In my own personal journey of addiction and recovery, I have made some really poor decisions and some very good ones. Before I made the good decisions I made lots of poor ones. Hence, the learning process. I learn best (unfortunately) by banging my head into the wall repeatedly. Unfortunately this is how many struggling addicts and alcoholics tend to learn.
What I want to do in this article is to try to give advice to the struggling addict or alcoholic. So if you are still struggling to try to get clean and sober, or if you know someone who else who is, this is the “advice article” for them. In fact, this is the best advice that I can come up with based on all of my experiences in addiction and recovery.
Raise your consciousness in order to break through your denial
The first thing that needs to happen if you are still trapped in the cycle of drug addiction or alcoholism is that you need to break through your denial.
People in recovery (or anyone who would try to help you) might tell you that you need to surrender.
OK, well how do you do that? How can you surrender if you are just not ready to do so yet?
Maybe you wish that things were different, but how can you actually take action if you are not willing to make major changes and go through the ego-crushing process of surrender and then detox?
Can you really choose to surrender? Is it a choice? Can you just suddenly decide to surrender?
The answer is both yes and no:
No, you cannot just suddenly decide to surrender on a whim. It doesn’t work that way. Even if you have recently suffered some negative consequences due to your addiction, you may not be able to just surrender on a total whim. If this was possible then addiction would be a lot easier to solve.
But the answer is also “yes,” in that you can choose to surrender if you are willing to start examining your life….even while you are still trapped in addiction. This is exactly what happened to me when I was in the darkest days of my addiction. I was miserable using drugs and alcohol every day and it was just a matter of time for things to keep getting worse and worse so that I could figure that out (and thus break through my denial).
The problem is that some people never do figure it out in time–they end up in jail, an institution, or dead before they ever get a chance to discover recovery.
So the question is this:
“If you acknowledge that you are addicted, what can you do in order to bring yourself closer to surrender?”
In other words, if you cannot just choose to surrender on a whim, how can you move yourself closer to it based on your own actions and thoughts? Is there something that you can do in order to move yourself closer to true surrender?
My answer is that “yes,” you can choose to move closer to surrender. This is what I was doing (without really knowing it) in the last few weeks and months of my addiction.
What I was doing was raising my awareness. For the first time in my addiction, instead of just self medicating my feelings away, I started to take a closer look at them, even through the fog of my addiction. For the first time I was really starting to examine my feelings and how well the drugs and alcohol were medicating those feelings.
My whole purpose in using drugs and alcohol was to medicate my feelings away. I felt bad about myself and did not like what my life had become, so I was unhappy and chose to medicate that unhappiness away. The problem was that this was no longer working very well (due to my increased tolerance) and it was getting harder and harder to deny that it was not working. Drugs and alcohol were supposed to be my answer for everything, and I had progressed to a point where I had to admit to myself that it just might possibly be doing it’s job like I wanted it to do.
For a while my denial held out and I blamed other things. I blamed anything that I could in order to defend my drugs and booze. But it was getting harder and harder for me to do so and I was slowly having to admit it to myself.
At some point I got miserable enough that I decided to start measuring my happiness (or lack thereof). I did not realize it at the time but I was actually raising my awareness and my level of consciousness. I was then able to see more clearly that I was unhappy, and how often I was truly unhappy, and that it was really all my fault. I had to get to a point where I stopped blaming other people for my unhappiness. In fact what happened is that I was finally all alone (like I wanted to be) and I had an ample supply of drugs and alcohol all to myself (just like I wanted) and yet I could NOT get happy in that situation. This was the moment that was right before I surrendered. I was alone, I had plenty of drugs and booze, and I could not achieve “drunken happiness.” I could not seem to get happy and feel like I was partying even though I had plenty of booze and was adding in other drugs to the mix. Nothing worked. I was miserable, and I had no one to blame but myself. And so this led to my moment of surrender, which occurred less than 24 hours later.
