This is a series of five articles about the reasons that addicts and alcoholics fail to remain sober. Updates to the series will probably come out next week to stay tuned for more of the article series.
While there are certainly more than 5 things that could potentially lead to relapse, these reasons listed here are very common and I have witnessed people who got tripped up by all of them in my own real-world experience. In other words, you would do well to watch out for these things!
The 5 reasons are:
1) Addicts and Alcoholics Fail to Surrender Fully to Their Disease
2) Recovering Addicts and Alcoholics Fail to Disrupt their Behavior Patterns
3) Recovering Alcoholics Who Relapse Fail to Commit Fully to Total Abstinence
4) Alcoholics Who Relapse Fail to Take Massive Action in Their Recovery
5) Recovering Addicts Fail to Keep Challenging Themselves to Overcome Complacency
Let’s take a look at the first reason now.
The first reason that people fail in recovery: lack of surrender
This is the first reason for relapse and it is also the most common, by far.
In fact, nearly every addict and alcoholic who has ever wrestled with an addiction has had at least one run-in with the concept of “not surrendering.”
The idea is simple: the addict or the alcoholic is noticing some negative consequences based on their using, and they decide that it would be nice if they were suddenly clean and sober and no longer depending on their drug of choice in order to make themselves happy.
So what do they do? They make an attempt at quitting their drug of choice. They try to get clean and sober.
The problem with this approach, however, is that they are generally not desperate enough at this point to truly make any headway with their recovery. In fact, they are probably nowhere near true surrender if they have just recently noticed that they are starting to suffer some negative consequences due to their addiction.
So what is the answer? Must every addict and alcoholic continue to abuse their drug of choice, only to endure more pain and misery, until they hit bottom and become able to fully surrender?
Unfortunately this would seem to be the case, but how much pain and misery is really required before a person surrenders is going to vary according to each individual.
There are some people who abuse drugs or alcohol for several decades and live a long life of chaos and misery without ever getting to the point of surrender.
On the other hand, there are addicts or alcoholics who endure intense pain and misery due to their addiction over a very short time period and then decide that they have finally had enough. If you look at the big picture you will notice that there are also young people in recovery who have been using for only a few short years. Some people require more misery before they surrender. So it all depends on the individual’s tolerance for misery and when they have decided that they have had “enough” of their addiction.
Our disease is always waiting for us to try to tackle it again, to try to go back to using our drug of choice and attempt to master it, but in the end the addiction always wins. This is the nature of the disease, you can never defeat it by trying to use drugs or booze and control it. This is why surrender is necessary to begin with, so that instead of fighting our drug use and trying to control it, we can find a way to avoid the fight and the struggle altogether.
Indeed, true surrender comes when we decide to stop fighting our disease and stop trying to control our addiction. We decide that we cannot use drugs or alcohol successfully and so we decide to give up the fight and ask for help. We have tried many times to outsmart our disease and we always failed. Now it is time to lay down our arms and fight a different battle entirely by seeking strength and support outside of ourselves.
When we surrender fully and then follow that up with a decision for total abstinence, we avoid the fight and the struggle of addiction by refusing to play the game any more. This is a wise decision because fighting our addiction directly is a game that we can never win. It is only through surrender that we can sidestep the battle entirely and thus change our life for the better. Total abstinence may sound like a death sentence to the addict or alcoholic but some day they will embrace it as their solution. It is only when they become willing to accept abstinence as their solution that they have finally reached a point of full surrender.
I have lived in recovery for over eleven years and I worked in a treatment center for over five years, and I am convinced that this “lack of surrender” is the number one problem that causes people to relapse.
People come into drug rehabs and treatment centers all the time who have not fully surrendered to their disease. They want to be clean and sober and they wish that things were different, but they are not yet willing to put in the massive amount of action that is necessary to overcome their addiction or alcoholism. Such people are not in treatment for the right reason. Even though they are doing the right thing and they may even be genuinely trying to overcome their addiction, they have not yet been “at the turning point” and made the soul-crushing decision to give total abstinence a real try.
