This is the first article in a series called “the 25 secrets of sobriety.” While some of these “secrets” may seem obvious, the implementation of them is what makes them elusive for most addicts and alcoholics. Special attention is given to each of these “secrets” in order to help people to recover. These are the tricky parts of recovery that can trip people up if they are not careful.
The first and perhaps most important secret of recovery is this:
Internal commitment is almost the only thing that matters.
All other problems and relapses in the recovery journey can usually be traced back to the internal commitment.
Let’s explore this idea of internal commitment in recovery and see how nearly everything hinges on this important concept.
Surrender leads to strong commitment
Many people in early recovery end up relapsing due to a lack of surrender. They have not fully surrendered to their disease and therefore they cannot fully accept a new solution for recovery into their life.
Surrender is the base of recovery. It is the turning point. This is because surrender has to happen before a person can really make that strong internal commitment that is needed in order to get to the action phase.
It all hinges together in a chain. First, the addict or alcoholic must reach a breaking point in their life. They surrender fully to their disease and they stop trying to control it and agree to ask for help. This is the point of surrender where they have been fully broken down and have “hit bottom.”
Because they have hit bottom and surrendered fully, they can now ask for help and decide to try a new approach to life. In doing so, they need to take all sorts of action in order to produce the result they are looking for. The only way to follow through on all of the action that they need to take is to make a strong internal commitment with themselves.
So on the one hand, you could phrase everything in terms of surrender. The addict must surrender fully so that they can make this internal commitment to themselves so that they can take the actions that they need to take in order to build a new life of sobriety.
Or, you can phrase everything in terms of action, stating that an addict is never going to remain clean and sober in the long run unless they can take consistent, positive action in order to build this new life of sobriety for themselves.
But ultimately you have to consider the idea that it all hinges on internal commitment. Regardless of how deep they surrendered or how low their bottom is, they still have to find this internal commitment. And some people may force themselves to take some action (but ultimately not follow through with those actions) and therefore they will find that it really was not all about the action to begin with.
In the end, the most important part is the internal commitment. This is the “secret” that so many people miss in early recovery.
Yes, you have to have surrender. Yes, you have to follow through and take real action.
But ultimately your entire recovery hinges on the strength of your commitment to yourself. Your internal decision to build this new life in recovery. This is the driving force that will make or break your success as you try to avoid drugs and alcohol and build a new life.
My own experience with internal commitment in early recovery
I tried to get sober three times in my life. The first two times I went to treatment centers and made what I would call a “half hearted effort.” In neither of those two cases had I fully surrendered. In neither of those two cases did I have a strong internal commitment to remain clean and sober. And, not surprisingly, in neither of those two cases did I follow through with positive actions.
The third time I tried to get sober, things were different. I had fully surrendered and I felt like I was at a bottom in my life. I cared little about my own life at this point because I was so miserable from drug and alcohol use. During the first week of my sobriety, it was all about surrender. I was simply beat down to the point of hitting a bottom and surrendering. So I agreed to get help and to go to rehab. I agreed to take action.
During that treatment center stay, I was slowly developing my internal commitment. Really at first it was all about surrender, not commitment. I was simply beat down and I felt so beaten by my disease and I just wanted it all to stop. I was willing to take action out of misery at this point. Normally I was afraid of treatment and I was afraid of meetings but I was so miserable in my addiction that I just did not care at this point.
I ended up staying in treatment for over a week and then I actually transferred over to the long term side of rehab and ended up living there for almost two years. And of course I was going to meetings every day, AA meetings that were held at the rehab. People would come in from the outside and people who had been in treatment but had left came back to these AA meetings as well.
And so I started to slowly study what it meant to be successful in recovery. If I was going to give this thing a real shot, I wanted to figure out what I actually had to do in order to remain clean and sober.
To be honest, this was not an obvious and easy task for someone to figure out because there was really quite a lot of conflicting information. Not that one person was telling you to do one thing and other person was suggesting the opposite, but that one person would say “this is the most important part of recovery” and another person would say “no, this is the most important part.”
