Why Addiction and Alcoholism are so Difficult to Overcome at First
It should come as no surprise to anyone that alcoholism and drug addiction are notoriously difficult to overcome at first.
Out of every 100 people who struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction, only a handful will actually try to seek help (I believe the government says about 15 to 20 percent actually seek help for their problem).
Out of those who seek help and take action of some sort (such as by checking into treatment), only about 5 to 10 percent will still be clean and sober a full year later.
As for people who stay clean and sober forever? People who are actually “cured?” Even less.
But all hope is not lost.
The numbers may be discouraging at first (if you even believe the statistics!), but they do not have to be a negative force in your life.
YOU are a unique individual. You can choose to be someone who stubbornly refuses to relapse. You can be someone who follows through in recovery. Someone who takes positive action and makes positive changes.
You just have to try harder than you have ever tried before.
You must make recovery the supreme effort of your life. It must become your primary focus.
Really, is that too much to ask for?
The problem that most struggling alcoholics face is that there are so many different points of failure on the path to success.
For example, you are drinking every day and stuck in denial. You may not even admit that you have a problem. This is one point of failure.
You may go to rehab at some point and decide that AA is just not for you. So you refuse to find outside support and you end up relapsing. This is a second point of failure.
Or maybe you start going to the meetings and you are basically doing OK in recovery. But then you drift away from the meetings and have no support in early recovery. So you relapse.
Or perhaps you have a few years sober and you get too comfortable in your routine. Complacency sneaks in and you find yourself drinking again.
There are so many different points of failure with recovery. All it takes is one little drink to screw you up permanently. Nobody “just relapses a little” when fighting against alcoholism. You are either sober or drunk–there is no in between. There is no such thing as “a little relapse.”
Early recovery is especially challenging, because nearly every moment is a trigger, every day brings on new cravings and temptations to drink. It takes time to build stability in recovery. And this is why it is so difficult at first. The first year is an uphill battle with many different challenges.
The battle to overcome your denial and reach the point of surrender
The first major point of failure in recovery is surrender.
Most people never even try to get sober. Isn’t that sad in itself?
So the first big challenge is that the alcoholic or addict must reach a point of surrender. They have to get to a point where they have completely worked through their denial.
Most people underestimate how difficult it is to truly move past all denial. For example, when I was still drinking alcohol every day, I reached a point where I admitted that I was an alcoholic. I knew that I was messed up. And I admitted this freely to anyone, and to myself.
But this was not enough to break through all of my denial.
It is a tricky thing. You can admit to your problem but still be in denial. The reason is because you are still in denial of the fact that:
* You can no longer drink and enjoy yourself on a consistent basis without running into problems.
* You can no longer enjoy your life and have fun, either with or without alcohol. You need help to find happiness. You can no longer find it in alcohol.
* You can not quit drinking on your own and find happiness without help.
So these are the deeper levels of denial. These are some of the things that you are denying, even though you may readily admit that you are alcoholic.
So in order to move past this first “point of failure,” the alcoholic must reach a point where they have broken through all of this denial. They must realize that they are unhappy, and that alcohol no longer makes them happy. And they must be willing to face the fear of sobriety.
Just admitting that they have a problem is NOT enough. They must be willing to take action and give themselves over to a solution. This is how to really move beyond denial.
Denial and surrender is the first major stumbling block. The second major stumbling clock might be labeled “overconfidence.”
Overestimating our ability while underestimating the disease of addiction
All of our lives we have faced challenges.
Everyone faces challenges. We have to pass the third grade, for example. Maybe even learn how to do algebra at some point.
So we know what it is like to face a challenge and overcome it. We know what it is like to have to put in an effort in order to meet a goal.
And we do this over and over again in our lives, and we get used to a certain level of effort. Most things require an average amount of effort. Modest effort. Put in a bit of work, get out of a bit of benefit. Do this thing, get this reward. Try a little harder, get slightly better results. And so on.
All of this life experience is very misleading though when it comes time to overcome alcoholism or drug addiction.
Basically you can throw all of that previous knowledge out the window.
None of it will help you to beat addiction.
None of it even applies. All of that experience you have in life is misleading, in fact, and will only serve to confuse your efforts in recovery.
