How to Mentally Commit Yourself to Total Abstinence

How to Mentally Commit Yourself to Total Abstinence


Yesterday we looked at how to find the right amount of disruption in order to overcome your addiction. Today we are going to look at the next logical step in the recovery process, which is your mental decision to commit to total abstinence.

How people get clean and sober

Let me tell you my personal story of how this idea developed. The idea is that you need to make a mental decision to 100 percent total abstinence from addictive drugs and alcohol. I called this concept my “zero tolerance policy.”

The reason that this was even an issue has to do with my experience in very early recovery, when I first got clean and sober.

At the time, I was living in a long term rehab center, and I was attending meetings every day. In these meetings people would talk about what helped them to stay clean and sober. They were not necessarily like “normal” AA meetings though, because there were so many newcomers in these meetings who were very early in their recovery. But I was still exposed to hundreds of these sessions and therefore I got to analyze lots of different advice from various people.

A lot of the advice differed, and some of it was even conflicting. For example, different people would emphasize different recovery concepts as being important for your recovery. Someone might be talking in the AA meeting, and they would be saying something like “…the secret is all in the steps, the 12 steps of AA. You have to get into the steps and work through them if you want to stay clean and sober. That is the only way you are going to be sober in the long run, is if you work the steps.”

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Then someone else might say like “the secret of sobriety is to find your higher power. No one can do this without relying on a higher power. If you don’t find your higher power then you are doomed to relapse…..”

Then another person might say “If you don’t have a sponsor to help guide you through the steps, you better get one. No one can stay sober without having a sponsor who can help guide them in recovery. Getting a sponsor is the most important step you can take in recovery.”

Then someone else might say “Coming to meetings every day is your lifeline. If you want to relapse, just stop coming to meetings. These meetings are like my medicine, and if I don’t take it, then I get sick.”

And on and on and on. I tried to absorb all of this and I tried to single out the important stuff. To listen to the people in AA tell, all of it was important, and I had better focus on everything they were telling me.

But this felt wrong to me, and I did not believe that each piece of advice that I was given was equally important. My brain does not work that way. I had to zero in on what was really important so that I could increase my chances of staying sober.

I had to understand how the recovery process really worked, rather than to simply have people telling me “do this, then do that, and you will be sober. Don’t question anything.”

I could not accept that. There were actually people in the meetings who would suggest out loud “don’t try to figure out how AA works, or you are going to fail. Just do what you are told and your life will get better.”

I could not accept that. It was too sloppy, too inefficient. If something worked then I wanted to know how and why it worked so that I could focus on the important aspects of it and not waste my time and energy. I had to have an understanding of the process so that I was more motivated to apply the ideas in my life. That’s just how my brain is wired.

So when the people in AA meetings were talking about “what is the most important thing in recovery,” and they are going around and all giving different or even conflicting advice, I could not accept that. I had to find the deeper truth, rather than all of these surface-level suggestions about how recovery might work (but that it is too mystical of a process so don’t question to much?!)

And so I began to watch and observe people, and really started to pay attention. Keep in mind that I was living in a long term rehab but that I was also attending meetings with people from a short term rehab. I stayed there for 20 months and attended these meetings almost the entire time, watching hundreds or even thousands of people come in and out of the meetings. Many of them relapsed and came back later to admit it. A handful of people actually maintained sobriety through that entire time.

So what I did was to stay to listen carefully to what people were saying, then I would watch what they did in real life. And so someone would declare what was truly important in recovery, but then a month later they would relapse. In such cases I was quick to disregard their message. Why? Because I was not interested in the results that they were getting.

If someone relapses then all they could teach me was what NOT to do in recovery. Those who stayed clean and sober for the duration had a better chance at zeroing in on the truth that I was seeking.

What I found in the end was that the only common thread among the success stories was commitment. These people that succeeded all had a mental commitment to total and complete abstinence, and held this as their highest priority.

Now this may be obvious, and you may be thinking to yourself “well duh. How could you miss such a simple idea? Of course that is the most important thing in recovery.”

But it’s not. It took me over six months to figure this out in early recovery, maybe as much as a whole year.

Look at the 12 steps of AA. The first step is not “Made a commitment to avoid addictive drugs and alcohol no matter what happens.”

