Yesterday we looked at how to stop visualizing and start taking action in early recovery. Today we want to look at the shocking truth about why most people relapse in addiction and alcoholism recovery.
Shocking truth? People don’t want to do the work involved!
Recovery is all about change. Period.
There is just no way around this simple truth. If you want to get clean and sober then you have to make lots and lots of changes in your life, including some very big changes that are bound to cause discomfort. If you want to be successful in recovery then you have to change everything, and that takes a lot of work.
Not only does it take a lot of work but it also requires several different kinds of “work.” For example, in order to be successful in recovery you have to:
* Be willing to face your greatest fears in life.
* Kill your ego, ask for help, and take advice and direction from other people.
* Possibly go to an inpatient rehab facility or detox center in order to get physically clean from drugs and alcohol.
* Learn new ways to deal with your feelings and emotions rather than to simply medicate them away.
* Learn new ways to communicate with other people rather than to just isolate and use your drug of choice all the time.
* Change your entire life: where you go, who you hang out with, what you do with your time.
* Follow up with treatment options such as counseling, meetings, or therapy in order to establish some stability in your recovery efforts.
* Get a sponsor and talk to them on a regular basis and follow their advice and suggestions.
* Keep pushing yourself to make positive changes even after you have mastered the basics of sobriety.
If you think that this sounds easy, just keep in mind that this is basically just a brief overview of some of the changes that you will have to make in recovery. In the real world it is probably not possible to make a list like this and detail each and every challenge that you might face. In fact, each path in recovery is unique and every person is going to have to find their own way in recovery, which is bound to involve some unique and unforeseen challenges.
The truth is that most people who get a glimpse into recovery and see the depth of these required changes quickly give up and find it easier to just go back to self medicating. Change is hard work.
And the simple fact is that the benefits of recovery take a while to fully kick in. Unfortunately, you do not get clean and sober one day and then achieve all of these outstanding benefits of recovery then next day. It takes time for the full effect of all of these lifestyle changes to really kick in and start rewarding you.
This is what makes it so difficult to “break in” to recovery–the delay in gratification. It is so much quicker and easier to just get high or drunk. Going the clean and sober route is difficult because it is uncomfortable in the short run and most people do not want to put in the sustained effort that it takes to make it work in the long run.
Imagine how your happiness works in addiction for a moment: it is a series of spikes over time where you go from being somewhat depressed to suddenly very happy (when you use your drug of choice) and then back to being fairly depressed again. Each time you use you get a brief spike in happiness.
In recovery the graph changes completely, and you start out miserable. I am not going to sugar-coat things and try to convince you otherwise, because this is really what prevents so many people from getting started in recovery. They start out so miserable when they first get clean and sober.
But if you stick it out in recovery then something interesting happens. Your happiness slowly and steadily increases over time until it actually passes the old peaks that you used to experience when you were using your drug of choice. Every addict and alcoholic who sticks it out in the long run will experience this eventually, and be amazed that their new level of happiness in long term sobriety can actually exceed the happiness that they experienced when getting drunk or high.
This “happiness adoption curve phenomenon” is what kept me drunk for so many years. I did not believe people when they tried to describe this to me. I did not believe the guy who had ten years sober that I would be happy again some day. I did not believe him because I knew that when I first got dried out that I was completely miserable. So what he was saying did not add up for me. I did not believe him because I had never given recovery a chance to work in my life. Had I been able to see into the future, to look ahead six months or a year and see what recovery was like after getting through “the tough part,” I would have believed that my life could get better in recovery.
As it was, I did not believe this, and so therefore I had to become extremely miserable before I was willing to give recovery a proper chance. This was the price that I had to pay in order to get into recovery. Basically I had to become desperate enough so that I would be willing to put in the intense amount of effort that is required.
Where does motivation come from in early recovery?
Motivation comes from desperation. This may sound backwards but the recovery process is not like most things in life. This is a major lifestyle change and so therefore you can’t just decide to go through with it like you might decide that you are going to eat lunch. It is not the same type of decision and cannot be made casually.
