Yesterday we looked at why disruption was a necessary part of early recovery. You have to find a way to disrupt your pattern of addiction before you can get started on a new life in recovery. Today we need to look carefully at the idea of the “zero tolerance policy” and how you will need to implement this in order to stay clean and sober.
Why people relapse in recovery
When I got clean and sober (and made it stick without relapsing) I went to a rehab center and then eventually checked into long term rehab. I lived in a rehab for almost two full years. During this time, I had the luxury of being able to watch thousands of people go through residential treatment, and dozens of people go through long term treatment. This proved to be an enlightening experience. I learned a great deal from simply observing people, and noticing the tendencies and patterns.
I was never a big talker in AA meetings, but because I was living in a rehab center, I was required to attend them every single day. The meetings that I attended included everyone who was living in the rehab at the time, but it also included two other groups of people:
1) People who were temporarily in short term inpatient treatment.
2) People who had recently left short term inpatient rehab and were coming back to the AA meeting there at the treatment center for support.
As I said this happened on a massive scale and I watched thousands of people go through the inpatient program over the years. A huge portion of those people who left inpatient treatment after completing the short program successfully would return to the AA meetings at the rehab, and thus this would enable us to keep tabs on their progress to some degree.
So I was living in long term rehab at the time and I was attending these AA meetings every single day and I wanted to know the secret of recovery. I wanted to find a way to insure that I stayed clean and sober for the long haul, even though I was watching people frequently relapse all around me.
I would sit in the meetings and I would listen to people try to convey their wisdom to the group. What was really important in terms of sobriety? What should we focus on in order to create success in recovery?
One thing that I noticed very quickly is that there was not a lot of consistency at the meetings. People would make suggestions and talk about what was important to them in their recovery, but the messages that I was hearing were not consistent. They varied quite a bit, in fact.
Now this is not to say that the messages were in disagreement with each other. It was not that the suggestions were completely contradictory (although sometimes they were!). Most of the time people would just try to convey what you should focus on in recovery, what was really important, and what actually keeps people sober.
For example, one person might say that it is all in the steps of AA. That is where all the magic happens, just work the steps and you will be fine. This is their core message.
Another person might say that you need to have a higher power, and communicate with that higher power every day and have faith. This is their greatest suggestion, this is what helped them the most in their own recovery.
Another person might say “make it to more meetings. If you want to stay clean and sober then you have to make meetings.”
And yet another person might talk about sponsorship, and how everyone needs a proper guide to lead them through recovery, and so on.
It is not that these suggestions conflict with each other, that is not my issue here. But on the other hand, while I was listening to all of these suggestions in my recovery journey, I was also observing the people who were making these suggestions. Some of them (actually most of them) ended up relapsing.
And when one of these people would relapse, I would start to question their wisdom. I would say to myself “oh my gosh, so and so relapsed, and what was it that they always talked about in the meetings? Oh yeah, they said that the solution was in the steps” or whatever it may have been.
And so over time, this happened more and more to me. I would watch people in AA relapse, and I could remember what they had spoke about in meetings, and what their suggestions had been.
Based on their results, their suggestions were wrong.
Perhaps not wrong, but their suggestions had missed the point somehow. What they thought to be “wisdom” in AA had actually misled them. They tried to talk the talk, but somehow they failed to walk the walk, and thus they ended up relapsing.
Did this invalidate their suggestions? Did this mean that the truths that they tried to share in meetings was actually false?
In my mind it did sort of invalidate what they had tried to share. Not because it was wrong or not helpful to anyone, but rather because it had failed them and therefore was not the optimal thing to focus on.
And so I started to think carefully as I observed these people in recovery. I started to search a little deeper to find the real truth of recovery, and the real reason that people were relapsing. I wanted to know what the real secret of recovery was, and what you had to focus on if you wanted to make sure that you stayed clean and sober.
This is how I eventually arrived at the idea of “the zero tolerance policy.”
I realized that each person who wanted to be clean and sober had to make a decision. This decision was an internal agreement that they made with themselves. They were agreeing with themselves that they were not going to use addictive drugs or alcohol, no matter what happened.