So if someone is on the fence with their addiction and they are struggling to find a path to recovery, I would urge them to work through their denial. It does no good to tell someone to “just surrender.” There is no way to do that instantly, or on a whim, or just because they suddenly decide to do so. It doesn’t work that way. Instead, tell someone who is struggling that they need to:
* Get really honest with themselves (not necessarily with other people yet, tell them to forget that for now. Just to be honest with themselves).
* Start measuring their happiness. How often are they happy? How often are they miserable? How often do they take drugs or alcohol and have several days or hours of bliss? Is their drug of choice really so effective at making them happy? Did it work better in the past? Is it ever going to work like it did in the past? (hint: It’s never going to be like it was in the beginning again….).
* Raise their awareness about their feelings, and if their drug of choice can medicate unwanted feelings away (hint: in the past, drugs and booze could cover up feelings. After tolerance builds up, this no longer works. Thus the increase in misery).
* Ask themselves: “Are they truly happy?” And if not, are they willing to give someone else control of their life (temporarily) in order to get another shot at happiness? This is essentially what inpatient rehab is.
So the advice at this stage of addiction is:
Look at your happiness. Be honest with yourself about it. Admit to yourself that your drug of choice no longer works for you like it did in the past. You can focus on this idea and let it grow on you. Observe it. Watch it in your mind. This is an increase in awareness. If you keep doing this then eventually you will surrender and choose a path that leads to recovery.
Look at your past failures to see what doesn’t work
Now if you have already surrendered then you are ready to take action in order to solve your problem. One problem is that some people get to this point and they find out that they did not truly surrender, not fully anyway. Instead they just wished that things were different, and therefore they made a surface-level decision to try to clean up their life. The problem is that this is a temporary measure and does not change the addiction in the long run. It is a temporary hold at best.
If you have tried to get clean and sober in the past and failed at it, then you need to figure out what went wrong and try a new approach. They have a saying in traditional recovery that gets repeated almost every single day at AA meetings: “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Well if this is true then you should not keep going to AA over and over again and expect for it to suddenly start working for you, right? The same is true of various treatment approaches that you may have tried in the past.
For example, I went to counseling for many months or even years while I was still using drugs and alcohol. This was not working out for me. It was not producing recovery. So the next time that I tried to make a special effort to change my life and to get sober, did it make sense to go back to counseling? Not really. Instead, it made sense to try a different approach to treatment at that time. Try something new.
My advice to people is to “take it up a level.” If you tried meetings in the past and failed, then try something more intense than meetings this time. Go to outpatient therapy and get a sponsor and work with that sponsor. Or if you tried short term residential in the past but failed, then try long term rehab. Find a more intensive approach than what you used in the past.
If you keep relapsing then you would not seek out less treatment, would you? That doesn’t make any sense. Instead you would want to find a way to get more treatment, more intensive treatment, more thorough treatment. This is what finally worked for me in my own situation because in the past I always relapsed after counseling or short term rehab. So eventually I had to surrender and agree to get more intensive treatment.
How to truly surrender
When you truly surrender you let go of everything. Everything. This is not easy to do because it is human nature to try to hang on to some degree of control in our lives.
So many people who come to a detox center or short term rehab have not truly surrendered. Instead they have only partially surrendered, or they have simply wished that their lives were different without making the full commitment to change everything.
You can’t just casually surrender. You can’t just make a snap decision to recover. It doesn’t work that way. True surrender is a process that unfolds over months, years, or possibly decades. The length of time that it takes will depend on personality type and also personal circumstances. The more misery and chaos in your life the quicker you will surrender. But some people never end up truly surrendering even in the face of massive amounts of misery. They hang on to their addiction to the bitter end. Don’t be one of those people.
So how do you choose to surrender? You can’t, really. But you can make a decision that will bring it about faster on its own. Confusing? You bet it is. But surrender is tricky like that. You can’t just decide on a whim that you would like to surrender today. It doesn’t work that way.
So what can you do? You can work on your denial. You can push through your denial. And if you make a consistent and conscious effort to do this, you will end up surrendering much quicker than if you do not. So in a way you can choose to surrender, you just can’t choose to do so instantly. You have to work towards it. As far as I know most people have not really figured this out. I certainly never heard anyone in AA describe the process in this much detail, at least not in any kind of instructive capacity.
