Everything in addiction recovery hinges on the willingness of the individual.
You have probably heard someone say “For sobriety to work, you have to really WANT it…”
Or you may have heard them say that “sobriety is for people who want it, not for people who need it. A lot of people need AA and sobriety, but very few people actually want it.”
This speaks to the concept of willingness.
You have to ask yourself when you are standing at the starting line of recovery: What are you willing to do in order to build a new life? What length are you willing to go to in order to get sober?
When I first went to treatment for the first time ever in my life, I was completely naive about this concept.
I thought that I could just wander into a treatment center and somehow get this sobriety stuff through osmosis or something. I certainly wasn’t in gear to do all sorts of work and push myself to make difficult changes in my life. I wanted to kick back and relax. I wanted and expected for sobriety to be handed to me on a silver platter. In short, I had about zero willingness.
A good example of this has to do with aftercare. Typically when you are about to leave a 28 day residential treatment program, the counselors and therapists will give you instructions for what to do when you are gone. This is known as “aftercare.” You are following up your treatment visit with more forms of treatment. Otherwise the tendency is to leave rehab and fall flat on your face and relapse immediately.
When I was about to leave treatment for the first time, I was not willing to entertain any of these aftercare recommendations. They wanted me to go to AA meetings every single day, and I was not willing to go to a single meeting. Not one! I was having none of it. I just wasn’t ready for major changes.
Then the second time I found myself in treatment it was even worse. This time the therapists and counselors could tell that I had a serious problem. In fact they told me that I was one of the worst cases that they had seen in quite some time, as I was at a rehab for younger people. I don’t know if they were serious or just trying to scare me into sobriety–I honestly don’t know. But they recommended to me at that time that I go directly into long term treatment and live there for several months.
At the time I thought that this was crazy. To me it was the same thing as going to jail or prison. This is how I thought about it anyway. I was completely unwilling to take these actions and follow through with my treatment. I lacked willingness. Therefore I relapsed immediately.
They have a saying in the Big Book of AA about being “willing to go to any length.” If you are not willing to go to any length then you relapse. If you are willing to go to any length then you have a shot at real sobriety. In my experience this line about willingness rings true. I have found it to be in line with what I experienced, and also with what I observe in others.
Willingness is a huge key to sobriety. Without it, you don’t stand a chance at long term sobriety and happiness.
Honesty, open mindedness, and willingness – all the same thing?
It is interesting when you start to break down these 3 key concepts in recovery, you tend to find that they are all pretty much interconnected. In fact they are almost the same thing.
For example, honesty and self honesty are so vital to the recovery process that if you are lacking honesty in any particular area of your life then everything falls apart. And this can be framed as a willingness problem, i.e., you are not willing to be honest with yourself yet. Willingness is a core part of honesty.
Open mindedness is much the same thing. You can be open minded in early recovery and get lots of good information about how to recover, or you can close yourself off to new ideas and therefore struggle with your sobriety. You are either open to change or you are closed off. One path leads to success and the other leads to relapse. You have to be open minded in order to recover in early sobriety.
And again, this can be framed in terms of willingness. You are either willing to become open minded or you are not.
Every single alcoholic and drug addict is close minded before they get to recovery.
Every single alcoholic who is struggling and drinking every day is close minded. Think about this for a moment. You have to be close minded in order to be self medicating every day. In order to be stuck in a cycle of addiction you pretty much have to have a one track mind and be locked into doing your own thing. That is how addiction works. You are following your own advice. You are, by the very nature of addiction, being close minded.
In order to recover this has to shift somehow. You have to find a way to take in new ideas, new information, and use it to make changes in your life. Without new information there is no way that you can change the destructive patterns that you are trapped in.
Therefore the 3 concepts are completely intertwined. They are connected. They may as well be the same thing in a weird way. You must practice all 3 concepts: Honesty, open mindedness, and willingness. If you lack one of them then in a way you lack all 3, and nothing will work out in your life. If you are practicing all 3 concepts each and every day then your life will begin to transform for the better. It really is that simple. But you have to be willing to make this leap of faith, to trust in the process of recovery, to trust that things will get better some day. Because they do get better, you just have to give it time.
