The Simplest Way to Get Clean from an Addiction

The Simplest Way to Get Clean from an Addiction


Yesterday we looked at how to personalize your program of recovery and still be successful. Today we want to look at the biggest “short cuts” you can take in recovery and find the simplest path to successful recovery.

These are the things that I did NOT get right my first 2 times when I tried to get clean and sober. The third time around (when I was successful at recovery), these are the things that I finally got right. They are not necessarily “short cuts,” per se, but they just turned out to be critical to my success in recovery. Had I learned these strategies or embraced them the first time around, I may not have struggled with recovery for so many years before finally “getting it.”

So, these are my “shortcuts.”

The problem of underestimating our disease

The first shortcut to recovery would really be “do not underestimate your disease.” This is a serious problem and it cost me several years of my life (stuck in addiction), at least two trips to rehabs that did not work out for me, and tens of thousands of dollars.

But this is just what my under estimating cost me. For many other struggling addicts and alcoholics, it can cost a lot more–including their life itself.

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Part of the issue is that our life experience does not typically include challenges as big as “overcoming an addiction.” Sure, you have probably faced various challenges throughout your life, and learned how to work hard at them, apply a bit of discipline, and rise above the challenge in order to succeed in life. Everyone has done this in some ways, simply by existing. Life is full of little challenges.

But overcoming an addiction is not like our normal, everyday experiences. It is a challenge of much greater magnitude. For most people who struggle with addiction or alcoholism, this is the struggle of a lifetime. They will face no greater challenge their whole entire life. This is it. All other problems in their life will pale in comparison.

So this sets nearly everyone up for failure at first. Really, the first one or two times that you really, really try to get clean and sober are sort of just wasted, because what you are really doing is gauging just how tough it is. Or rather, the first time through recovery you are learning what it truly takes to make it work and build a new life. You are learning how NOT to recover, at first. This is of course based on the idea that you will underestimate your disease just like everyone else does (at least at first).

The failure (or relapse if you will) process teaches us that this is no ordinary walk in the park. Overcoming addiction is not like studying extra hard to pass your history exam. It is so much more than just reading a book, or going to a few meetings, or trying extra hard to cut out all the chemicals. These are just surface level ideas that do not even scratch the surface of the real challenges that you will face in overcoming an addiction.

I hate to be so dramatic about all of it but it is absolutely true. And when a struggling addict finally makes a serious attempt themselves to overcome their addiction, do you not think that they are going to experience an intense amount of drama in their life? Of course they are. Early recovery is one big dramatic event, and it sort of unfolds as if your emotional core is bouncing down the side of a mountain. Early recovery is an emotional roller coaster and there is really no way to prepare for this.

This same phenomenon can be observed when someone tries to quit smoking cigarettes. The cigarette smoker will notice that every time that they try to quit smoking, all of this drama pops up in their life. Why is this happening? they will wonder. Why does all of this drama suddenly show up every time they try to quit?

They have been fooled by their addiction, of course. The withdrawal from nicotine is what is creating the drama, not external events (that are clearly beyond the person’s control anyway). It is not what happens in our life (or our recovery), but how we react to it. This is one of those ultra tricky things that can fool you in early recovery. And it can do it over and over again, all the while you stay blind to the fact that it is really your detox and withdrawal that is “turning up the intensity” on your life, rather than these random external events.

Life marches on, whether you are heavily abusing your drug of choice, or whether you are in withdrawal and attempting to go clean and sober. Life marches on, and your reaction to it is partially based on your state of mind. When you are in withdrawal, everything is a big deal. Every little thing is a disaster.

I had to try to quit smoking cigarettes several times before I realized this was happening to me, and actually become conscious of it. The same thing happens to people who are trying to recover from drugs and alcohol, and this is why there is so much potential for “drama” in short term rehabs and detox units. Believe me I know, I worked in one for 5 plus years! Which, by the way, is a great place to work (in a drug and alcohol detox + short term residential facility) if you want to learn more about how people constantly underestimate their disease.

It was at times almost crushing to hear some of the naive folks in early recovery talk about their plans for staying clean and sober. What was so difficult to hear was not their positive attitude (which is obviously a good thing), but to hear of how little effort they were going to apply to their problem. To hear them talk confidently about how they were going to overcome their addiction by just hitting a meeting or two each week was almost laughable. I had worked their for many years and I could watch the relapse rates unfold before my own eyes, as many of the residents came back for a second, third, and forth trip through detox. How could they so consistently underestimate their disease?