You can usually tell when a person in early recovery has fully surrendered, especially while they are in treatment or rehab. Such a person will be eager to learn whatever it is you will teach them about how to stay clean and sober. They will not be argumentative or difficult. They will not be pointing out why something will not work for them. Instead, they will hang on to your every word as if you hold the key to their only salvation.
In fact it is pretty easy to spot a person in very early recovery who has NOT surrendered fully yet. Such a person is easy to identify because they will have a tendency to show their reservations on their sleeve. I was a perfect example of this when I was in rehab one time and the counselors were suggesting that I attend long term rehab. Now at the time I thought that I had surrendered to my addiction but I was outraged at the idea of spending months or even years in a long term treatment center. So this was a major reservation on my part and yet I could not see that this was to be a stumbling block for me in my recovery. I was complaining and angry and upset at the idea that these counselors and therapists expected me to live in treatment and “waste all of my time” in long term rehab. Of course if I could have taken a view from 10,000 feet I would have seen that spending a year or two in rehab is just a drop in the bucket and that I was actually such a mess of a person that doing so would have been the best thing for me.
This was proven to be true later on because I left that rehab center only to relapse in anger over the fact that “these people” expected me to live in rehab for so long. I was outraged at this idea and this was a clear indication that I had not truly surrendered yet. This is an important point to make because full surrender means that you do not hang on to any reservations. I was hanging on to a big one and that was that I was not willing to live in long term treatment.
I learned my lesson the hard way be enduring another full year of chaos and misery after I refused to fully surrender and go to long term rehab. After another year of this madness I finally hit bottom and became miserable enough that I became willing to attend long term rehab. This is another key phrase that should help to illustrate how this process really works: “became willing.”
I became willing to do something for my recovery that I was never willing to do in the past, and this is what ultimately led to my success in recovery. For the last eleven plus years I have remained clean and sober and this is only because I finally became willing to surrender fully and completely to my disease, a full 100 percent surrender, where I became willing to live in treatment for almost two full years. Now this may sound like some huge sacrifice because two years is such a long time, but in reality it was not so big a deal (looking back) and I would gladly do it again without hesitation. I had a lot of freedom and support while living in long term treatment and I made a lot of friends and it was a very happy time in my early recovery. Therefore I highly recommend treatment of nearly any sort and I would especially advise people to be open to the idea of inpatient rehab in all its forms. Long term treatment worked for me and it was exactly what I needed in order to overcome my addiction. But I had to be willing to embrace this as my solution and the only way that I could do that was to surrender fully to my disease.
People who fail to stay sober in early recovery are often too cocky to fully surrender
They say that in order to recover from addiction you have to become teachable. When I worked in a rehab and detox center for over five years continuous I saw ample evidence that this is absolutely true. People succeeded in rehab who had the right attitude, and that was an attitude of humility.
It was amazing to see the same person come back to rehab in the future with a different attitude and realize that something had shifted, something fundamental had changed, and this “something” was the person’s willingness to learn a new way to live. In the past they had attended rehab and their attitude was lousy and it was pretty obvious to everyone involved that the person was just not ready to get clean and sober yet. They may want to change, and they might wish that things were different or that they were not on drugs or alcohol, but ultimately they are not at that place of humility that they need to be at in order to “get” any sort of program.
Humility is about doing things someone else’s way. That is what it boils down to in early recovery for many people. Either you try to do it your way or you try to do it someone else’s way. Most addicts and alcoholics have proved over and over again that their way does not work. If it did then they would not be addicted. But the fact remains that they ARE addicted and that their life is a complete mess and therefore they need help in order to make significant changes.
Genuine humility is not about making yourself into a doormat for others, instead it is about being realistic about your own abilities and recognizing that you cannot solve the addiction problem on your own. This is the ego-crushing step that is so necessary to surrender that can take addicts years, decades, or even a lifetime to try to get past. Those who stubbornly cling to their pride are not able to learn a new way to live.