One person might say “the solution is all in the 12 steps, just put all of your effort and energy into working those steps” and another person might say “you have to find your higher power, just ignore all this other garbage and just focus on finding your higher power” and then someone else might say “if you go to meetings every single day you will be OK, just don’t stop coming to these meetings, that is the most important thing by far” and so on.
So it was not that the information was conflicting, but that different people seemed to emphasize different things as being critical for the solution. What was truly important to make recovery work? If you tried to figure that out (like I did) then you would get a lot of different theories from different people.
At the same time, I was starting to realize that nearly everyone in recovery relapses. This was a depressing and scary realization all at the same time, but I could not deny it.
Many of the people in the AA meetings who I really thought “had it going on” ended up relapsing. This disturbed me and shook me up quite a bit. I kept watching people in AA and I continued to learn from their message and from their experience.
People who preached the importance of meetings (and who also kept coming to meetings) sometimes relapsed. So that did not seem to be the magic bullet I was looking for. And people who I got to know personally in recovery who were deeply spiritual also ended up relapsing. One of my close friends was someone that I really looked up to and I was constantly comparing myself to this person and feeling bad because they seemed to be so much more spiritual and in touch with God than I was, and this person suddenly relapsed. It was shocking and disturbing to me.
So it was not just what people were saying in the meetings tha t I was observing. I was living in long term rehab and actually getting to know many recovering addicts and alcoholics very well, and I was also seeing the results play out right before my eyes. And the astounding thing was that nearly everyone relapsed in very short time periods.
What was the common thread? And what could I learn from all of these relapses that I was observing in the people around me?
Fear was the driving factor for me in early recovery. I did not want to relapse and that was my main goal above all others. I wanted to hang on to my sobriety and actually make this work. I knew if I went back to drinking and drugging that I would be miserable and that my life would fall apart again.
This fear of relapse was combining with my observations of other people relapsing. I was slowly figuring it all out. I was learning what was truly important in recovery.
I was hearing various opinions from people about what was most important to focus on in recovery, from working the steps to higher powers to daily meeting attendance and so on. Most all of these people would eventually relapse which would lead me to question what really was important in recovery.
So living in long term rehab I had the ability to watch people and make all of these observations. And within the first month or so I had come to this conclusion which has carried me through to over eleven years of continuous sobriety so far:
The only thing that matters is your internal commitment to total abstinence.
That’s it. That is the whole “secret” of sobriety….your internal decision to avoid alcohol. This has to become your highest truth, the most important thing in your life.
You must learn to recoil in horror at the thought of taking a drink. If you are not at that level of internal commitment then you are not going to make it.
So then I sort of played around with this idea as I had discovered it for myself and was applying it to my own life. My highest truth in life was that I was not to use drugs or alcohol, period. My internal commitment to my sobriety was the most important thing in my life.
Then I continued to listen to people talk in meetings about their recovery and how “this is the most important thing” and “that is the most important thing” and I just sort of sat back, listened to these people, and held on fast to my own little internal “secret”–that the internal commitment to abstinence is the most important thing in the world.
I cannot believe that step one of the 12 step program is not “Made a promise to myself not to use alcohol or addictive drugs no matter what.” To be honest that makes a whole lot more sense to me and I cannot believe how indirect the 12 step program really is.
So this internal promise to myself became my highest truth, and yet I continued to question myself and to listen to people in meetings preach about how other things were so important for recovery, and yet I was largely neglecting these other “secrets” of recovery. But here I was, still sober after three months, six months, a year, 18 months…..and yet all of these people who were preaching in meetings about what was really important, they all kept relapsing.
Now granted, there were a few people who stayed clean and sober other than myself. Out of the hundreds that I had met over a decade ago, I can count on one hand the people who are still sober today.
Strong commitment leads to massive action
So what does this internal promise to yourself really do for you?
First of all it allows you to take massive action.
Why “massive” action? Why not just take regular old action?
