Addiction recovery is a difficult journey for anyone. It is certainly about learning new things and challenging yourself to become a different person.
But it is also about unlearning some things. There are patterns that we have learned in life that used to serve us well, and those might be preventing us from seeing the path to sobriety.
This is especially true when the alcoholic is still struggling with drinking on a daily basis, and cannot seem to break free into recovery. Denial is a very tricky foe to disarm.
So just making the leap into recovery is the first real test of something that has to be unlearned.
What have you been taught all your life about power, control, and self discipline?
I am told that this can be a cultural thing, and that it might vary depending on where you are raised.
I was raised in the west and here I was taught to fight, to win, to never give up. Go, go, go!
This attitude is what you must unlearn in order to recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.
Because basically what I was taught all my life was to struggle in order to regain control over something. To conquer it. To apply my strength to the situation in any way that I could in order to wrestle control back into my life.
This flat out doesn’t work with addiction.
If you try to control your addiction it only tightens its grip even more on you. Trying to control it just leads you in circles. It gets better temporarily but then it swings back and it gets much, much worse.
I was taught throughout my education how to deal with life and how to solve problems. I was taught a certain way to approach things in order to conquer problems and figure things out. This approach that I was taught does NOT work when it comes to addiction and recovery.
Quite honestly I have been taught all my life how to expend energy, how to use resources, how to divide and conquer when it came to a new problem in my life. In other words, how to use the least amount of effort in order to get the best results. No one was teaching me to be wasteful. No one had to teach me how to use overwhelming forced in order to win certain battles. I was told to conserve energy, to manage power intelligently. Again, this doesn’t work with addiction and recovery.
No, when confronting an addiction you are fighting a unique sort of battle. Very few experiences in life can give you the sort of lesson that you need to be prepared to fight an addiction. Actually there are a few, and they are generally lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise, losing weight, and so on. In other words, if you have ever adopted a very strict diet and lost a lot of weight, then you have an idea as to the intensity of the challenge that you are facing with addiction. It is not a minor lifestyle change. It is major. Major in a way that mere words cannot really convey. You don’t just change one thing, you change everything.
When I was taught how to live my life and to solve problems when I was growing up, I was told that you might test out a solution and see what kind of results you get. If it failed then you might regroup and try a little bit harder. And if you failed again, then you might redouble your efforts yet again. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. And keep trying harder.
This is a recipe for failure in sobriety. It won’t work. That old mindset is what you have to unlearn.
If you take that approach in recovery then you will relapse. Because the old way was to put forth the least amount of effort that was really necessary at first, and if you needed more effort then you could always increase it later.
Unfortunately for us, recovery is pass/fail. You either remain sober, or you relapse. There is nothing in between those two choices. You either fail or you succeed. And therefore the amount of effort that you put forth initially is critical.
Many alcoholics have to try and fail a few times before they fully understand this. I had to try and fail twice before finally “getting it” on the third try.
And what did those first two attempts look like?
I had not fully surrendered. I was beaten down by my alcoholism but I was not truly ready to change my whole life. And so I was willing to go to rehab but I was not willing to do whatever it takes in order to rebuild my life.
So I went to treatment and when they told me to follow up with AA meetings, I failed. I was willing to check into rehab for a few weeks but when they suggested that I live in long term rehab for several months I balked at that. I was not willing. I lacked the willingness that was required to change my life. I was not following the suggestions I was being given. They were telling me what to do in order to recover, and I was ignoring them. I wanted to do my own thing. 28 days is plenty, thank you. I did not want long term rehab. It was too much like a death sentence to me. I wouldn’t do it.
So I relapsed. Twice I went to rehab and then relapsed. I was not following through. And the reason I did not follow through is because I had not surrendered. This is what I had to unlearn. Instead of trying to take control of myself and my life I was supposed to let go. Yet I could not figure out how to do that. I could not let go completely and give myself over to a new way of life, to a new program.
Most things in my life I have been able to skate by pretty easily. I put in a bit of effort and I get out decent results. This was true for a lot of things for me: School, education, sports, relationships, games, all sorts of things. I put in modest effort, I got modest results. It was pretty simple. And this was how everything in my life worked.
