It is not easy to go from the chaos and misery of addiction to a life of serenity and peace. It certainly does not happen overnight after something like drug addiction or alcoholism has slowly built up over a number of years.
It may be obvious to some people that the first step towards surrender is always going to be some form of acceptance, but the way that this unfolds in your life may be more complicated than simply “giving in.” It all starts with surrender, but that is really just the beginning in a journey to recovery. If it all stops there then you will continue to struggle. Your initial push into recovery has to have more than just acceptance and surrender. It needs to involve action as well.
Surrender is just the beginning
Of course you have to surrender in order to get started in recovery. But this is just the start of your journey and you should not necessarily think of it as a ticket to freedom. Simply throwing up your hands in frustration at your addiction is not going to produce a lifetime of happiness and serenity. You have to move beyond surrender and in order to do that you have to have willingness.
Willingness to grow and learn
I have watched many people in early recovery while working in a treatment center. It is a difficult thing to work in a short term rehab and see thousands of clients each year, many of which will eventually relapse and return later for more treatment. After working in a rehab for multiple years you start to notice some trends. You cannot help but to try to predict who is going to “make it” and who is going to relapse.
When I first started working at the rehab I was really bad at figuring out who was going to make it and who was going to possibly return later for more treatment. The problem was that at first I focused on people who had the most enthusiasm as being the ones who were the most likely to make it in recovery. In fact there were some people in the AA and NA meetings that I attended who I really looked up to because they had so much positive energy. Over the first few months and years of my recovery, however, I started to realize that these people were not always the ones who remained sober.
Some of the clients who I thought did not have a decent attitude were the people who “made it” in recovery. So I was forced to start changing my opinions, my perceptions, and to start to pay closer attention to what was really working for people.
What I was really doing in the first year or two of my recovery was to try to figure out what really made sobriety work. I could sense that I was missing something because there were too many questions that did not really have definitive answers. So I set out to discover what was truly important in recovery. I was determined to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Because a month of straight AA meetings involves a lot of information. One might even say that it is “information overload.” You are given so many suggestions that you could never possibly follow them all.
What I learned over time was that it had nothing to do with the enthusiasm that you were showing to other people–that was a fear based response that I picked up on in other people. In other words, the people who were most “vocal” in AA meetings seemed to be the ones who always ended up relapsing. The people who were over confident and overly enthusiastic in early recovery never seemed to make it.
This was deceptive to me at first because I could not understand what was going on. I could not see what truly mattered for successful recovery, because the people who I really looked up to in early recovery always seemed to relapse eventually.
So I slowly stopped paying attention to the people who “talked a good game” in AA meetings, and instead I started to focus on people who actually had what I wanted: a successful life of recovery and lots of clean time.
This is interesting because if you go to lots of AA and NA meetings you will hear the exact opposite of this–people will constantly tell you that “clean time doesn’t matter” and that “the person who woke up earliest this morning has the most clean time” and things like that. This never really made sense to me and after I watched hundreds of people relapse over the years I started to realize that I had to work recovery for myself, sort of in my own way. So I started to ignore the idea that people with 5 days sober had as valuable as a lesson for me as someone with 25 years sober. I started to ignore that idea and instead I started to look at what I really wanted out of life, and out of recovery. I wanted clean time and I did not want to try to filter out the noise of a dozen people with less than a year sober trying to tell me how to stay sober for the rest of my life. To me that was just not an efficient use of my time.
In order to separate the wheat from the chaff I had to stop listening to a lot of people. In early recovery I was attending lots of meetings and surrounding myself with peers who had very little clean time, but this was not necessarily teaching me what I wanted to know.
The foundation of my recovery started when I asked for help and started listening to other people. But my path to serenity challenged me to go much further than what I saw as “the default path” in recovery: going to meetings every day on a continuous basis for the rest of my life. I was not happy with the default path and I did not feel like I had achieved serenity simply by attending meetings every day. I wanted more out of my life and my recovery.
Commitment to follow through and take action
When I first went to treatment I was not committed to following through on anything. All I was willing to do was to attend the treatment center and that was it. When they suggested that I go to long term treatment (at least at first) I was not willing to follow through on that. When they suggested that I go to meetings every day I was not willing to do that either. Therefore when I left my first two rehabs I was not successful at staying clean and sober. No follow through, no sobriety.
The third time I went to rehab I was so sick of my life and my addiction that I was willing to do just about anything to escape the pain and the misery that I was feeling. I did not want to go on feeling miserable like I was. I was sick of life because of my misery. This is known as the “turning point.” I did not want to die but I also did not really care to live. I was just plain miserable.
Because of this misery I was willing to do something that I had never been willing to do in the past: follow through. In the past, I had been willing to admit there was a problem, but I was only willing to go to short term rehab. I was never willing to follow through in the past because the pain of staying in addiction was not as great as the pain of having to change.
The commitment to follow through is important in early recovery, but it is also important in long term sobriety. In working at a treatment center for 5+ years, I quickly learned that this commitment to follow through was just as important after leaving treatment as it was in early recovery. This was because so many of the people who left treatment quickly relapsed, only to return at a later date.
What I learned as I continued to make observations in my recovery was that the appearance of conviction meant almost nothing–people who talked a good game in recovery frequently relapsed, and some of the people who did not speak up much in rehab or at meetings ended up staying sober for the long haul. In fact there was no real correlation between those who “participated heavily in programs” and those who did not in terms of successful recovery. In other words, I started to meet more and more recovering addicts who took an alternative path in recovery. They had surrendered fully, they were fully committed to recovery, but they were not necessarily following the default or traditional recovery routes.
