There are several ingredients that are needed to create a successful life in recovery from addiction.
For example, you have to have willingness. Without the ingredient of willingness, real recovery will remain elusive. You can have some of the other principles in place, but without that key ingredient, you simply can’t bake the cake.
There are a number of different critical ingredients for sobriety. But by far the most important of these ingredients is the concept of surrender.
Without surrender, recovery cannot even begin.
And why is this?
Because of denial.
The recovering alcoholic is completely stuck while in denial
The struggling alcoholic or drug addict is completely stuck if they happen to be in denial.
When you are in denial you cannot possibly make the positive changes that are necessary to turn your life around.
Denial is saying things to yourself such as:
“It’s not that bad yet.”
“I am still basically happy even though there are some negative consequences due to my drinking.”
“Things will get better if I just cut down on my drinking a little.”
“I am still basically in control.”
“I can never have fun without my drug of choice.”
“If I were sober life would not be worth living.”
These are all statements of denial. They are all a lie that we tell ourselves in order to justify more drinking or drug use.
Of course in many of these statements we actually believe the lie ourselves. Or in some cases we start to slowly believe the lie over time until it becomes a reality for us.
For example, I used to tell myself the lie that “If I were sober I would be completely miserable and my life would no longer be worth living.” Was this really denial? Because at the time I was telling myself that lie I really believed it 100 percent. I honestly thought that I could never be happy again if I were sober.
In order to move past this denial I had to reach a point of surrender. I had to get to my own personal bottom and realize that things were not getting better, that I was not happy in my life, and that I honestly had no idea how to turn things around myself.
It takes a great deal of guts to admit that you have no idea what you are doing any more. It takes guts to admit that you don’t know how to find happiness. It takes guts to surrender.
In order to recover from alcoholism you have to first get to the point where you are willing to listen.
This is not a grey area. It is a black and white line that is drawn in the sand. Either an alcoholic is in denial or they have surrendered. There is absolutely no grey area in between those two possibilities. If you think that there is some grey area then I can assure you that the person is still in denial.
It doesn’t take much for an alcoholic to still be stuck in denial. Meaning that the person can be holding on to one tiny shred of belief that one day they might be able to drink like a normal person again. Or that one day they will learn how to control their drinking and still enjoy it. If you are holding on to just a tiny bit of hope like this for your drug of choice then you are still stuck in denial.
A tiny bit of denial is still full blown denial.
Think about it. Go to AA and pay attention for a few weeks. No one is “sort of in recovery.” No one is partially out of denial. No one at the AA meetings has “partially surrendered.” This is an all or nothing proposition.
Recovery is pass/fail. You can’t get a “B minus” in recovery. You either get an A or you get an F. There is simply no in between, no wiggle room.
I am not saying this to be mean to anyone. I am not trying to be overly dramatic here for effect. I am simply presenting the truth that I have discovered for myself. You can discover this truth on your own if you simply get involved in recovery and pay attention.
I worked in a drug and alcohol detox center and rehab for over five years. During that time I learned that recovery is definitely pass/fail. Actually I already knew this from when I sobered up and lived in long term rehab myself. There I watched many people relapse while a handful of my peers succeeded. No one got a “B minus” while living in long term rehab. They either got an A plus or they relapsed. No in between. Recovery is pass/fail.
And the reason that it is pass/fail is because of denial and surrender. These two concepts (which are the opposite sides of the same coin) are absolutely critical for success in recovery. If you fail to surrender fully to your disease then it simply means that you are not done drinking yet. You have more chaos to go find in your life, more destructive drinking to endure. At some point the alcoholic has finally had enough and they will surrender fully. But until that moment nothing can really change for the better.
Why nothing can change until total and complete surrender has occurred
Many people who get into recovery at first are hoping that it is a passive experience that will change their life. They want it easy. They don’t want to work for it.
But this is not realistic. Recovery from addiction cannot be passive. If you are living a passive life in recovery then you will most likely relapse.
Instead you have to pursue personal growth in a very active way. You have to make decisions, figure out what you want in life (instead of addiction) and then go after it. You have to chase your sobriety. You have to pursue the positive rather than just avoiding the negative.
This active lifestyle doesn’t just fall into your lap. You don’t just become active when you get clean and sober. It doesn’t work automatically.