Why is that not the first step of the 12 step program?

Can anyone explain that to me? How that should not be the first and most important step? It makes no sense at all.

But it took me about 6 to 12 months of recovery before the fog cleared enough for me to realize this. It took me almost a full year in recovery before I realized that all of these AA suggestions were sort of indirect, and that the 12 steps themselves just sort of pointed in a direction you might go, but in a very indirect way.

They say that AA is “a simple program for simple people.” That is ridiculous. If it were a simple program it would have maybe two steps in it, not twelve steps.

Why are there 12 steps in order to cut to the truth of what is really important for recovery? Something like this would have been much more helpful, at least to me:

Step one: “Make a commitment to yourself that you will not use addictive drugs or alcohol, period.”
Step two: “Push yourself to become a healthier person and grow as a human being.”


Why are there 12 steps? Why does an AA meeting have 25 different suggestions on what is really important in recovery, when obviously it is the commitment to total abstinence?

Why does a program of recovery seek to deliberately complicate the recovery process? They cannot be serious when they say that “AA is a simple program.” This is insane, there are 12 steps! Twelve of them!

No, what I realized in my early recovery journey was that sobriety is based on an individual commitment to abstinence. Without this commitment there is no recovery. The rest of the recovery process can be summarized at being “personal growth.” In other words, don’t just sit there when you get clean and sober. Go do something productive, make something useful happen, pursue greater health in your life, and so on. Take action. But all the while, there is really only one important truth in recovery, and that is the total commitment to abstinence. Everything else is secondary to this concept. Everything else only seeks to enhance your personal growth in recovery.

Why you need a strong mental commitment

Everyone who wants to stay clean and sober needs to make this strong mental commitment to themselves. This is not the same thing as having “strong willpower.”

To be honest I do not have strong willpower. I really don’t. I can be tempted, and quite easily at times. I am not special and I do not have superhuman amounts of willpower.

But making a commitment to total abstinence is different than willpower. What you really saying when you make this commitment is:

“I am making the decision to abstain from drugs and alcohol no matter what, and therefore I will seek out any help that I may need in order to do so.”

This is different than saying:

“I am going to use incredible willpower to resist cravings for drugs and alcohol.”

The second idea (willpower) implies that you do it all by yourself, with no help from anyone.

The first idea (making a strong mental commitment) implies that you will do whatever it takes to follow through on this promise for yourself–including seeking out help from others.

There is a subtle difference there but it is an important one.

People in traditional recovery often say “You cannot overcome your addiction through willpower. The addiction is too strong for you.”

I would tend to agree that this is likely true for the majority of people. The alternative to this is not to use brute force or willpower, but to simply commit 100% to the idea that you are not going to use drugs or alcohol no matter what, and then commit to the idea that you will do whatever it takes in order to make that happen.

The level of commitment is what is important. This is not the same thing as using raw willpower. With your strong internal commitment, you are willing to reach out for help, to seek help outside of yourself in order to overcome your addiction. This is an important difference, because most of us WILL need some sort of help in our recovery.

Having a “zero tolerance policy” in your mind

The commitment itself is very simple. Your first step in recovery is that you hold this decision in your mind that you are not going to use addictive drugs or alcohol today, no matter what happens. Period.

This has to be your most important mantra in recovery. It has to be your most important concept, your highest truth.

One thing that I noticed in my early recovery is that the people who were making suggestions in AA meetings never seemed to arrive at this same conclusion. As I said I watched and observed hundreds of alcoholics and addicts in early recovery and I also was watching who relapsed and who stayed clean and sober. My opinions where thus formed based on the idea that I wanted to find the ultimate truth in recovery and discover what was really important in terms of actually staying clean and sober.

What was really important to focus on? Was it improving spirituality? Was it attending daily AA meetings? Was it to seek God’s will? Was it to work through the steps using a sponsor?

What was really important to be focusing on if you wanted to insure sobriety?

I found out more and more as I watched more and more people relapse was that recovery had to be mostly in inside job. Now that is one saying that you might hear around traditional recovery every once in a while: “Recovery is an inside job.”

