The real secret to getting the serenity that you want in recovery has to do with surrender. This is a difficult concept to grasp at first for most alcoholics and drug addicts because we initially believe that this is something that we have to achieve. That serenity is a goal to be met, something that we reach after we have gone through the proper checklist.
It generally does not work that way. Instead, achieving serenity in recovery is about letting go. It is a release. We have to turn it over in order to get the relief that we are seeking. Perhaps it is said best in the serenity prayer when we accept the things that are beyond our control.
Accepting the things that you cannot change
Obviously it is a not a good use of your time to fixate and obsess over the things that you have zero control over. The key is to recognize when you are doing that and then develop tactics and strategies to pull yourself out of those mental traps.
For example, maybe you are worried about a future event that is completely beyond your control, such as the inevitable death of a family member. What can you do in such a situation other than to let your mind dictate a mountain of worry to you each day? There are various approaches that you can take. For one thing, you should ask for help. If you go to an AA meeting, for example, and ask the group how they handle a situation in which they cannot seem to stop worrying about something, you will get all kinds of different suggestions as to things that you might try: Prayer and meditation, talking to your sponsor about the situation, writing in a journal about your worries, and so on. You don’t have to face anything alone any more now that you are in recovery. You can ask for help, you can share your worries, you can enlist the help of others to help manage your problems. In this way you don’t have to be trapped in your own mind any longer and buried under a mountain of worry and anxiety.
We all come to acceptance in various ways. You should give yourself a break when it comes to the acceptance process. What does that mean? It means that you need to take a step back and recognize that you are just doing the best that you can in life, and that if something comes up that is difficult for you to accept that it may take some time for you to work through it. Give yourself that time. Give yourself a break. Maybe someone close to you is dying–that is really tough for anyone to go through. So don’t beat yourself up just because you don’t have instant acceptance of the situation.
When we resist reality it creates frustration and anxiety for us. The answer in many cases is to accept reality instead and make peace with the world. But that is often easier said than done, which is why you need to be willing to ask for help.
The other part of the serenity prayer is about knowing when to resist reality and try to change the world versus just making peace with things and accepting things as they are. When do you make peace, and when do you try to change the world? The prayer says that this requires wisdom. If you don’t have that wisdom then you can borrow it from others. That’s right–other people in recovery may be wiser than you are. I know that this has definitely been the case for me in my own personal journey.
For example, when I first got clean and sober, I did not believe that anyone else knew how I could become happy again. I was miserable, I was even more upset that I had just quit drinking and taking drugs, and I felt as if I would never be happy again in my life. The old timers in AA and NA told me to just hold on for a minute, stay clean and sober, and that things would get better. They told me that I would find a new happiness in sobriety if I gave it a chance.
I did not believe them. This is important. I really did not believe them, not even a little bit. I thought they were stupid. Because I was different, you see. I was special. No one had ever loved drugs and alcohol nearly as much as I had, or so I believed. So when they told me that I would find a new happiness in sobriety I thought that they were stupid.
Well, I was wrong. They were wise and I was the stupid one. And so what I had to do was to trust them, I had to let go, I had to believe in them and trust in them and have a tiny shred of faith that they might just be right. And I did this, I decided to reserve judgement for a moment, even though I thought that they were all stupid. And I went to treatment and I stayed clean and sober for a while and then one day I looked back and I realized that I was no longer miserable. I did not even notice when this happened–the transformation just simply occurred when I wasn’t paying attention. I was too close to my own transformation that I did not see it happen. But it did. And suddenly I looked back and realized that I had not been miserable for a long while. For several weeks or even several months I had been what I would call “happy” in recovery. And yet I had thought that the people of AA were stupid for telling me that I would be happy again some day, that my life would transform in this way, that I could be happy again if I just trusted in them and did what they told me to do.
So this is surrender. You let go of everything, you let go of your own ideas about recovery and about addiction and about life. Let all of that stuff go because you don’t have the answers anyway. If you come into recovery and you are already happy then that doesn’t make any sense! Go away, you have all of the answers. No, people who come into recovery are miserable. They don’t have the answers. They are seeking. They don’t know how to be happy any more. They thought that happiness was in their drug of choice, but it turned out that they were wrong. And now they finally admit this to themselves, that their drug of choice does not lead them to happiness, and they don’t know what to do. They are miserable and they are at the end of the line. This is the turning point, the moment of surrender. You admit that you don’t know how to be happy, that you do not have the answers, and that you would like to be happy again. Someone can show you how to do this. You don’t know how, you can’t get there by yourself. You need help to figure it all out. Hence, you surrender. You ask for help. You let go of your old ideas and make way for new instructions.
Recovery is about a new way of life. Someone tells you how to do it. Someone shows you how it all works. You get quiet and you listen. If you are not in the mood to get really quiet and humble and to listen then you are going to miss the instructions. Normally we are so busy figuring out what we want in life and then telling other people what we need and how we want to go about getting our needs met. Recovery is not like that. You have to admit that you don’t know what you want, that you don’t know what would make you happy any more, and that you want someone else to tell you what to do. If you are at that point then you have finally surrendered.
You must surrender to a new solution. In practical terms, this means that you have to be OK with the idea that someone else will dictate your life for a while. Most people resist that idea heavily, because how in the world could anyone else possibly know what you need, or what would make you happy?
But the reality is that this is exactly what the struggling alcoholic or drug addict needs. If you let go and allow someone else to tell you how to live, your life will get exponentially better. And one day you will look back, just as I have, and realize that your life is so much better than it ever was. And you will be happy again, and grateful that you allowed yourself to surrender, to let go of the need to control.
Long term changes and accepting the challenge of personal growth
If you want to succeed in recovery then you have to make changes in the long term as well.