This is what I had to unlearn. Because it doesn’t work in recovery.
If you put in a modest effort in recovery, you will relapse.
If you make an average effort in sobriety, if you put forth a “medium effort” in sobriety, you will relapse. You will fail. It is as simple as that.
The only way to succeed in recovery is to bring forth your “A” game. To put in a supreme effort.
The key in early recovery is to dedicate your entire life to sobriety. It really is that simple and that is the strength of the commitment that you should be making to yourself. Don’t put anything in front of your sobriety. Ever. Your sobriety comes first. This is part of the unlearning process. You have to realize that everything good in your life now hinges on the fact that you remain clean and sober. Without the sobriety it all goes downhill. Fast. You must never forget this.
You must surrender to win….
Surrender to win.
It seems like a foreign concept to many people.
And yet it works so well.
Let me tell you about when I finally surrendered.
It was truly amazing. I am not just saying that, I was actually stunned. I was amazed. I was dumbfounded as to how my life could be improving so rapidly and how I could be so happy, yet I was surrendered and not really in control any more.
This was truly bizarre to me. I could not quite believe it. But the results were so good that I dare not question it.
So what happened is that I finally surrendered to my addiction, and I checked into long term rehab, and I also surrendered myself to this new solution. My solution was long term rehab, all of the group therapy, all of the meetings, all of the counseling, all of the books about spirituality, all of it. I surrendered myself to all of this stuff. I threw in the towel on trying to control my addiction and to try to drink like a normal human. I gave all that up. I surrendered completely.
And when I did this I sort of got this objective stance in my head, where I said to myself: “OK, let’s see how this all goes down. I am going to sit back and relax and I am not going to try to get any bright ideas or control anything in my life. I am going to listen to others. I am going to listen to the therapist here in treatment and I am going to listen to my sponsor in AA. And I am going to sit back and watch it all unfold and I will see if it makes me even more miserable to give up total control of my life. And if I am too miserable at some point, well, I can always go back to the madness of drinking.”
So basically I was skeptical. I did not think that surrender would work, or that it would make me happy. I definitely did not believe that it could lead me to happiness. Because really, what I was doing was to listen to other people rather than my own ideas. And what do they know about what I need to be happy? Those people don’t know me! They don’t know what makes me happy. So how could listening to them ever lead me to happiness? I was skeptical. I didn’t think it would work.
You can guess where this is headed I bet.
Not only did it work, but it worked rather quickly.
Within just a few weeks I was feeling pretty good in recovery. I was actually bordering on being genuinely “happy,” and I was not even in control of my own life. I had given that control up, I had surrendered to a new solution. And I was just amazed at what was happening all around me. Life was getting good again, and it was through nothing that I had done or thought up. I was just listening to others and following their directions. It was super easy.
It was like I had unlocked this secret. I was really amazed. How did I deserve to be this happy? It was like cheating. I had done nothing to deserve this happiness, and all I was doing was following other people’s suggestions. Yet my life just kept getting better and better.
This is the secret that you must unlearn. The old way was to figure it all out, to power through your problems and find a solution. The new way was to let go completely, to surrender, to give yourself over to a new way of life. To follow directions. To do what you were told to do.
It was all so simple. You didn’t even have to think. Just obey. And suddenly your life transforms.
And here is the amazing thing:
When I was doing this and I had surrendered and my life was getting better, I realized something.
I still had control. I was still really in full control of my life, and I could “take back my will” at any moment. I still had power. I had just found a way to trick myself into listening to other people for a while so that I could benefit from their wisdom. It was like a secret trick that I had discovered.
You must learn how to let go of everything if you want to recover. You must learn to surrender. And to do this, you must unlearn the old way of life that you were accustomed to.
How to let go of everything and thus gain the whole world back
Ask for help.
When someone you trust offers you help, take it.
When they make a suggestion, take that suggestion and follow through with it.
This will lead you down a path of new suggestions. Each door that you open on your journey will lead to more doors, of course.
