I have come to discover that doing the work is all that really matters when it comes to alcoholism and addiction recovery.
We can frame this in many different ways. We can talk about willingness, and if people are truly willing to “go to any length” in order to recover. We can talk about taking massive action. We can talk about taking consistent action and making a persistent effort. We can talk about how in recovery the only thing that you have to change is everything.
But ultimately it all comes down to the same thing. Doing the work. Taking action. Making changes. And doing this over and over again, every day.
Successful recovery is all about reinventing yourself. And that means change.
And change means taking action.
And this is hard work.
So it all comes back to the same thing: Doing the work.
What is the real meat of alcoholism recovery? How does one actually stay sober? Where is the real magic happening? How does it all work?
There is a great line from the movie Fight Club, the line is: “Hitting bottom is not a weekend retreat.”
A bit harsh but also a whole lot of truth in that line. We don’t just decide that it would be nice to change our lives and go check into some fancy rehab center that is supposed to somehow motivate us. It doesn’t work like that. When we take that sort of attitude we are banking on the fact that hopefully a nice rehab setting can somehow motivate us to change. But that never works. We have to find the motivation from within. And that comes from hitting bottom. And hitting bottom is not something that you do on a weekend retreat when things are generally going well. It happens when you are at the end of your rope and you are completely miserable and find yourself lying in the gutter (or the equivalent thereof).
And this is where the magic begins. The point of surrender. It is so important that your entire recovery hinges on this one moment. If you surrender completely then you have a shot at sobriety. If you fail to surrender completely then you are not really getting sober yet. You may be fooling yourself and you may be in treatment of some sort but you are not really entering into long term sobriety yet.
I did this twice in my life, where I was fooling myself. I was at rehab but I wasn’t done drinking. I wasn’t at the point of full surrender. I was stuck at a weekend retreat. I had not yet hit bottom yet. I was wishing that things were different and I was hoping that maybe some of the good stuff would rub off on me while I was at rehab.
It doesn’t work that way. If you are on the fence about your drinking and you are hoping that being in rehab will somehow sway you into permanent sobriety then you are fooling yourself.
Now here is the weird thing about it:
I believe that you should still go to treatment. Even if you decide that you are not at the point of full surrender, you should still go to treatment. If you are willing to go to rehab but you don’t really feel like you are at rock bottom yet, then by all means, go to treatment.
Because even if you go through treatment and then relapse, this may be part of the process. It certainly was for me. I had to go to three rehabs total before I finally “got it.” And these failures were part of hitting bottom for me. I had to try and fail a few times. It was part of my journey. I don’t know that I would be sober today if I had not had those failed attempts. So I do not regret that I went to rehab three times and failed twice. I don’t regret that in the least. It was part of what I had to do in order to get to where I am at today. So I would do it again if I had to. I would try and fail, try and fail. Because then I tried and succeeded.
The first time I went to rehab I really had no clue about how addiction and recovery worked. I was totally out of touch with the recovery process. They were talking about AA meetings every day and I was just thinking “That’s not for me, they don’t understand how I work, I am not going to go to all of that trouble and go to meetings every single day. Sheesh!”
Of course, the joke was on me. Of course I relapsed immediately by trying to do it myself instead. Years later, not only would I surrender totally and go to meetings every day, but I would also live in rehab for 20 months. This was completely against everything that I thought and believed in my past. I hated the idea of long term treatment and I felt like it was the same as going to prison. And yet eventually I surrendered to this and it became my solution. I did the thing that I feared the most. I checked into long term rehab and doing so saved my life.
Does this mean that we all need to go to long term treatment? Of course not. But we all have to face our fears if we want to recover. We have to get really honest with ourselves and do the thing that we are most afraid to do. For me, that meant going to AA meetings and rehab. I was afraid to do both and so eventually I had to surrender and face them both head on.
Different programs, different strategies, same results from hard work
There are different recovery programs out there.
Many people are under the false belief that the only way to get clean and sober is through AA. This is not true.
There are religious based programs of recovery that have nothing at all to do with AA and the 12 steps.
