No one can truly recovery from drug and alcohol addiction until they surrender fully to their disease.
This is a universal truth that I have watched play out over and over again for the last 12 years of my recovery.
And in fact the real lesson started long before that, when I was too stubborn or foolish to surrender to my own disease for many years.
The problem is not in living sober for the rest of your life though. Instead, the problem is that you can not break through and learn how to do that unless you have already hit rock bottom and surrendered. You just can’t get anywhere in early recovery unless you have fully surrendered.
The problem with early recovery when you have not surrendered
I tried early recovery twice in my life when I had not yet thrown in the towel on my addiction. Now obviously this did not work out either time and the reasons that it did not work are not really obvious at first.
You see, there is sort of a fine line between “wishing you were clean and sober” and “full surrender.”
In fact the dividing line between those two things is actually enormous. But no one knows that until they have surrendered fully and finally embraced real change in their life.
Up until that point of full surrender, the struggling addict or alcoholic does not really know what true surrender is. They hear people talk about it at AA meetings and in rehabs, but they don’t necessarily know if they are at that point yet or not. And how would they be able to tell? Unless you have already arrived at that point, then you won’t really be able to know for sure. Because you are in a position where you have experienced some consequences of your addiction and you are not real happy with your life and you are in an AA meeting or at a drug rehab center. But you don’t know for sure if you are truly surrendered or not. You wish that things were different. You would like to be happy without drugs or alcohol in your life. But you don’t really see how that it possible. You are miserable without self medicating.
And so you are at this point of limbo where you are hoping that you are fully surrendered to the disease, but you are actually not.
I know that this is possible because I have been in this exact situation at least twice when I was in a treatment center. I wished that things were different, I wanted to be happy while I was sober, but I was not done using drugs and alcohol yet. I had not had enough. I was not really done with addiction yet. And so the madness was destined to continue, due to a lack of surrender.
You see, the problem with early recovery is that it demands a huge commitment and massive action if you are to remain clean and sober. Just getting through the first few months of sobriety is nearly impossible for anyone who is not fully committed to the goal. It is not just a casual walk in the park, you have to be really, really desperate for change in your life. And most people who first come to a crisis point, to a rehab center, to an AA meeting–they are not really at that point of extreme desperation. They are just not ready yet. But it is so easy to fool yourself, because they really are unhappy with their life and they know that other people can be happy without addiction, so they wish that things were different. And so they have this hope that maybe recovery will just magically rub off on them and suddenly they will become happy while they are detoxing. This is a point in the journey that thousands of addicts and alcoholics are getting to all of the time, sometimes over and over again, before they finally surrender for good.
Once you surrender fully you can move past this stage and embrace real recovery. Doing so is almost like a form of death. You abandon nearly all hope, save for a tiny little sliver of hope that things might be different some day if you just hold on and try to ride it out a little more. You have to be miserable, be completely desperate, and at your absolute rock bottom. Then you have to decide that you want to try to live anyway–in spite of the overwhelming misery that you seem to be facing. This is not a glamorous or victories moment for most people. No, the moment of true surrender is one of complete and total desperation. You just want the pain and the misery of addiction to end. This is the level that you must reach in order to turn your life around and create lasting changes.
Any other attitude will just create half measures that will get you nowhere.
How half measures will treat you in sobriety
How can you tell if someone has not fully surrendered to their disease? They will be using something called “half measures.”
In the Big Book of AA there is a line that says “Half measures availed us nothing.” What they are talking about is the people who have not fully committed to recovery that are making an effort to try to stay sober.
The problem with our reality is that we have had a lifetime of experiences that have taught us the exact opposite of this. We have learned in our past that half measures normally gets us half results. We know that in most things in life, if we put in a certain amount of effort, we will get out a certain reward.
For example, if you hard in school but not too hard you got a decent grade of a “B.” Obviously you could have tried a little harder but you really did not have to do so. You settled for a B and that was just fine.
Maybe you worked out in order to get into shape. You could have pushed even harder and run that marathon, but instead you trained up to the point of doing a 10K race instead. It was good enough. You made an effort, you got some results. It all worked out. No big deal.
Your whole life, you have been able to make these “half efforts” at various things and you have been able to get “half results.” This is, in fact, how most of your experiences have worked so far.
The problem is that recovery does not work anything like this. Thus the line in the Big Book that says “half measures availed us nothing.” In recovery from addiction, half measures create relapse and complete failure.
Sobriety is pass/fail. This is the harsh truth that every addict and alcoholic must learn at some point. Some of us take years or even decades to learn it. Why? Because we don’t want to give up our drug of choice entirely. It is too painful to do so. So we hold on to that need for control. We try to cut down, to drink less, to use less drugs, to find a way to control it while still enjoying it. Of course it never works. This is addiction, it can’t work. You either use to excess or you are completely miserable. There is no in between. And if you have some middle ground in this regard, just wait a year or two. Addiction will squeeze that middle ground out of your life completely. This is how the disease progresses. Change in tolerance will eventually make you miserable.
Inconvenient truth: recovery is pass/fail
There are treatment centers starting to sprout up right now (one is in California I believe) that are attempting to teach moderation.
Can you imagine such a place–where addicts and alcoholics attend and they try to teach you how to moderate your drinking and drug use? How would that even work? Do they keep drugs and alcohol right there at the rehab, so that you can practice moderation while you learning about it?
Absolutely insane. The problem with moderation is that anyone can master it in the short run. Any drug addict or alcoholic can actually moderate in the short term, sometimes almost indefinitely. I have done it myself several times throughout my addiction, because I was biding my time. I was moderating my drug and alcohol intake but in the back of my mind I was saying to myself “Just you wait until I get things set right in the future, I am going to get good and loaded when I finally secure my freedom, just you wait….”
