Reader Mailbag: Does an Alcoholic Have to be Nearly Suicidal in Order...

Reader Mailbag: Does an Alcoholic Have to be Nearly Suicidal in Order to Surrender?


A reader once emailed me and asked if it was necessary to be suicidal before an alcoholic would be able to surrender and thus find recovery.

I thought this over because in my own experience I was very near the point of wanting to self destruct when I finally became sober.

And I realize today that desperation is definitely on a sliding scale. In other words, it has more to do with your threshold for pain and misery than it has to do with your absolute level of misery.

In other words, different people will “throw in the towel” and try to get sober at different points. It depends on what their personal level of tolerance is for chaos and misery. Some people give up the struggle and surrender to their disease after only a few years, while other people will struggle their entire lives (for decades) without ever surrendering. Obviously we want to be the type of alcoholic who surrenders sooner so that we can enjoy the benefits and rewards of sobriety.

Thus, desperation is a gift.

The gift of desperation

- Approved Treatment Center -


Nothing good can really happen in your life unless you are desperate for change. No amazing transformation is going to occur unless you are able to become seriously desperate.

The reason for this is because change is so uncomfortable. We will do just about anything to avoid having to change things in our lives. It is so much easier to stay safe and maintain what we have been doing all along. To dive into the unknown and face major changes is not enticing for anyone. We tend to avoid it.

The only way to embrace change in recovery is to become desperate. Notice too that the depth of these changes is what is really important. For example, a few years before I finally surrendered to my disease I thought that I might be ready for change. So I ended up being talked into treatment and I actually attended rehab but I did not remain clean and sober at that time. What was the problem? The problem was that I was not yet ready to “change everything.” They have a saying in traditional recovery: “The only thing that you have to change in sobriety is everything.” It is a joke that also hints at a real truth. Your success in recovery is generally measured by the depth of your commitment.

When I first tried to get sober (way before I had truly surrendered) I had the wrong idea. I did not know what I was doing, nor did I realize what I was up against. And even if I had understood this I do not think it would have made a difference at that particular time. I had this vague notion that I was not happy with things, and that it might be better if I was not addicted to alcohol. But I was not really desperate for change at this time, and I had not surrendered fully to my disease. I was just sort of wishing that things were different.

So I went to treatment at this time because my friends and family were urging me to do so. And I realized that it would be nice if I was happy and joyous all the time without having to drink alcohol. But I definitely was not coming from a place of desperation. I was not gasping for air due to practically drowning in the misery of alcoholism. Therefore I did not remain clean and sober at this time. I went to rehab and they told me to do a whole bunch of things, such as:

1) Go to AA meetings every day after treatment.
2) Get a sponsor and work through the 12 steps with this person.
3) Change the people, places, and things in my life that were a negative influence in terms of my addiction.
4) Go to counseling and therapy in order to work on my issues and improve myself.

I was willing to do none of this. The only thing I was willing to do actually was to go to therapy or counseling for one hour each week. There was a very specific reason for this tiny bit of willingness. It was because I had already been doing that all along, and it felt safe to me. I was not afraid to go see the counselor or therapist. I could do that easily for one hour each week and then just go nuts and keep drinking like a madman. It was a convenient way to justify my drinking by telling myself that “I was working on it” when in fact I was not really working on recovery at all. Not even a little bit. And at one point the counselor told me this, he said “you should stop seeing me because obviously you are not ready to stop drinking and have no intention of doing so.” I was upset with this because he was absolutely right. He called me out and I did not like it, but he was right. I was just treading water and continuing to drink while not doing anything real about the problem.

And the reason for this was because I lacked desperation. I was not desperate for change. It wasn’t that bad yet, or so I told myself. It’s not that bad. Everyone drinks, right? Everyone does something to get them through the day, I told myself. So I continued to self medicate. I was still at the point where I could get smashed and have a good time with it. I was not extremely miserable yet in my drinking.

One of the reasons that alcoholism is progressive is because the amount of “fun” that you have with your drinking starts to diminish over time. Every alcoholic will eventually progress to a point where they will realize that it is no longer fun. If they are honest with themselves they will realize that getting drunk might be fun like once a month or so. Or if they are honest they will realize that if they sober up for a few days and then drink again it will be fun for a brief moment in time. But after that it is back to misery and pain again, unless they set themselves up for more “fun” by abstaining for a few days. And what fun is that? Trust me, it’s not.

So this is sort of desperation that you have to reach in order to make a real start with recovery. You have to be desperate for change. You have to be totally sick and tired of being miserable. And most of all you have to be desperate enough to want to face your fear of sobriety.

Admit it: There are these fears that are holding you back from getting sober. You are afraid of sobriety, afraid of AA meetings, afraid of the unknown. Every alcoholic has fears that are holding them back from getting sober. If this were not true then you would already be sober, trust me. The only thing that stops you from this is FEAR. No one likes to admit this but it is always the case. The only thing that is powerful enough to keep someone from pursuing sobriety is fear.

So what has to happen is that the alcoholic must get more and more desperate for change. Because this fear is holding them back from embracing recovery and at some point they have to throw caution to the wind and say “I don’t care what recovery is like or how scary it is, it has to be better than what I am experiencing now in my addiction.” And so they abandon something inside of them, they abandon this caution and they decide to face their fear. For me it felt nearly suicidal to do this. Not suicidal in the sense that I wanted to self destruct, but it felt suicidal in the sense that I equated facing this fear of the unknown as being worse than death. My fear was so great that it was irrational. I was terrified of sobriety, of recovery, of AA meetings. I did not want to face any of it and I thought that doing so was a fate worse than death.

Why people who are not desperate usually have a hard time with alcoholism recovery

One of the things that you need to learn in early recovery is just how much commitment and action it takes to remain sober.

