Many alcoholics struggle in early sobriety. It is a real challenge to stay clean and sober, regardless of what program of recovery you are following.
Why is it so difficult to get clean and sober? Where is there such struggle?
The first reason that I believe there is such intense struggle is due to a lack of surrender. If someone goes to treatment and they fail to remain sober, it is because they have not fully hit bottom yet. They failed to surrender.
The problem with early sobriety and why treatment doesn’t always work
If addiction treatment worked every single time then we could label it as a “cure.” But everyone knows that there is no real cure for addiction or alcoholism and that it remains a lifelong threat, even to someone who is in recovery. No one is ever fully cured and to think that you might be is dangerous.
You can surrender to the fact that you have a disease and admit that you are alcoholic. This is one way to work through your denial. Or rather, this is just the first level of getting through your denial. But just admitting that you have a problem is not enough. For example, I admitted that I was alcoholic and went to rehab twice in my life but I still relapsed after each treatment episode.
What was I missing?
I was missing the second phase of surrender, where you not only surrender to the fact that you have a disease, but you surrender to a new solution.
My problem was that I was rejecting the solution.
This was the solution as presented to me from the treatment center I was attending. They wanted me to live in long term rehab, go to AA meetings every day, and work on a recovery program. I was not having any of that stuff. I did not want it yet because I was not desperate enough. So I continued to self medicate and chase an elusive happiness in my drinking that was harder and harder to come by. But I was determined to keep running away from myself, running away from my fears, rather than to face reality and recover.
This is what it is so hard about early recovery. It is such an intense leap of faith for the alcoholic to say goodbye to alcohol forever. And even if you try to take it “one day at a time” we all know how the abstinence based model of treatment works. You either abstain from drinking or you get drunk. Sobriety is not a temporary fix. Either you live sober or you go back to the madness. Sure, you can try to fool yourself for a moment that you are taking things “one day at a time,” but in reality we have to commit to something a little bit bigger than that.
I checked into a 28 day program once. If I really took things “one day at a time” then there would be no need for a 28 day program. Even crazier, I then checked into long term rehab with the intention of staying for over a year. Now why would I need to do that if I was really taking things one day at a time? Surely I can make it through one day without drinking, right?
This is because I had the foresight to realize that I was trying to quit alcohol on a long term basis. I was not interested in relapsing after 90 days. I wanted long term sobriety. Therefore I made decisions that reflected this desire. If I truly lived one day at a time then I never would have gone to long term rehab.
Most alcoholics fail at treatment because they have not committed to the idea of total abstinence. They have to surrender to their problem, then surrender to the idea of never drinking again, then surrender to a solution. The solution is a new way of life, one that does not involve drinking. Of course if you do that then you have to learn this new way of life, which is why they have recovery programs and daily meetings and such.
The problem is not that people relapse due to lack of knowledge. The knowledge is the easy part. They relapse due to lack of application. They fail to apply the knowledge. And the only reason that someone would fail to apply the knowledge they are given is because they have not yet fully surrendered.
My surrender process was broken into three distinct parts. Each part has to do with some form of denial:
1) Surrender to my disease. I am an alcoholic.
2) Surrender to total abstinence. I would rather die than picture a life where I can never drink again. I had to come to terms with saying goodbye to alcohol forever.
3) Surrender to a solution. I hated AA and I hated the anxiety of sitting in meetings. I overcame this and attended AA meetings every single day. I even chaired one for a full year. I moved past this fear and anxiety through sheer force of will. Do or die. I had to accept a new solution in my life because my ideas were not making me happy.
Each one of these deals with denial. Each part of this surrender process is important in terms of your long term sobriety. Without coming to terms with each of these you cannot succeed and remain sober for long.
People talk about surrender and how important it is, but it is difficult to break it down and realize that there are several different things that you must surrender to. These three things were critical for my own sobriety.
How to transition into successful sobriety
There is a specific formula for transitioning into successful recovery.
Note that this formula will work with different recovery programs. For example, you may use a religious based program, or the AA or NA program.
The program doesn’t matter. They all work, but only if you apply them in your life. There are no recovery secrets. There is no secret knowledge in AA or in any other program. It is all in the application of the concepts that you produce successful recovery.
