Certain principles in addiction recovery are very powerful. When you get into traditional recovery or attend AA meetings every day, you are going to hear a lot of suggestions about what you need to do in order to stay clean and sober.
In fact, it is pretty easy to get overwhelmed with all of the suggestions. And at some point, you may even believe that some of the suggestions conflict with each other. For example, I’ve been told both to “think, think, think” and also to not rely on my own brain in early recovery. So which is it? It can get confusing at times!
So we need to know which concepts and ideas are the most important. We need to know which principles to focus on that can actually help to insure our sobriety. Some strategies in recovery have to be more effective than others, right?
I have dug around these sorts of ideas for a long time and I have come to believe that certain principles in recovery are fundamental. Meaning that they cannot be reduced any further and that they are vital to someone who is successful in sobriety. If you are successful in recovery then you definitely have experience with certain recovery principles.
Fundamental addiction recovery principles
One way to look at the different recovery principles is to look at the various recovery programs and find the overlap.
For example, we have the 12 step program of AA, and it is made up of certain recovery principles. Then we might compare that to a religious based recovery program that has a different set of concepts and ideas.
But if we look carefully at those two recovery programs, we will notice that they share some of the same ideas. They probably both talk about surrender in some form or another. They probably both have an element of spirituality involved. And so on. Whatever principles are shared between the two programs are the concepts that are really important. They are fundamental to sobriety because you find them in every recovery program.
It is my belief that those are the really important ideas that you want to focus your energy on. Because if you fail to nail a concept like “surrender” then it makes it almost impossible to recover.
In fact, the concept of surrender is so fundamental to recovery, and so important to your success, that we should talk a bit about how that process unfolds.
How to actually surrender and break through denial
The question is: How do you actually surrender? How do you do it?
When you surrender you break through the last bit of your denial.
This is important. You don’t just break through some of your denial. You break through the very last bit of it, the last piece that you were holding on to.
Let me explain.
I was in denial about being an alcoholic. But I was also in denial about a lot of other things. For example, I denied that AA could help me. I denied that I could be happy if I were sober. I was in denial that a recovery program might even work for me. I was in denial about the idea that rehab might help me. I was in denial about the idea that I might be able to go to long term rehab and be happy again some day.
I denied all of those things. I was in denial that any of that was possible, that I might be sober and happy some day.
So at one point I admitted and accepted that I was a real alcoholic.
End of story? Not hardly.
In fact, this was not even the beginning. I was still drinking when I made this admission! And I continued to drink for another year or so.
So just getting past that bit of denial did not help me.
In fact, I had to break through ALL of my denial in order to get sober.
And so that came later when I finally surrendered FULLY and accepted a new solution into my life.
Therefore, surrender is not saying:
“Yes, I am a real alcoholic.”
Instead, surrender is saying:
“Yes, I am a real alcoholic, and I need professional help, and I will do anything in order to get it.”
That is real surrender, when you accept a new solution in your life.
If you just admit to the problem then that is not enough. That doesn’t produce sobriety by itself.
The real magic happens when you surrender fully and completely.
So you don’t just surrender to the problem. You surrender to a new solution. You turn your life over to other people, to greater knowledge, to the advice and wisdom of others.
You have to surrender to something. You have to surrender so that you are no longer in charge, no longer running the show.
It is this idea of giving up control that allows you to be successful in recovery.
So one question is: Can you choose to do this? Or does it just happen?
Honestly, I am not sure that you can choose it directly. Because if you are not in a state of surrender, you cannot just fool yourself into believing that you are.
But what you can do is to try to force yourself to get more honest with yourself. This will bring you closer to real surrender.
The way to break through the last bit of your denial is to get more and more honest with yourself.
I would recommend that you start writing down your feelings every day in a journal. Write down how happy you are, even if you are still drinking. This will force you to evaluate how well your addiction is actually working for you. The idea is that you will force your mind to realize that addiction has failed you, that drinking makes you miserable, and that you want to try something else. The only way to force your brain to wake up and get past your denial is to get really honest with yourself. And in order to do that you have to acknowledge your feelings, what is really going on inside.