And so you must maintain this new attitude of learning and discovery, this attitude of surrender. You let go of everything and you become willing to walk through the doors. To explore a new world of recovery.
So first of all you have to have the willingness to do this.
I wish there were a magic trick or a shortcut that could give people this willingness. But in reality the key to this particular lock is in simply hitting bottom. In discovering that you have had enough. That you are sick and tired and you want to change. Every alcoholic and drug addict has to find that bottom on their own. And we all have a different turning point. We all have to discover it for ourselves.
Once you hit bottom you develop willingness. You become willing to try something different. The old way isn’t working for you any more. Getting drunk no longer produces happiness. It is all misery, all the time. Not worth it any more. You get through your denial when you finally realize that and internalize it. You can’t just admit it. You must accept it on a deep level.
Once you have this willingness the path become simple. Ask for help. People you trust will hopefully steer you towards professional help. Counseling, therapy, inpatient rehab, treatment, AA meetings, things like that. Hopefully they will realize that you need medical detox and treatment (if that is the case, which it likely will be for alcoholism).
You ask for help. You are willing. They tell you to go to rehab.
This is simple. Not easy to do, but fairly simple. Just ask for help and then follow through. This is how you surrender on a day to day basis. You ask for help and then you follow through and take real action.
Not just random action, but positive actions based on the suggestions of other people.
If you like to put it in a spiritual context, you are listening to your higher power give you a plan through the suggestions of other people. Surrender, ask for help, listen to the advice. Follow through and take action. You are being guided from above, if you will. I can certainly look at my own journey through early recovery and make a strong case that I was being guided, watched over, and inspired to follow through with certain decisions. The path led me exactly where I needed to be, everything happened in its own perfect time. I could not have planned it myself, and luckily I did not have to. I just had to listen. Then I had to act. Simple.
How to keep reinventing yourself on a path of personal growth
If you can unlearn something once, certainly you can do it over and over again, right?
This is the whole idea behind the third step in AA: “Made a decision to turn our will and our life over the care of God as we understood him.”
This is unlearning the old way, which was self will. The new way is to surrender and put your faith in others.
And yet we can do this once, we can do it for a while, and then we can suddenly take our own will back and start creating chaos again.
When an alcoholic relapses, it is because they took their own will back. Who would advise them to drink alcohol other than themselves? What higher power would want them to get drunk? What of their support systems, their sponsors, their therapists, their peers in recovery, would want them to drink? None of them.
It is entirely self will. They feel like they have been cheated, like they are not getting what they deserve in life. So they are not grateful in that moment. They are selfish. And they want to take control back and reward themselves. So they relapse. This is self will. They stopped trusting that the universe would reward them if they were doing good work.
So the key is that you do not take back this self will. And if you do that consistently then it means that you are trying to follow God’s will, to be inspired by others, to take suggestions and advice and see where it leads you. The grand adventure. Humble and willing to learn. Willing to unlearn the old self will.
And if you keep living this way, if you keep listening to others and taking suggestions, your life will continue to improve and to change. Positive action will build on itself and you will keep learning new things about yourself. It keeps getting better and better.
This is how you “reinvent yourself.” What you are really doing is to get honest with yourself, figure out what is holding you back or blocking you in life, and then eliminating that defect. The 12 steps of AA outline one way to work through this process. But you don’t necessarily need to use the 12 steps to do this work. You can just do the work yourself, or with a therapist even. But the key is that it takes real work, it takes self honesty, and it will make you uncomfortable to do this sort of work. Most people try to avoid this level of self honesty and discomfort.
But this is what you have to unlearn. Getting honest with yourself is never comfortable. If it is comfortable then it is too easy and there is not much growth there. Look deeper. Peel back another layer. Ask a close friend or peer for some insight, for advice, for criticism. Find the flaws in your life and then make a plan to work on them. Find out what is wrong on the inside and then fix it. This is the real work in recovery. No one wants to do this work. I don’t blame them. But if you do it, the work will reward you a thousand times over. It’s amazing.
What have you had to unlearn in order to recover from addiction? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!