People who do not have this desperation in recovery are not likely to make the sort of commitment that leads to the type of action that can keep them sober.

That probably sounds like a convoluted mess so let me break it down a bit more.

Someone decides to go to treatment. They say that they would like to stop drinking.

They need to be at a place of desperation so that they can surrender.

What are they surrendering to? They need to surrender to two things:

1) Surrender to the fact that they are addicted.
2) Surrender to a solution.

This second piece is often missed. It is still part of denial if you deny that a solution can help you.

You must surrender deeply so that your commitment will be strong enough to overcome addiction.

And what do you need commitment for? You need a strong commitment in order to take action. Massive action. Sustained action.

The problem with early recovery is that it takes too darn long. It would be nice if you could get through the entire early recovery process in an afternoon. Unfortunately you are not going to just heal your life overnight. It probably takes most people between a few months to a few years to really get through the early recovery process, heal their life, and start living in long term recovery.

In order to reach this point of transition (from early recovery to long term sobriety) the alcoholic has to do a lot of work. They must put forth a sustained effort. So they have to take good care of themselves every single day for a long time. They have to put forth a positive effort and take positive actions every single day for a long time. This requires commitment.

One of the most frustrating facts about recovery from alcoholism is that it is pass/fail. You cannot “sort of recover.” If you take a drink then it is all over. You reset back to zero or sometimes you even fall further than you ever have been in the past (it keeps getting worse). So you don’t get a free pass. You don’t get to coast through your recovery and expect to do well. If you slack off in this daily action, in this positive action stuff, then you will relapse. This is why the strength of your commitment is so important to your recovery.

And it all can be traced back to desperation. You need to take lots of positive action to recover. Therefore you need a strong commitment to take this positive action. And to have a strong commitment you must surrender fully. And in order to surrender fully you need to be incredibly desperate. This is why desperation is a gift. Because it leads you to success in recovery, and without the desperation you can not get this positive outcome.

How can you hit bottom and surrender if you are not ready to do so yet?

How can we help a struggling alcoholic or addict to hit bottom and surrender if they are not ready to do so yet?

In theory there are two ways to do this. One way is to go out there and get more and more misery. For example, say that you are at an Al-anon meeting and they are discussing what it will take before a certain alcoholic will finally surrender and try to get sober. Someone might bring up the fact that “that person just needs to experience more pain and misery before they are going to get serious about recovery.” In other words, alcoholics do not check into rehab when things are going well. They don’t decide to get sober when they are still having fun with their drinking every night. Before they will take the plunge and seek recovery they have to be miserable first. Otherwise what will motivate them to want to change? Remember, change is incredibly hard and inconvenient. To the point that many alcoholics would rather die from drinking than to face the discomfort of change.

Now the other theory is that instead of the alcoholic going out into the chaos to experience more pain and misery, they just have to realize how much misery and pain they are already in.

In other words, instead of finding more pain and misery to help motivate themselves, they just need to break through their denial and realize how miserable they already are.

This is very much how I finally became clean and sober myself. I reached my moment of desperation when I realized that it was never going to get any better, that I was always going to be miserable if I continued to drink. This was my turning point. This was when I realized that drinking was a total dead end for me.

The turning point

I reached my turning point when I got a glimpse into my own future. I could see myself struggling for the rest of my life with alcoholism. I realized that drinking would never make me happy.

So instead of going out and finding more pain and misery I simply realized that I had enough already. I did not need any more pain and misery in my life to help motivate me. I had plenty.

But up until that point I had never realized it. I had covered it up with denial. I did not want to believe that facing the fear of recovery was a better choice than simply enduring the misery I was going through. It was more comfortable and “safe” to keep drinking than it was to face the unknown. I was scared.

But finally I got fed up with it all. I got sick and tired of being sick and tired all the time. And I was blessed for some reason to get this lucky glimpse into my future. I guess one day I just thought about what my life was going to be like if I continued to drink alcohol. What my life was going to be like if I never got sober. And for the first time I did not like what I saw and I realized that facing my fear of recovery was probably not so bad.

This was my turning point and it was the point at which I asked for help. I had already been to rehab twice before in my life but this time was different. How was it different? I had surrendered and I really wanted a solution. I was willing to listen. I was willing to follow directions and advice, to do as I was told. I was done chasing happiness by listening to my own ego, because that path had turned out to be full of misery. It only led to more misery and pain. So I abandoned my ego and pushed it to the side. I became willing to learn from other people.

This is the acceptance of your disease on a level that actually makes a difference. If you just declare that you are an alcoholic then this does not necessarily banish all of your denial. You have to go further than that. You have to admit that you need a solution in your life, and that you do not know what that solution is, and that you are willing to listen to other people tell you what to do.

You must say “I don’t know how to live any more. Please show me.” And you have to really mean it. You must be desperate enough to follow directions from other people on how to live. Because your way doesn’t work any more.

How to move forward and get the help that you need

Ask for help. Ask to go to treatment.

Start with inpatient rehab. If you need help getting into treatment then ask your friends and family to help you get there. If they will not help you then call up a hotline and start asking questions. Your immediate goal should be to get into an inpatient treatment program. From there your life will change and recovery can be set into motion.

It is pretty tough to recover without this sort of baseline. It is pretty tough to overcome an addiction without checking in somewhere. It can be done of course, but why make it deliberately hard on yourself? Isn’t addiction hard enough to deal with?

When I was at my point of surrender I was lucky enough to have family who arranged for me to go to treatment. Had I not had that, I am not sure what I would have done or if I would have figured out the path to recovery. This is why I urge people to try to get to inpatient rehab, so that they can get started on a new life.

Do you have a question for Spiritual River? Contact us and let us know your question and we will try to answer it in a future post.

- Approved Treatment Center -call-to-learn-about