There is this false notion that addicts and alcoholics could never possibly control themselves for one second while using their drug of choice, that they have always and forever lost all control the second they put a substance into their bodies, and therefore they could never “bide their time” while using drugs or alcohol and secretly hope to get wasted even more in the future.
But I know the truth. An addict can bide their time, they can manipulate (even themselves!) and they can fake moderation for a very long time if necessary.
The problem is that ultimately the “real addict” returns. Eventually they will always lose control. Always. But don’t fall into the trap of believing that they can not hold it together or appear to be able to moderate, because most addicts and alcoholics actually CAN do this.
And this is why a treatment center that tries to teach moderation is an insane idea.
First of all, the idea is extremely appealing to the struggling addict. This is because the worse thing in the world for them to hear is that you are going to take away their drug of choice forever and ever. This is like executing their best friend in the whole world. No one wants to hear that or go through with it. This is what regular treatment centers are pitching. They are basically saying “come to detox, and then never use drugs or alcohol ever again!” To the typical addict this is like a death sentence. It is not an easy pill to swallow.
So when the struggling addict or alcoholic hears about a rehab that can teach them how to keep using their drug of choice, but this time they will be able to control it and use it successfully, this is a very seductive idea. It is so much nicer than the idea of never using drugs or alcohol ever again. And it even seems like a more reasonable idea than forever swearing off a certain substance. “All things in moderation,” right?
Then the major problem with such an approach of teaching moderation is that it is so easy to fake success in the short run. It is easy to moderate your drug or alcohol intake in the short run and make it look good. It is easy to bide your time without losing control for a while (so long as you know in the back of your mind that you can lose control again some day soon).
And then the biggest problem with attempting to regulate an addiction using moderation is the lack of surrender. The person is not going to reach a point where they are willing to make radical changes in their life. Where will the personal growth and progress come from?
You see, when you use abstinence in recovery and you surrender fully, it is not just about the abstinence. Instead, you start making huge changes in your life and you start trying to push yourself to make personal growth. It is not just about avoiding alcohol or drugs, it is about building and creating a new life, one in which you will be happy without the need to self medicate. Building this new life takes a lot of work. And if you fail to create this happiness in your world of sobriety, guess what happens? The easy way out is to just self medicate. Humans will not stand for long term misery. This is especially true if they know that there is a quick fix or a temporary solution. If someone is miserable for months on end and they just want the pain to go away then they will reach for what has always worked for them in the past–their drug of choice. In order to overcome this urge you have to work very hard at creating a life without pain and misery and struggle. You have to find new solutions that do not rely on self medicating. You have to experiment and push yourself to make personal growth.
And when you add it all up you either succeed or you relapse. There is absolutely no in-between. You cannot just “sort of relapse” in recovery. If you take a tiny sip of alcohol then you are going to be off to the races at some point. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow but you have planted the seed of relapse once that chemical enters your body.
I know this for a fact because I am an alcoholic. Before I ever got sober for good this last time, I had bouts of abstinence during my addiction. And at one point I went for a while without drinking, even though I was not really ready for recovery yet. And I can remember that I took a sip of alcohol after being sober for a few months or whatever, and I can remember thinking to myself something along the lines of “Oh yes, I remember this all too well now….I may not get drunk tonight but I am going to get good and loaded real soon here. This is what I have been missing all along…my old friend alcohol” etc. Just that one tiny sip sort of wakes up the dragon. And you just know that you are going to go nuts and get totally wasted at some point. Maybe not right away but the dragon has now been awoke.
So anyone who is teaching moderation has missed the point that recovery is pass/fail. They will point to someone who has taken that sip of alcohol and said “see, they are moderating just fine, they are not getting wasted! They have learned to control it successfully.” But what they don’t see is the dragon that has woke up, and can wait patiently for a while as you continue to pacify it. But it is not going to stay satisfied forever with two drinks per night. At some point the dragon is going to demand its full share. It wants to get wasted. It is just biding its time.
And this is how addiction really works. Any addict or alcoholic can sort of “feed the dragon” for a while and pacify it. But eventually they are going to go way off the deep end, seemingly out of nowhere, when everyone had thought that they were doing so well with their moderation.
If you are having two drinks per night and keeping things under control for the most part then you are getting a “B plus” in recovery. But remember this: there is no “B plus” in recovery. It is pass/fail. You are either clean and sober or you are feeding the dragon….there is no in between. And you might tame the dragon for a while and keep it pacified but eventually it is going to cut loose.
What it means to have a reservation
Some people believe that they have surrendered but they actually have a reservation hidden in the back of their mind. So they are near the point where they are willing to do whatever it takes to stay clean and sober, but they also have this event in their mind that sort of “gives them permission” to use drugs and alcohol. For example, you may get sober but then say to yourself “If my wife were to die suddenly then I would relapse and get drunk.” This is a reservation.
If you have one of these I can advise you to move forward in your recovery anyway. What you should do then is to work through your reservation with someone else in recovery or a professional. They can help you to work through the reservation and eventually eliminate it. This will also become easier as you remain clean and sober because the benefits of recovery will start to kick in more and more as the months go by. Things will get better and better and you will realize that sobriety itself is a gift, thus lessening the hold that a reservation has on you.
It makes no sense to avoid recovery simply because of a reservation. You can work through them and eventually eliminate them while you remain clean and sober.
Full surrender is the state that will allow you to be open to this idea. The idea that you can remain sober and learn to deal with your reservation and work through it, without letting it become an excuse to relapse.