Getting clean and sober is almost always a struggle. No matter what your journey involves or what happens to you in your story of recovery, you are bound to make some mistakes.
I know this to be true partially because of my own story of recovery. I made many mistakes before I finally “got it” and managed to stay clean and sober for the long run.
For example, my biggest mistake was probably in delaying my decision to attempt sobriety for so long. I stayed stuck in my disease for years, simply out of fear, because I did not have the guts to face the changes needed for recovery. Another mistake that I made was to shun the AA program for years, and use it as an excuse to keep me from even trying to get clean and sober. When I finally opened myself up to that avenue of help, I was able to make some progress.
Of course later on in my life journey I started working at a drug and alcohol treatment center, and before that I lived in long term rehab for almost two years continuous. So I got the chance to make lots and lots of observations. I watched carefully hundreds or even thousands of people who tried to get clean and sober. Statistically most of them failed. But I believe that we can learn something from the failures, from every relapse, if we are willing to examine what happened and at least try to take something useful out of it.
As such I have identified a handful of classic mistakes that people make in very early recovery. These are things that people do in early recovery that seem to lead to a relapse. They are:
1) Saying that they will just “do it themselves” and shunning help.
2) Relying too heavily on medication to “cure” addiction.
3) Trying to taper down, reduce intake, and control their using or drinking.
4) Using a procedure like ultra rapid detox to “cure” addiction and avoid withdrawal symptoms.
5) Getting clean and sober for someone else.
Let’s take a closer look at these common mistakes.
Demanding to do it all themselves
I saw this one a lot while working in rehab.
People would come to treatment, they would check into rehab, and then at some point something inside of them would snap, and they would suddenly want to leave treatment. In nearly every case like this the person really wanted to leave treatment to go use their drug of choice, even though no one in this situation would ever admit it when you confronted them with this truth.
Part of it must have had to do with feeling trapped in rehab. They suddenly wanted out, and they were desperate to leave. There is a “point of no return” involved in this type of decision. Suddenly they snap and you cannot convince them of anything. They are closed off to logical suggestion and they believe everything that you say to them is evil manipulation. They want out, they want to go use their drug of choice, and they will stop at nothing until they are allowed to go do this.
All the while, what they are argue while they are in this state of mind is that they “can do it themselves.” What else could they possible argue? They are trying to leave rehab, they are trying to walk away from the people and the place that can help them the most. So they try to justify leaving by saying that they have it all figured out, that they do not want to get high or drunk any more, and that they will go on about their way and not use any drugs or alcohol. “They will be fine” they try to assure you. But you can be sure that this is the exact opposite of the truth. The truth is that they have already mentally relapsed, and they are dead set on going to get their drug of choice, and nothing can stop them from this and no one can talk them out of it. They have already decided in their mind.
If someone says that they insist on doing recovery all by themselves, you can be pretty sure that they are headed for trouble. Think about it: if people really could figure out recovery all by themselves with absolutely zero outside help, then why did they walk into rehab in the first place? Why don’t they just stop drinking or doing drugs and be done with it? Because they can’t. They are a real drug addict or an alcoholic and they cannot stop on their own and this is what defines them as an addict. If they could stop on their own then they would not be an addict and they would not have a problem and they would not need any help.
So when they claim they just want to recover on their own, they are manipulating. In all truth they just want to go use their drug of choice some more. They are not ready to get clean and sober yet. When they are fully surrendered and truly ready to get clean and sober then they will accept outside help in order to do so. They will realize the need for guidance and they will accept help from others.
Using medication as a shortcut to recovery
There are certain medications that have been developed that are designed to help people in recovery from addiction.
Most of these medications are for either alcoholics or opiate addicts. There are some new “anti-addiction medications” also being developed and released that attempt to treat cravings for things like cocaine and in some cases meth. So this is a developing field and I am sure that over the next few years even more medications will come to the market that attempt to help people with addiction.
