One of the fundamental principles in every recovery from addiction is the battle that plays out between denial and surrender.
The alcoholic is, by definition, in denial. Even if they acknowledge that they are alcoholic they are still hanging on to denial in some form if they continue to drink.
It took me a long time to figure this out. It took me even longer to figure out what the solution was. In some ways I was “too smart for my own good,” or so I thought. I believed that I was not in denial because I freely admitted to my alcoholism.
But admitting to your problem is not the same thing as accepting your problem on a very deep level. And admitting to your problem definitely is not the same thing as taking action and doing something about it. That requires surrender.
Why every alcoholic suffers from denial
The real truth about alcoholism is that every single alcoholic lives in denial. They always have a secret hope that things will suddenly get better.
This is perpetuated by the fact that sometimes they have a good experience with their drinking. They will have just the right amount of alcohol and get “properly buzzed” without losing total control over everything. They will drink alcohol at some point in their life and they will be happy without suffering major consequences.
What happens after that is that their brain will hang on to that experience. For whatever reason, they cling to this memory of the “perfect drinking episode” and they use it as the standard by which they judge their happiness. Maybe today they are sober or they are trying to hold back and control their drinking a bit and for whatever reason they are just not happy. But they still have this memory of a time when they got “properly buzzed” but still did not lose total control and everything turned out happy and carefree. And their stubborn brain will not let go of this memory. So they use that as the standard by which they judge all of their life and all of their unhappiness. The alcoholic is essentially saying in their minds all of the time: “Why can’t I be happy all the time like I was when I got drunk the other day? Can’t I just drink the same amount and recreate the same feelings of happiness again?”
And this is the trick of denial. The mind convinces the alcoholic that there is a magic formula, that if they just drink the proper amount of alcohol at the proper rate of speed then everything will turn into magical happiness again. Or if outside circumstances line up properly in their lives then the alcoholic can drink and be happy all of the time.
Normal humans have a baseline of contentment. When you get really drunk suddenly your “happiness” spikes way above this normal baseline. The alcoholic is simply trying to experience that spike of happiness all of the time. When they go back to the normal baseline of happiness they are miserable rather than content.
This is denial. The alcoholic is in denial of the fact that this is actually impossible. You cannot experience spikes of happiness and extreme passion while not having any low times to balance it out. It can’t be all happiness and elation. It just doesn’t work that way. Even if you achieve it then your mind will just adapt and get bored with the new levels and you will have to do something over and above to create even more happiness or passion or excitement. It is not sustainable. This is the concept of tolerance and it is the same reason why addicts and alcoholics will take in greater and greater amounts in order to chase the high that they crave. But eventually physical limits are always reached and the result is always chaos and misery.
So what then is denial? It is the fact that the alcoholic is trapped in this cycle of misery and chaos where they continue to chase happiness but never really achieve it. The alcoholic is trapped in this cycle and yet they continue to hold out hope that it might suddenly get better. That even though they are not really doing anything different, they secretly hope that they will stumble on the magic formula where they can drink just the right amount to be happy and yet still in control. The truth is that the alcoholic can have one or the other but not both (happiness or control). If they are still in control then they won’t be happy. If they are truly drunk and “happy” then they are beyond the point of being in control. Their denial is the illusion that they can somehow have both, because they happen to remember a time when they experienced both (before their tolerance increased).
What is the turning point in denial and how do you get to it?
The turning point in alcoholism is when the alcoholic sits down and figures this all out.
Really it is not nearly as complicated as what I am (apparently) making it out to be.
The thought process is quite simple actually.
The alcoholic has some thoughts similar to:
“I can’t keep doing this.”
“It’s never going to get any better.”
“I am truly unhappy living this way.”
“I am sick and tired of this crap.”
Those are surrender thoughts. They indicate that the alcoholic is at, or very close to, the point of surrender.
And the key is that they are getting to the truth. Their denial tries to convince them that they actually could keep living that way, or that they might find happiness in the bottle if they just experiment a bit more (drink various amounts, switch drugs, etc.). But these sort of statements are digging at the real truth. They are starting to accept the fact that they are truly unhappy and that more drinking will never solve the problem.
