution may be different than mine. Not every struggling alcoholic has to go to long term treatment. Maybe the solution you have rejected for so long is simply AA meetings or sponsorship. Or maybe you just need to go to a short term facility. Whatever. Something out there will help you to recover and in the past you have rejected that solution or ignored it. The solution is to embrace that solution when you finally surrender fully.
What intensity of treatment have you tried? Could you commit more fully to the path of recovery?
Treatment options for alcoholism could be arranged loosely in order of intensity.
So at the bottom of the ladder you might have something like an AA meeting. Next up you might have counseling with a therapist. Higher on the ladder you may have group therapy or outpatient treatment services. Another step up might be detox and short term residential treatment (28 day programs, etc.). Then after that you may have long term rehabs (typically 90 days and longer).
So my question to you is this:
If you have failed repeatedly in your efforts to overcome alcoholism, which of these treatment options have you tried, and could you try to move up the ladder at all? Are you willing to do so?
Most people who finally admit to their problem and agree to get help for the first time are not going to shoot all the way up this “recovery ladder” and stay in long term rehab. Most therapists and counselors would never recommend that anyway. It doesn’t make sense. Try the other solutions first. Most people are willing to try counseling or an AA meeting before they are willing to go stay at a 28 day program. This is just how we are wired as humans. We do not want to go overboard or do more than is necessary. Part of this has to do with pride. We don’t want to admit that we need a lot of help. Therefore we will try to spare our pride and use the least amount of help necessary.
I found in my own situation that nothing worked until I surrendered fully and completely. I had gone to counseling, therapy, and short term rehabs. Nothing worked for me because I had not fully surrendered. I had to finally push everything aside, let go of the need to control, and allow myself to take suggestions from other people. To really take suggestions and follow through with them. This was very difficult and it took me several years before I could get to that point of willingness.
My willingness was measured in misery. I only became willing to face my fears and take the plunge into sobriety when I had become so fed up with addiction that I no longer cared about my own happiness. Imagine that–I was so miserable that I became willing to abandon my drug of choice, even though I truly believed that this would extinguish all possibility for being happy again. I really believed that I would be miserable in sobriety, yet I was willing to try it anyway. Because I no longer cared. I had stopped caring. I was too miserable to care. And so my logic was that sobriety had to be better than what I was experiencing at the time.