There is no doubt about it, inpatient rehab saved my life. Let me tell you exactly why this was the case.
My situation at the time of surrender and entry into inpatient rehab
I went to rehab three times in my life. The first two times I simply wasn’t ready to change. I had not yet hit bottom and I had not yet surrendered.
No, the first two times I attended rehab I was in a state that you might call “partial surrender.” It was not “total and complete surrender.” That is a very important detail because being in a state of partial surrender will never lead to long term sobriety. It simply won’t last. Relapse is inevitable.
Now what exactly do I mean by “partial surrender?” I mean that I was wishing that things were different in my life, but I still wasn’t willing to go to any length in order to make those things happen. Let me give you an example. When I went to treatment for a first and a second time, the therapists and the counselors who worked there sized me up and they looked at my situation and they said: “You need long term treatment if you want to stand a chance at staying sober in the long run.”
Now, not everyone needs long term rehab. Some people can get sober just by attending AA meetings. But my situation was different and I needed a lot of help. Just going to a 28 day program wasn’t going to be enough, and the counselors and the therapists could plainly see that.
But at the time, I simply wasn’t willing to follow through. I wasn’t willing to entertain the idea of long term rehab.
Because I was stuck in denial. I believed that long term rehab was a prison sentence. I had no interest in long term rehab. In my mind, it was bad enough to attend a treatment center for 28 days. I mean, that is 28 days of freedom, just up in smoke! Poof, gone. That was how my brain was operating. I was stuck in denial and therefore I equated being in treatment with being in jail.
But at some point in my alcoholic and drug induced life, something shifted. I became even more miserable than I already was. I reached a state of misery that was truly scary, because I no longer cared about myself or my own future. I was, as they say, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I just didn’t care any more. I was so tired of living, so tired of living in fear and being afraid all the time. I self medicated every day and I felt like I lived as a coward. This was at least somewhat accurate because I tried to medicate all of my fear and anxiety away using drugs and alcohol. The problem was that it no longer worked very well.
In the beginning, alcohol and drugs did a good job of fixing me. That is why I became addicted in the first place. The drugs and the booze actually worked, and they did exactly what I wanted them to do. They gave me courage. I could live without fear. Instead of feeling anxious I could have a few drinks and suddenly I was happy again. It worked like magic. When I first discovered drugs and alcohol I really believed that I had found my calling in life. “This is what I was meant to do.” To drink and get high every day, that was my purpose in life. That was how I defined myself.
As my addiction progressed the drugs and the booze started working less and less. The problem was a change in tolerance. I could be quite drunk and heavily medicated on drugs and I was still able to feel my emotions, I was still able to be afraid and live in fear. The only time I really got any relief was when I was completely passed out or blacked out. This was because my disease had progressed to this point.
Once you reach this point where the drugs and the alcohol are not really working for you any more, you are living in denial. Because there used to be this period of time when you started drinking for the day or you started using drugs for the day and it was fun. This period of time existed before you passed out or blacked out. You got addicted to the substance because it made you happy, remember? That was the magic of drugs or booze, that it could make you instantly happy and you could have a few and suddenly be having fun and feeling good. All your worries melted away.
But it stopped working.
If you are a true alcoholic or a real drug addict, then your disease is going to progress. And when it progresses you will develop a tolerance to the substance. At that point the “fun” part of drinking or using will get entirely squeezed out of your life. The fun times will be gone. You will wake up miserable every day, start using your drug of choice, and at some point if you are lucky you will either black out or pass out. But the problem is that you will be miserable that entire time while you are self medicating. The fun part of drinking and taking drugs will be gone forever. This is what every addiction progresses to at some point. If you are not there yet, but continue to self medicate, you will eventually reach this point yourself. It is the way of addiction.
When I entered my third treatment in life, I was at this point of complete misery.
And what is even more critical is that I realized it. I had this moment of insight, this revelation of sorts, where I suddenly glimpsed the future scenarios. I glimpsed into my own future and thought about what would happen if I continued to drink or take drugs.