But then I remind myself that I did it too. I went to three rehabs before it “stuck.”

We just are not ready until we are truly ready. You have to hit bottom and all that. You really do.

So the, how do you know when you are no longer underestimating your disease?

You will know when you fully embrace this next shortcut, which is essentially “applying overwhelming force” to your recovery effort.

Overwhelming force and crushing a goal

If there is one secret in this article that you should embrace, it is the idea of overwhelming force.

This is a concept borrowed from war and the military. If an army wants to capture an enemy base at all costs, then what it might do as a strategy is to divert so many resource to conquering that base that it can not help but to crush the opposition. So if they figure they need 2,000 men to take over an enemy base, they might send 8,000 men. Instead of just meeting and beating the competition, they come prepared to totally crush them without any chance for failure.

This is how you will come to no longer underestimate your disease of addiction. You must treat it like the military is treating this enemy base, and decide that you are going to go way above and beyond what you THINK it will take in order to meet the goal. Thus you will finally be providing the correct amount of effort in tackling your addiction, and you should hopefully be successful in doing so.

For example, I would have thought that I am a pretty smart dude–don’t all addicts and alcoholics believe this? So to be honest, when I was really thinking about trying to get clean and sober (for real), I estimated that I would not have to try harder than the average person. I was counting on my brains (what I have left of them!) to be able to help carry my effort a bit. In other words, if the average person has to go to rehab for 28 days and then attend AA meetings 6 days a week, I would think that I could by with 14 days of rehab and meetings just 3 times per week (or something to that effect, you get the idea).

This is, of course, setting yourself up for failure in recovery. It is pretty easy to see that when we take a step back and look at the situation (and the results!) objectively. But it is very difficult when it is YOU who is trying to gauge the effort that it will take, because…darn it, you know that you are not stupid! So in a sense, we cannot help but give ourselves some credit in this whole game, and sort of tell ourselves that we should be able to figure this thing out. We give ourselves too much credit because we (truly are not stupid), but it is not necessarily intelligence that overcomes an addiction. Instead, it is surrender. It is compliance. It is asking for help and then following direction. This is not necessarily easy to do for someone who is halfway intelligent.

Regardless of your intelligence level it is highly likely that you will underestimate what it will take to recover–at least at first. If you can somehow convince yourself that it truly does require overwhelming force in order to beat an addiction, then you have figured out a tremendous shortcut.

How can you then act on this information? Well, look at your plan. Or, look at your level of surrender and compliance. If your plan was to stop using drugs and alcohol based on your own ideas, I would say that you need to instead ask for help and take advice from others. If your plan was to use only minimal treatment and try not to disrupt your life too much while you are getting clean and sober, then I see some red flags there as well.

If, on the other hand, you make an agreement with yourself that you will surrender completely, ask for help, and simply follow the advice that you are given without any hesitation, then I would say that you well on your way to applying some serious overwhelming force to your recovery. This is what finally worked for me when I hit bottom and surrendered fully to my disease. I asked for help and when they told me to go live in long term rehab for over a year, I had no problem accepting that as my solution. The “old me” would have fought against such an idea as being too disruptive, too radical. I would have argued against long term treatment and said “why go to all that trouble, you may as well be in prison to live in rehab for that long….crazy!” But in reality I can look back and see that this level of overwhelming force was the smartest thing I ever did (and it was not my idea, I was given advice to do it and I simply followed through on it).

To apply overwhelming force in early recovery is to:

* Surrender completely and fully, 100 percent. This means you try to control NOTHING, other than your desire to get clean and sober. You put all decisions into the hands of others, at least temporarily. Don’t worry, you’ll get your ego back some day. Trust me!

* Do exactly what your loved ones and/or trusted counselors or therapists tell you to do, without objection.

* Follow through completely with all suggestions for recovery, treatment, and aftercare. If they tell you to go to a bunch of therapy sessions, you go to every once like your life depends on it (hint: it does!).

