There are all sorts of reasons that people fail in recovery. For example, they may be victims of “self sabotage” in which they have a subconscious fear of their own success. Or they may fail to find the social support that they need and fail to identify with others. Or they may just not be ready yet to embrace a new life of change because they are still having too much fun abusing their drug of choice….they simply have not endured enough misery in their addiction yet.
Whatever the case may be, it can usually all be traced back to a single reason. Or rather, we can frame the problem, no matter what it is or what it may stem from, as a simple lack of commitment.
Commitment is the most important aspect of your recovery
By far, commitment is the most important part of your recovery. Period.
It is interesting to see that in very early recovery, this is not always clear to people. I can distinctly remember being in early recovery and attending AA meetings every day and being a bit overwhelmed about how to prioritize my thinking and what was really important.
The problem was that so many different things were being emphasize in the meetings. I needed something to latch on to, I needed to find out exactly how recovery really worked, and so I was constantly filtering and fishing for the top piece of information. I wanted to get at the heart of the recovery process and understand exactly what I needed to focus on. I was seeking my focal point.
In the past I had never been serious about wanting to get clean and sober, and all of my “attempts” at recovery had really just been false starts. I was still hanging on to the idea that I might still learn to control my drinking and drugging and could one day possibly have fun with it again. But this time was different. This time I had actually surrendered to my disease and I was fed up with the cycle of misery. I wanted out, and I really wanted to learn how to do it. So I was paying attention this time. I knew that the AA meetings were important, and probably necessary. In the past I had been terrified of the meetings and I still did not like them much, because I hated being put on the spot and being made to speak in front of others (which did happen in some of the meetings, not forcibly or anything, but the idea was there).
So what was this key focal point in recovery that I needed to find? I started by listening to people who spoke in the AA meetings. Of course every single meeting was a chance to hear all sorts of different opinions about what was most important in your recovery journey. I was privy to an awful lot of “first step meetings” because I was living in a treatment center in long term rehab and so therefore I attended lots of in-house AA meetings. People would come in from the outside to host the meetings but most of the people in the meetings were addicts and alcoholics who just got clean and sober and were in their first week of recovery because they were in rehab.
If you sit and listen to recovering addicts and alcoholics in such a meeting situation you are going to get an overwhelming amount of information that you might act on. Because the solution “clicked” for people in different ways, the each latched on to another aspect of the recovery process in which they believe their success was hinged on.
For example, you have one person in the meetings who has been struggling to get clean and sober for years, and they were never able to do it in the past until recently. Now they come to AA meetings every single day, and they never used to do that. So during the meetings they talk about how “coming to these meetings every single day is the big secret, this is what you have to do if you want to stay sober, if you don’t come to meetings every day you are never going to make it. This is the most important thing.”
Another alcoholic in the meetings might say something like “You cannot do this without your higher power. Without God you are nothing, you have no chance at sobriety, and you will just end up relapsing if you cannot connect with your higher power and learn to rely on him. This is the only thing that has allowed me to be sober, ever. You must find your higher power. This is the most important thing.”
And then another recovering addict in the meetings might say something like “I struggled for years to get off drugs and then finally I got me a sponsor and worked through the steps with him. If you don’t get yourself a sponsor and actually work through the steps then you will never be able to stay sober. This is the most important thing.”
This goes on and on for en entire meeting and I would hear dozens and dozens of people give their advice on what it took to remain sober. And this was all within just one single meeting! The next day I would attend another meeting, and I would hear another twenty to thirty opinions about what was truly important for sobriety. As I said, because I was living in a rehab, nearly all of the meetings focused on this “basic advice session” because they were almost all first step meetings. In almost every case, there was a person in the meeting who had never been to an AA meeting before, so everyone told their story and tried to give the person helpful advice for recovery. I witnessed hundreds of meetings like this.