This one is definitely true and it is a natural part of what I found to be the highest truth in recovery. Notice that the concept of recovery being “an inside job” is nestled into my highest truth in recovery:

“Made a commitment to not use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.”

See that “making a commitment” implies that recovery is an inside job. It does not say

“go and shout from the rooftops and tell all your friends and family that you are not going to use drugs or alcohol anymore.”

That would NOT be an inside job if you did that. And maybe you will try to bring some accountability into your recovery, maybe not. But the important part is the internal commitment, the commitment that you make with yourself, the “inside job” part of it all. That is what is really important and therefore that is what you need to focus on.

You need to get really straight with yourself, mentally, that your highest truth in life is to avoid drugs and alcohol. This is has to be fully accepted and comprehended at your innermost self.

This internal commitment, this “inside job” as they call it in AA, is the most important suggestion in your recovery journey.

Why don’t they talk about it more in AA? Why don’t they make it step one? I honestly do not know.

But over my first year of recovery, I slowly figured out that this was the most important thing in recovery, and that all of the other suggestions that you hear that are so important (like get a sponsor, work the steps, find a higher power, go to meetings, etc.) are all basically misdirection and confusion for the newcomer.

All they really need to focus on at first is the idea that they need to make a strong mental commitment, with themselves, that abstinence from drugs and alcohol is now their number one priority in life. This is by far the most important concept of early recovery, this internal commitment to abstinence. Everything else is misdirection and just confuses the newcomer.

The most important thing in your life today

This internal commitment is based on a very simple idea:

If you relapse, you lose everything.

Recovery is a huge gift and you receive all of these amazing benefits from it. But the second that you relapse all of those benefits get vaporized. All of your progress and hard work gets destroyed. Any personal growth that you made in your recovery typically gets wiped out.

You can confirm this by going to lots of AA meetings and listening to people come back and tell their story after they relapse. Seriously, this will perfectly illustrate the devastating effects of relapse to you.

Everyone that I have heard speak about a relapse uses the exact same language. They all say “I lost everything.” They repeat this language over and over again while telling their story, and every person who has relapsed and come back to tell the tale says the same thing: “I lost everything.”

When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. The person used to be struggling in addiction, and they made a decision and got clean and sober at one point. At that time, they started to rebuild their life and make personal growth. They started obtaining things in recovery: trust from other people, material things, perhaps a new job, new relationships, etc.

Then if they relapse, they are sort of “resetting their life” back to what it was like before recovery. So naturally, they are going to lose all of that stuff that they gained when they first got clean and sober. The relapse eradicates their progress.

Recovery is based on a simple idea: you commit to not use drugs or alcohol no matter what, and this opens the door for you to achieve all sorts of personal growth and enjoy wonderful new experiences. But the personal growth and the wonderful new experiences and the opportunity for all of that is all based on the fact that you remain clean and sober.

Take one drink or addictive drug, and it all gets flushed down the toilet. You are back at square one, maybe even worse off than when you first got clean and sober.

Therefore, the zero tolerance policy takes all of this into account, when it states that:

* The most important thing in your life today is your commitment to not use drugs or alcohol, no matter what.

This is why we say that it is your highest truth in recovery, the most important concept of all. Because all of your success, personal growth, or happiness in recovery rests on the fact that you remain clean and sober and avoid relapse.

Your highest truth in recovery

The opportunity for personal growth and happiness in recovery is based on one thing: continued abstinence.

Without that, you cannot make future growth. When you relapse, you take a huge step back, sometimes much more than just one or two steps. Sometimes a relapse can send you back dozens of steps, or even kill you outright.

That is another truth that you can learn by listening to people in AA meetings: when they relapse and come back and talk about it, they say “it gets worse.” You will hear this over and over again if you attend lots of meetings, that it always gets worse after a relapse, never better.

And not only that, but it gets harder and harder each time to come back to recovery. This is at least partly due to the element of shame.

So this is your highest truth in recovery, this is the most important concept for you to follow, by far.

Simply that you will make an internal commitment with yourself that you will not use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.

This commitment comes first. It is the highest truth. If you find yourself struggling with this commitment then you need to ask for help. But realize that the internal agreement with yourself is still the most important part of your recovery, on which all success or failure hinges upon.


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