And in that moment I realized that it was never going to change, it was never going to suddenly get better. I realized that I would never really be happy or have any fun with drugs or alcohol any more, that the good times were over, and that the only way to have that “peak experience” while using again was to deprive myself for several days beforehand. In other words, if I really wanted to get high and make it fun again, I would have to sober up first for a few days.
So it was like I finally saw through the illusion. I glimpsed the truth, I could see the lie that alcohol and drugs were telling me. I couldn’t get high and be happy every single day. If I sobered up for a while first then I could get loaded and be “happy” for an hour or two at the most. But then it would be back to misery again. Days and weeks of misery with no end in sight.
I do not know exactly what caused me to finally see through the lie of addiction. I don’t know what caused me to finally realize that I was so unhappy using drugs and alcohol. If I knew exactly what caused this moment of breakthrough then I would certainly tell you what it was. I think part of it was to get honest with myself about how miserable I was all the time. I had to face what I had become in life, I had to stop running from myself, I had to face the reality of what drugs and alcohol were really doing for me. But honestly, I did not make a conscious decision to do that. I just suddenly realized that being addicted was never going to lead me to happiness. I suddenly had this moment of clarity where I realized that I would always be miserable if I continued to self medicate.
And that was my state of surrender when I finally went to rehab for a third time. I had reached a point of desperation and I knew that I would never be truly happy if I continued to drink.
Trying to decipher the secret to sobriety while being in a protected environment
I asked for help from my family and they sent me to an inpatient alcohol rehab facility. The place was 12 step based, meaning that they relied on the program of AA and the 12 steps as the core of their treatment program.
I had been exposed to this in the past when I attended my first two rehabs. The majority of treatment centers are 12 step based, so this is fairly typical.
So I was in treatment and I was going to groups and lectures every day and I was also being exposed to AA meetings. People from the outside would bring AA meetings into the rehab center every night. Again, this is fairly typical of most rehab centers.
When you first get into treatment like this you are overloaded with new information. Because essentially you have several individuals and various groups of people who are clean and sober already who want to share with you how they did it.
So imagine for a moment that you go through a typical day at a treatment center and you attend an AA meeting in the evening. You might talk to and listen to roughly 50 different individuals in a single day about how to remain clean and sober.
Just off the top of my head I can start listing all sorts of things that contributed to my success in sobriety: Listening to others, surrender, exercise on a daily basis, eating healthy foods and getting good sleep each night, working with a sponsor in early recovery, working through the 12 steps of AA and finding my character defects and eliminating them, and so on. I could talk for an hour about any one of those topics and tell you in great detail how such things had an impact on my sobriety.
Now imagine that you are going through a day in early sobriety and you are listening to 50 or more different people who are all giving you similar advice from their own personal experience.
That is a whole lot to take in.
And then it is your job to take all of that information and figure out what is truly important and what really applies to your own life and your own situation.
Now some people would say “use all of it. Listen to all of it and take all of the advice and put all of it into action.”
Nope. Sorry. You can’t do that. There are too many suggestions, too much advice, too much information overload to be able to assimilate all of it and use it in your day to day experience.
No, accept the fact right now that you will have to filter the information that you receive if you want to focus on any of it and make it worthwhile. You are going to have to prioritize what you learn and how you apply it. There is too much coming at you in early recovery to be able to use every piece of advice that you hear.
I quickly figured this out during my first two weeks of sobriety while I was at rehab.
And so I made a decision that I was going to have to figure something out for myself. I was going to have to create some sort of highest truth in my own mind, some sort of focal point for my own journey in recovery.
And so I started to listen, especially at the AA meetings, for what this “highest truth” should be for me.
A couple of likely candidates seemed to be:
“Make a strong connection with your higher power.”
“Go to meetings every day and don’t use in between those meetings.”
“Learn to love yourself.”
“Work the steps.”
My brain is wired a certain way. My brain wants to know what the most important principle is, it wants to know what the biggest focal point should be.
