If you had never become clean and sober before, it would be easy to believe that someone could just sort of “luck their way into sobriety.”
Even the alcoholic and the drug addict think this way. They imagine that some people probably just sober up at some point, just because. Such people surely do not make any sort of special effort, it is just their time to stop using drugs and alcohol and become sober. I believe in the medical world they call such an occurrence “spontaneous remission.”
The truth is that alcoholism and drug addiction is a strong force to be reckoned with. The chance of something like this happening (sudden and unexpected sobriety) is pretty much slim to none. The reason is not because addiction or alcoholism requires special treatment, the reason is because sobriety requires very deliberate and consistent action.
It is like wondering if someone ever “accidentally” climbs mount Everest. Sure, it could happen in theory. But no one is just going to have it happen after wandering around for an afternoon.
Overcoming drug or alcohol addiction is like climbing that mountain. It does not happen accidentally. And on the other hand, there is not some secret formula necessarily that many people believe in (such as the idea that the 12 steps are the only way a person could ever get sober).
Instead, the real secret of recovery is simply taking the right positive actions, consistently, one after the other. Enough positive action in your life adds up to create a new experience in recovery.
Why just quitting the drugs or booze is not enough
Think about all of the effort and the programs out there for overcoming addiction. There are the 12 step programs, there are religious based programs, and there are other alternative programs for overcoming addiction. If all it took were quitting the drugs and the booze, do you really think all of those programs would even exist?
Of course there is more to it than mere abstinence. Abstaining from the drugs and the alcohol is just the start of the solution. Sure, it is a necessary component. But obviously there has to be more to it than just that.
The 12 step program seeks to go beyond the abstinence idea with a series of 12 steps. They can basically be broken down into the concepts of:
1) Surrender to your disease (abstinence based recovery).
2) Find God.
3) Clean house (personal growth).
4) Help others (more personal growth + positive actions).
Of course there are details within that framework, but essentially all of the 12 steps can fit into those ideas somewhere. And it does work for some people, if the 12 step program is your particular cup of tea.
If you hang around the 12 step program for long enough you can quickly see that just becoming abstinent is clearly not enough. The people who fully immerse themselves into the program and start taking action are the ones who do well in recovery. The 12 step program is one solution and it is not for everyone, but for those who apply it and work hard at it, it seems to do fairly well.
Of course in the end it is all about taking action, about making changes, about seeking positive change and a new life for oneself. This can be done either in or out of a 12 step program.
Why recovery does not just happen by itself
Recovery does not just happen by itself because you cannot just accidentally climb mount Everest when you were on a Sunday afternoon walk.
The “mountain” of recovery is way too high, way too steep, far too daunting to just casually walk up on by accident.
This is not to say that recovery is impossible or that you should be discouraged. Not in any way.
I just want you to know what you are up against.
I have always liked to say that getting clean and sober was “the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.” It was my greatest challenge, and it was the one thing that I had to dedicate more time and energy and resources too than anything else.
I had to try harder. I had to try my hardest, ever, in order to get clean and sober.
For example, at first I was reluctant to go to inpatient rehab in order to get clean and sober. I did not even want to go stay in a rehab for 14 days.
In the end, years later, I begged them to let me into long term rehab. I actually lived in a treatment center for almost two full years. This, after being dead set against wasting my time in a two week program.
See how much the tables had turned? Why was this?
The reason was due to my addiction. It had been beating me up for the last few years, and I was at the end of my rope. I knew finally understood on a really deep level that it was not going to get any better.
You know they tell you that in rehab, that the disease is progressive and fatal and that eventually it will wear you down and kill you, or you will end up in prison or an institution. But you don’t really believe those things because the typical drug addict or alcoholic believes that they are in control. They believe that they are somehow immune, that they are special, that they are smarter than the average bear, that they are different. We secretly believe this in the back of our minds and we think that we are somehow unique and different from all of those other addicts and alcoholics who are trying to tell us that it is just going to get worse and worse if we keep using.