It should be obvious to every alcoholic who has sobered up for a weekend (and then returned to the madness of drinking) that you need more than a quick fix. You need long term changes in recovery.
We can label this concept as “personal growth.” We all make changes in life. You either get better or you get worse. If you are getting worse then we label that as “addiction.” If you are getting better we can label that as either “recovery” or “personal growth.” In my experience they are the same thing. If you are not improving yourself and your life situation then you are not in recovery. You are stagnant or complacent and that means you will eventually relapse.
So the opposite of addiction is personal growth. This then is your challenge in long term sobriety. Not only do you have to stop using drugs and alcohol, but you must also make an effort to improve yourself as a human being. The 12 steps of AA are one path to do this through. There are other paths as well. Most people believe that if they only find the one perfect path to recovery that they will be healed. The truth is that there are many paths and the important thing is that you take positive action, that you are consistent, that you are on a path of growth and positive action. The details are not what “cures” people. There is no cure, only process. Are you involved in the recovery process today? That is always either a yes or no question.
I managed to figure this out when I was living in long term rehab and watching many different people in recovery who were all around me. Some of them were involved in the 12 step program, some of them were involved in religious based recovery programs, some of them were not using any programs, and some of them were using alternatives to these concepts. For example, I knew at least one person who was using martial arts to stay healthy in recovery. I knew someone else who was using strictly meditation to remain sober. I knew someone else who focused on exercise heavily as their personal program of recovery.
And at the same time I knew a lot of people in the 12 step program who were failing. People who relapsed. And what scared me is that a lot of those people tried to convince me that AA was the only path to recovery. And so it scared me in that it woke me up, made me question my own path of recovery. I started to look at the fundamentals of sobriety that went beyond the AA program, that went beyond the treatment centers, that went beyond the 12 steps. What really kept an alcoholic sober? I wanted to dig deeper.
So I started to dig. And what I found was that there really are fundamental principles in recovery. These are often discussed at AA meetings and are also used in other forms of therapy and recovery. For example, surrender is one such fundamental principle. It is universal to recovery–whether you get sober through AA, a religious program, an exercise program, or something else entirely. It doesn’t matter how you get sober or by which process you go through, you have to surrender in order to do it. You have to come to that cathartic moment when you realize that addiction is no longer serving you well, and you let go of all of those old ideas (“my drug of choice can make me happy”) and then this allows a space for a new way of life to come into being.
Until you surrender and let go of the old ideas, you cannot possibly change. There is no way for a new life to begin until you let go of the old one. In this way, surrender is a fundamental principle. It is vital to recovery, no matter which method or program you choose to follow.
Surrender to outside ideas, advice, feedback, and suggestions
Surrender is always to ideas outside of yourself.
If you surrender to your own ideas then you are not truly surrendering to anything. You cannot surrender to yourself.
So in order to truly surrender you have to let go of your own ideas about how to make yourself happy in life.
This should not be difficult for an alcoholic or a drug addict who is truly miserable. At some point you realize that your ideas are no longer working for you and that you are never going to be happy if you continue to abuse your drug of choice.
I reached a point in my own life where I realized that my drug of choice could only make me “happy” if I went a few days without any drugs or alcohol of any kind. In other words, I had to sober up for at least 3 or 4 days, then return to my drug of choice, and only at that point would I truly be “happy.” And then I noticed something else–when I did this little experiment, that moment of happiness only lasted for a very brief window. It was maybe an hour or two of “happiness” at the most, and then I was suddenly miserable again. And that was what perpetuated my addiction, because I would then try to use more drugs and booze to try to get back to that “peak happiness.”
But the peak was gone. And the only way to get back to that peak feeling of happiness was to sober up completely for 3 or 4 days.
And when I finally grasped this situation, when I finally realized that I could only have that tiny window of happiness every fourth day or so while being miserable for 99 percent of my time, that was when I broke through my denial. That was the moment that the light bulb went off for me. I realized that I was like a hamster in one of those little wheels where they run and run and they don’t go anywhere. I could finally see that I was chasing my own tail when I drank alcohol because I was chasing a happiness that I could never really hang onto. It just wasn’t worth it any more.
My brain tried to trick me, because it was remembering “the good old days.” That was when I had first started drinking and taking drugs, and my window of happiness was much larger. In the good old days, I could drink all night long and be happy all night long, and then I could drink and take drugs tomorrow too and be happy again. That was before my tolerance developed and I was not yet a full blown alcoholic and drug addict.
But today things are different. Today if I take a drink that window of happiness has shrank down to almost nothing. It lasts for a mere hour or two, and then I am completely miserable as I desperately try to drink more and more in order to chase that peak experience. But I can never reach it because my body has created this tolerance to drugs and alcohol. It is not fun any more. It is just a hamster wheel with a whole bunch of negative consequences and the false promise of happiness.
Give away your power and watch it return to you a hundred fold
How do you surrender?
Give away your power. Give away your choices. Give up your power to choose, to decide.
This sounds like a moment of weakness. It’s not. It will make you strong to do so.
Ask your sponsor in AA to tell you what to do and how to live. Take their advice and put it into action.
Ask your therapist what you should do next. Follow directions.
Ask for help, then take the directions and follow through with things.
It’s that simple. Do this, and your life will transform for the better. You will become happier, stronger, and your life will get better and better.
This is the power of surrender. By letting go of your own ideas, you get to use the best ideas that the world has ever had. You get to borrow wisdom. And then you benefit from that wisdom and your life gets to improve by leaps and bounds.
It is almost criminal how easy it is, once you let go and surrender. Listen to others and let them improve your life for you. This is the power of true surrender. And all you have to do is let go of your own ideas.
Can you do that? Can you let go completely, absolutely? If you do, you will one day look back and realize that it was the smartest thing you ever did.