Now very quickly I realized that there was a problem here. I could not find a definitive focal point to latch on to in my own recovery because the data was too conflicting. It was not that the opinions and the advice was in direct conflict, it was simply that I did not know what to latch on to as being the most important advice for my recovery. For example, one person would say “work the steps” and another person would say “find God.” Well obviously a person could do both of these, and working through the steps is actually designed to lead a person to a spiritual experience, so we could say that these are not in conflict at all, and in fact are in perfect agreement.
However, this did not change the fact that there was still this huge barrage of information in early recovery, and I still did not have a strong focus figured out. Even though most of the advice that was given complimented each other rather than conflicted, it was still difficult for me to figure out a focal point, and to determine what was MOST important for my recovery.
Learning through observation
So I continued on my journey through early recovery and I continued to attend AA and NA meetings every day because I was living in long term rehab and therefore I pretty much had to do so.
And I started to notice something amazing and was continuously shocked by something:
People were relapsing.
Not just any people, mind you. But people that I looked up to in the AA and NA meetings were relapsing. People who had good things to say, who spoke with conviction, who seemed to have real recovery wisdom…..many of these people were relapsing.
It happened with one guy, I will never forget him, because he spoke with such passion and enthusiasm about recovery in the meetings. And he was the first one who relapsed while I was living in rehab, and I just could not believe it. He had been like my hero in the early days because he was so animated in the meetings and so excited and passionate about recovery. Or so I had thought!
And of course this happened again and again–people who had a strong message about recovery in the meetings would end up relapsing.
And so very slowly, over time, I started to do something. I started to piece together what was really important based on results.
In fact, I decided to watch people carefully and base my opinion of their wisdom on one thing: results.
People in the meetings would say “clean time isn’t everything!” and I would just nod my head and keep my mouth shut. For me, clean time was very, very important. If someone relapsed and then came back to a meeting and proceeded to tell their story, this somewhat useful. But over time it started to become less and less useful for me, because that person had nothing to teach me (other than what NOT to do in recovery).
No, I was starting to discard information that I had received from a person who relapsed. Call me cynical, call me downright nasty, I don’t care. I started to listen more carefully to what the “winners” in recovery were saying, and I started to ignore the people who relapsed.
But more importantly, I took this a step further, because now I was getting closer to the core of what the real focus in recovery was.
Now I was concentrating on only “the winners” in recovery, and if a person relapsed, I disregarded any “wisdom” that such a person tried to impart on me in the meetings. I was watching the “winners” in recovery much more closely, and analyzing what they were saying and what they were doing with their life.
This is, in itself, a very valuable lesson and therefore a good piece of advice. If you are in very early recovery, do not listen to everyone at meetings and try to take all the advice to heart. There is too many opinions and the barrage of information is too wide and varied. Instead, a better approach is to find someone who has plenty of clean time and who is living a life that you want to live yourself, and to model that person, follow their advice, ask them to sponsor you, etc.
Trying to take in advice from hundreds of people at dozens of different meetings and make it all work in your own recovery is something of a nightmare. I don’t recommend trying to do it.
What I concluded in my early recovery as being the single most important thing in recovery
Some time during my first few months of my recovery journey, I came to this conclusion based on everything I have been discussing so far in this article:
The most important thing in recovery is commitment. Period.
The reason that I came to this conclusion was because I watched so many people relapse who were attending the AA meetings with me, and I was listening to what they were saying and I knew what was important to them.
And so I realized that people could (and did) relapse even if they:
…..had a sponsor and had worked through the 12 steps with them.
…..found God in their life and praised him in every meeting.
…..attended daily AA meetings without fail.
…..were excited and passionate about recovery.
…..spoke frequently in AA meetings and seemed to have lots of good things to say.
After watching such examples relapse over and over again, I came to the conclusion that none of these things were actually at the heart of recovery, none of them were the focal point.
I learned through observation that the people who were staying clean and sober were the ones who were seriously committed to it.
It was all about commitment.
I decided that this had to be the case, and so I started keeping the idea in my mind, and then testing it over and over again.
When I would have discussions with people in recovery, I would ask them “do you think your commitment to sobriety is an important part of your recovery?”