There are behavioral approaches to recovery that have nothing to do with the 12 steps or any religion.
There are exercise based programs of recovery as well, though these are pretty obscure and rare. But they do exist, and there are people who stay sober based on an exercise focused approach to sobriety.
So there are different ways to stay sober. Different programs. Although AA is the most popular path, it is not the only path. And it is definitely not the only path in recovery that works. These other methods can be just as valid and helpful.
This is an important point here: that there is more than one method of treatment. Because many people belief that there is only one method.
So once you realize that there are completely different methods of achieving sobriety, this should beg the question:
“What are the similarities in people who are staying sober using these different programs?”
If someone is using an exercise based approach to sobriety, and someone else is using a 12 step based approach, and someone else is using a behavioral approach, then what are they all doing that can be compared? What are the similarities?
Because once you find those similarities then you are really looking at the fundamental principles of sobriety. The things that everyone has to do if they want to get sober. The things that we all share in recovery, even if we are following different paths.
So I have started to look at these fundamentals. What are the things that are truly fundamental to sobriety?
If you start to look at those concepts you will discover things such as “surrender.”
Surrender is fundamental to all of these successful approaches. Everyone who achieves long term sobriety had to surrender first. They had to surrender to the fact that they were alcoholic and could not drink successfully, and they also had to surrender to a solution. Whether that solution was going to AA meetings every day and working through the 12 steps, or whether that solution was getting involved in a religious community and finding a higher power, or whether that solution was adopting a training program and having accountability partners that help motivate them to exercise every day. Surrender is a fundamental part of the recovery process.
There are other fundamentals in recovery. And one of the big ones is about persistence. Because if you take a day off in recovery then it resets the whole thing and all progress can be lost in an instant. In other words, recovery is pass/fail, and if you are not making a consistent effort then it opens the door to relapse. And relapse is devastating in terms of your progress and overall health in recovery. There is no way around this, no way to adopt a different program of recovery that somehow skirts this fact. Recovery is pass/fail, therefore persistence is a huge key to success, regardless of which program you choose.
And when you continue to reduce these fundamentals down to the bottom line, you find that eventually the bottom line is simply “doing the work.” Recovery takes hard work. Regardless of what program you are following you have to do the hard work. You have to make the tough changes.
Recovery is nothing if not change. You change who you are, who you hang around with, what you do with your time each day, and how you relate to others in your relationships. You change how you deal with stress, what you do for fun, and how you relax. You change everything from when you were stuck in addiction. People, places, and things. And you change on the inside as well. You change how you deal with resentment, how you deal with self pity, how you find gratitude on a daily basis, and so on. You change your relationship with a higher power. You change on the outside and you change from within too. Massive changes in nearly every part of your life. Both internal and external changes.
And this all takes work. So the bottom line is: Are you doing the work every day? Yes or no? Recovery is pass/fail. So you are either engaged in this process of change and growth or you are not. And if you try to skate through the middle then eventually you will look back and realize that you were either cheating yourself or you were actually doing the work. But there is no middle ground.
And again, we can frame this in so many different ways. We can go back to the idea of willingness: “So and so just relapsed last week.” Ah, well were they going to meetings, were the doing the work? “No, they obviously lacked willingness.”
And we can take it a step further and put it in terms of surrender. Because if the person lacked willingness, then it is obvious that they had not surrendered completely either.
So it goes like this:
1) Full surrender to your disease, and full surrender to a solution.
2) Willingness to do whatever it takes.
3) Actually doing it. Taking action.
4) Persistence. Recovery is pass/fail, so you have to show up every day. You have be persistent.
So if someone relapses, we can point to any part of this process and claim that this was the problem. And we would be correct. Because all of these things tie together. If you are engaged in positive change and you are showing up every day and doing the hard work then you will do well in recovery. And if you fail to persist in this hard work then it means that you are not taking action, you are not willing, and therefore you must not have surrendered fully. It all ties together.
The details matter but they also don’t matter
They tell you to go to 90 meetings in 90 days. They tell you to get a sponsor, to call them every day, to work through the 12 steps.