The myth that we told ourselves for so long is that our drug of choice could fix everything and anything. If you keep a daily journal and write down how you are feeling, you will slowly realize that this is a big fat lie, and that your drug of choice doesn’t fix anything at all. But you have to somehow force your brain to realize this truth. So writing down your feelings every day is one way to force this realization. It is a way to force honesty on yourself.
This really is an important idea because without surrender you will just continue to struggle and self medicate. There is no way to recover and turn your life around if you are still trying to maintain control and manage your own happiness through your addiction.
When you surrender, you give up control in order to find a new way of life. You can’t do this when you are hanging on tightly to your old way of life. You must let go of everything.
This is a huge leap of faith. It is a scary thing to do. But it is the only way to move forward in recovery. And that is why it is a fundamental concept of recovery, regardless of which program you may be following.
Honesty, open mindedness, and willingness are all related
There are three fundamental principles of recovery that often get discussed in AA meetings and such:
Honesty, open mindedness, and willingness.
When you talk about these three concepts enough you start to see that they are really all interconnected. They are so closely related, in fact, that it is almost like they are all the same principle in some ways.
It is like a three legged stool. If you have two of these elements in your life but then the third one is compromised then the whole thing falls over.
Let’s walk through the three concepts and see how they are vital to the recovery process.
First of all, you have to be honest in recovery, period. If you are dishonest even in a small and subtle way this will multiply itself over time and turn into a monster. You cannot be dishonest and sober in the long run. This is largely because our conscious knows, it just knows when we are dishonest, and it takes a certain amount of mental energy to justify this to ourselves.
And the fact is, we don’t have that extra energy in recovery. We need every last bit of that in order to stay sober. We cannot afford to juggle lies and be dishonest with others while also maintaining sobriety every day. It is too much work. Eventually people who are lying to themselves or to others break down and relapse.
Second of all we have to be willing. In order to change in recovery we have to be willing to take action, to make the changes happen. Without willingness, nothing will happen, nothing will change, and we will continue to live our old life and our old behavior patterns.
Recovery is nothing if not change. We have to take action. We have to make positive changes. Otherwise we stay stuck in our addiction. There is no other path in recovery, other than that of positive change. If you make negative changes then you relapse. If you do nothing at all, then you relapse. So the only possible way to stay sober is to change, and to make positive changes. All other roads lead to relapse.
Being open minded is necessary because we come to recovery with nothing but our own ideas. When you first get clean and sober, do you really know how to live a sober life successfully? Let me give you a hint on this one: No you do not! You don’t know how to live sober. If you knew how, you would not need help, you would not have a drinking problem, and you would not need recovery programs or treatment or any of this stuff!
And we all tried that route. We all tried to get sober on our own, to fix our own problem, to just quietly make our addiction go away somehow. And it didn’t work. We found that our addiction was too strong for us, that we could not overcome it on our own. If you can overcome it, good for you, but that is not an alcoholic or drug addict. Those of us who struggle, those of us who failed to recover by ourselves, we wear the label of “alcoholic” and “addict.” We are defined by the fact that we need help in order to recover. That’s what defines addiction in the end–that we can’t sober up by ourselves. We need help. Period.
So how do you think this process works if you are close minded? The short answer is that it doesn’t work. You stay stuck in addiction. The only way forward is to be open minded.
And so all three principles interact with each other. If you are not open minded then you are obviously not being very willing. And if you are not willing to make this effort then there is probably a part of you that is not being honest with yourself. Perhaps you are saying that you want to get sober but deep down you still want to drink, and therefore you are not willing to take massive action and surrender completely. All three ideas are so closely related that if you lack one of them then in some way you actually lack all three.
And these three principles are fundamental to recovery. You can find various programs of recovery and different paths to sobriety, and none of them will exclude these principles completely. You have to be honest, open minded, and willing if you want to recover from an addiction. Doesn’t matter what program we are talking about, those principles are necessary to overcome addiction in general.
The power of gratitude
Spirituality is certainly a big part of addiction recovery.
