What it Takes to Break the Cycle of Alcoholism
What does it ultimately take to break free from the cycle of alcoholism or drug addiction?
Looking back from the sobriety that I have achieved today I can definitely say that there is a specific process involved. Not only that but I have watched thousands of struggling alcoholics attempt to get sober over the years due to working in the treatment industry. I have watched many people fail and some of them succeed. So I feel like I have a fairly good grasp on what the real fundamentals of successful sobriety are.
Not everyone gets sober in exactly the same way, but there are usually similarities between success stories. Common themes. My goal is to focus on those common themes in order to deconstruct what really drives successful recovery.
If you want to learn how to live without drugs and alcohol then your first step is to get physically detoxed from the chemicals. You can’t very well learn a new way of life if you are still stuck in your old patterns and self medicating every day.
The baseline of any journey into recovery begins with abstinence. In a clinical sense this means detox. You have to stop putting chemicals into your body before you can find a new way to live your life.
They have a saying about this in some recovery circles: “You can’t think your way into good living, instead you have to live your way into good thinking.” In other words, bring your body and the mind will follow. Start doing the right things and eventually your mind will catch up to your actions. I have definitely found this to be true and when I tried to do it the other way (think my way out of the disease of addiction) it never worked. Instead, you have to jump. Take the plunge. Sign up for detox. “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
You have to disrupt your pattern of abuse.
The idea of disruption and treatment
I believe that the idea of disruption is universal.
Going to detox and a 28 day inpatient program is a powerful form of disruption.
Is it a cure? No, it is not an absolute cure. But it is a very strong beginning if you choose for it to be.
Many people who end up in rehab are not quite ready to change their whole life. They end up in rehab for various reasons. And some of these people may even wish that things were different in their lives.
But just wishing that things were different is not enough. Not necessarily.
I have personally been at the point where I was in rehab and I was pretty sick of my life. I was sick of drinking. But, it wasn’t enough. I still wasn’t quite ready to make that leap, to take that ultimate plunge into sobriety and total abstinence.
When you are not ready, you’re not ready. There is no other way to explain the concept of surrender. It has to do with pain and misery.
Once the alcoholic has had enough pain in their life, they will finally be able to look past their fear of sobriety. But not until they reach that point.
And no one can predict where that point is at. It is a different point for different people. How much pain does it take to push you into a state of surrender? Some people never reach that point and their alcoholism kills them first. Other people surrender to the disease when they are still fairly young and have not had decades and decades of misery in their lives yet. You cannot predict it as it is based on personality. All you can do is to try to direct someone towards treatment when they finally surrender.
The best form of disruption is to check into an inpatient rehab center. There are other forms as well, such as simply going to AA meetings every day (without going to rehab). Or you could go to prison or jail, where alcohol is not obtainable. But those situations are not ideal compared to inpatient rehab.
If you want to break a pattern of abuse then you need a way to disrupt it. Checking into rehab is probably the best approach for most people, even though it is not a sure-fire cure.
Patterns of living when you leave treatment
It is easy to stay sober when you are checked into an inpatient rehab center.
It is much more difficult to stay sober for years and years on end after you have left treatment.
Yet this is the challenge that is facing every single alcoholic who tries to sober up.
So how do you achieve a successful life of sobriety? How do you achieve a nice and balanced lifestyle in recovery that allows you to stay sober and enjoy life?
In early recovery you need to take action and focus. I think that early sobriety is the best time for intense focus and dedication. When you leave rehab it makes sense to take the suggestions that they give you. For example, one suggestion that you might hear at rehab is to “attend 90 meetings in 90 days.” So they tell you to go to lots and lots of AA meetings, and to be really consistent about it.
Should you do it?
In my opinion this is a good suggestion, and it is also one that I took myself.
In early recovery you need structure, you need support, you need a way to break free from your old life.
Your environment is fighting against you. Your old patterns of behavior are working against you as well. So maybe you used to go to the same liquor store every day when coming home from work. That pattern has to change. If you do nothing to challenge these old patterns then they will have a tendency to creep back into your life. If you don’t change anything then you will eventually revert back into the person you were before rehab.