The more casually you make the decision to get clean and sober the more likely you are to fail in recovery. Most people who decide to give recovery a try are not really at their bottom yet. They may be miserable but most of the time they are not really fully surrendered yet to their disease. They wish that things were different but they are not “willing to go to any lengths” in order to make changes in their life.
My own story illustrates this concept perfectly. I had never been willing to go to long term rehab even though all of the therapists and counselors were suggesting that this is what I needed in order to recover. I refused to do it though because I had not surrendered yet and I had not hit my bottom. I thought long term treatment would be a complete waste of my time (like I wasn’t wasting my time getting drunk every single day and using drugs? Please!).
When I finally hit bottom and surrendered I was then willing to go to any length. I threw up my hands and agreed to go to long term rehab. In fact I requested it this time around because I knew that was what they would recommend for me. I was taking advice and I was following it. Instead of placing demands and limitations on my recovery I was doing what I was told to do, without question. I had become willing.
Most people who choose to get clean and sober are actually just dabbling. They wish that things were different but they are not fully surrendered yet. True surrender is actually pretty rare. I went to treatment three times in my life and the first two times I was NOT fully surrendered. I had fooled myself into thinking that change would be nice, but I was not yet ready to put in the work.
And this is why most people who go to treatment centers end up relapsing very shortly after leaving. They were kidding themselves in the first place, just like I was the first two times that I attended treatment. I was hoping that things would magically change but I was nowhere near the point where I was willing to put in the work and “change everything.” Really if I am honest then those first two trips to rehab I was in a state of mind where I wanted the best of both worlds, I wanted to have my cake and eat it too, I wanted the benefits of sobriety but I did not want to have to put in the massive amount of life changing effort that it really takes. I was hoping for a shortcut to success rather than a long journey of hard work. I was not prepared to put in a huge effort and make massive changes in my life just yet.
In order to make that leap into recovery I had to get miserable, desperate, and surrender fully.
What really leads to full surrender
Unfortunately the path to true surrender is paved with misery and chaos. People do not quit using drugs or alcohol when things are going well. Instead they surrender when they are at their absolute breaking point and everything is miserable in their life.
This is why enabling is such an important concept in recovery. If an addict or an alcohol has someone enabling them then it is much harder for that person to reach a state of true surrender. The reason for this is because the enabler is doing everything that they can to mitigate consequences and alleviate pain for the addict. The enabler believes that they are only helping but in fact they are preventing the addict from reaching their “breaking point.”
The stronger path is to simply step out of the addict’s way and let them experience the real consequences of their actions. This can be difficult to do because it feels like a huge risk for the enabler to take a step back and let things fall where they may. But doing so is the best path to get the addict or alcoholic to realize that the path they are on only leads to more chaos and misery.
In my moment of surrender I had a realization. I can remember it clearly because I finally admitted to myself that I was never going to be happy chasing that next high. For some reason I could clearly see this for the first time. I was miserable and I knew that one solution was to go get more drugs and alcohol and start self medicating again but I realized that it was all just an endless and hopeless cycle. I do not know why I got drunk and high for so many years without realizing this, but the light had finally dawned on me.
Suddenly I had this moment of clarity and in that moment I could see the futility of my addiction. It was a depressing realization and that was the defining moment that led me into recovery. I realized that I could no longer manufacture my own happiness with drugs and alcohol. It used to work just fine–I could get drunk and high and I would be happy for the night….then I could wake up the next day and do it all over again. But it wasn’t working any more and it had not worked for a long time. But for whatever reason I was just now realizing this. And even if I had a glimpse of this truth in the past my mind would not let me realize it fully or accept it, because I was not willing to embrace the alternative.
