How can you successfully break free from a life of drug or alcohol addiction? What is the secret to escaping from the madness that so many people get trapped in?
In my opinion the “secret” to breaking free is actually a process. And I believe that this process can be duplicated by others at will, if they are willing to do the necessary work to make it happen.
Of course, part of the problem is a little variable known as “denial.” Many alcoholics and addicts can be stuck in their addiction due to denial, and this prevents them from exploring their recovery options. So the first part of the process is always going to deal with denial, and how we can overcome it.
If you can’t break through your denial then you are just going to be stuck, without any hope of recovery.
How to break free when you are still stuck in denial
In discussing this idea with others in the forums, we have come up with the idea that there are probably several different levels of denial when it comes to addiction. At the very least I can identify two separate levels of denial in my own recovery journey: The first level of denial is when I was in denial that I had a disease at all, and I refused to admit that I was alcoholic. This actually did not last for very long, and it quickly became apparent to me that I was hooked.
But there was a second level of denial that was much more problematic for me. This second level of denial was about the solution. It was about rehab and AA meetings and getting sober. I was in denial of all of that stuff and the idea that it might actually work for me. In fact I just flat out refused to believe that I could recover because for whatever reason I believed I was special, I was unique, and that no alcoholic in history had ever loved alcohol as much as I did. Therefore how could I possibly give up drinking? Deep down I was afraid of AA meetings and so this came out in the form of more denial. My brain would jump through all sorts of hoops in order to convince myself that AA was not for me, when in fact I was simply afraid of the meetings and the social anxiety that came along with that.
Two types of denial: Denial of the problem, and denial of the solution. Once you admit you are alcoholic, then you actually have to do something about it. But if you are not willing to do something about it then you are still in denial. If you are still drinking every day and self medicating then you are still in denial. It took me a very long time to wrap my head around this idea. I believed that so long as I admitted to my addiction that I was not in denial. But the truth was that I was still in denial of the solution. I denied that I might go to rehab, learn a new way to live, and become happier as a result. Instead I was content to be miserable in my addiction, just so that I did not have to face the fear of sobriety, the fear of AA meetings, the fear of the unknown. It was “safer” to stay drunk and miserable.
So the question is, how do you find the motivation to get sober? How do you work through this denial? I can tell you what the secret is, it has to do with your awareness first of all. If you are not raising your awareness then you have no hope of breaking through your denial. Second of all you must raise your awareness about specific things: Mainly, your ability to be happy while self medicating with drugs or alcohol. In other words, are you really happy? How often? Is alcohol really doing for you what you want for it to do?
These are not easy questions for the alcoholic to ask of themselves because the answer reveal that their choices are bad. But in order to start making healthy choices they have to reach a point where they see the futility of it all. They have to hit bottom. And this “bottom” does not have to be about consequences, they do not have to be sitting in jail necessarily. Instead, when they hit bottom they need to have a realization. And this realization has to be about their drinking and their future. They have to get a good look at what their future will entail if they continue to drink. Because their denial has them saying to themselves “If things would just go my way for once then I could drink and be happy and everything would be fine.” But what they need to glimpse in the future is the fact that it doesn’t really matter, and that they are always going to be miserable if they are relying on alcohol for their “happiness.” They have to realize the futility of it all.
So how do you do this? How can the alcoholic bring about this moment?
They need to start paying attention. They need to start measuring their misery. They need to start evaluating on a daily basis how happy they really are.
After all, if you are truly happy, then what is the point of changing your life? We don’t run away from happiness. We run tend to run towards it. That is why we started drinking in the first place, right? But you have to be honest with yourself and realize that your drinking is, in fact, making you miserable. There comes a point where you can no longer blame your unhappiness on external events. It is the drinking that is fueling your misery. You just have to pay attention enough to realize that.
I suggest to people to write it down, to start keeping a written journal. Every day, even among your drinking episodes, start writing down your emotions. Are you happy? Write the answer down to this every single day. If it is painful to do so then eventually you will take action to change that pain. But if you are busy avoiding this pain or ignoring it then your denial will just keep you trapped. The key to moving past denial is to acknowledge your pain.
A professional interventionist once said to me: “Aren’t you sick and tired of being sick and tired?” At the time my answer was essentially: “No, I think I can be happy drinking every day if I work at it some more.” Of course the truth was that drinking was only making me more and more miserable. Only after another year of pain and misery and “being sick and tired” did I get to the point where I was able to see the futility of it all. I had to get to the point where I realized it was never going to get any better.
What the recovery process should look like (ideally)
At the end of your recovery process (which never truly ends, by the way) you should be living a balanced lifestyle that is full of peace, contentment, and challenges. Getting to this point takes a lot of work though.
At the beginning of the recovery process is always the same thing: Breaking through denial. When this happens we tend to label it as the moment of surrender.
Surrender is critical to the early recovery process. If the alcoholic or addict does not surrender then there is no way they can recover in the long run. They might “fake it” for a few weeks or a few months in recovery but without full surrender they are bound to end up relapsing at some point.
So the alcoholic works through their denial. They admit to themselves that they are truly miserable, and that nearly anything would be better than what they are experiencing. They hit bottom and they reach a point of surrender.
Then they ask for help.
Hopefully they ask their friends or family for help in getting sober. Hopefully they are directed towards an inpatient treatment center or AA meetings. Many alcoholics will need a medical detox in order to get through early recovery safely.
So the alcoholic surrenders, then they ask for help. What next?
Then they have to take action. They must listen to the advice they are given and act on it. If people suggest that they go to treatment, then they should go to treatment. They should check into rehab. They must follow up the advice they are given with real action.