We all have probably heard about the success rates of recovery and how difficult it is for an alcoholic to turn their life around and be successful. If an active life of growth in recovery were automatic, don’t you think that success rates would be a lot higher than they are?
But the truth is that successful sobriety is a lot of work.
This need not be a problem. You can accept this sort of challenge and rise up to meet it, knowing that the hard work will produce massive benefits in your life.
Human beings are not wired to do lots of extra hard work for no reason. This would violate our instincts to conserve our energy. So it is only natural that when you first try to sober up you look for the path of least resistance. We are not going to be drawn to the most difficult path because that would just be a wasteful way to live our lives. Instead we look for the easy path in life that will still get us the results that we desire.
We are wired to live this way. Humans are not going to seek out extra work. It’s not normal.
So what happens when we finally get to recovery? What happens when the struggling alcoholic finally decides to make a change in their life?
They are faced with a challenge. How to stop drinking and then rebuild a life that is worth living again.
There are many possible paths in recovery. First of all, every alcoholic knows that the primary source of the problem is the chemicals that they are dumping into their own body. So the solution is abstinence, right?
Yes and no. The solution starts with abstinence because this is the foundation of your new life in sobriety. Without total and complete abstinence there can be no platform on which to build a new life. However, without making massive changes in your life in addition to abstinence, no lasting sobriety can be found.
This should be obvious to anyone if they stop to think about it. Recovery programs exist because mere abstinence is not enough. If there is no problem then there is no problem. The alcoholic’s problem is that their life is a mess even after they remove the alcohol from the equation.
So there is work that needs to be done. And so what will happen is that the alcoholic will stop drinking and make a modest effort at recovery. They will say to themselves: “OK, I need to stop drinking every day as it is killing me, and I don’t really want to commit to all of these other changes and go to AA meetings every day, so I will just sober up and lay off the booze and maybe I will do few positive things in my life, get a little exercise and go to church once a week, that sort of thing. That should keep me sober, right?”
We have to stop and ask ourselves: Why doesn’t that approach work?
Why doesn’t it work for the alcoholic to sober up, make a few modest changes, and thus turn their life around? Why does this sort of effort always lead to relapse?
I can tell you why.
It is because the alcoholic did not surrender fully and completely to their disease.
Their surrender was only partial. They surrendered to two ideas: One, that they need to sober up. Good job there. Two, they need to make some minor changes.
Big mistake. Make a few minor changes? Not going to cut it.
No, the second half of the equation is “Need to make massive changes.”
There is a big difference there and most people completely miss this point.
If you sober up and then make a few modest changes in your life then you will most likely relapse. Your efforts fell short. They are not enough to produce long term sobriety.
Instead, you must surrender fully and completely to your disease. This leads to massive changes in your life. This is how you find the path to real recovery.
There are actually many different programs and strategies for remaining sober. But whichever path you choose, you have to surrender fully to your addiction first and be totally committed to making massive changes in your life.
This is what people do not understand in early recovery. This is what I witnessed when I worked in rehab for 5 years straight. People understood the idea of “sobriety plus change” but they did not understand the intensity that was required.
Everyone knew that they had to sober up and make positive changes in their life. But very few people had learned the true intensity that was necessary to make long term sobriety a reality.
In short, you have to try harder at recovery than you have ever tried at anything before in your entire life. The intensity of your efforts is what will make or break your success.
And the intensity of your efforts seems to be dictated by the depth of your surrender.
How to move yourself closer to surrender
So maybe you are stuck in addiction still and you want to surrender and turn your life around.
How do you do it?
How do you force yourself to surrender?
Is it even possible?
I believe that it is. First of all, if you are at this level of analysis in your own addiction then you are already very close to surrender to begin with. If you know that you are addicted and you know that you need to somehow surrender then you are nine tenths of the way there. You just need a little more of a push to make the final leap of faith.
First of all, you need to realize that the moment of surrender is a moment of brutal and complete honesty. Not honest with others because at the moment of surrender none of that stuff outside of yourself even matters. At all. It is all about your own struggle with alcoholism or drug addiction.