So you need to take action. I am fond of the term “massive action.” Not that you have to turn into this super hero or anything. But you need to really make an effort to shake things up every single day. And you have to push yourself a bit. Going to an AA meeting every single is a pretty good start. Of course some people who are doing daily AA meetings still end up relapsing, so there is obviously more to recovery than just a single change like this. It takes more than that. But you can build a foundation if you are willing to start making changes like this that turn into new daily habits.
In my opinion the power of daily habits should be central to your recovery strategy. What you do every single day has a big impact on how your life will turn out a year from now, or 3 years from now, and so on. If you just sit around and be lazy in recovery then you won’t build anything of value in your life, you won’t create a life that gets you excited to be living it.
In my opinion this is the goal of recovery. If you are bored in recovery then why wouldn’t you yearn for a drink? At least getting drunk will give you temporary excitement, right? Of course I know that in the end the drinking and a relapse is a dead end, but your addictive mind does not realize that. It just wants to avoid boredom and have fun. So it will try to convince you to relapse if there are too many things working against it.
You need to take “massive action” so that you are not giving your brain too many excuses to want to relapse. If your life basically sucks then your brain is going to push for drinking.
Therefore your job in recovery is to build a life for yourself that doesn’t suck!
There are two broad areas of personal growth that I a need to attack:
1) Your internal struggles like fear, guilt, shame, anger, self pity, anxiety, and so on.
2) Your external world like relationships, career, education, life situation, daily habits, etc.
My belief is that you need to address both of these areas in order to live your best life in recovery.
If you neglect one of those areas for too long then you give your brain all sorts of reasons to start thinking about relapse.
On the other hand if you push yourself to improve your life every single day in recovery then you take away your brain’s excuses to want to drink. This is how it has worked out for me anyway. I have not had reason to crave alcohol or even consider relapse for many years, but I continue to work at those two goals listed above. I keep pushing myself to improve in those two areas.
Why you need to take suggestions in early recovery from other people
Let’s face it:
In early recovery, you don’t know what the heck you are doing.
This is normal. You are not supposed to know what you are doing. How could you? You have been solving all of your problems in life by self medicating with alcohol. Of course you are going to be a bit lost for a while.
This is normal. Don’t beat yourself up over it.
Now then….what are you going to do about it though?
I will tell you what to do:
Find people in recovery who are living the kind of life that you want to live, and start asking them questions. How did they get there? What did they do? And what would they recommend that you do in your own recovery?
If you ask the right people (those who are successful in sobriety) then these questions get right to the heart of the problem. They help you to realize exactly what sort of actions you should be taking in your own life.
My recommendation is that you ask many people for this sort of direction and advice, and then you follow through and actually do what they tell you to do.
In order to do this you have to push your ego to the side. Kill your ego. Listen to other people and allow them to instruct you. This is hard to do and your ego will cry out against it. Your ego will refuse to believe that another person could have your best interests at heart. But they do, and their advice can save you a lot of pain and misery.
It is possible to stay sober in recovery, follow your ego and ignore advice from others, and experience a whole lot of misery and pain, even while staying sober!
You do not want to go down that path. It is not necessary.
Instead, kill your ego. At least make yourself an agreement: For the first year of your sobriety, you will not listen to your own advice, and instead you will only take advice from other people who are already living a life of sobriety.
Stop worrying about finding the right person for advice, stop believing that they might misdirect you, stop putting so much faith in your own judgement and ideas. For one year, make an agreement with yourself that you will do this experiment. You will listen to other people rather than yourself.
I did this myself during my first year of recovery. In fact, I knew that I had to do this if I was going to have any chance at staying sober. I had to get out of my own way.
What happened next was amazing to me. It really blew me away, because my life started getting better and better. And it happened quite quickly too. I thought it would take months or years to see results but my life got better almost overnight.
And then it just kept getting better and better as I continued to take advice and suggestions from other people.
This is how it will work with anyone, if they are willing to kill their ego. Taking advice from others and then acting on that advice is a massive shortcut to wisdom. They have already done the hard work for you, and they are giving you secret to happiness. It is as if they have already done all of the studying for a hard test, and they are just giving you the answers. All you have to do is to take it, take the knowledge and apply it in your own life. Our ego rejects this process because it wants to protect itself, it wants to think for itself, it wants to figure everything out instead. But taking advice from others and acting on it is a massive shortcut.
