How to Explain the Recovery Process to a Struggling Addict

How to Explain the Recovery Process to a Struggling Addict


Yesterday we looked at some of the shortcuts (or necessary concepts!) to simplify things and overcome an addiction. Today we are going to try to explain the recovery process as if telling it to the struggling addict or alcoholic. What to expect, in other words.

Part of the reason I believe this is important is not just so the addict or alcoholic can know what a possible path to recovery might be, but also because they are simply scared. No one wants to admit to this of course (and they probably won’t, at least not out loud to other people) but recovery is downright scary. The reason it is so scary is because our drug of choice has been medicating many things in our addiction, but one thing that it consistently medicates is FEAR. Every fear and anxiety that we had during out addiction was at least partially clouded over when we used our drug of choice. This happened even if we were not trying to medicate our fear to begin with–our drug of choice just naturally suppressed all of our emotions (with fear being one of them).

People need to know that recovery is not this big huge scary monster, that detox is actually pretty easy, and that learning to live a new way of life in recovery is actually fun and exciting (once you get past the hard part!). That is what this article is about–showing you that there is nothing horrible or truly scary about the recovery process, and therefore the only thing that is really holding you back is fear itself. As someone once said (I’m paraphrasing a bit here): “Fear is a wall that is miles high and millions of miles long. You must walk through it.” This applies very well to early recovery. It is a scary process for nearly anyone but if you just dive into it (walk through it) then it gets non-scary pretty quickly.

What true surrender might feel like for you

Surrender for most people is not this glorious moment. Instead it feels like a moment of defeat. You may be full of despair and have very little hope when you finally arrive at the moment of true surrender.

What this will be is a decision to stop struggling. It will be a decision to stop fighting. Fighting for control, fighting to get more of your drug of choice every day, fighting to control your life and keep up the ridiculous appearance that you are halfway normal while also living this secret life of addiction. You will let all of that go. All of a sudden, you just turn it all over, and let it all slide.

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This is not necessarily a religiously inspired moment for everyone (though it may be processed as that for some). Rather, true surrender is about killing your ego, at least temporarily. When you finally reach that moment of true surrender, your ego will not be in the driver’s seat. It will be knocked down for once and badly wounded, allowing the real “you” to listen to reason for once, allowing the real you to become open to suggestions from other people. This is what real surrender feels like–you let go of the ego finally and allow yourself to really listen to other people, take some suggestions, and so on.

When we are stuck in our addiction we are typically not trusting others. The reason we do not trust them is because the people who care about us “want to take our drug of choice away from us.” Of course they want this; they want to see us get help and live a better life. But we see it as a threat because our denial tells us that self medicating every day is the only way we could possibly be happy. Surrender is the moment when we give up this struggle and allow ourselves to really hear the suggestions. Surrender is the moment when we stop caring so much about our own “happiness”–which we can not really achieve any more anyway, and become willing to try something different.

This will feel almost like a form of death. Your ego is dying. You killed it, at least for the moment. Generally the reason your ego finally shuts up for a while is because you have finally realized how miserable it is making you. This is the breaking through of your denial that is so important. This is also why the process of true surrender is typically not very joyous, but rather it is somewhat depressing in a way. You realize that your old way of living is dead because it can not produce happiness for you.

The moment of surrender is also a glimpse into the future. What you will see is futility–that is, you will see that addiction leads you to never-ending struggle, and that it will never really make you happy. You will finally see that all of the effort that you put into getting drunk or high is really wasted, that you are almost never happy any more, and probably never will be again (if you continue to depend on “peak experiences” from getting wasted). You will finally see the futility in trying to get totally blasted on drugs or booze every day, how it is not sustainable, how it will never make you happy in the long run.

You will finally realize that most of the time when you are trying to get wasted, you really are frustrated and miserable. That those “peak experiences” only last for a brief moment, and then you are back to weeks or months of misery, chasing that next peak experience where it is all suddenly fun again (like it was in the old days!).

