As someone who has worked in a rehab facility for over five years, I have heard this excuse a lot.
I have also felt it myself when I was on the brink of trying to get clean and sober myself: “What if I fail? What if I seriously try to get clean and sober and it doesn’t work?” The thought of that new level of hopelessness was disturbing to me. I did not want to visit that new level of misery and despair that was worse than what I was already experiencing.
“What if I relapse?” This question holds back too many struggling addicts and alcoholics from even attempting to get clean and sober.
The fact is that this is a foolish argument, and it should not stop anyone from trying. Unfortunately it does. So let’s try to smash the idea that the fear of failure can stop you in your tracks and find a solution for moving forward.
So what if you fail? Nothing can justify the continued misery of addiction or alcoholism
First of all, the entire argument is sort of flawed because it overlooks this simple premise:
The idea of continuing on in the misery of addiction, doing nothing, is completely unacceptable. Nothing can justify that misery.
Lifelong addiction is a non-starter. Nothing can justify your continued misery, right? At least that is how you should be looking at it.
The decision to get clean and sober is essentially a balancing act between fear and misery. As your addiction progresses and gets worse and worse over time the amount of misery that you must endure keeps growing and growing. At the same time you are naturally afraid to abandon your drug of choice and embrace abstinence and treatment. Fear holds you back from taking this plunge into sobriety. Misery with addiction pushes you closer to the edge of this plunge. If you get miserable enough in your addiction then at some point you will no longer care about the fear and you will become willing to give sobriety a chance. But you will not do this until you are very miserable due to your addiction.
Unfortunately this is what motivates us to take action–pain and misery. We would like to believe that we are more rational than that, but unfortunately we humans are mostly motivated by avoiding pain and misery. This is especially true when it comes to addiction and alcoholism. This is why alcoholics and drug addicts typically abuse their drug of choice for years or even decades before they finally surrender and agree to change their life. They hold on for a long time because the fear of change is greater than the misery that their addiction creates. It is only over a long period of time that enough misery can accumulate in their life that they are then forced to overlook the fear that is keeping them from sobriety.
If you are on the brink of recovery and you are both miserable and scared, your solution is to take the plunge. Think carefully about this decision to give sobriety a chance in your life: What is your alternative? Look at your possible future path in life. If you do nothing and just continue on as you have been, what will happen? What results will you get? Are you suddenly going to become happy by using your drug of choice? Are you suddenly going to be able to both control your chemical intake while also enjoying it? Seriously contemplate your own future….it should be easy enough to see where you are basically headed.
I can remember doing this myself and realizing that it was never going to change for the better. I was stuck as an alcoholic and a drug addict and I was constantly trying to put enough chemicals into my body so that I could be happy with myself. It was a never ending challenge and suddenly I looked into my own future and I saw the futility of it all. Even if I had unlimited money and unlimited drugs I could clearly see that I would never be truly happy this way. My happiness was always just out of reach, like a carrot on a stick. I could clearly see that by using drugs and alcohol I would be extremely happy for a few hours each month at best, and miserable for the rest of the time. I was getting a poor deal. I was using drugs and alcohol to regulate my happiness, but the total amount of happiness time had somehow slipped to maybe 1 or 2 percent. When I had first discovered drugs and alcohol the “happiness ratio” was much more to my favor, and I was actually happy most of the time, even when I was not drunk or high. But as my tolerance shifted and I continued to abuse more and more substances this ratio changed. In the end I was almost always miserable and I could not really “get happy” with my drug of choice at all. The only way I could really do so was to deprive myself first for a few days. Sober up for two full days and not use any drugs or alcohol, then go nuts and use as much as I could all at once. That was the only way that I could “get happy” anymore, and when I did this the “happiness” only lasted for an hour or two. Then I was miserable again!
This was the measure of my misery that I had to come to grips with. This is the honest assessment that I had to make for myself in order to see how worthless my drug of choice had become. It was no longer working for me! It was no longer doing what I wanted it to do. When I discovered the drugs I wanted them to make me happy, instantly. They did that for a while. This is what lured me in and made me into an addict. But over time my tolerance shifted and the drugs became less and less effective. Being high all the time became my new “normal.” Suddenly I could no longer get happy just by using a small amount of drugs. I had to use more and more all the time and at some point even that stopped making me “happy.”
And so I had to take a step back from my addiction at some point and clearly see all of this. I had to really see how truly useless my drug of choice had become. And then I had to weigh this against the idea of sobriety. “What if I am miserable in sobriety forever and I never become happy again?” Well, just look at your current path in life and where it is taking you! I was already miserable and I could clearly see that this was only going to get worse over time. This is the point where I had broke through my denial. I had been afraid to get clean and sober for fear that I would be miserable without drugs or alcohol, but now I had fully admitted that I was miserable WITH the drugs and alcohol. And there was no end in sight. I realized that addiction was a dead end road, that it would never get any better. It took me about ten years of abuse and banging my head into the wall before this realization finally hit me and I broke through my denial.
“Using drugs and alcohol no longer makes me happy. There has to be a better way. I don’t know what that way is.” This was my realization.
So what if you relapse? All you can hope for with addiction is more pain, misery, and suffering. This is clear enough to see and if you want to get different results in your life then you have to try something different.
If you do relapse then you are back to square one. You have to start over. If you relapse you will plunge right back into misery. So what? If you are addicted then you are already stuck in misery. Your only choice is to move forward and crawl out of the hole.
Learning typically involves points of failure. Most addicts relapse a few times before achieving long term sobriety
This is not said to give you permission to relapse. There is no such thing as “permission to relapse” when it comes to addiction. Relapse is its own punishment and sobriety is its own reward. Once you experience the true benefits of recovery you will realize this for yourself, and you will try to avoid relapse like your hand avoids a hot flame.