Some of these medications attempt to help by reducing or controlling cravings. Some of these medications actually mimic the drug of choice or are very similar to it. For example, someone taking methadone in order to stay off of heroin is actually taking a very powerful opiate drug that is quite similar to the actual drug of choice. In other cases, someone might take a medication like Antabuse in order to try to avoid alcohol, and such a drug does NOT mimic the effects of alcohol at all. So some medications work in completely different ways. Some mimic our drug of choice, while others do not.
But ultimately I want to talk about the type of person and the type of attitude that seeks out these anti addiction medications in order to try to get clean and sober.
The idea is that an addict or an alcoholic will seek help, and they will go into treatment and get a full treatment plan outlined for them, and they will start to work on their recovery from a number of different angles. They will have counseling, they will go to meetings, they will get a sponsor, they will do all of these different things that will help support them in their recovery effort. And in addition, they will also–in some cases–be prescribed one of these medications that helps to control cravings, or helps to fight addiction in some way. This is the ideal path and notice that the person is using a full treatment plan and is going to counseling and meetings and taking all sorts of action in addition to the medication.
But the person who seeks to overcome their addiction through the use of medication is not on the right path, in my opinion. Now this does not mean that someone who is simply interested in the medications for overcoming addiction is automatically doomed to fail. All it means is that addicts and alcoholics who are seeking that easy solution in the medication are generally not ready to get clean and sober just yet. They are looking for an easy way out and so therefore they are not willing to put in the hard work that is necessary to stay clean and sober.
I saw this over and over again as I worked in a detox center. I especially saw this with opiate addicts who were seeking to be put on a maintenance medication called Suboxone in order to fight off opiate cravings. Suboxone is similar to methadone but it is not as powerful as methadone and it is not as addictive as methadone, but the way that it reduces cravings in the opiate addict is somewhat similar. So while I worked in detox for five years, I watched hundreds of opiate addicts come through the rehab and many of them requested this medication on a long term basis in order to help them deal with their addiction. They wanted to be put on this medication to help them fight off cravings in the long run.
What I noticed is that nearly everyone who was intently seeking out this medication for long term use ended up failing and relapsing. How do I know this? Because they would eventually relapse and come back to treatment! I worked there for over five years and it was unbelievable to see how many of these people ended up coming back to rehab for a second, third, and forth visit. Nearly everyone I saw who went on Suboxone maintenance ended up coming back into rehab later after relapsing.
Now this is not to knock a medication such as Suboxone because clearly there is nothing wrong with that medicine. That pill is not flawed and that medicine is not the problem. It is the attitude that is the problem. It is the fact that the people who sought out that pill as their solution for addiction, that is the real problem.
So if someone is given a treatment plan, and the therapists and the counselors and the doctors believe that this medication might help the person, and that addict goes out into the world and follows their treatment program and they take the medication, I believe that their chances of success are very good.
However, if a person comes into rehab and says “I need to be on this certain medication in order to overcome my addiction” then that is a huge warning flag right there. Even if that addict agrees to follow a treatment program and go to counseling and go to all of their meetings, I believe that they are still pretty much already doomed to fail (at least at this point, they still have hope for the future). The problem is that they have not fully surrendered yet.
They have “half surrendered.” They have crashed and burned and they may be beat up by their addiction and they realize that they need help but they are not willing to go to any length to get that help. They are at the point of “half surrender” where they wish that things were different, where they wish that they were not a drug addict or an alcoholic, where they wish that their addiction would just go away, BUT they are not desperate enough and miserable enough to be willing to do anything in order to overcome their problem. They are not at full surrender. They are not yet completely broke down to the point of absolute misery and willing to take direction and advice from others. Their demand for medication is a clear sign that they are still trying to control the situation, they are still trying to call the shots, they are not yet fully surrendered.
That is just what I observed while working in detox, that people who demanded medication to help with their addiction never did well. It was not the medication that screwed them up, it was their attitude going into it. They were not fully surrendered.
Taper down and control it?
This is another horrible way to try to get clean and sober and really what it does is to help define addiction itself.
People who try to control their drug or alcohol intake will quickly separate themselves into two camps: people who are merely abusing drugs or alcohol, and people who are truly addicted.