How much are you willing to change in your life? Everything?
Next there is the question of scope, or intensity.
In other words, what is your level of willingness?
I can tell you from experience what the correct answer is. The correct answer is “extreme.” As in, I am extremely willing to do whatever it takes in order to recover.
Another way to look at it is to look at the depth of your surrender. Have you truly hit bottom? Because hitting bottom is the trigger for this massive amount of willingness. You will find the deepest willingness only after experiencing your lowest bottom in your addiction. It is only after you have hit rock bottom that you will be able to summon your greatest amount of willingness. (I am told that some people can recover before hitting “absolute rock bottom” but I honestly don’t have a lot of experience with that, so cannot speak to it). I just know that when I finally reached my own “point of no return,” I became willing to make extreme changes in my life because I was finally at the point of total surrender. I had nothing left, I felt totally worthless, and I no longer cared about my own life. I was completely destroyed and I felt like a piece of dust floating through the universe. It was then that I was able to go to rehab with the right attitude. And that “right attitude” is to walk in and say: “Please show me how to live. I no longer know what in the heck I am doing with my life.”
I mention that you need to make “extreme” changes. I am not just using the word extreme in order to sound dramatic here. What I am saying is that you really need to take the approach that this recovery thing is more important than anything you have ever done in your entire life. I am trying to convey the correct intensity for recovery to be successful for you.
For example, maybe you have heard of the idea of going to “90 AA meetings in 90 days.” Sounds like a big commitment, right? Going to a single AA meeting every day for 3 months straight. Without missing a day. Big deal, right?
Well, it’s a start. To be honest though, when I finally surrendered fully to my disease and got serious about recovery, doing 90 meetings in 90 days was like a tiny drop in the bucket. I actually did more like 200+ meetings in 90 days, plus group therapy sessions twice a week, plus individual counseling once a week, plus had a sponsor in AA that I was working with on a regular basis (and spoke to every day for the first 30 days). In addition to all of this I was actually living in a long term treatment center. I lived there for the first 20 months. And even when I was not in a meeting or in therapy sessions I was usually out in the “smoke room” with my peers, discussing recovery and why so and so relapsed and what the real secret of sobriety was and so on.
I lived, ate, and breathed recovery for 20 months straight.
Now contrast this lifestyle with what I originally pictured recovery to be. My original thought about recovery was that it was like a patch that you slap onto your jeans when they get a hole in them. In other words, I wanted to keep everything in my life exactly the same and not change anything except for my drinking. I just wanted to remove the alcohol from my life. But I was not willing to change anything else. I did not want to get new friends. I did not want to change my job. I wanted everything to stay exactly the same, except for getting rid of the alcohol and drugs in my life.
Is that realistic?
Not even a little bit! Of course that would never work. You can’t just remove the alcohol and drugs and expect for your life to continue on with smooth sailing.
Just look at my own story. Look at the evidence. I tried to sober up twice by going to rehab and both times I relapsed. I was not willing to make the big changes.
Then the third time I finally surrendered fully and completely. I went to rehab and I was finally willing to really listen. I became willing to follow directions. I was now willing to entertain the idea of long term rehab. And so this was when my life turned around and changed for the better. I have been sober ever since that moment, over 13 years and counting. But I had to be willing to “go to any lengths.” Truly, I had to go to extremes. Or rather, I had to do what I thought was extreme.
So does this mean that every struggling alcoholic has to abandon their life and go live in rehab like I did for almost 2 full years?
No, it doesn’t. And I will tell you why.
Long term rehab worked for me, and it was exactly what I needed at the time.
Your situation may be different than mine. But I can assure you that if you are still struggling with your addiction, you are holding yourself back in some way due to a lack of willingness.
So it is not the case that you have to go to the same extremes that I went to. Maybe you do and maybe you don’t. But perhaps you just need to become willing in a different way. Maybe you don’t even need inpatient rehab at all, and you just need to go back to AA meetings again. Or maybe you have a strong religious background and you don’t need any of the recovery stuff, you just need to get back to your faith and get involved with that old life again. I don’t know. The answers will probably be different for each person in recovery. But the key is that you have to be more willing than what you are when you are stuck in addiction.