The real reason that full surrender is so necessary for recovery is not because overcoming drug or alcohol addiction is so difficult (though it generally is!) but because doing so requires such a full and complete change in lifestyle. You are not just changing one thing (removing the drugs) but in fact you are changing EVERYTHING. From how you deal with stress to what you spend your free time and your money on, recovery is a complete change in lifestyle from your addiction. It is not enough to merely eliminate the drugs or the booze. You must change everything, every part of your life, every way that you dealt with negativity.
People who relapse and “just don’t get it” in recovery are almost always failing to surrender in some capacity. They are almost always hanging on to some part of their old life. They might be holding on to a relationship that is no good for them, or they might be holding on to an old coping mechanism that leads to anger and self medicating, or they may be hanging on to old behavior patterns that lead them back to their drug of choice. Regardless of what they are hanging on to, it is undoubtedly keeping them from experiencing a full and lasting recovery until they can let go of everything, completely, and surrender fully to their addiction.
True surrender feels like defeat. It is exhaustive because you are turning over complete faith to someone else. You are saying “I do not know how to recover on my own, please show me what to do.” And you say this with the full willingness to do whatever is suggested. You hold nothing back in this surrender and you become willing to do whatever is necessary to avoid the pain and misery of addiction. You are sick and tired of being sick and tired and you just want it all to go away.
People who are cocky in early recovery are lacking this full and total surrender. They are lacking the humility that is necessary to succeed in early recovery. People who are cocky are essentially saying “I know how to do this, so you can not teach me anything.” Obviously this is not really true or they would not be in a position of seeking help in the first place, they would simply change their life on their own without any outside help.
I worked in a rehab and I also lived in a long term rehab for long enough to realize that cockiness never works in recovery. I never saw a person who was cocky actually maintain long term sobriety. Not once. In every single case the person who was cocky had another lesson to learn that only relapse could teach them.
And sometimes it worked. Sometimes, the person who was initially cocky about their recovery would come back to treatment after a time period and have a completely different attitude. They just got their tail’s handed to them at the hands of their addiction and now they have a new found humility in their life. The people who made this fundamental attitude shift were the ones who were able to learn from their past cockiness and move forward in their recovery. They were able to learn enough humility in order to stay clean.
Most of the other problems that cause people to relapse can also be traced back to a lack of surrender. This is why having genuine humility in early recovery is so important. Surrender is like a light switch, either you have done it or you have not. There is no “half surrender.” People who think that they have “partially surrendered” have actually not surrendered at all. If you are still hanging on to something from your addiction they call this a reservation. When you have fully surrendered you let go of ALL reservations and you can then learn a new way to live and move forward in your recovery. If you are still hanging on to a reservation (even just one!) then you are NOT surrendered and you will likely not be able to find long term sobriety until you confront, process, and deal with any remaining reservations.
Therefore “true surrender” or “full surrender” is an either/or proposition. You either have done it or you have not. I experienced this myself when I wished that I was not addicted to drugs but I was not quite ready to let go of them as my coping mechanism. Therefore I went to rehab a few times and got a glimpse of what recovery could offer but I was not yet willing to put in the work and the effort necessary to learn how to cope with life without self medicating.
If you (or someone you love) is failing to remain clean and sober, the problem can almost always be traced back to their lack of surrender. This is not necessarily actionable information, but it is true nonetheless. With full surrender nearly any addict or alcoholic can finally ask for help, accept direction, and start to improve their life. Until they reach this level of full surrender they will likely continue to struggle. If you are interested in learning of ways that you can speed up the time to surrender, consider attending an Al-anon meeting. They will teach you about setting boundaries and limits and how to stop enabling someone. These things may seem painful in the short run but they may speed up the time that it takes for an addict or an alcoholic to reach the point of true surrender.
Next we will look at the second reason that people tend to relapse in recovery, and that is that they do not do enough to disrupt their pattern in order to overcome their addiction. Stay tuned….