Anyone who repeatedly tries to control their drug intake and fails is a drug addict. Anyone who repeatedly tries to control their drinking and fails is an alcoholic. The problem is that we can fool ourselves so easily and stay stuck in denial, believing that we will someday figure out the perfect formula where we can drink or use just the right amount of drugs where we stay happy and not lose control.
We also fool ourselves in addiction because every addict and alcoholic has the ability to control their intake and taper down in the short run. In the long run we always lose control eventually and go off the deep end and really have a bad bender or a bad experience, but in the short run nearly anyone can control their drug intake. This is part of what allows us to fool ourselves and believe that some day that we can be happy and still control our drug or alcohol intake. It is a mechanism of denial, a trick that we play in our minds.
This is all part of the journey to recovery for nearly every addict and alcoholic. At some point they will say to themselves “OK, I realize that I drink or use too many drugs, so I am going to cut down and reduce my consumption.”
This is true for nearly every addict and alcoholic. Before they face the horribly crushing solution of total abstinence, they are going to fight and wrestle with the idea that maybe they can just cut down and control their intake and still be happy. Some addicts struggle with this for years or even decades, trying to get the perfect combination or amounts of drugs and booze so that they are both happy and in control.
Of course they always fail to do so in the end, this is what defines them as an addict. They eventually realize that they cannot control their drug or alcohol intake while still enjoying it. They can choose one or the other: enjoy it, or control it. But not both. Believing that you can have both is denial.
Again, we can fool ourselves on this, because we will remember an instance where we seemed to have both (control and happiness). We were high on our drug of choice and we were still in control and everything was right and perfect in the world. Why can’t every high be just like that one? Why can’t every day be just like that, every time we get high? That is the illusion that the addict is chasing after, believing that they might some day be able to achieve that perfect high every single time. The truth is that they only get a peak experience like that every few months or so at best. The rest of the time they are struggling to self medicate and they are either miserable or blacked out or simply trying to get wasted. They are miserable 99 percent of the time while constantly fantasizing about that 1 percent of the time when everything is perfect. This is denial and it is insane.
Radical and experimental procedure to avoid withdrawal
There is a procedure called “ultra rapid detox” where medical professionals put you under and when you wake up from this your withdrawal is over and you experience no pain or discomfort. Sounds enticing for the typical heroin addict, right?
The problem is just like with the medication though. It is an easier, softer way to recovery and therefore the people who seek it out have the wrong attitude.
It might still work, but probably not because their motives are bad. They are looking for the quick fix and just getting through withdrawal is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to long term sobriety. The real work starts when withdrawal ends. Recovery is a long road indeed.
Getting sober for someone else
Most people are probably familiar with this one but it is very common. The wife begs the husband to go to rehab and he finally caves in, even though he does not really want to stop drinking for himself.
We all know what happens. The only way that recovery can work is if the person is completely surrendered to their disease and is ready to go to any length in order to recover.
If someone is convinced to “just give rehab a chance” then that person is not going to have the right attitude (of complete desperation) that is necessary in order to recover.
Getting clean and sober for someone else never works. It only works if you want it for yourself.
The best way to try to get clean and sober
So the best way to try to get clean and sober is to surrender completely to your disease first. You must be totally beaten and defeated by your drug of choice, you must be completely miserable with using your drug of choice every day, you must be sick and tired of chasing that next buzz. You have to be completely broken down internally and sick of it all. You have to throw up your hands and say “someone show me how to live.”
You reach this point, then you ask for help.
That’s it. That is the whole secret right there. Surrender completely, then ask for help.
To say anything more is to complicate the truth.
Remember: Failure might be part of the path
Keep in mind too that sometimes we have to fail before we can succeed.
I went to three rehabs before I “got it.”
Most people have to try and fail a few times with sobriety before they can learn exactly how deeply they must surrender. You have to let go of EVERYTHING and that takes real guts. It does not come easy to anyone, therefore it can be a struggle and a learning process to totally let go.