So if you are struggling to try and surrender, here are your instructions:
1) Start a written journal. It is to be a log of your daily happiness and drug and alcohol intake. You must start measuring. If you are not measuring both of these things (drug intake + happiness) then you are just living in denial. So start writing down how happy you are each day. Be honest with yourself. Also record how much drugs and alcohol you have consumed.
2) Raise your awareness. Start paying attention to your happiness throughout the day. Ask yourself all the time: “Am I really happy right now?” Because if you are not, then why are you scrambling so hard to keep using your drug of choice? The idea is to prove to yourself that it is not worth it. But you can’t just decide that you want to surrender and declare that it is not worth it, because that never works. Instead, you have to allow your own mind to discover the truth, to see that it really is not worth it any more to try to chase your happiness with drugs and alcohol. It is only then that you can break through your denial and start on a path of change.
Do you need professional treatment services?
Ask yourself right now: “Do I need rehab or addiction treatment?” The answer will depend on a couple of variables. For one thing, if you experience any sort of physical withdrawal when you stop using drugs or alcohol then you most likely need professional treatment. This is especially true if there is medical danger, as there is in the case of alcohol withdrawal and certain drugs. If you do not know if there is medical danger for withdrawal from your particular drug, then you should error on the side of going to rehab.
Second of all you might want to consider your past and how much you have struggled to try to get clean and sober. Most people who have relapsed and are struggling with addiction could stand to benefit from going to inpatient rehab. It works for people where other methods of recovery fail. You may decide that “oh I will just get sober on my own and start going to 12 step meetings.” This may not be good enough though. You may need that extra helping hand that treatment gives you in the beginning. You also benefit a great deal while being in rehab because it is a strictly controlled environment where there is no threat of relapse. Many people who try to get clean on their own end up relapsing because their access to drugs or alcohol is too easy. Part of the purpose of rehab is simply to lock yourself away for a while so you can be safe.
Remaining clean and sober after rehab
After you leave short term rehab you are extremely vulnerable to relapse. If it is going to happen then it is extremely likely that it will happen in that first 12 months after you first leave treatment. The odds are heavily stacked against you. Something like 90 percent will relapse within the first year after leaving rehab. So you need a plan.
Without a plan, you are basically just agreeing that you are part of that 90 percent that will relapse. You have to have a plan. Which is to say, you need to commit to taking serious action. No action, and you are certain to relapse. You have to DO something in order to remain clean and sober.
So what can you do? My first suggestion is to get involved with a recovery community, which is to say, give AA and NA a chance to work in your life. Even though I don’t recommend long term dependence on those programs (and I do not attend them today) I still believe they are probably your best bet for the first year of recovery. You cannot get that same level of support anywhere else.
Another option may be to get involved in a religious community, such as a church. This would give you roughly the same benefit as getting heavily involved in AA or NA, though it is obviously not quite as specific to addiction. It may still be helpful path to some.
Finally if you shun both of those ideas and absolutely do not want to use a community to help support you, you can always try to do it all yourself. This is what I do today in my recovery but I admit that I did not start that way (I did a year in AA to start, then the last 11 years I have been flying solo). In order to do that you must push yourself very hard to make personal growth in your life. You must look at your peers in AA, measure their growth, and make sure you are doing at least as much on your own.
Remaining clean and sober in the long run
The secret advice to long term sobriety is to take a pro-active strategy in beating complacency.
Complacency is when you get lazy in your recovery and stop growing.
The pro-active approach is to realize this and be constantly vigilant in terms of personal growth. Therefore you have to push yourself a bit in order to stave off complacency. When you have 4 years sober or 11 years sober, ask yourself: “What have I done lately to improve myself or my life situation?” Always be asking yourself what you can do to learn more about yourself or improve your life. This is the path to long term success. If you stop asking this of yourself then you run the risk of stagnating and relapse.
The key is positive action and learning more about yourself. From now until you die……