And so eventually you find yourself coming to believe this, not because you finally listened to the people in recovery, but because you finally got to the end of your rope, you finally experienced all of the chaos and the misery that they had spoke of, and you are finally miserable beyond belief and you just want it all to end. In a way you are suicidal but not really–you don’t really want to kill yourself, you just want the misery of addiction to go away, for it all to be different, you will just wish that you had never started drinking or using drugs.
Be grateful when you get to this point, even though it is madness and complete misery. Be glad when you arrive here. This is the point of surrender.
It is at this point that you will realize what is truly required of you in order to overcome your addiction.
They have a saying in recovery, that “you only have to change one thing, and that is EVERYTHING.” It is a cute little saying and most people just sort of nod their heads and smile about it. But those who have actually reached the point of surrender that I describe above and have gone through the recovery process and built a new life for themselves, these people know that this saying about having to change EVERYTHING is the truth. They know it for real. They have experienced it.
I can tell you that when I finally agreed to go live in long term rehab, I was at the point of full surrender and I was now willing to actually change everything, for the first time in my life. Up until that point I was holding on to reservations; I was not ready to get clean and sober, I was not ready to take serious action.
In the past when I had agreed to attend treatment, I had the wrong attitude, I had the wrong mindset, I did not really understand what I was up against. I was like the person who believes that you might accidentally wander up mount Everest on accident. That is how I thought about recovery and that is how I thought about the possibility that I might overcome my addiction at some point. I had this vague belief that maybe some day I would just grow out of addiction, that I would choose to leave it behind and move on with my life, just because.
Recovery does not work that way. It does not happen by accident and in fact it requires the most deliberate and pointed effort that you have likely ever made in your life. If you want to get clean and sober you need to surrender fully to your disease, then dig your heels into the ground and make this stand, the greatest stand you have ever made, with raw determination and say to the world “I am going to get clean and sober even if it kills me.” This is much different than the vague idea that you might accidentally become clean and sober just on a whim or something.
How to start taking positive action when you feel like you are stuck and nothing works
It can be very difficult to turn your whole life around and start taking positive action in recovery.
The problem is that you have so many things dragging you backward. If you do try to take any positive action, it can quickly feel like it was totally worthless, because another force in your life may swoop in and erase any of the positive gains that you might have made for yourself.
So it can feel hopeless at times, like nothing works, and like nothing that you do really matters.
In such a situation, you need to somehow make this great leap, you need to somehow transition to this awesome new life in recovery, one that is filled with positive action and new hope. The question is, how can you get there? How can you even get started, with so many things holding you back?
My experience in recovery is this: you have to take one thing at a time, and you have to start with your biggest problem first.
For me, that was drug and alcohol addiction. I had some other problems as well, and I had other things in my life that I wanted to change, but I had to start somewhere, and my addiction was clearly my biggest problem.
Understand too that this process, for me, took a few years to fully implement. If you try to do everything at once then you may become overwhelmed with the changes and give up. We don’t want burn out. We want steady progress.
So I started with the idea that my addiction was holding me back from making all of these other changes in my life. That may seem obvious to someone who is sober, but when you are stuck in drug and alcohol addiction it may not be so clear. You may believe (instead) that if you could just get the right job, or the right relationship, that your drug and alcohol problem would not really be so much of a big deal.
But at some point, I had to get with the idea that my addiction was holding me back from all sorts of other things in life, and that this was my first problem that had to be dealt with before I could make any other significant changes in my life.
This is where “deliberate positive action” comes in. I had to commit to facing this problem of mine, this number one biggest problem, and deal with it first and foremost. In order to do that I had to table everything else. I had to brush everything else in my life to the side and say “OK, I have to get clean and sober no matter what, even if it kills me, if I want to make any sort of progress in my life.” So I finally surrendered to my disease and went to rehab and became willing to do whatever it would take in order to get clean and sober. For me, this meant living in long term rehab, a decision I am very glad that I made.
Now the key to this whole thing is to take positive action, but also to take very deliberate action, and to lock in the gains.