* If they advise you to embrace a recovery solution (such as a religious program, a 12 step program, whatever) then you embrace that program with the same level of passion and enthusiasm as which you used to embrace your drug of choice. Whatever your recovery program is, whatever path you are following as your solution, you embrace it with as much intensity and commitment as you have ever done with anything else in your life, EVER. This is it. There is no greater challenge, for most people. Fight like hell. Hold back nothing.

* If they tell you to read literature or do some writing, then DO IT. Go nuts with it. Embrace it. Fully digest it and think about it and discuss it with others and actually study it to the point that you integrate the concepts and principles into your life. This is not tenth grade history….it is 100 times more important than that. So act like it. Study like your life depends on it.

This is how to apply overwhelming force. You take the stuff that you were going to do anyway in order to try to recover, but then you go way above and beyond the level of effort that you would normally think is required. Instead of going to 3 meetings a week, you go every day. Instead of reading the literature for an hour each day, you study like it is finals week at college. Instead of just getting a sponsor and calling him once in a while, you actually meet with the person and talk deeply with them and start taking advice from them and acting on it.

In short, you go way above and beyond what you would have thought necessary for success.

Why would anyone NOT do this in recovery? Do they not see the risk/reward structure in recovery. Do they not realize that recovery is a pass/fail proposition?

Sobriety is pass/fail. How to set a zero tolerance policy with yourself

This is something that I noticed after watching newcomers in treatment over the five years that I worked in rehab (and also from early AA meetings when I was living in long term rehab).

Sobriety is pass/fail. It is sort of like jumping a motorcycle over a big canyon. The daredevil either makes it, or he does not. There is really no in between. If he does not make it then he falls into this monster gap of a canyon and it is game over.

Recovery is much the same way. If you “just relapse a little” then you are fooling yourself. There is no such thing as a “little relapse” in recovery. Sobriety is pass/fail. You are either staying clean and sober, or you are screwing up and using drugs and alcohol. There is absolutely no in between, at all. No wiggle room. You are either clean or you are using. Pass/fail.

Recovery is the accumulation of positive growth. When you stay clean and sober over long periods of time, your life gets significantly better and better. When you relapse, all progress made up until that point is pretty much destroyed, instantly. People who relapse and then tell their story later always seem to have the same message “I lost everything. Everything that I had built up in my recovery, I quickly lost due to my relapse.” This is a universal message from nearly everyone who relapses (and lives to tell the tale).

It can be tough to take a long term view of recovery, especially if you only have a week sober. But this is the truth of the matter: your life will get better and better in the long run, so long as you do not use drugs or alcohol and continue to take positive action. Really there is no magic formula or secret steps that can make this any more simple. Don’t use and keep taking positive action. Do that for a year straight and your life will be much better. Do it for five years straight and your life will be fantastic.

But throw one tiny relapse in there, and it all crumbles into total chaos and misery. There is no such thing as a “tiny” relapse. Recovery is pass/fail. If you stop accumulating positive growth (by relapsing) then it all goes downhill, super fast.

The zero tolerance policy you make with yourself

Because recovery is pass/fail, you need to get this very clear in your own mind, right now.

Stop and think for a moment. Realize that everything that is good in your life depends on the fact that you must stay clean and sober. Nothing else in your life is this important, other than life itself. The only thing worse than relapse is death, for the recovering addict or alcoholic. Recovery is pass/fail. If you screw up even a tiny bit, you lose everything. Back to square one.

Therefore you need to make an agreement with yourself, right now, this very moment.

This is to be the most important commitment you have ever made to yourself. This has to be the most serious and most intense promise you have ever made to yourself, EVER.

That promise, that commitment, that agreement that you make with yourself, is simply this:

“I will not use addictive drugs or alcohol today, NO MATTER WHAT.”

That is your new policy for your life. It is your highest truth, period. Nothing over rides this, ever.

Along with this idea is the fact that you may as well not allow yourself to fantasize (or romanticize) the idea of using your drug of choice. If you catch yourself thinking (or talking) about how it would be nice to get drunk or high, shut it down immediately and move on. You will just make yourself miserable indulging such fantasies, because in the end you know you cannot allow yourself to self medicate again.

This is how to mentally manage your recovery–with a “zero tolerance” policy for addictive drugs and alcohol. You must recoil at the idea of using them like your hand recoils when touching a red hot burner.


These are the concepts (shortcuts) that I had to “get” before I could be successful in my own recovery. Hopefully they apply to yours as well.


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