Therefore the only real “secret” is to get out of your own way and let a solution into your life. You must dive in head first and embrace AA, or whatever program you are going to use. You must make a leap of faith. Go all in or expect to relapse. It is as simple as that.
Now you may be asking yourself: “Well, OK. But how exactly do I do that? How do I make this leap of faith?”
First you must remove your own ideas from the equation. We all have ideas about what we need in life, what we should be doing, what will make us happy, and so on.
You need to ignore all of that for a while.
That’s right, start ignoring your own ideas about how to live. They are no good anyway. They are broken and misguided from your addiction. You need to start over and rebuild using other people’s ideas instead.
This is where a recovery program comes in handy. It is a different path that you can follow so that you do not trip over your own two feet.
Is every recovery program a perfect path? Of course not! But it doesn’t matter, because they all lead to basic sobriety, and that is a whole lot better than what your own ideas have been producing lately. You need an alternative lifestyle and just about anything is better than the misery you have been living through.
Therefore your intention should be to destroy your own ego. Simply make an agreement with yourself that you will not trust yourself at all. No more relying on your own ideas to make decisions. Everything that is significant must go through your peers, your sponsor, your family, your therapist, a counselor. Someone who cares and is in recovery. Trust other people to help you make decisions. Ask for advice in recovery about every little thing.
Don’t worry, people will not get annoyed with you.
People love to give advice. It makes them feel smart. And there is nothing wrong with this, because if they are sober and clean and living a good life, then they have a lot of wisdom to offer you. Start taking advantage of that wisdom! Start asking for advice and feedback from others. Ask people in AA, ask sober family members, ask your sponsor in recovery. Start taking advice as a matter of course. Ignore your own ideas and what your ego wants.
This sounds like a horrible way to live until you actually do it. Once you start doing it you will quickly realize that you are absolutely amazed. Your life will get better very quickly and you will not be able to take credit for it. You will say to yourself: “Wow, all I do is take advice and follow directions, and my life gets better and better and I am actually happy now!” This will happen in as little as a few weeks of sobriety. Within a few months your life will have turned around completely.
If you are struggling to stay sober it is because you are getting in your own way. Your ego is tripping you up. You need to listen to other people and take their advice. Doing this will lead you to happiness and contentment. Failing to do this will most likely result in relapse.
How to fix the common problems that lead to relapse
One of the secrets to living sober is that you have to do some serious work.
We all have problems and issues in our lives. We also have dreams and goals we want to achieve.
I am telling you this now even though it runs counter to all the advice you have ever received:
Ignore your dreams and start working on your problems.
Sounds a bit backwards, right? Normally we are told the opposite, to ignore our problems and chase our dreams.
But that doesn’t lead to happiness. Because if you chase your dreams while you still have problems, then the problems in your life will still make you miserable. Even if you achieve your dreams.
So you need to build a foundation. You need to do the hard work of cleaning up your life in recovery.
If you notice, the 12 steps of AA actually use this exact same strategy. They make you focus on cleaning up the negative stuff, fixing defects, and so on. It is not a fun path to walk but it is the path that leads to peace and contentment.
Think about it: If you have negative issues in your life that are not being dealt with, how can you ever be truly happy? If you have a resentment in your life that you have had for decades and it doesn’t go away, how can you be totally free? If you tend to engage in self pity and you never do anything to fix this, how can you ever be truly grateful?
So you have to do the work. And it’s hard work. And you might need to ask a sponsor to help you with it. And you might need the 12 steps to work through this stuff, or you might not. But in the end you have to commit to doing the work.
You must list out your problems and issues. You have to dig a bit to find all of the negative stuff that trips you up in life. And then you have to make a plan to eliminate that stuff. You have to take action in order to fix your issues.
And this may be a learning experience. You will have to seek help. Feedback. Advice from others. Seek out the wisdom of how they conquered their own issues. Use their ideas. Take their suggestions. This requires a leap of faith because:
1) You don’t know if their suggestions will work.
2) You don’t know if you will be happy even if it does work.