I knew the alternative involved hard work. I knew the alternative required guts. That I would have to be strong, to face my fears, to go to meetings and talk in front of people and do all sorts of things that I would rather just run away and hide from. I would not even want to sit in front of others and talk even if I was drunk–how was I going to do it while being completely sober? This was the core of my fear and why I did not want to embrace recovery. I was too scared. I had fear about recovery on so many different levels.
I did not want to face life without my drug of choice. I did not want to face reality without being able to self medicate. It was not so much that I was afraid of being sober, it was that I was terrified of not even having the option to get drunk or wasted. How could someone live without having the option to get drunk or high? How could they make it through the day without being able to look forward to that “reward?” These were the questions that kept me out of recovery for so long. My error was that I was using my reward system in addiction and projecting it onto life in recovery.
In other words, I thought that I would be miserable in recovery because I believed that I would still only be rewarded in life by getting drunk or high, which obviously I would not be doing if I were to become clean and sober. So I was basing my future happiness on the idea that I would be happy if only I could self medicate. This was how my logic worked–I really believed that I would be miserable forever if I was clean and sober. The fear of this bleak future is what kept me trapped for so long.
During my moment of full surrender to addiction a key shift was made in this thinking:
I still believed that I would be miserable in the future without drugs and alcohol. However, the critical thing that changed for me was that I no longer cared.
Because I finally admitted to myself that I was completely miserable in addiction.
This was the admission that I had to make before I could give recovery a chance. I had to finally admit to myself that in spite of my best efforts and in spite of all of the drugs and alcohol that I dumped into my body that I was still 100 percent miserable.
Denial is when you avoid this fact.
Surrender is when you finally see the truth, and realize that this miserable state of addiction is not going to change. This is how you break through your denial. You have to realize that things are not going to suddenly become all better for you.
Picture this: Suddenly you are living in a fantasy world. You are absolved of all personal responsibility. You no longer have to work or do anything for money. You have a huge warehouse filled with your drug of choice. You have no more problems to deal with, ever again. Just exist and self medicate to your hearts content.
In your moment of surrender, you will finally see that even if this fantasy is fully realized, you will still be unhappy!
Think carefully about this, as this is the key that can unlock your freedom.
Even if all of your wishes came true in active addiction, you would still be miserable. Even with all of the money in the world, all of the drugs in the world, and being completely absolved of all your responsibilities, even if all your wishes came true–you would still be miserable.
In my moment of surrender this is the truth that I grasped. I finally saw the future, I could see that no matter what happened or what changed that I would still be chasing happiness forever if I stayed on drugs.
This is what the glorious moment of surrender is really like–you don’t realize that you can be happy in recovery, instead, you realize that you will be miserable forever in addiction.
This is what creates willingness. You get a clear glimpse into your own future (in addiction) and you decide that you don’t like it.
Anything is better than endless misery, even if it is a little scary, right?
And that is what taking the plunge into recovery is–it is scary. Most of us will never admit it, but we are scared to try to recover. It is fear that keeps us trapped in addiction.
The key to getting through the first year of sobriety
The key to success in early recovery is based on the depth of your surrender.
This simple truth does not make it any easier, but the path is clear enough for those who are desperate. You have to surrender fully, ask for help, and then follow the advice that you are given.
The amount of support and action that you must take in early recovery is probably overwhelming to most people. Chances are good that you are probably underestimating this effort.
You cannot approach the recovery decision in the same way that you make other decisions. Instead, you must approach it the same way you make other lifestyle decisions (such as: I need to lose 100 pounds and be able to run a marathon). Those kinds of decisions are not trivial. You can’t just make a few changes over the course of week, month, or even year and expect it to turn out well. Instead it takes a sustained effort that requires serious dedication and commitment. This is why the depth of your surrender is so critical. If you only surrender “on the surface” then you will not be able to sustain your recovery in the long run.
Complete and total surrender is what your success in recovery hinges upon. People who relapse have failed to surrender fully and are therefore not willing to put in the work required to stay clean and sober.
Have you committed fully to recovery? Have you surrendered completely to your disease?