AA is founded on the idea that we need a spiritual, and not necessarily a religious solution to overcome addiction.
Kudos to AA for eliminating the need for religion, even though that is not necessarily something that should be considered bad or good. The fact is that if you mandate a religion in order to recover you are going to lose a big chunk of your potential audience.
And in reality, the fact that there is a spiritual element to most recovery programs is still a big turn off to a lot of struggling alcoholics and addicts. They hear “spiritual” and they assume that someone is pushing religion on them.
So what happens when we really take a look at the principles, when we really get down to the nitty gritty and define spirituality….what happens when we discover how people actually stay sober in terms of faith, religion, and spirituality? What is the real bottom line?
I did a lot of searching in this area for many years. Over a decade, actually. I thoroughly explored these ideas in my own life. And I have come to the conclusion that you can reduce all of these spiritual concepts down to a single point of reference from which everything is built upon.
That point of reference is the concept of gratitude.
From that, everything can be built upon. For example, I can make an argument that if you simply have enough gratitude that this is, in fact, an act of faith. Gratitude felt deeply enough becomes a powerful form of faith itself, of belief in a caring higher power.
Gratitude is a guide for how we want our attitude to be on a day to day basis. It is the ideal mindset for recovery.
Gratitude sets us up for learning. If we are ungrateful then it is very difficult to learn new things.
From a fundamental perspective, the core concept is probably “love” and not gratitude. But for our purposes it is maybe a little easier to put things in terms of gratitude. It is easier to apply the concept of gratitude on a day to day basis in recovery.
Consider the fact that when someone relapses, at the exact moment that they decide to say “screw it all, I am going to drink,” they are actually in a state of mind that can only be described as the exact opposite of gratitude.
In that moment of relapse, the alcoholic is actually selfish in the extreme. They are the opposite of grateful. They are saying “This sucks, the universe is against me, I am going to say screw everything and just get drunk, because who cares, why bother, everything sucks, poor me,” etc.
That is not gratitude. That is the opposite of gratitude.
If you could somehow turn that moment around and force yourself to practice gratitude then you would be protected from relapse instantly. If you are grateful then you stop complaining, you stop justifying the relapse to yourself, you start to appreciate everything in your life and you stop being selfish.
Gratitude is the mindset that best prevents relapse.
Practicing gratitude should be part of every alcoholic’s daily routine in recovery. The principle is just that powerful.
And you can probably reduce this further to the principle of “love” but I am not quite there yet in my own journey, I haven’t work that out yet (maybe you have though?). For me, I need to remember to appreciate existence itself, to appreciate every tiny detail in my life, to be grateful for all of it. This is what keeps me sober.
Personal growth and complacency
If you stay sober long enough then you are truly blessed, but you also get a new problem in your life:
That of complacency.
Now you have to be careful of relapse because you might get lazy. You might get too comfortable.
You fought your way to the top of recovery mountain, and now you are in danger of sliding back down. How do you keep fighting to stay at the top?
Complacency happens when we get too lazy, too comfortable, and we end up relapsing as a result.
You don’t want to get complacent.
Instead, you want to find ways to keep pushing yourself for personal growth.
You want to find ways to motivate yourself to keep practicing the principles we have discussed here today (gratitude, willingness, open mindedness, surrender, etc.).
The key is personal growth. What is personal growth when we define it?
It all goes back to the same fundamental concepts. You need to change in order to recover. And you need to keep changing in order to fight against complacency.
And obviously we want to make positive changes, not negative ones.
I would make two quick suggestions on this topic:
1) Assume that you are complacent. This helps motivate you to seek action, to seek positive changes, to keep moving forward. Assuming that you are complacent does not hurt you. It only helps you.
2) Ask for help from other people. Ask for insight and advice. In NA they say “We are each other’s eyes and ears.” Use the wisdom of others to help direct your positive changes. Your recovery will be stronger for it if you rely on others to help you.
What about you, have you found these recovery principles (surrender, gratitude, honesty, open mindedness, willingness) to be important in your journey? Why or why not? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!