Yesterday we looked at how to discover the best recovery strategy for yourself to follow. Today we want to look at how to master the basic process of actually getting clean and sober to begin with. A lot of people screw this up at first (look at relapse rates for 30 days and under!) so this is an important concept to understand.
There is a difference between living clean and sober (long term recovery) and the actual process of getting clean and sober for the first part time (early recovery). They have a saying in traditional recovery “It is much easier to stay clean and sober than it is to GET clean and sober.” What they are doing is cautioning against relapse. If you have made it this far and are already stable in recovery, don’t let go of it! The journey back to sobriety requires an incredible amount of inertia just to get back to the point where you are willing to surrender again. Reaching this point is never trivial. The lure of staying self medicated is usually far too great. Therefore if you already have your sobriety then it is best to do everything you can to hold on to it. Do not assume that you will ever be able to make an easy decision to get clean and sober again in the future.
That said, if you are still struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, then you are starting to get an idea of what might really be required of you in order to break free from addiction. It takes what it takes. Most addicts who have tested the waters and tried to quit on their own have slowly realized that it is nearly impossible to overcome their addiction under their own power. This is why we realize at some point that we need to ask for help. Such a humbling experience does not come easy.
Therefore if you want to learn a new way of life then you need to first become willing to learn. Most alcoholics have a hard time doing this, which is why the typical “bottom” in addiction is set so dangerously low. Most people do not suck it up and ask for help until they have lost everything, or nearly everything. This is not necessary and anyone can surrender much sooner than this if they can find the motivation to do so. The problem is that the typical alcoholic is only motivated by pain, and therefore they are not going to throw in the towel and ask for help until they are absolutely miserable due to their addiction.
As with any new experience, overcoming alcoholism is a learning process. Before one can learn the lessons they have to become willing to learn. This, then, is really the first lesson. Surrender followed by willingness.
Being trapped in denial and how to escape the cycle of alcoholism
So how do you become willing to learn in recovery?
First you have to surrender. You cannot make any progress in recovery until you have surrendered fully to your addiction.
Now most people who are miserable due to their addiction have already started on the process of surrender. They probably admit that they have a problem at least. But as we have seen, this is not good enough. If all they do is admit that they have a problem then this does nothing to solve their problem of addiction.
Surrender is a step further than just admitting to the addiction. If all you had to do was to admit your problem then everyone could be magically cured overnight. But it takes more than that. You have to look deep inside of yourself and fully accept your addiction on the deepest level. This is much different than simply admitting to someone else that you have a drinking or drug problem.
How does this deep acceptance change things? Because then you can move forward and make a new decision. See, the addict or alcoholic who is trapped in denial is holding on to the idea that they might one day be able to both control and enjoy their drug or alcohol use. They know that they love to get wasted but they also realize that it gets them into trouble. So they are constantly trying to find a way to have fun with their drug and self medicate without getting into trouble. Their secret hope is that they can transcend this problem some day and be able to enjoy their drug of choice without consequence.
This is the nature of denial. They are holding on to a false hope that one day their drug of choice can make them truly happy, 100 percent happy. Hanging on to this hope is what keeps them sick.
The point of surrender is not easy to achieve. In order to truly surrender, the addict must really accept their addiction at the deepest level. And in a way the only way to do this is to smash the ego, swallow their pride, and realize that their ideas about how to be happy in this world are completely wrong. This takes a lot of guts. It takes guts to surrender to your addiction and admit that your way has not been working well. It takes guts to admit that your ultimate solution in life (self medicating with your drug of choice) has been a complete failure. But this is ultimately what has to happen in order for progress to be made.
The addict must have a moment of clarity. In that moment they have to suddenly glimpse the cycle of their addiction: how they are constantly going through chaos and misery, struggling to self medicate and be happy with their drug of choice, achieving such a brief moment of happiness here and there, and then going back into chaos and misery as they struggle to achieve another peak experience. The addict must gain clarity and suddenly see this entire process, they have to somehow back up and gain perspective. Some addicts will do this after a crisis, like when they find themselves sitting in jail. Others might do it after a relationship partner walks out of their life for good. And still others may not need a special crisis to realize the futility of their addiction.