So you have to take these two things on blind faith. “It gets greater, later.” Just keep doing what we tell you to do. No one wants to hear that though, right? No wants to be told “just listen to what we tell you to do, then do it, take action, and we promise you will be happy some day.” And yet this is the exact leap of faith that you have to make in recovery. You have to have faith that it will all get better at some point, even though it is miserable right now.
So then, you have to fix all of your negative problems and issues.
The way to fix them is to:
1) Be willing to fix them.
2) Identify them.
3) Seek advice and feedback on how to fix your problems.
4) Take action, take suggestions, put ideas into action.
5) Rinse and repeat. Persist until you eliminate each problem.
6) Keep working through your problems until you have eliminated the negative garbage in your life.
This is your baseline for sobriety and happiness. Once you do this hard work and eliminate all of the garbage, you are now at a point where you are truly free. Life starts getting really good because now you are not being help back by unhappiness.
Why you should develop a strategy of personal growth
In my guide to relapse prevention I point out the need to have a strategy of personal growth.
Basically, the process that I outlined above is about identifying problems in your life and then taking action to fix them. You do this as an iterative process so that you can get better and better in your recovery. Personal growth is a slow and steady climb to a better life.
Therefore your strategy should be to have a theme in your life of personal growth.
Another theme might be something like: “I am going to accept myself for who I am and be happy with who I am today.”
This is a nice theme but I don’t think it gives you as much protection from relapse as the theme of “I am always pushing myself for more personal growth.”
Both strategies are valid but I have found the growth theme to be more helpful to me than the “acceptance theme.”
Of course, you may argue that you can have both themes in your life, but I personally see them as being contradictory. If I accept myself as I am today then there is not much incentive to make changes or to seek growth. But of course you will want to experiment and find a theme (or strategy) that works best for your own life and recovery.
The nice thing about having a theme of personal growth is that your life just keeps getting better and better over time. This is an exciting way to live, because after a while you realize that things are going to keep getting better and better as you put in more effort with your recovery. It is exciting. Whereas if you practice an acceptance theme, you may always be delighted with life, but you are not anticipating a more positive future necessarily.
But again, you need to find a theme that works for your life. Acceptance and growth are just two possible themes, but there are others as well.
Establishing a daily practice that works for you
When I was in very early recovery I made a commitment to kill my ego and get out of my own way.
I started taking suggestions. They told me to go to rehab, so I went. They told me to live in long term rehab, so I did. The told me to attend meetings every day, and I did that.
And so on.
I continued to take suggestions from peers, sponsors, therapists, and so on.
I noticed after a while that I did not really maintain each and every suggestion. Some things fell by the wayside.
And this was OK.
Because what I was really doing was testing ideas. I was experimenting. I was finding my own unique path in recovery, but I was basing it on the ideas of others.
And it was working. It was working quite well. Even though I did not believe it would lead to happiness, it was amazing and it was proving me wrong.
Over several years my daily practice evolved quite a bit. I write about addiction and recovery every day. I interact with other people in recovery every day. I exercise every day. And so on. But there have been changes along the way. I have dropped some ideas and picked up others. I have evolved in my recovery journey.
And that is OK. It is all about personal growth. Recovery is all process, nothing but process. You have to keep taking action, trying new things, testing.
And when you first stop drinking you have to listen and obey. Nobody likes to “obey.” They want to be in control.
But being in control in early sobriety is the worst thing that you could do. It only leads to relapse.
Instead, you have to let go of control. Ignore your own ideas for the first year of recovery. Only use other people’s ideas.
Why? Because their ideas have been tested. We already know that they work. We already know that their ideas do not lead to relapse (so long as you are not taking advice from someone who is drinking regularly).
So if you want to stop struggling with alcoholism then your path forward is simple:
Ask for help.
Get out of your own way.
Stop resisting. Stop trying to control things. Just let go of everything. Let go of all of it. Surrender completely.
Surrender to your disease. Surrender to the fact that you can never drink again. Surrender to a solution, to any solution, it doesn’t even matter what it is. The solution itself is not magical, but the application of that solution in your life is magical. But it takes work. It takes commitment. And therefore it is not really magic.
You just have to commit to change and then put in the hard work. Ask for help and then follow through.