Your moment of surrender will also contain relief. Do not confuse this with joy. The joy will come later, but for now, the only positive thing you will feel during surrender is relief. I was miserable and depressed and I was so crushed with negative feelings when I finally surrendered, but I also had this slight smile on my face because I suddenly realized that I was done chasing drugs and alcohol. This was my moment of relief. And the reason I smiled is because I realized I could not tell anyone, because they would not believe me or care (they had heard it all before, that I was done using this time for good, etc.) and so I smiled at myself because I knew that I could not share this relief with my friends and family. They would not believe me. What had changed? Nothing that they could see. But inside my ego had just died, and I knew that I would ask for help, and follow direction, and do what others told me to do in order to find recovery.

So surrender is a mixed emotion. You have finally pushed your ego aside, but you did it because you were so incredibly miserable from addiction. And you will feel some relief, knowing that you are done with all of the chaos and struggling of addiction. There will also be some fear about what you will face in recovery. But that fear is no longer holding you back, because you decided that it was better to face that fear than it was to keep dealing with the misery of addiction. This is true surrender. This is where your journey in recovery begins.

Asking for help

Your next step is to simply ask for help, and then follow through on what you are told to do.

If there is any hesitation in this idea then you are probably not truly at the point of surrender yet. People who have fully surrendered to their addiction should have no problem asking for help (and then accepting that help).

It is probably not worth getting all worked up over specifics. Sure, there are some different paths that you might take in recovery. Maybe you ask one person for help and they send you to an AA meeting, and you ask someone else for help and they send you to rehab. So if you want to, you could get all bent out of shape about finding the perfect path in recovery, and get all worried that you need to ask just the right people and get just the right advice and so on.

This is not how it works at all. Just stop all that worrying. You are obviously not surrendered yet!

When you truly surrender to your disease, you will ask for help, and you will be so beaten down in your addiction that you will be willing to act on whatever advice you are given. If you are in a state of full surrender then you will not question the advice and get all worked up over the details. When you let go, you must let go of EVERYTHING. That means that you stop struggling for control. Period. Just let it all go.

All paths in recovery tend to lead in the same basic direction. The first two times that I went to rehab, I did not fail because they were the wrong treatment center for me. I failed because I was not ready to stop using drugs and alcohol. I had not fully surrendered.

In other words, when I actually got to the point of true surrender later on, I could have just as easily went back to one of those old rehabs. Or I could have hooked up with some hard core folks in AA who would sit me in 3 meetings each day and drink coffee with me in between them. Anything would have worked at that point because I was ready. In the past I went to some rehabs but I was not really at the point of full surrender, and therefore nothing done differently back then would have helped or changed the outcome.

After you surrender, ask for help. Ask people you know and trust. Ask someone who is already clean and sober. Ask just about nearly anyone what you should do if you want to stop drinking and using drugs.

Then, do what they tell you to do. Seriously. It is that simple. Not necessarily easy to pull off, but dead simple. Just get out of your own way and start doing what other people tell you to do. See why your ego has to be destroyed first? This is why! Because success in early recovery means that you ask for advice, then you follow it. Period. You ask other people to tell you what to do and how to live, and then you do it. Simple. But not always easy!

Being willing to go treatment and why detox is a piece of cake

When I was stuck in addiction I was not willing to go to rehab. I had been twice before in states of “semi-surrender,” when I went to rehab for people other than myself. After those two trips to rehab I knew what to expect and I did not like the thought of being clean and sober the rest of my life. I was afraid of the idea and I was somewhat afraid of what rehab represented. I equated it with “brainwashing.”

But even though I was afraid to go back to rehab, I knew from past experience that detox was a piece of cake. Not that it is fun or anything, but it is certainly not the nightmare that the mainstream media makes it out to be.

I mean, if you have ever been through some physically rough times in your addiction, then you can make it through a medically supervised detox. Heck, they are treating you with medication in order to smooth things out. It isn’t that bad, really.