They could just as easily tell you to join a church community and get involved and start helping other people every single day.
If you follow through and you show up and do the work then you can recover.
So the question is: Are they right in telling you to do these specific things? Do the details matter, or don’t they?
Well the answer is complicated because the solution is actually quite broad and flexible. The details matter of course, but then again you could try a completely different recovery program and you would still do well. So long as you are consistent.
In other words, there is a large group of people in AA who swear by the AA program. They tried other ways to get sober and nothing worked. Then they went to AA and they finally got sober. And they had to surrender completely to AA in order to do this. They had to stop questioning AA. They had to accept the whole thing, every part of it, and simply do what they were told to do. And so they finally did this and they accepted AA as their solution and they were able to recover.
So now they become proponents of this approach. And they believe that this is the only way, the only path to sobriety. So they tell other people that if they want to get sober then they just have to surrender and give themselves completely to this simple program.
Are they right or are they wrong?
Unfortunately the answer is: Both. They are right. And they are also wrong.
They are right because if any struggling alcoholic completely surrenders to their disease and to the program of AA then they will, in fact, stay sober. This is a viable solution and it will work. You have to surrender totally and completely to the program and you have to kill your ego for a while and get out of your own way. Do what you are told to do. Show up to meetings every day and work through the steps and your life will get better and better. There is no doubt that this does, in fact, work.
But these people are also wrong in believing that this is a magic solution. They are wrong because they believe that their previous failures were based on methodology rather than level of surrender and willingness.
In other words, maybe in the past the AA proponent tried a religious based recovery program. They had not yet hit bottom and surrendered and therefore they relapsed. Then later they come to AA and they stay sober this time so they tell everyone that religious based recovery programs are a total scam and could never work. Do you see the error in their thinking?
They are confused because they fail to realize that it is all about surrender. Had they gone to AA first and failed, then later surrendered and went to the religious based program, then they would be stating that AA is the scam instead and that everyone needs to go find religion. In fact, you can find people who argue this exactly–people who have been to AA and relapsed but later had success in a religious based program. Such people sometimes take the exact attitude I am describing here and they don’t believe that AA could possibly work for anyone. They are projecting their experience on the whole world and passing judgement.
Why do we all do this?
Look around you. Do a few searches online and see that recovery does really exist outside of the 12 step program. It even exists outside of faith based programs. There are many different ways to recover.
And the details matter, of course. So if you choose a recovery program then you have to stick to the details. You have to follow through and do the work and build the discipline. And if you persist in this (regardless of which program it is) and you do the hard work then you will be successful.
Recovery programs don’t have magic in them. They are based on simple fundamental principles: Abstinence, surrender, personal growth. Hard work. Consistency. Holistic health. Reaching out and connecting with others. No one has a monopoly on these fundamental ideas. They can exist in various programs.
You just have to do the work. And persist. And this is rare. Which is why so few recover.
Why you will never be happy in life unless you eliminate the negativity by doing the work
Everyone who gets to early recovery is generally pretty miserable. If they are not miserable then they don’t tend to surrender and give recovery a chance yet. They will instead go back out and find more misery first. Remember, hitting bottom is not a weekend retreat. It hurts. It is a rough ride to say the least.
Your job in recovery is to eliminate the negative garbage from your life. You can do this by working through the 12 steps or you can do it without the 12 steps. But the important part is that you identify the negative things in your life (both internal and external) and then you do the work.
If you have to be in AA in order to do the work, then be in AA. The program works great if you actually work it.
There are other paths as well. But they all require the same amount of hard work, self analysis, and personal growth. Recovery takes work no matter how you approach it.
People who relapsed failed to do the work. People who succeed have worked their tail off. Just ask them, seriously. Ask them how hard they have pushed themselves in recovery. Ask anyone with a year or more sober how much work it was. Go on, ask them. This is a very healthy thing to do because it will reveal the intensity needed to succeed.
What about you, have you done the hard work? Or are you holding yourself back? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!