Why is this?
Because overcoming an addiction is a serious lifestyle change.
For most people, beating addiction will be the most difficult thing that they have ever done. EVER. In their whole life journey.
So stop and think about that for a moment. You have been living your life, going from one challenge to the next, and you have learned how much effort it typically takes in order to get decent results at something. You know how hard you had to try in order to pass the third grade.
But overcoming addiction is not like those other challenges. It is in a different league, a different ballpark. And in fact it is the hardest thing you have ever had to do.
Given that, you must now realize that if you are going to successfully overcome an addiction, you are going to have to try harder at it than you have ever tried at anything before in your life. EVER.
See where I am headed with all of this? Recovery is your biggest challenge that you have ever faced in your life, by far. Therefore, you must make an unusual and unprecedented effort at overcoming addiction. You must try much harder than what you would initially expect.
Now I have worked in an addiction treatment center for over 5 years straight. I get to watch literally thousands of people try to recover. And I get to see the results of those efforts, for the most part.
I also have my own experience to draw from (3 trips to rehab, one trip to long term rehab).
And so I can look at all of that data and knowledge and I can tell you this much:
Most people overestimate their ability at first to overcome addiction. And at the same time, they underestimate the disease.
So this is a unique and tricky challenge. Here you have all of these drug addicts and alcoholics (who are definitely not stupid people by the way!), who are all told that they are fighting against the odds and that the average person is not going to make it to one year sober.
But they all figure that they are smarter than average. And they believe that this qualifies them to increase their odds of remaining sober. They secretly think to themselves: “Sure, those other people in recovery may relapse, but I not like them. I am smarter than the average alcoholic, so I figure my chances of staying sober are much better than what they are telling me.”
Nearly everyone does this at first. It is almost impossible not to.
You’re not stupid, right? So you figure that you are smart enough to rise above the masses, and not become a statistic.
But you’re wrong. We are all part of the average, and the numbers don’t look to be in our favor. That is why nearly everyone relapses the first time that they try to get sober.
Do an informal survey: Go to an AA meeting and ask each individual if they had to try more than once in order to sober up.
Every single person will laugh at you and say that they had to try many times. I have actually asked people this and no one has ever told me that they quit drinking on the first try, and stuck to it. Every alcoholic and drug addict struggles at first. In fact, this is what defines their alcoholism and addiction. If they did not struggle, they would not even label themselves as being addicted! Think about it. If you don’t fail at first then you do not really have a problem at all….you are “normal.” It is the struggle that defines the disease.
A simple process is not necessarily an easy process
If you go to enough AA meetings then eventually you will hear people say “This is a simple program for simple people.”
I don’t necessarily believe that. Call me difficult, but I think it is a whole lot more complicated than that. For starters, 12 steps is a bit overwhelming.
But in addition to that, while I agree that the process of abstinence is fairly straightforward, it is anything but easy. Simply walking away from your drug of choice (which in many cases was really your best friend) can be really difficult for most alcoholics.
Essentially the process of recovery can be whittled down to a few core concepts:
1) Disruption and detox. Stop drinking or using drugs and get the chemicals physically out of your body.
2) Early recovery and support phase. Figure out how to make it through the day without relapsing. Get stable in early recovery through massive amounts of support (i.e., go to AA each day, join a church community, etc.)
3) Personal growth phase. Long term sobriety has one last mine field that you have to navigate, and it is called “complacency.” If you get lazy in long term recovery regarding your sobriety, you are setting yourself up for failure. The key is not support at this stage but instead it is personal growth. If you can find a way to keep taking positive action then you can proactively fight against complacency. There is a balance you must find between acceptance and personal growth.
This is all very simple, I can’t argue with that. Go to detox. Stay in rehab for a month. Take advice and do exactly what you are told to do. Pretend you are a robot taking orders. Seriously, this will help you to stay sober. You may complain that you are giving up your freedom and autonomy, and you are, for a brief while. Giving up this freedom insures that you stay sober. So you learn to be stable in your sobriety and you start to get a glimpse at this new way of life.
Pretty simple, but not necessarily easy to do. Most people have this little thing that gets in the way known as their “ego.” They don’t want to surrender, take advice from others, and do exactly what they are told without questioning it. That is very difficult for most people to do, even though it is dead simple.
