The first “strength” that you need to develop in alcoholism or addiction recovery actually does not seem like a strength at all. Most people see it as weakness.
That would be the “strength” of surrender.
In order to even get started in addiction recovery, you will need to surrender fully and completely. That means that you not only admit that you are out of control when it comes to your drug or alcohol addiction, but also that you have no idea how to live a successful life in recovery. In other words, you surrender to the point that you become willing to take direction from other people about how to live your life.
While this initially seems like a massive weakness, it actually turns into the “strongest” decision that you will ever make, because one day you will be able to look back at your turning point in early recovery and realize that everything good in your life came as a result of that initial surrender.
When I was in very early recovery I made an agreement with myself to only listen to other people, to take advice from people that I trusted, and not to trust my own self. I made this agreement because I knew that if I took control back of my own life that I would screw everything up.
I believed that if I were to make this agreement with myself that I would become miserable as a result. How can you have any fun or enjoy yourself if you are not making any decisions for yourself?
But it turns out I was wrong. Within just a few short weeks I could see that there had been an error in my thinking. I was following directions, I was listening to my sponsor and my therapist, and I was doing all of the things that they were telling me to do. And as a result of this, my life was getting so much better that it was unbelievable to me. I was so grateful that my life was improving so rapidly and honestly I had no idea how it was happening. I was shocked at my own good fortune because I was not worrying about any of it, I was not trying to organize my new life, and I was simply letting other people tell me what to do.
That sounds very humbling and it would appear on the surface that surrender is a sign of weakness, but today I can look back and see it for what it really is: A sign of great strength. It takes courage to let go completely, to let go of an old lifestyle that is not working for you, to dive into recovery and be led by other people who are going to teach you things, and you have to let go of everything that you think you know, and go blindly into this new world. Maybe that sounds a bit over-dramatic, but to the struggling alcoholic or addict, I can assure you that the drama is real. The struggling alcoholic wants nothing more than to cling to their denial and to continue to self medicate. To surrender and go to rehab and learn a new way of life takes courage. It takes guts.
Now this brings up a good point, which I believe is another metric of strength in early recovery, and that is attending inpatient treatment.
I realize that there are other solutions available. However, for a real alcoholic or a real addict who is struggling, I would never recommend anything other than an inpatient treatment program, the kind where you stay for 28 days, where you go to groups and meetings each day, where you are assigned a real therapist. This is the best choice for any struggling addict or alcoholic who is serious about changing their life.
And again, this requires a leap of courage, because it is scary to check into a rehab facility. At first, you have no idea what to expect, and the thought of being separated from your drug of choice is going to be unsettling. Nobody wants to go to rehab, not really. No addict or alcoholic wants to go through withdrawal and try to learn how to be clean and sober. The easier, softer way is to keep drinking, to keep using drugs, to stay stuck in denial. Of course nobody really wants to go to rehab.
But the addict reaches a point in which they realize that they are thoroughly miserable, and that this misery is no longer something that they can blame on other people. Furthermore, the alcoholic will reach a point in which they realize that no matter how much alcohol they consume or how frequently they drink, it is never really going to make them happy in the long run.
I don’t think it is possible to have these profound realizations after only a few months or even a few years of drug or alcohol abuse. It takes a bit more time than that for the addict to realize that their misery cannot be blamed on other things, and that their drug of choice may actually be the problem. It takes time to work through that denial. It takes a lot of consequences and a lot of misery for some of us to “get there.”
But once we get there we can surrender and ask for help, and summon the courage to go to rehab. This is the start of real change.
Now those changes have to continue if you want to remain clean and sober in the long run.
Maybe you surrender and you check into rehab for 28 days and you get out and start attending AA meetings. Great, you are on a path of real progress. Your life is turning around rapidly and good things are happening.
Now, how do you avoid relapse and continue to thrive in recovery? How do you go from 30 days sober to 30 years sober?
Well, the obvious answer is “one day at a time,” of course. But how you arrange those days and what your habits and routines are will largely dictate your success or failure in recovery.
So you want to develop strong habits. Strong, positive habits.
One of those would be the social aspect of recovery–surrounding yourself with positive people who are growth oriented. Hanging out in the fellowship of AA or NA is a good way to build this sort of foundation. For some people, religion may play a part in this as well. But you need to eliminate toxic people and start spending time with “the winners” in recovery.
I would argue that developing a strong exercise habit can be critical for success in long term recovery. There are so many benefits that come from being in good physical shape, and there are also many second order and third order benefits as well. For example, you socialize more when you exercise. Or you meditate while you are jogging, even without realizing. Or your sleep improves because you work out every day. And because your sleep improves your emotional and mental health improves. In other words, the benefits of daily exercise can create more benefits based on the initial benefits.
Try to look for other opportunities in terms of personal growth that offer this kind of value. One way to do this is to ask people in recovery who have multiple years clean and sober what they recommend you focus on, and what they are doing in terms of personal growth. Meditation of various types will be a common recommendation. People will also emphasize spirituality, because it benefits you on so many different levels.
Really the main skill of addiction recovery is personal growth. If you can master personal growth, if you can focus on always seeking solutions and looking for the next positive change to challenge yourself with, then you will never relapse. Personal growth is the main skill of recovery. If you stop making positive changes to yourself then you run the risk of relapse.