Because overcoming an addiction is incredibly difficult. It cannot be done by taking small little baby steps or making tiny little changes. Overcoming addiction or alcoholism requires BIG changes. It requires massive amounts of change. You want major disruption in your life.
Think about my own path to success for a moment. The amount of disruption in my life when I finally got clean and sober for good was absolutely massive.
I left my apartment, my job, and all of my friends behind to go live in rehab for almost two full years. I completely left behind my old life and surrounded myself by new friends in recovery and a supportive environment.
In the past I was only willing to take smaller actions. I was willing to give rehab a chance, but I was not willing to go to long term. I was willing to do 10 days of inpatient treatment, but I was not willing to follow up and make a long term commitment to AA meetings. I was willing to go into detox but I was not willing to give up marijuana (which of course led me back to my drug of choice eventually).
So when I finally got clean and sober for good, I had made this shift to full surrender, to a full commitment to my sobriety, and therefore I was now willing to take massive action. I was willing to “go to any length” as they say in AA. In the past I had never been willing to do that, and therefore I had never got good results.
The key to my success in early recovery was massive action, and that required a serious internal commitment. Without this internal promise to myself to do whatever it takes, I never would have been willing to take the correct actions for recovery.
Strong commitment leads to willingness
Again, success in early recovery was about the willingness to do what was required in order to stay clean and sober.
Part of the deal with living in long term rehab was that I was required to attend AA and NA meetings on a regular basis. In the past this was something that I was never willing to do. I lacked the willingness to follow through with these meetings because I hated them and I was afraid of them.
When I finally surrendered to my disease and I stopped caring about this fear of meetings. I stopped caring about it because I had hit bottom and I no longer valued my own self or my life that much. I became willing to do just about anything because I was at a true bottom in my life.
Later on I made the internal commitment to maintain abstinence no matter what, and meetings played a role in that for several months. Eventually I also figured out that many people who went to meetings relapsed regularly, and that continuous sobriety did not necessarily depend on meeting attendance. But in very early recovery it was important that I developed the willingness to accept help that I had previously been shut off from.
Early recovery is a very long process so a commitment is needed to make recovery sustainable
Living in long term rehab gave me amazing perspective on the early recovery process. Not only was I living out my life in early recovery, but I was also watching the process objectively as someone who was constantly analyzing recovery itself and talking about it with my peers.
Many nights and long hours were spent in the smoking room of our long term rehab talking about recovery, discussing what was important, and analyzing our peers in recovery who we were living with and who were struggling to get clean and sober just like we were. This was insightful and valuable discussion because we would make predictions about who would stay clean and sober and who would relapse, and then of course we would all get to see what actually happened. Sounds horrible of us to speculate about such things–I know–but when you are living in rehab with 12 guys and you have meetings every day and you are part of a local recovery community, this sort of speculation is inevitable. For me it was a learning process as much as anything else.
And you know what we found in all of our discussions and speculations? We could not predict a thing. We were constantly surprised and amazed at who would relapse and who was staying strong in their recovery. We almost always got it wrong. We could never reliably predict who was going to stay clean and sober for the long run.
Looking back now, I finally understand why.
We could not predict success because the determining factor is not external. It has nothing to do with what you say in AA meetings or whether or not you “talk a good game of recovery” or if you know all the right things to say in meetings and so on. None of that matters or makes one bit of difference when compared to that which really matters:
Your internal promise to yourself to remain abstinent.
That is the only thing that your success really hinges on and you cannot measure that by what people say in AA meetings.
Sometimes the people who say the best stuff in meetings and seem to have all the knowledge and wisdom in the world are the ones who have a weak internal commitment.
And people like myself happen to have a strong internal promise may be rather shy and does not speak much at meetings, if ever.
So you just don’t know, and probably can never predict it.
The first and most important secret of recovery is simple:
Your success in recovery is based MOSTLY on your internal promise to yourself not to use alcohol or addictive drugs.
All else is secondary to this.
The strength of your commitment is the most important thing.