I can remember the exact moment that I finally surrendered to my disease. I realized that things were never going to change if I continued to drink alcohol. I realized that I was going to keep becoming unhappy in life if I was self medicating every day. I finally got this perspective that showed me that it was futile. It was hopeless to keep chasing that next high.
I am not sure where this perspective came from. It was quite sudden. The conditions that preceded it were this: I was miserable and isolated for a week or two. That was the only thing that really changed. My friends were out of town for a while and I was alone for once. This forced me to really look at my life and consider my own happiness.
Up until this point I had an illusion. I believed that if circumstances were perfect that I could use alcohol and drugs however I wanted, by myself, and that I could create my own happiness. And here I finally had the opportunity to do that. I was completely isolated and had total privacy. I had some money. I had the resources to drink and use drugs exactly how I wanted.
And I was miserable. There were no excuses left for me, there was no one that I could point the finger at as being the cause of my unhappiness. I had to admit to myself that I was unhappy due to my own actions, my own circumstances that I had made.
I finally realized that I was responsible for the unhappiness that I was experiencing. It was no one else’s fault but my own. It was up to me to create my own happiness and I was failing badly at it.
Drugs and alcohol had made me a promise. They had promised me when I discovered them that I could be happy with a stiff drink or a dose of a drug. The promise was instant happiness, and they had delivered on that promise for a certain amount of time.
But they stopped working. The drugs and the alcohol had stopped doing their job. Tolerance had cheated me out of happiness. I was chasing that spike of happiness every single day and the peaks became less and less frequent. It was all misery now. Somehow I had been cheated out of permanent happiness. The drugs and alcohol could not deliver on their promise any more.
But I had to realize that. I had to become isolated enough to be able to take a look at my life and really own this truth. To realize that the drugs and the booze were really the cause of my unhappiness, and that it was not the fault of other people or external circumstances. Those were my excuses and my denial. I had to move past that and see the problem clearly, for what it really was.
Admitting that you don’t have all the answers you need
When I finally reached this point of surrender, I asked for help.
This is very simple to do. You simply ask for help from someone you trust. If you don’t trust anyone then call up a treatment center and ask them for help directly. Find out what you need to do in order to get the professional help that you need.
The alcoholic has struggled to overcome their problem for a long time when they reach this point of surrender. If one thing is certain, it is that they do not know how to recover on their own. If they did then they would not be struggling! Admitting this to yourself may take a bit of humility. It is OK to ask for help. It is necessary.
Any alcoholic can try to fix their own problem without any outside help. Most will try to do this several times before they become willing to seek professional help. So ultimately there is no conflict or problem here at all. If you think you may have a problem with alcohol, then simply make your best effort to fix the problem on your own. This is a natural course of action that every alcoholic will take anyway. We naturally try to control things, to minimize the damage, to maximize our happiness, and so on.
Of course with a “real alcoholic” the problem will only get worse. Their attempts to fix or control the addiction will not succeed. They may cut down for a while but eventually the problem will resurface and usually be even worse. The disease is progressive. It evolves and intensifies.
So there are really two paths that you might take when you reach the point of surrender. One is to try to figure out recovery on your own without any help. My belief is that this will always result in relapse for a true addict or alcoholic. The other path is to ask for help and take advantage of the wisdom of other people in recovery.
Think of it: There are other alcoholics out there who are just like you (some were even worse off!) and they are currently living a sober and happy life. They have information that you do not have. If you want to put it in simple terms, these people “know all the secrets” about how to live a happy and sober life.
You can ask these people what to do and how to live so that you can have the same sort of life they are living. They can give you the secrets to happiness and sobriety.