And every person who relapsed had violated this decision. They had rescinded on the decision. Every person who relapsed at some point must have threw up their hands and said “screw it! I don’t care about my decision not to use drugs or alcohol, I am going to self medicate anyway! Pour me a drink (or give me some drugs)!”
This idea of the zero tolerance policy sounds pretty simple, and it most certainly is. Every person who relapses in recovery goes back on their decision to stay clean and sober at all costs. They throw their recovery out the window and decide to use drugs or alcohol after all (even though they had at one point swore them off).
So I formed this idea in my mind and then I continued to watch people in recovery. I also listened very carefully to those who had relapsed, when they came back to the program and told the tale of how they had screwed up their recovery.
In every case my idea seemed to apply. In every case, people had to make a mental decision to throw their recovery out the window or push their sobriety to the side. No one relapsed in a blind blur of chaos. Every single person did it deliberately, with full mental capacity engaged. They made a decision with their brain that they wanted to get drunk or high, and screw this sobriety stuff.
Thus I realized that when people talked about what the most important aspect of their recovery was (the steps, their higher power, sponsorship, meetings, etc.) they were actually sort of dancing around this ultimate truth.
What was really important in recovery is the absolute commitment to sobriety, period. The mental commitment to not use drugs or alcohol no matter what, through thick and thin. This is what was truly important and this should be our highest truth in recovery.
If you go to a hundred AA meetings in 100 days and try to figure out what the most important thing to focus on in your recovery is, I can almost promise you that you would not necessarily arrive at this idea. It gets pushed to the side, it is not the central focus in traditional recovery, and yet it is by far the most important concept.
Step one in every recovery program should be something like: “Committed to the decision not to use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.”
In fact, with such a powerful step, the remaining steps would not even matter much after this. Step two can be whatever you like, something vague like “take positive action every day.” This would make a great recovery program and in fact that is pretty much how I have worked things in my own life.
I have made a mental agreement with myself that I am not going to use addictive drugs or alcohol NO MATTER WHAT. Period.
On top of that, I have tried to employ all sorts of other ideas that would count as “step two” and additional steps to take in recovery, and pretty much all of them focus on the idea of personal growth and making positive changes in my life. None of it really matters though because all of the magic in recovery happens in the first step, in the idea of the “zero tolerance policy.”
I also believe that for people who make it successfully in AA and in other recovery programs, this idea of the zero tolerance policy is implied. People who “get it” in AA realize that the most important part of their recovery is their commitment to sobriety. Period. Why they almost never communicate this to newcomers in the meetings is beyond me, because honestly that would have been a lot more helpful than the slew of suggestions that you do hear in the typical meeting.
How to make a mental commitment to recovery
The way to make a mental commitment like this in your own recovery is fairly simple.
You have to think about it and decide that what you want in your life is sobriety, at any cost.
Figuring this out should be easy for most addicts and alcoholics, but I have to admit that I could never figure it out until after I had reached the point of surrender. It was only then that I realized that everything good in my life hinged on the fact that I remained clean and sober.
Leading up to that point I was stuck in denial and stuck in my addiction. I had my priorities messed up and I believed that the only way for me to be happy was to self medicate with drugs and alcohol.
In fact, looking back at my addiction, I can see that I was actually using the same level of commitment and the same concept of the “zero tolerance policy” while I was using drugs and alcohol in my addiction. The only difference was in what my internal policy was.
While I was stuck in addiction, my internal policy stated that I could only be truly happy when I was drunk or high, and if I was in a state of sobriety I would be miserable until I could figure out a way to self medicate. This was the truth and the mantra that I lived by. This was denial because it was obvious to the rest of the world that I was miserable most of the time in my addiction, even though I had these very brief moments of “happiness” when I scored drugs and was properly medicated.
But the important thing to realize is that the mental commitment is the same. In addiction I had mentally committed to the idea that I had to get high in order to be happy. Therefore in recovery you must mentally commit to a different idea, the idea that you must not use addictive drugs or alcohol at any cost, period. This commitment can only come after you have seen through the lies that have kept you stuck in denial, after you realize that you are actually miserable most of the time in your addiction.