But this is what has to happen. The addict must see the futility of the cycle they are stuck in. They have to grasp the horror of it all, that it will never really get any better, that they will never be truly happy if they keep chasing that next high, and that their fantasy in their mind is an impossible dream of happiness. You see, the addict is always making excuses for their lack of happiness, saying that “I would be truly happy if I just had enough drugs, enough money, enough freedom, enough time to self medicate all day long,” etc. What they don’t realize is that they would never be truly happy, even if you granted them all of their demands. They would still be miserable even if you granted them their every wish. The nature of drug and alcohol addiction insures this, because it is a never ending cycle of peaks followed by miserable crashes. You cannot have one without the other. Denial is believing that some day you can have 100 percent happiness, without any of the misery of addiction attached to it. This is fantasy. You have to take the good with the bad. Addiction comes with plenty of “bad.”
The moment when I finally broke through my denial, I realized this for the first time. I clearly saw the endless futility. I clearly saw what was in store for me in the future if I stayed on this path of drugs and alcohol. It was just never going to get any better. I do not know why I could never grasp that in the past, but finally I grasped it. It takes what it takes. I had to go through a certain amount of chaos, pain, and misery before I was able to see that it was never going to get any better.
All the while, I was hanging on to my denial because I did not want to face my own fears. My drug did something for me, and what it did was to medicate my fears and my anxieties. I abused drugs and alcohol so that I did not have to feel my emotions. I preferred to medicate my feelings away because I did not think it was very hip to have these emotions. I knew that if I did not have drugs in my life that I would have to face my emotions and learn to deal with my feelings. This scared the heck out of me and therefore I stayed stuck in my addiction for a long time.
I had also convinced myself that I was wired differently from every other human being on the planet, in that for some reason I required drugs and alcohol in order to be happy. Without them, I was miserable (or so I believed). This was always reinforced when I had brief bouts of sobriety in which I was quite miserable due to detox and withdrawal. Of course you will feel miserable when you suddenly come off of any drug. But I was projecting this misery on to the rest of my theoretically sober life, and therefore I was not open to the idea that I might be happy again some day if I was sober. I did not believe that I could be happy in sobriety, so I shut this out as a possibility. This is another reason that I stayed stuck in addiction for so long.
So in order to escape from this cycle of addiction and misery, I had to reach a breaking point. I had to get miserable enough that I became willing to look past these intense fears. My fear of sobriety, my fear of facing AA meetings, my fear of facing life without drugs or alcohol, my fear of being in treatment and talking with others, my fear of feeling my emotions and dealing with them sober. I had to somehow overcome all of these fears at the same time, in order to try and get clean and sober.
So how is that accomplished? How do you move past your fears, into recovery?
You do it by letting go. You have to let go of everything.
Most people hear the term “letting go” and they think they know what it means. Unless you have really surrendered to something like an addiction (or a disease) and fully put your life into the hands of others, you probably are underestimating the term. Really letting go means letting go fully and completely, 100 percent. It means that you throw up your hands and say “I am willing to do anything, show me how to live, I am at your mercy.” Seriously, when you get to the point of full surrender you would gladly walk into a jail or prison cell if that is what they told you to do. You will be at the point where you just don’t care. You will be indifferent to life and indifferent to your actions. Go to rehab? Sure, why not. It can’t get any worse.
This is the point of misery that you have to achieve in order to recover. Pain is the great motivator of the addict. We take action to avoid misery and pain only when it becomes great enough. I wish there were another way to motivate ourselves but nothing else seems to work on addicts and alcoholics. We finally get willing to make drastic changes only after we are so miserable that we no longer care about our life.
So when you have reached this point of ultimate despair and misery, don’t give up! You have been given a gift. In recovery we call this “the gift of desperation.” It is a gift because now that you have reached your bottom, you are ready to start your journey back up to recovery.