Massive action unlocks successful sobriety
There is a difference between sobriety and “successful sobriety.”
Anyone can get sober in the short run. Anyone can sober up for a weekend. Anyone can get thrown in jail and have no access to booze or drugs for a while. This doesn’t necessarily make them successful though.
The key to building a successful life in sobriety is massive action. You can’t just take small actions and expect for it to move mountains. Overcoming an addiction is the equivalent of moving a mountain. It requires a massive amount of change. Therefore you will have to take a massive amount of action.
Do this: Go to an AA meeting and go up to people after the meeting and introduce yourself. Then ask them the question: “What all did you have to change in early sobriety?” If you ask this question of ten different people at least half of them will exclaim right away with the answer: “Everything! I had to change everything!”
How much more evidence than this do you need to realize the level of extreme willingness that is required?
How much more evidence than this do you need to realize just how hard you are going to have to push yourself in order to recover?
They had to change everything! People who are successful in sobriety can look back at their early recovery and say “yes, I really had to change everything in my life. And it was darn tough. And it was worth it.”
This, then, is your answer. This is the direction and the instructions you have been seeking. You must change everything. Massive action.
And this requires willingness.
How to build a super strong foundation for early recovery
The goal is to build a strong foundation in early recovery.
The way to do this is simple, but not necessarily easy. There is a difference.
So first of all you need to surrender and convince yourself to go to rehab. Get past all of those old excuses. Make the decision to change your life.
Next you have to develop those 3 critical things: Honesty, open mindedness, and willingness.
So how do you do that? How do you develop those things in your life?
Again, it is simple but not easy. Go to rehab. Listen to what they are telling you to do. The therapists and the counselors and the people who run the meetings will be giving you advice. You will get tons of advice and suggestions. Start following them. Start taking action.
Kill your own ego and get out of your own way. You want to increase your willingness? Kill your ego. Make an agreement with yourself that you will ignore your own ideas for at least the next 30 days. If you get an idea for what you should do in your recovery, push it to the side. Put it on the back burner. No original ideas of your own for at least 30 days. No decisions allowed without consulting others for advice and direction first. Kill your ego.
If you make this agreement with yourself then it will lead you to real willingness. Suddenly you will be taking the advice of others rather than living by your own ideas. In recovery they often call this “self will” versus “God’s will.” If you are living according to your own whims and desires then that is self will. If you are listening to others and taking advice from people who are trying to help you then you are avoiding self will.
Generally it is understood that, in early recovery, self will leads to relapse. You can experiment with this yourself but I highly recommend that you just take my word for it. If you try to do it all your own way then this will lead to relapse every single time.
No, the way to build willingness is to listen to the advice of other people.
The power of taking suggestions from other people
One way to tell when alcoholic or addict is full of BS and not really ready to change is if they are still running on self will and trying to manipulate the situation.
Someone who is in a state of true surrender will not be trying to manipulate the situation. They will be….wait for it…..willing!
The opposite of willingness is really manipulation. If you are not willing to take advice and direction from others, then you are basically saying that you will only listen to your own ideas. If you will not take suggestions from others then you are running entirely on self will.
When I went to treatment for a third time I made a deal with myself. I thought to myself: “This is crazy. I am just going to relapse again if I keep trying to control my life.”
So I made a deal. I agreed with myself that I would remove my ego completely and only take advice from other people.
And it was scary. Because I thought: If I really do this, I will become like the hole in a donut. I will become a non-person. If I give up self will, I will be like a robot who never has any fun.”
But I did it anyway. Because I was so sick of the misery of addiction. And I wanted to change. I wanted to find happiness again.
So I killed my ego. It was actually easy to do. I simply made this internal agreement with myself. It was an experiment. I will listen to others, take their advice, and see what happens. I have nothing to lose, I told myself.
And it worked. I was amazed by the end of the first week. My life was already starting to get better.
I had this half grin forming on my face, because I knew that I had unlocked a secret. And the grin was because I knew that no one would really believe me. The solution was too boring. Taking direction from others left a bad taste in your mouth. So I knew that very few people would do it.
But I was grateful that I had found this secret.