It does no good at all if you take one step forward and then two steps back. Doing this in the recovery world almost always results in relapse.
There are all sorts of positive changes that you can make in your life and they all hinge on the fact that you remain clean and sober. This is the first deliberate action that you need to take and it will set you up for success in other areas of your life.
Do not rush forward to make all sorts of positive growth right out of the gate. Instead, take the attitude that you are going to make one deliberate change at a time, and master each change as you go along.
Our greatest gains that can be made in life (this is counter-intuitive) are in eliminating negative things. This is why overcoming a drug or alcohol addiction ranks so highly in terms of positive achievement. There is little else that compares with this sort of radical change, because very little in life could possibly hold you back or screw you up as much as a hard core addiction.
So even though it sounds like a very negative thing to do, you need to sit down and examine your life and find all of the negative stuff, all of the garbage, and really take an accurate and honest look at things. Obviously your drug or alcohol addiction is probably the biggest negative and creates the most negative drag in your life. You may have other addictions or problems too, such as smoking cigarettes, lack of fitness, weight problems, gambling problems, sexual issues, and so on.
Let’s say for example that you had all of those problems and you were also alcoholic. Most people will not have that many serious problems in their life but just for example, let’s say that you do. Now obviously you have all of these things holding you back from success and your life is chaos and things are bad. You want to make changes but you do not even know how to go about doing so.
Part of the problem for the active alcoholic or addict is that their drug or alcohol use erases any gains that they make in other areas of their lives. So even if they manage to start exercising or quit smoking, they will likely erase those gains one day when and if they get drunk enough to not even care about it any more. Their addiction un-makes their progress.
All of the negative stuff in our lives has the tendency to create this sort of “drag” on our progress and on our happiness. Therefore, your primary goal in recovery is to:
1) Establish a baseline of sobriety and complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol.
2) Find the negative stuff in your life, and eliminate it one thing at a time through taking positive action.
If you happen to be addicted to drugs or alcohol then the abstinence goal must come first. For me, this meant living in long term rehab. For you it might mean something different, such as short term rehab or counseling or AA meetings or whatever. But you need to establish sobriety FIRST as your baseline of recovery. If you cannot do this then you need to stop here at this point and figure out how to stay clean and sober FIRST before you move on and tackle the next thing on your list. My suggestion is that you keep seeking more and more intensive help until you have accomplished this. If counseling fails then go to rehab. If rehab fails, then go live in rehab for a few years.
How momentum can be built in recovery
Once you establish abstinence then you have a foothold in recovery. Get stable and focus on nothing but the goal of abstaining from drugs and alcohol for a while. This phase may take a month and it may take two years, depending on the person.
What you do not want to do is go nuts in early recovery and overwhelm yourself with new changes. You want to master that important change first, the shift to abstinence, and master it completely before moving on.
I gave myself a good year or two (while living in rehab) before I really started to push myself to eliminate more negatives from my life (such as smoking and lack of fitness).
If I could go back and do it over I think I would have focused on some of these other changes a bit quicker….but perhaps that would be a mistake? It is really important that you lock in each gain in recovery so that you do not backslide.
The reason “backsliding” is so damaging is not because you lose out on the growth (which is actually no big deal) but because of what it does to your attitude. When you relapse, when you fail to meet a goal, when you take two steps back in life, this is hugely damaging to your recovery because it is so discouraging.
The way to build momentum is to make one positive change at a time, lock in the gains, and then move on to tackle the next challenge. Deliberate, positive growth.
Do you need a formal program in order to recover from alcoholism?
If you are in a formal program of recovery (such as AA or a religious based program) then you may very well still be able to make this sort of positive, deliberate growth that we are talking about here. But in the end it is not necessary for everyone. Positive action, taken consistently, will produce good results in overcoming an addiction, regardless of whether or not a formal program is being followed. The key is to start with the biggest negative in your life, fix that, and then move on to the next problem. One at a time, eliminate the negatives, and what you will be left with one day is an awesome new life in recovery.