The alcoholic has to go with the flow. In fact, they should drop all resistance. If they are resisting anything at this point then that is a very bad sign. It is a sign that they are not done drinking yet. An alcoholic who is truly ready to change their life should resist almost nothing at this point. They should take the suggestions they are given and go get the help that they need.
Most people will check into a treatment center. Most people will go to a 28 day program that includes a medical detox. This is really the best option for most people in most cases. There are other paths to recovery but going to inpatient treatment has the most advantages.
Once they are in treatment then they are part of a new learning process. They have to relearn how to live their life without self medicating. This is challenging. In order to succeed in early recovery they are probably going to need a lot of support from others. The AA program is a simple way to get this support. Going to meetings can give you instant support from others who would freely help you. Of course there are other ways to get support as well but widespread AA meetings make it pretty straightforward.
After doing all of this the alcoholic must engage in personal growth. They can’t just stop drinking, show up at AA meetings, and go through the motions. They have to actually be “doing the work” as well. There are two types of work that they need to do in my opinion:
1) Changing people, places, and things in their lives. Rearranging their life so that it is supportive of sobriety. Making external changes that support recovery.
2) Working to reduce guilt, shame, fear, anger, and self pity. Working to improve their relationship with themselves and with their higher power. Forgiving themselves and others. Eliminating resentments. Doing the internal work on themselves.
Both of these are important. If you neglect one or the other then it can cause you to relapse in the end.
In the long run doing this sort of work in recovery should lead to positive changes. We call this growth. Personal growth. And if you continue to work on yourself and your life in this manner then it will help to prevent relapse. If you stop doing this work then you run the risk of relapse due to complacency. Complacency sets in when we get lazy and stop doing the work.
This is what the recovery process looks like from my perspective. Surrender, asking for help, taking action, finding support, and pushing yourself to grow and make positive changes. Those are the broad strokes with which you create your new life in recovery. Of course there are many details within the process but those can be sorted out as you go along. And you can always ask for help from others.
Your first step in getting clean and sober
The first step in getting clean and sober is always going to be the decision and breaking through denial. The action that immediately follows this is to ask for help and then to follow through on whatever advice you receive.
Going to rehab can be a scary step, no doubt. But at some point the fear of change and the fear of the unknown will be matched or even exceeded by the fear that you are going to die due to your disease. I had to reach this point before I could consider going to treatment again.
There is a balance going on between the fear of sobriety and the pain of addiction. When your pain finally becomes greater than the fear of change, that is when you will change. This is why I essentially tell people to focus on their misery if they are stuck in denial, because that is the only way that they can realize the need for change. If you are ignoring the misery of addiction then why would you try to change it? You have to get real with yourself if you want to move forward in recovery.
If you are willing to go to rehab then this is a very positive indicator. Of course it does not insure your sobriety because many people have gone to treatment and then relapsed. I personally went to rehab 3 times before it finally “clicked” for me. But it is far better to go to treatment and fail then not to go to treatment at all. Think about that carefully for a moment because so many alcoholics and addicts use this as an excuse to never even try. It is better to attend rehab and relapse then not to try at all. In fact, it might even be necessary.
For example, I don’t think that I could have just went to rehab once and stayed sober forever. Obviously this is ideal and this is what we all want, but I had to try 3 times before it finally sunk in for me. The first two times I was obviously still in denial. The first two times I was not ready to face the fears in recovery and instead I opted for the pain and misery of addiction. I was not ready to change yet. I thought that I might be ready, but I had been fooling myself.
Creating the future that you really want in recovery
In order to create the future life that you really want in recovery, you have to start out very slowly.
If you try to rush this process then it will only trip you up and create problems.
The rewards of recovery are real and they are amazing, but they take time to kick in. You have to have faith that doing the steady work of recovery on a daily basis will produce massive rewards down the road.
This process is about accumulation. You get a baseline of abstinence in recovery and then obviously you have to maintain sobriety. As you maintain sobriety you start doing the work. You change your life both inside and out. You eliminate fear, resentment, anger, self pity, shame, and guilt. If those things remain then you find someone in recovery who can help you to work through them. This is about elimination. You are cleaning up the garbage that swirls around in your mind. You keep doing this until you have peace.
Then you do the same thing with your external world, with your outside life. You eliminate stress and anxiety. You improve relationships. You work on your physical health and well being. You eat healthy, you sleep more, you eliminate smoking. Maybe you find a job that suits you better. You change your external world so that you create positive changes.
When you first start doing all of this it will be a lot of hard work with very little reward. At first it will not seem like it is really worth it. At least that was how it worked for me, I felt like there were times when I almost threw in the towel and wanted to go back to drinking, because what was the point?
But there is a point, and this is the part where you have to have a little bit of faith that things will get better. Because they don’t just get a little better, they actually get a whole lot better. And then even after that point they still keep getting better and better. This is because you have set yourself up for success by doing the work in recovery. You have to keep doing the work and eventually the rewards will kick in. But it takes time. You have to give yourself that time.
Give it at least one full year. Start making positive changes every single day, and force yourself to reserve judgement for at least one full year. In reality you will probably find peace and contentment long before that.
How to pull yourself up when you are so miserable that you don’t even care if you live or die
If you are so miserable that you no longer care about yourself, then you are on the cusp of a breakthrough.
Force yourself to take positive action. Force yourself to start taking better care of yourself. If you force your body to start making healthy choices then your mind will follow eventually.
If you are truly at a point of desperation and misery then ask yourself:
“What do I have to lose by going to rehab?”
What is the worst that can happen? You go to treatment, decide that recovery is not for you, and you go back to drinking.
But if it works, then your life can transform and you will be amazed at the peace and happiness you achieve. For most people, this is a risk worth taking.
What about you, have you managed to break free from addiction? How did the process work for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!