The big problem with early recovery from addiction is that you do not yet have the benefits of long term sobriety in hand.
If the struggling addict or alcoholic could just fast forward to 18 months into recovery, they would see that all of the effort and struggle in early sobriety is well worth it. They would see that they can actually build up a new life in recovery, one with purpose and meaning and joy and freedom, without having to rely on drugs or alcohol to medicate their mood or their emotions.
But you cannot know this going into it. The struggling addict or alcoholic has a dilemma in that they honestly believe that if they walk away from their drug of choice that they will be miserable forever. I can remember being stuck in addiction and saying to people “But drinking and drugs are the only things that ever make me happy in this world!” And I honestly believed that. I really thought that if I could no longer self medicate with substances that I would just be sad and bored all the time. I was not counting on this new life in recovery amounting to any kind of happiness, purpose, joy, or freedom.
Boy, was I wrong.
Life in recovery got really, really good for me. But I had to “pay my dues” in the beginning. And this is the problem with early recovery–nobody wants to pay their dues. Nobody wants to “eat the broccoli” as they say. And in order to reap the rewards of the good life in recovery you have to put in this massive, sustained effort–with no real hope that it will convert into happiness and freedom at some point in the future.
This is why “hope” and “faith” are concepts that are deeply woven into the first few steps of traditional recovery programs (steps 2 and 3 of AA or NA to be exact).
The reason that recovery was elusive for me had to do with my beliefs.
When I was stuck in active addiction, I honestly did not believe that recovery could ever work for me. I really thought that I was unique, that I was different, that I was the first person on the planet who ever truly loved drugs and alcohol this much. And because of those beliefs I was not allowing myself to have hope for the future, or hope that I could live a happy life in recovery. I believed that if I was ever forced to be clean and sober that I would just be miserable all the time.
I was basing this belief on my experience during addiction in which I would sometimes have to go for a day or two without self medicating. Of course at that time I was physically dependent on alcohol and I was psychologically dependent on marijuana so when I would be totally without either substance for a mere day or two my body would start to feel sick from the alcohol withdrawal, and at the same time, my emotions and my mood would suffer because I was no longer medicating it with marijuana. I was no longer in the practice of having to deal with my own emotions and face reality because I had grown accustomed to just medicating unwanted emotions out of my life. So when I experienced a brief period of sobriety I was really uncomfortable, both due to physical withdrawal symptoms but also due to the emotional and mental component of addiction.
Breaking out of this mold required total and complete surrender so that I could finally get the level of help that I really needed. Again, my beliefs had me stuck, because all of my friends and peers during my addiction were people who also got drunk or high with me. So I knew that if I were to get clean and sober that I would suddenly be all alone without any friends at all. The thought of being alone, and without my drug of choice, was simply overwhelming to me. I could not imagine how I would ever make that transition, or how I could do so without being completely miserable forever.
So what happened? How did I ever talk myself into making this massive leap of faith into sobriety, to see what was really on the other side?
What happened is that, at some point, I had become completely and thoroughly miserable in my addiction. Not only that, but as luck would have it, my only real friends and peers at the time happened to be out of town on a vacation with their family, so even my “drinking buddies” had deserted me for the moment, and I was truly alone. It was at that time that I got a real glimpse of the future of my addiction, which was pretty much isolation and misery. I realized that, even though I had all the drugs and booze that I needed, and even though everyone had gone away and “left me alone,” I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was completely miserable.
And that was the bottom for me. It had to happen that way, where everyone was gone from my life temporarily, so that I could see that I was creating my own misery. I could not blame it on my roommate or my girlfriend or my boss. I was alone and I had my booze and my drugs and I still wasn’t happy. And that was when it finally hit me, that moment of realization, that moment of ultimate clarity:
This wasn’t working any more. The fun was over. My addiction had finally betrayed me completely.
What in the heck was I doing with myself? I was miserable, and I had no one to blame but myself.
So at that time I became willing to take a huge risk, because I had nothing left to lose and everything to gain. So what if I got clean and sober and I was totally miserable? I was already miserable! And now I realized this fully. It just couldn’t get any worse for me. I was at my low point, I was at rock bottom, and there was nowhere to go but up.
So I surrendered and I asked for help and I became willing to give recovery a chance.
And that is what is required in order to overcome the typical “problem” with early recovery–that you need some sort of hope or faith in order to make it through to when life becomes joyful again. Because it takes some time and it takes some sustained effort before you are living the good life in recovery.
I went to rehab and I did an inpatient program and I started going to meetings. I got a therapist and I got a sponsor and I started to follow directions. I was doing what people told me to do and my life started to–very slowly–get better and better.
But here is the kicker: That was over 17 years ago when I started this journey and my life started slowly getting better and better, and it is still improving every day! That is the huge incentive and the huge reward of recovery–once you start living a life of personal growth, your life will just keep improving as you move forward. Things just keep getting better and better.
So at some point within a few months to a year or so, your life will have improved so much that it is far superior to any “happiness” that you had in active addiction. And then from there, it just keeps improving even further. But you have to find the hope and the faith that this will be the case if you surrender and put in the work. Good luck on your journey!