And what an amazing journey it is. If you are lucky enough to reach your bottom and make a decision to give recovery a chance, your life will just keep getting better and better every day.
Seriously, this is one of the amazing gifts of recovery that no one is very good at fully articulating. The gift of cumulative progress. Overcoming alcoholism bestows this gift on people. You get to keep growing and continue to make progress, every day of your life going forward. Things just keep getting better and better. Who wouldn’t want to tap into that?
You may have noticed that in your active addiction, while you are still using and drinking and self medicating, things keep getting worse and worse. Addiction is a negative spiral of pain, chaos, and misery. Things get worse over time as consequences pile up and intensify. You do things that you said you would never do. It all just spirals out of control.
Recovery is the same way, only the opposite. This is a gift! When you choose recovery, you are choosing a path of greater health, and you are choosing a path of learning. Therefore you commit to taking positive action every day, rather than to experience the negative destruction of addiction.
Taking positive action every day creates an accumulation of positive benefits. Things just keep getting better and better in your life. Taking positive action in one area of your life (such as fitness, or emotional balance, or spirituality for example) can create powerful second order effects that then create positive change in other areas of your life as well. In other words, once you start on a path of personal growth and positive action, your success starts to breed more success in your life. Creating positive action in one area will lend itself to positive effects in another area. This is why someone who gets into shape my notice that they not only sleep better at night but they also may seem more emotionally stable throughout their day. It all ties together and therefore if you are in recovery you should take a holistic approach to personal growth. Traditional recovery can be somewhat narrow in this view and they tend to only focus on spiritual growth at the expense of all other areas of growth. You should ignore this traditional approach and instead embrace a more holistic path, as this is much more powerful and effective in long term recovery.
Getting the help that you need and the stability of early recovery
Early recovery demands stability. Just take a look at the typical relapse statistics for people who are attempting to get clean and sober. The odds are not in favor of someone who is just starting out. This is due to the incredible amount of inertia that one needs in order to break free from the cycle of addiction. Denial is very powerful and therefore your surrender must be full and complete. The level of willingness needs to be incredibly high in order to break free from addiction. What are you willing to do in order to get clean and sober?
Are you willing to walk away from your current job? From your current set of friends? From your family (if they are toxic to your sobriety)?
I was not willing to do those things at first, and therefore I stayed stuck in my addiction for a long time because of it. I had to become willing to let go of my job, of my friends. These things were no good for me and I was never going be able to break free from my addiction if I stayed at the same job and kept the same circle of “friends.” I had to let go of those things if I wanted to build a new life in recovery. This was not a trivial thing for me to do and it kept me stuck in addiction for a long time.
How to actually get beyond detox and get to 90 days sober
There is certainly more than one way to get clean and sober and make it to 90 days clean, so I can just share with you how I did. This is what worked for me.
I asked for help, first and foremost. I let go of everything and asked for help, and became willing to do what I was suggested. I asked for help from the people I trusted (my family).
They suggested rehab, and I went. I went through detox and residential treatment. The therapists and counselors there suggested that I live in long term rehab. I was willing to do that too. In the past I had never been willing. But now I was fully surrendered, so I was willing to follow direction.
The key to getting 90 days sober is not to go live in rehab, necessarily. Instead the key is to ask for help and then take direction. That is the secret to early recovery. Ask for help and then actually follow through on the advice. Long term rehab is just what I needed at the time, you may need something different. The key is in asking for help and then the follow through. That is the secret of early recovery that so many people miss. Those who relapse in the first 90 days typically did not follow through. They all asked for help, and they all listened to advice, but then they did not all follow through on that advice. The key is in the follow through.
Most people fail to make it to 90 days sober (and beyond) because they are not fully surrendered yet. They are still hanging on to the idea that they might one day enjoy drinking again, and therefore they do not fully let go of their disease. The only way to get past this roadblock is to experience enough pain and misery in addiction that you become willing to surrender fully. It is only then that you can become willing to take direction and learn a new way of living.