And in going to AA meetings every day, I wasn’t getting that. It was not clear to me what was truly the most important idea for sobriety.
So I made a decision and I figured it out for myself.
I decided at the time that the most important concept was also the most simple: My highest truth in life was to not use drugs or alcohol today, no matter what.
I referred to this concept as my “zero tolerance policy.”
And because this was my policy, that I was not to drink or take drugs no matter what, I had to form at least a corollary or two in order to make it work for me.
The first corollary had to do with my mental state.
When you are first getting clean and sober, it is easy to think about what it would be like to use your drug of choice again.
Maybe you are walking down the street and you see a big neon sign that says “liquor.” And your brain suddenly remembers what is like to drink your favorite booze again.
Now at this precise moment, you have a choice.
One, you can let your brain run down this path, and it will remember all of the good times you had when drinking, and it will remember how good you felt when you were perfectly drunk and high, and it will remember all of the good stuff about your drinking days. Keep in mind that this is the default. Your brain will do this automatically. It is hard wired to remember the good times.
Two, you can raise your level of awareness, and realize that your mind is doing this to itself. As soon as you realize that your mind is remembering the good times about drinking or drugs, you can shut it down and put a stop to it. This is the zero tolerance policy in action. As soon as you realize that your mind is “going there” and remembering the good old days, you immediately redirect yourself. You force yourself to remember instead how miserable it made you in the end. Your brain is NOT going to do this automatically. You have to force your mind to do this with a conscious act of will. This requires that you make a firm decision, that you are going to implement this policy with yourself, that you are going to be vigilant about it.
After you practice this policy for a few weeks, it becomes automatic. And after that, from a mental standpoint at least, you are now free. You no longer have to torture yourself by remembering the “good old days” of drinking, and then depriving yourself because you stopped drinking. It will become automatic if you implement this policy and practice it regularly.
How the zero tolerance policy kept me from becoming miserable
If you remember the good old days and you remember the good times that you had while drinking then you will be miserable in recovery.
Because you are now depriving yourself of those good times.
Of course, the truth is that the good times are long gone, and at this point in your addiction it is 99 percent misery instead.
So after being sober for a while, you might have an hour or two of “fun” before the misery sets again. If you listen to people who have relapsed that come back to recovery and tell their story, you will learn that this is true. They have “fun” for a day or two and then they are miserable all over again, right back where they used to be. Everyone who relapses and then comes back tells this same old story. It never gets any better. It only gets worse.
Therefore you need a way to “trick yourself” mentally in early recovery. And the way that I did this was to simply shut my thinking down entirely when I started to remember the good old days. This is really important because everyone is going to experience this sort of thing several times every day in early recovery. You have to have a way to deal with it or you are ultimately going to fail.
Therefore my highest truth in recovery was “Don’t use drugs and alcohol no matter what” and my first line of defense against the first drink or drug was this mental policy that I had with myself.
Now there are other aspects of recovery and before you can use a zero tolerance policy like this you have to surrender to your addiction, you have to ask for help, you have to care about your future, you have to have a shred of gratitude in your life, and so on.
In other words, the solution to sobriety is not entirely mental.
There are other aspects of your life that are also important. The spiritual element, for example, is critical for recovery as well, though it is probably not what you think it is.
They told me that I had to have a higher power and learn to rely on that higher power to get me through recovery. What I came to learn is that having a feeling of gratitude was even more important than having a strict belief or faith in a specific deity. That is pretty hard to convey in an AA meeting though.
I also learned that physical health was a pillar of recovery as well, one that was never emphasized heavily enough in my opinion. Traditional recovery tends to focus only on the spiritual side of recovery, but there are other important aspects as well.
A foundation that has lasted me over 14 years and counting
The foundation that I built during those first 28 days has carried me through over 14 years of sobriety now and counting. Many of the things that I learned during those first 28 days are still principles that I rely on today in order to maintain sobriety.
If nothing changes then nothing changes. I had to ask for help and then take some action in order to get results.
What is your plan?