So when I talk about taking “massive action” in recovery, what I really mean is that you take direction from others, and then act on it. This feels like a big deal to me when I actually follow through on it. I guess that is why I call it “massive.” It feels like a big effort to me to push my ego aside.
Breaking out of the cycle through personal growth
It is very possible to fall into a pattern of passive living in recovery that will eventually lead to relapse.
Obviously we want to avoid that. We don’t want to live passively.
The opposite of passive living is personal growth.
In order to build a new life in recovery you have to get active. You have to take action, you have to do things, you have to make decisions. You cannot build a successful life in recovery while just sitting on your couch all day.
To take this a step further, you can’t really build a new life in recovery by just going to AA meetings either. It takes a bit more than that (as they will tell you in the meetings if you care to listen!).
Personal growth is relapse prevention.
Recovery starts with disruption. You have to get physically detoxed from alcohol and drugs in order to get a fresh start on life.
But after that you have to change. What do you have to change?
You have to change everything. This is not literal but after an alcoholic goes through the recovery process they can look back after a year or two and say “yes, I really did change everything.” It was not necessarily that every detail of their life changed, but it was their attitude and their reactions and their coping mechanisms that changed. The lens through which they see the world changed, and therefore it seemed to them like “everything changed.”
Each day in recovery is a new opportunity. You can push yourself to make positive changes or you can allow yourself to just drift along without taking much action.
Now you might be under the impression that just drifting along and not taking much action can sustain you in recovery.
But it can’t.
You cannot sustain your sobriety by being lazy. If you try to do so then you will eventually go back to your “old self,” the one who used to get drunk.
Your brain has a baseline, and that baseline is to self medicate with alcohol. That is what your mind wants to go back to. In order to remain sober you have to take action and make enough changes to move further and further away from this possibility.
Relapse and personal growth are set along a continuum. One end of the spectrum is relapse and getting drunk. In the middle is doing nothing, being lazy, making no changes. At the other end of the spectrum is healthy living in recovery. That far end is characterized by positive change and positive actions. It is characterized by holistic health and personal growth. It is about self improvement.
How to sustain your new life in recovery
After you disrupt your pattern of drinking you are technically sober.
Now you just have to sustain it. How are you going to do that?
If you do not have an answer to that question then you need to get busy. You need to start asking question, seeking advice, implementing suggestions. Don’t just sit there and expect recovery to fall into your lap. That is not how successful sobriety works.
In my experience the best way to sustain your sobriety is to use the power of daily habits. We tend to become what we do every day; we shape and sculpt our lives based on our daily actions.
Therefore you should put a lot of consideration into what your daily habits will turn out to be.
The only way that you can figure this out is through trial and error.
Everyone is different in recovery. We can look at two different recovering alcoholics who both have a completely different and unique set of daily habits that help to keep them sober. And those two alcoholics may have almost nothing in common when it comes to their day-to-day routine.
For example, one might go to AA meetings every day, sponsor newcomers in recovery, and work as a therapist in a rehab center.
Another recovering alcoholic (like myself) may exercise every day, write about recovery online, and not attend traditional meetings or recovery groups at all.
Two completely different set of daily habits, but both are successful examples of people in sobriety.
How are you to know what to do for yourself?
How will you know what works for you in recovery?
The answer should be obvious by now:
You have to figure it out.
And you can’t do that by thinking about it. Sitting there and speculating about what may or may not help you in recovery is a complete waste of time. Don’t even bother with that.
Instead, simply start taking action. Start by taking suggestions. Go ask for advice, and then take it. Don’t worry about if the advice is “right” or not. That is beside the point, because no one really knows if that advice is going to be perfect for them or not until they have implemented it.
There is a saying in AA that is pure wisdom:
“Take what you need and leave the rest.”
So take that bit of wisdom and start applying it in your own life. Experiment! That is the only way that you are going to find your true path in recovery.
What about you, have you found your path in recovery by taking suggestions from others? Were you able to break out of the cycle of alcoholism this way? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!