Of course, that probably makes it sound like it is really easy to pull it all off. It takes hard work. You go to rehab, you go to treatment, you go to AA, maybe you go to counseling or therapy. You seek help. People make suggestions, you listen. You take action. You put the ideas into your life and test them out. Then you rinse and repeat the process and keep learning new things about yourself. You struggle through early recovery and you take lots of action. This all requires hard work. It is fairly simple because all you really have to do is follow directions. This can be done at a third grade level, seriously. Simply ask for help, take advice, follow through. You don’t necessarily have to think too hard to recover. But you do have to take action and follow directions. Simple, but not necessarily easy. It’s not rocket science but it is definitely hard work. And many alcoholics are not yet ready to put in this amount of hard work.
Surrender and letting go in terms of taking action
I am big on the idea of “massive action” in alcoholism recovery.
It is never enough to just take action. You have to take massive action.
It is not enough to make a commitment to yourself. You need to make a massive commitment.
You need to tell yourself: “This is it. I must try harder at this recovery thing than I have ever tried in my life before.”
That is the level of intensity that you need in recovery. That is the level of commitment that you must make to yourself.
Overcoming alcoholism requires change. But most people vastly underestimate the amount of change that is really required to pull it off.
At a glance, beating alcoholism is just quitting drinking. You stop drinking. How much more simple could it be, right? Just make one little change, and your life gets better.
If only it were so simple.
Of course, this is still true. Eliminating the alcohol does lead you to a better life in recovery. But the alcoholic requires more than mere abstinence in order to build a new life. A dry drunk may be dry but they are still miserable. There is no point in getting sober just to be miserable. It is not much better than being in the chaos and misery of full blown addiction.
No, something more is required in the recovery process in order to achieve happiness and build a new life. Something more than mere abstinence is required in order to truly recover from an addiction.
That “something more” in my opinion can be summarized in the two words:
Every day you have an opportunity in your life. Your life could get better or it could get worse. You could learn a new positive habit or you could continue with a negative habit. You could reach out and help other people or you could harm yourself or others.
And here is the revelation for you: There is no third option. You can’t walk a tightrope in between these two extremes. To take no action at all is to choose the negative side of things.
A lack of personal growth is a move closer to relapse.
This concept has created relapse in people who have years or even decades of sobriety under their belt.
I am talking about complacency.
If you get clean and sober but then you stop learning, stop growing, stop taking positive action in your life, then what will become of your recovery?
It will wither and die.
You have to feed and nurture your new life. You have to keep tapping into positive change. Into the power of positive change.
When you first surrender to your disease the path forward should look like this:
2) Ask for help.
3) Listen to suggestions.
4) Follow directions. Do what you are told to do.
5) Take action and follow through.
Simple. Effective. Follow directions and do what you are told.
Yet no one really wants to do this. No one wants to live this way. No one wants to be told what to do.
I had a revelation when I started living this way.
I had a few weeks sober and I was still in rehab. I made it through the detox ward. I was going to groups and lectures every day in rehab and I was going to AA meetings.
And I made a decision. I was going to get out of my own way. I was going to kill my ego, because it was no longer serving me. I was going to ignore the advice in my head and only take suggestions from others in recovery.
So I started doing this. I did not expect happiness as the result. I believed that I would be miserable if I actually did this.
And I was shocked. In hardly any time at all I became happier. A lot happier. Things were going so much better. I had unlocked a secret! I was following directions, ignoring my own advice, and everything seemed to be magically falling into place.
And I could tell that each day was a little bit happier than the last day. So I finally saw a light at the end of the tunnel. I was finally digging myself out of the hole.
I had found my way back to happiness. Real happiness. Not the spikes of happiness that resulted from drinking and always ended in misery.
How to move closer to surrender
If you want to move closer to surrender then you need to do one thing:
Practice self honesty.
Get honest with yourself. Start being real with yourself. Take a long hard look at your life, at your circumstances, at your happiness.
And own it. Stop blaming others for your unhappiness. That is denial.
Surrender to the fact that alcohol and drugs no longer do what you want them to do.
Get honest with yourself. Every day. Push yourself to see the truth.
What about you, have you made it through denial yet? Have you surrendered to your disease? What has the process been like for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!