That moment has to occur where you have this awakening and realize “hey you know what? This isn’t really all that much fun any more.” And it hasn’t been fun for a long time. And there is no foreseeable hope for the future that it is suddenly going to be fun all the time.
If you have not yet reached this point in your life and in your addiction, then it does not make much sense to talk about the idea of a zero tolerance policy. In fact you already have such a policy, but it is being used to block yourself from the truth. Your policy in addiction states “drugs and alcohol make me happy, and there is no way that I could ever be happy without them.”
Mentally getting to the point of surrender
One of the only mysteries remaining in recovery (to me anyway) is how we get to the point of surrender.
If you knew the answer to this and it was simple and straightforward, then you might actually have a cure for addiction. As it is, no such cure exists, and therefore we do not have a simple explanation of how people actually get to the point of surrender.
I can think back to my own addiction and the sort of things that I was thinking leading up to my own moment of surrender. Much of it is muddy and unclear, however, and I am not sure that telling others about those thought processes would necessarily help them.
For one thing I was fairly miserable in my addiction, and I would frequently have thoughts of “screw it, I am just going to get as drunk/high as possible.” It was almost as if I had abandoned hope for the future, and was content now to throw all caution to the wind in trying to self medicate. Earlier in my addiction I was more reserved and careful than this, with more hope for a better future. So my thoughts had turned more desperate and I was losing hope.
We almost always talk about “hope” in a positive light and the traditional 12 step programs focus on it as a key point, but I realize now that I had to abandon all hope. In fact, I think that my hope was holding me back and keeping me stuck in my addiction. It was only after I sort of gave up hope and lost all faith that I was able to surrender to my disease.
I used to think about this and believe that I must have had a tiny shred of hope left in order to surrender and ask for help. I realize now that this is not quite accurate, in fact I had abandoned all hope at the moment of surrender. That is why it feels like a near-suicidal state. I no longer cared about the future, at all. I had completely gave up the fight, the struggle, the effort to secure future happiness. I had grown so weary from chasing after my own happiness using drugs and alcohol that I became open to another way.
At the time of surrender I had this tremendous fear of sobriety. I also had a fear of going to rehab, a fear of being without drugs and alcohol, and a fear of going to AA meetings. I was scare of all of it, the entire process. Up until that point, the idea of “hope” was that I could somehow avoid these fears and find happiness in life in some way. The reality was that “hope” was holding me back.
What I ultimately had to do was to abandon all hope and face the fears, head on. Almost like a complete lunatic–like someone who had thrown caution to the wind and no longer cared about their own future. This is the exact state of mind I was in when I finally surrendered and agreed to go to rehab. I had given up all hope and therefore I was willing to go along with a solution that I thought was crazy, something that would never work, something that would not bring me happiness. Because I really believed that I would be miserable if I was sober, and that to go into rehab was to lose all hope for a decent future.
In order to surrender, I had to give up. I had to abandon hope.
And getting rid of this hope made way for something more powerful to enter the mind. Instead of just “hoping” for sobriety or happiness in the future, I had made a decision to create that happiness myself, with a firm decision not to put drugs or alcohol into my body. If you have “hope” then you have a vague notion that the future will be better for you. If you abandon that hope and make a decision and a commitment then you no longer need the hope. The hope is for weak people who are not actually taking positive action. Instead, you must abandon hope and start taking positive action and simply make this commitment to yourself that you are going to avoid drugs and alcohol NO MATTER WHAT.
This is how to mentally implement the zero tolerance policy. Abandon the idea of hope and realize that the decision and the commitment to avoid drugs and alcohol lies squarely on your own shoulders, and that no one is going to carry that burden except for you.
What is your highest truth in recovery today?
Your highest truth in recovery should be your commitment to sobriety. This must take precedence over every other recovery concept that you have heard of. This is your baseline for success: that you not put addictive drugs or alcohol into your body, period.
All other positive things in recovery hinge on that commitment. Therefore it is your most important truth, your “step one” in recovery.