I worked in a detox unit for over five years straight and I saw several extreme cases as well out of the thousands of people who came through the detox. Even for the extreme cases it was not so terrible. They lived through it, we gave them what medications we could, and they all ended up in group therapy a few days later. No one was screaming or climbing the walls like the media would have you believe. It’s all rather boring, actually.

The nice thing about detox is that you meet other people, and make this intimate connection with them. Because you are both in detox, you form this bond. It’s kind of neat. You carry that bond into residential treatment, sit by each other in groups, and so on. It’s human nature, and it makes it endurable. And ultimately, it makes it all worthwhile. You go to rehab to connect with people, to learn that you can recover and that others are recovering.

It really is a piece of cake. I was suffering from some level of anxiety, and yet I found no real threat at rehab. My fear was all illusory. Detox and inpatient are just not that big of a deal. If you mean to get clean and sober some day then you should probably just buck up and go. It ain’t gonna kill you.

Finding your path in early recovery

If you go the traditional route then you will probably leave a short term rehab program to do some follow up and aftercare. They might have you do outpatient groups, or counseling, or just AA and NA meetings. Or you might be told to do a combination of all of those. At any rate, my advice is to follow through and do exactly what you are told. I know that sounds terrible and crushing to the ego but if you follow through then you will slowly build this amazing new life and have real freedom very soon.

Early recovery will thus be defined by other people’s suggestions for you. This is fine. This is exactly what you need. Later on you will enjoy immense freedom, but only if you can sacrifice your ego early on, and take other’s advice.

Just go with the flow. Get out of your own way. I know that may sound like defeat, but it’s really not. Your old ways in addiction were not serving you, and you need to learn a new path in life. Anything is better than what you were doing, so just go with the flow for a while.

In time, you will find what works for you and what does not. But you have to start with the clean slate (surrender, let go of everything) and then start taking advice from the people who would help you (treatment). This is how you should proceed in early recovery. You may feel like you are not in full control, and this is OK. You’re not. You have handed over control to other people, because your way in addiction was not working for you. Let go of the need to control for a while and just go with it.

Transitioning to a real-world recovery plan that works for you

I would recommend that you stay in “surrender mode” for at least one year. After that first year is up, then you are in a much better position to start making your own decisions and thinking on your own again. If you try to do so beforehand then you are likely to just sabotage your recovery by talking yourself into a relapse.

You need some stability first before you can start to design your own life in recovery.

After the first year you should be stable in recovery. If you are not, then you have probably not been taking advice or following through very well.

At this point you can start to pick and choose a bit more. You no longer have to blindly follow every recovery suggestion. You can start to design your own path in recovery. Maybe you will want to go back to school, or get a better job, or work with others in recovery, or whatever. But now you are starting to actually live again and you can transition away from all of this “mind control” stuff where you surrender your ego to other people. And you will look back at this point and realize that you never really surrendered full control to others, you were always the final decision maker, and that you never really had reason to be scared of losing your self. Even though you may have surrendered, you still made each final decision and you were still in full control. You just had sidestepped your ego and pushed it out of the way.

Realizing this means that you will see the value in getting feedback from others, in pushing your ego out of the way more often, of taking risks so that you can grow as a person. This is what it means to transition out of “early recovery” and start to really live again.

Long term sobriety and the trap of complacency

At some point you will have been clean and sober for several years, and you will no longer struggle to make it through each day without using drugs or alcohol. The “challenge” of staying sober will no longer be such an immediate threat. Recovery will start to feel “normal.”

At this point you have to watch out for getting TOO comfortable. Doing so means you are complacent, and this can cause you to relapse if you are not careful.

The way to fight complacency is to engage in a cycle of personal growth. You can do this simply by asking for feedback from others and then acting on their advice, pushing yourself to make positive changes in your life. Such growth can fully prevent relapse from happening, and keeps you from getting too complacent.

Personal growth is the opposite of complacency. It should feel challenging, a bit scary at times, and maybe even a little like early recovery felt. Keep moving forward and trying new things. Don’t get too comfortable in your life or you may be setting yourself up for trouble.


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