So they must squash their ego first.
And how do they do that?
With pain and misery. After the disease gives them a thorough thrashing (sometimes over years or decades) they will eventually get to a point of misery where they are willing to throw their ego up on the alter. It does not come easy. Most of us are proud. We want to figure things out for ourselves instead. We want to stay in control.
The challenge of squashing your ego and getting out of your own way
I am not sure that anyone can actually choose to kill their ego and thus surrender to the disease. It almost seems like it has to just happen naturally as a result of consequences. And these are not the sort of consequences that you would want to invite into your life.
But I believe there is one action that the struggling alcoholic and drug addict can take that will allow them to move closer to surrender:
Focus on their misery.
Pretty counter-intuitive, right?
Why would anyone be told to focus on their misery?
The reason, in my opinion, is that they should do this in order to get through their denial.
You see, the alcoholic and drug addict are operating under the assumption that they can use their drug of choice, whenever they want, to make themselves happy.
This is the promise that started them on the path of addiction. They used their drug of choice, for the first time, long ago. And it worked. It worked marvelously. It fixed them perfectly. Their drug of choice did everything that they wanted it to do, and it made them happy.
So now they are continuing to operate under the assumption that their drug of choice will always function this way. That if the world brings them down or deals them a bad hand, they can just use their drug of choice and they will magically be happy again. This is the assumption under which addiction is allowed to function.
What happens over time is that tolerance builds and the drug (or alcohol) stops doing its intended job. It stops working so well. The alcoholic, for example, gets to a point in their disease where they go from being stone cold sober right into a blackout, without any “fun time” in between. They don’t really enjoy being drunk any more, because that window of time has become smaller and smaller. They start drinking for the day and they are sober and they don’t really feel a happy buzz. Then they keep drinking until finally they black out. But the part in between that used to be a “party” is now gone. It has shrank down to nothing. This is how the disease progresses. It becomes less fun over time. There is no avoiding this.
The solution, therefore, is to focus on your misery.
Embrace the misery.
The struggling alcoholic must realize, every single day, that their drug of choice no longer works. That it no longer makes them happy.
If they can ignore this fact, we call that denial. Ignoring the fact that you are miserable in addiction is what allows you to keep pursuing that next drink or drug.
It is only when you realize that the chase for the next buzz is futile that you will be able to surrender.
How to accelerate your progress in recovery
If you want to really accelerate your progress in recovery then you need to do three things specifically:
1) Surrender to your disease. Embrace the misery and realize that it will never get any better if you continue to self medicate with drugs and alcohol.
2) Ask for help. Don’t try to fix yourself without lots of help and support.
3) Follow through. Dedicate your entire life to sobriety for at least one year. Focus entirely on staying clean and sober for a whole year. Take action.
Recovery is unique and different. It takes time to adapt to these new lessons
Recovery from addiction is fairly unique. Of course it is difficult to adapt to at first.
Most people are not in gear to be making huge lifestyle changes. Getting clean and sober can be a like a huge smack upside the head. It is a gigantic shift that most people seriously underestimate.
I personally “got it” when I went to long term rehab and lived there for almost 2 years straight. Think about that: 20 months of living in rehab!
If that sounds like a prison sentence to you, then you have the wrong perspective.
I thought it was a “punishment” as well, back when I was still drinking. But it was really a gift, and living in treatment was not bad at all. I would do it again if I had to.
Recovery from addiction does get easier over time. The problem is getting through that initial hump. The typical alcoholic and drug addict are fairly miserable when they first try to quit.
This is why treatment is so important (in my experience). I had to go somewhere stable, where I would not be tempted to relapse in the early days of my recovery.
I had to go somewhere that had enough structure and support for me.
This was part of my surrender process. I knew that I could not do it on my own, at least not at first. I had tried and failed many times.
Unfortunately there is no easy shortcut. There is nothing we have today that can force someone to want recovery. The drive to become sober has to come from within, it has to be genuine, it has to be born out of that place of total misery.
Everyone has to “pay their dues” in order to reach a point of true surrender. Perhaps this is what makes it so difficult at first. Every alcoholic has to earn their surrender through struggle and misery first.