When people had relapsed and they talked with me afterward, I would ask them “would you say that your commitment to sobriety is what fell apart at some point?”
And so on. I started viewing the world through this new lens, this idea that the most important thing in sobriety was commitment.
And I would say that the evidence was overwhelming. Eventually I stopped even testing the idea, because it was such a slam dunk. I had found the focal point of recovery, the only thing that really mattered. People who committed to staying clean and sober actually succeeded. People who had relapsed had failed in their commitment to sobriety.
Now you might be asking:
“A commitment to what? To the program of recovery? To your higher power? To living and working the steps every day? Does it really matter what the commitment is to?”
The answer is:
Commitment to abstinence.
That is the most important thing in addiction recovery, by far. All of the other stuff is hand waving, distraction, tools to help you deal with life, ideas to help you cope with a life in sobriety, and so on. But ultimately, when you boil it all down, the most important thing in recovery, by far, is your commitment to total abstinence.
I needed a name for this idea and for this mental arrangement.
I called it “my zero tolerance policy.”
Commitment to total abstinence and the zero tolerance policy
So I had finally established that the most important thing in recovery was the individual’s commitment to remain abstinent from drugs and alcohol, no matter what.
This may seem obvious to an outsider but if you sit in an AA or NA meeting every single day then you will notice that the idea does in fact get glossed over. Many other concepts get much more emphasis than the idea of personal commitment to total abstinence.
But the real problem is not that it gets glossed over, the real problem is that so many people do not realize that this needs to be their focal point. This is the whole answer, people!
Your personal commitment to not putting drugs or alcohol into your body. Period. That is number one. Numero uno. This has to come first in your life, before all of that other junk that gets preached about in meetings.
The idea is simple. You mentally need to get it straight in your head that alcohol and addictive drugs are off limits for you. You have zero tolerance for them in your life. Your mind should recoil in horror at the idea of putting a drink or a drug into your body.
Commit to this idea fully. Get it straight in your head, that this is your focal point and your whole key to long term success (because trust me, it is!).
So many people who relapse had other priorities in their lives and other focal points for their recovery.
You can test this for yourself in much the same way that I tested it while I was living in long term rehab: Go and ask a handful of people in early recovery what the most important thing in their recovery process is. Ask them “What is the single most important part of your recovery for you? What is the one thing that makes sobriety work for you?”
Ask a whole bunch of people this question and just listen to their answers and how varied they are. Notice that many people talk about meeting attendance, sponsorship, and stepwork as being ultimately important.
Notice too that the overall success rate in early recovery is quite low, something around 3 to 10 percent, depending on who you ask. In other words, most people who try to get clean and sober end up relapsing.
And be sure to watch the success stories too. Latch on to the “winners” in recovery (my opinion is that these are people who avoid relapse and remain sober). Find out what makes these people tick and ask them what is really important to them. Ask them how important it was for them to commit to total abstinence.
Complete surrender is necessary but this just leads to a rock solid commitment
There is one red herring in this whole discussion and that is the concept of surrender.
It would be easy for a person to conclude that surrender is the most important focal point in recovery, and they would be at least half right.
The reason that they would be half right is because surrender is a prerequisite for the total commitment to abstinence. You cannot have one without the other, and before you can commit to recovery and make it work in the long run, you are going to have to FIRST reach that point of total surrender.
In AA they call this “the turning point.” It feels like a crossroads in your life because you realize that you are completely defeated by your addiction or alcoholism, and deep down you realize that you could, in fact, make the decision right then to change your whole life.
Many addicts and alcoholics reach this point and fail to follow through with it though. They reach the turning point but they choose their disease rather than recovery.
And of course there are many “false starts” in recovery, because so many people underestimate the commitment and the amount of action it will take to turn their entire life around. They overestimate their ability to overcome addiction and they underestimate the recovery process.
The only way to get this right is to make a 100 percent total commitment to total abstinence, and then work from that focal point. All other focal points in the recovery journey are subject to failure. Focus on your commitment to total abstinence as being your number one highest truth–more important than anything else in the world. This is the path to success in recovery.