That said, the learning process involves points of failure. Some of this will happen while you are still stuck in addiction, trying to self medicate with drugs and alcohol. As mentioned above you will have to realize that your denial is holding you back and therefore you need to break through it by realizing that your drug of choice is no longer serving you. This is a learning process. Unfortunately it is much like banging your head into a wall until you realize that your head hurts and that there is a better way to make a hole (try using a hammer!). What I mean is that the entire recovery is made up of learning and that this learning is a process. It begins before you even get clean and sober when you are trying to figure out how to break through your denial. Doing so is the first step of the learning process.
After you break through denial and agree to get help, you have a whole lot more learning to do. Essentially you have to learn how to do everything in your life over again, clean and sober, without relying on drugs or alcohol as your solution. This may sound trivial at first but it is actually the challenge of a lifetime. It is a complete lifestyle change and therefore it is quite difficult to pull off (just like losing weight or getting into shape).
Because this challenge is so great, most people do not succeed on their first try. Does this mean that you should never try at all? Of course not!
It takes what it takes. For me it took three trips to rehab over a period of several years before I finally made it work.
So what? I would do it all over again if I had to. I have met people who have been to over 30 treatment centers in their life. Is this ridiculous do you think? Should they just give up and resign themselves to being alcoholics or drug addicts? Of course not! I don’t care if it takes 100 trips to rehab, it is all worth it in the end. Continuous sobriety is a gift beyond all imagination (for the struggling addict or alcoholic). If you can achieve it then the price is irrelevant. Nothing can justify your continued struggle and misery in addiction. If you can achieve sobriety then no price is too high to justify this new life.
I had to go to treatment three times. Does that just sound like too much work and effort to you? Does it depress you to think about having to go through so much struggle and learning and turmoil in order to get sober one day? Well, think about this: What is the alternative?
The alternative is misery. The alternative is to be miserable until you die. Then you die. And who knows how long you have in addiction? You may die tomorrow, or you might stay miserable for several more decades. But you can be that you will be miserable for the rest of your existence.
This is a non-starter. Nothing can justify this. Your options are this:
* You can stay stuck in addiction and know for certain that you will be miserable.
* You can take the plunge into sobriety and take a chance that you might be happy again some day.
Sobriety is a chance at true happiness. But if you stay stuck in addiction then you are certain to remain miserable.
After working a treatment center for 5+ years I met a lot of people who finally “made sobriety work.” I found that most of these people who finally achieved success did so after going to rehab multiple times. I met almost no one who had achieved long term sobriety in the first try. Nearly everyone that was successful had to go to rehab more than once.
This is very typical because of the severity of the challenge. Remember that this is an incredibly difficult lifestyle change. The first trip to rehab is really just to show you how difficult it will be. Before that you have no way to gauge how tough it might be to get clean and sober. So you might need to fail a few times just so that you can learn “what it really takes.”
You can’t justify avoiding recovery just because you think it might not work out for you. That makes no sense
It makes no sense to avoid a challenge just because you think you might fail in light of the consequences we are dealing with.
If you stay in addiction then your consequences are that you remain miserable. If you give recovery a chance then you might find happiness. This is really at the heart of the argument. It makes no sense to hold yourself back on the point that “you might fail.” So what! If you never try then you have failed already, as your addiction has made you miserable.
It makes no sense to stay stuck in the misery of addiction and be fearful of the unknown of sobriety. You don’t know what sobriety and recovery will be like. It might be better, it might be worse, it might be terrible. Whatever. But right now you have to admit that your addiction has made you completely miserable. So if you do nothing you get more misery. Sure it is a risk to embrace sobriety and abstinence, but at least it is better than the status quo.
A successful life in recovery is built on cycles of learning, growth, and failure. Embrace the process
Long term recovery will have more points of failure, though they may not involve relapse. The learning process will have you experimenting with things for the rest of your life. Some of them will work out and produce good results and some of them will not. You can call the ones that don’t produce good results “failures” or you can just view them as part of the learning process. In the end it does not matter much so long as you keep trying to take positive action.
Embrace the process and your life will get better and better. This is how you grow and learn in recovery. But in order to benefit from this kind of learning you have to take action. You have to put yourself out there and actually DO something. Then you learn from the results. The same is true if you are stuck in addiction. You have probably tried your own experiments to try to regulate your own drug or alcohol intake. Those experiments have failed. Now you should try a new experiment: total abstinence. It is a scary step to take but it is all part of the learning process. Your results cannot be much worse than being totally miserable, right? What have you got to lose?
If you relapse then you are back where you started from, simple as that. When you find yourself in a hole, STOP DIGGING!
At some point you have to realize that your addiction is not making you any happier, and that things are only getting worse. When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. The only way to turn things around is to embrace a new way of life. Radical change is necessary at this point.
The solution: Swallow your pride and ask for help. Seek treatment.
If you are afraid of relapse then there is only one true path forward: face your fear and do it anyway. That means that you need to suck it up and ask for help. Seek treatment. Ask people that you trust to help you find a rehab that can help you to recover. Get to detox. Get to inpatient rehab. Or maybe just get to a 12 step meeting. Any action towards recovery is better than nothing at all. Because what you have been doing for your entire addiction is the “nothing at all” option. If you want different results then you have to change your approach entirely. Do something radically different. Stop putting chemicals into your body and give total abstinence a chance.
What have you got to lose? If you are anything like I was then you are already miserable in your addiction. Sobriety can’t be much worse, and if it is, the worst that can happen is that you relapse back to where you started from. (Trust me though, sobriety is MUCH better than the misery of addiction!)
What are you waiting for?