You need to find a way to get honest with yourself. Now you might argue with this and claim that you are already being honest with yourself. And that is probably true, you are most likely honest with yourself in 99 percent of your life. But there is a tiny part of your denial that is still alive and we need to find a way to squash that denial like a bug. In order to do this you have to get really honest with yourself and figure out what is holding you back.
Every struggling alcoholic or drug addict is hanging on to a reservation of some sort. They are telling themselves a lie that allows them to keep using drugs and alcohol. You need to find what this reservation is and then squash it out of existence.
My reservation was that I was telling myself that alcohol and drugs made me happy, and that I could not possibly be happy if I were sober. So I was hanging on to this bit of “truth,” and it was keeping me stuck in addiction.
In order to move past that lie I had to expose the truth for what it was. I had to start getting really honest with myself every day and “wake up” to the fact that I was actually miserable.
I had to think to myself: “Now wait a minute. Alcohol is my solution, my drug of choice. I use it because it makes me happy, right? Well, am I really happy?”
And my answer to that was: “Well, I am not happy right now at this very moment. But surely alcohol makes me happy most of the time……right?”
So I had to start testing that assumption.
In short, I had to start measuring.
I was using alcohol every day because it was my solution and it made me happy (supposedly). But was it really doing its job? Was alcohol working for me? Was it giving me the results that I wanted?
Every struggling alcoholic who is in denial has to find out what their assumptions are, get really honest with themselves, and then test those assumptions.
When I started doing this with real honesty, I did not like what I was seeing.
In fact, it was so depressing that I felt at times like it was making me suicidal (I never really got to the point of taking action, but I was very depressed).
What I was learning at this time was that alcohol had lied to me.
It promised to make me happy at any given moment. That was the promise that alcohol had made me when I first got drunk many years before.
But it was a lie. Alcohol was no longer doing its job. It had ceased to be effective.
I started asking myself every day: “Am I happy?”
And what I noticed is that I was not happy, and I kept making excuses as to why not. And I was pointing the finger and blaming everyone and everything else as to why I was unhappy.
And yet the promise that alcohol had made to me was that I could be happy at any time, in any circumstances, just by drinking this magic potion. I could get drunk and be happy regardless of my circumstances. That was the promise of alcohol.
And yet here I was, finding myself to be unhappy every single day, in spite of my drinking.
Alcohol was no longer working for me. I was not happy.
And so I started to realize that alcohol was the source of my misery. It had lied to me and now it was dragging me down and killing me. It promised me happiness and yet it was making me miserable.
I had to realize this.
I had to get honest enough with myself to actually measure this.
If you cannot measure this then you cannot break free from your addiction. You have to be able to take a step back and realize whether or not your drug of choice is really helping you or not.
You must do this actively.
You must make a decision to increase your awareness.
Tell yourself: “I am going to start measuring my happiness. If I am unhappy in my life, why continue with the same pattern?”
Anyone can change their pattern. It takes massive change, but the process is pretty easy to get started with (simply check into rehab!).
But before you can initiate the change you have to pay attention to your own happiness. This is how you get closer to surrender. By paying attention.
How to get out of your own way in early recovery
So how do you get out of your own way in early recovery? How do you allow yourself to make these massive changes without screwing it all up again?
I have a few suggestions:
1) Work through your denial. Find your reservations. Identify them. Increase your awareness.
2) Start measuring your happiness. Ask yourself each day: “Am I happy?” Don’t judge. Just ask yourself the question and be honest. Don’t beat yourself up about it though. Just keep noticing.
3) When you reach surrender, ask for help. Seek professional help. Get to rehab.
4) Follow suggestions. Get out of your own way by listening to the advice of others.
If there is one critical piece of advice in early recovery, it is simply this:
“Take advice from others!”
That sounds so simple, doesn’t it?
The reason is because other people have the answers, and you do not!
This is a simple concept that is very hard for many people to swallow.
If you want to succeed in recovery then you have to give yourself a break. You have to get out of your own way. Because your own addictive mind would just love to sabotage your best efforts in sobriety.
Therefore, taking advice from others in recovery is the best way to put your surrender into action. This is an empowering way to live in early recovery. Your life will get better and better, very quickly, if you take this suggestion.
What about you, have you found surrender to be critical for your recovery? Or maybe you have not fully surrendered just yet? If so, let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!