I was learning that, in the end, all that matters is commitment and action. I discovered that you did not necessarily need a program, but that you did need to take positive action on a regular basis. The strength and depth of commitment was all that seemed to matter.
Your first step is really the depth of your commitment
If you want to do well in recovery and find serenity some day then the depth of your commitment is what matters most.
Unfortunately, the depth of your commitment is most likely going to be a reflection of your state of surrender. In other words, the more miserable that you are when you decide to get clean and sober, the better the chances are that you will commit to it for the long run.
When I was working in the treatment center, I started to notice that this depth of commitment was what really determined the success of people trying to recover. It was not the attitude or the enthusiasm of such people, but rather it was the depth to which they had surrendered.
In fact, this was the single greatest predictor of success in recovery. You would think that your ability to stay sober might be tied to the amount of money that you paid to go to rehab, or the number of AA meetings that you go to, or the number of years sober your sponsor has. But none of that stuff seems to make a difference in recovery. All that matters is the depth of your commitment, the depth of your surrender, the level of willingness that you have to take positive action on a consistent basis. Follow through is all that really matters.
Therefore your first step towards genuine serenity is your surrender to your disease. This is the starting point from which a life of peace and contentment at least has a chance to emerge from. Without this baseline of surrender, however, no real lasting serenity is ever possible. If you try to get into recovery but you fail to fully surrender, it will be like spinning your wheels for years and years….never fully appreciating your life and the gift that is continuous learning and growth.
The problem with surrender is that most people do not follow through with it. They reach a crisis point in their addiction but then when it comes time to take positive action in their life they fall short.
This is why we speak of commitment in recovery. You can’t just take positive effort one day and call it good. You have to do it each and every day, over and over again, for a long time. Only then do the positive benefits of recovery really kick in.
Commitment to personal growth
In my opinion the biggest step towards real serenity in the long run comes from your commitment to personal growth.
At some point I had to make a decision in my recovery, and in my life. I had already surrendered and made the decision to get clean and sober. But I could see that it would be fairly easy to fall into a trap whereby I did not pursue happiness and contentment the way that I really should, instead opting for a lazy path in recovery. I watched many people do this, simply going to AA meetings all the time and basically just existing on auto-pilot. They were not going after their growth in recovery, not like they should be. I did not want this outcome for myself.
So I made a commitment to myself that I was going to push hard to create a life of happiness and contentment, that I was going to work hard for it, and that I was not going to just settle for the boring results that many people were getting out of life. I did not want the default life path. I did not want the expected results that so many people were getting out of life. An average job, an average recovery where you attend 2 or 3 meetings per week, see your sponsor once a month maybe, and so on. I did not want to just fall into these boring old predictable routines. I wanted more out of recovery, and out of life.
So I made an agreement with myself that I was not going to settle. That I was going to push myself to create success in my life, to set the bar for what I wanted to achieve in my recovery, and to work hard for it.
I must admit that it took me several years before I really got to this point. I overcome several obstacles in order to get to this decision. For example, I was held back in part by an addiction to cigarettes. I would not be nearly as content or happy in my life today if I was still a smoker. But I was able to see nicotine addiction for the negative block that it was and I left it behind long ago. Doing so was no trivial matter. It took a great deal of effort to conquer that particular block but the effort was well worth it.
Later on I decided that I did not really like working a day job. So I set out to create a successful side business for myself, one that would grant me a new level of freedom in my recovery. Why not demand this of myself, I was clean and sober with lots of time and energy on my hands. So why not shoot for the stars, and demand that I create a successful side business in my life? I was not afraid of failing, because what was the alternative? I could always fall back on a regular job. The average path in life was not exciting enough for me, but it would always be available if my dreams did not work out.
Fortunately, however, my dreams did work out, and my life in recovery just keeps getting better and better. The level of blessings that I have received in recovery just continue to multiply. There is no end to the gifts that recovery will give me, apparently.
Eliminating the chaos from your life versus chasing your dreams
I want to leave you with one important thought now about how to approach your path to serenity. Do this quick exercise with me now and mentally divide your life goals into 2 different groups:
1) Negative things in your life that you want to change, fix, or eliminate.
2) Positive goals or dreams that you hope to accomplish or achieve some day.
The first group is about eliminating chaos and misery. The second group of goals is about chasing your dreams.
What I want to advise you on is this:
Don’t chase your dreams. Not yet. I know that sounds crazy, because nearly every piece of advice you have ever heard in life tells you to just screw everything and go after your dreams and chase them for all it is worth.
But that advice is dead wrong. Especially for a recovering addict or alcoholic.
Instead, what you should do is to embrace the first set of goals….the ones in which you seek to eliminate the negative stuff from your life.
In other words, quit smoking. Fix your diet. Get into shape and stop being lazy. Stop gambling. Stop the unhealthy relationships. And so on.
Fix all of that miserable stuff before you try to chase your dreams. You will have to trust me on this one, but believe me, I have tested this out thoroughly. When you fix the chaos your serenity increases by quite a bit. When you ignore the misery and chaos and try to chase your dreams, you end up spinning your wheels.
In the end, you still get to chase your dreams. Really you do. “It gets greater later.” But before you can chase your dreams, you have to fix the misery. Get the chaos under control and fix the things that are holding you back and making you miserable. Then you can find the life that you really want.