How can an alcoholic turn their life around when they are struggling with alcoholism every day? What can they do in order to change their life in a positive way? And where do they find the motivation for these massive life changes?
Let’s take a closer look at how professional treatment can help you turn your life around.
The baseline for success in recovery
The baseline for recovering from alcoholism is abstinence.
Now there are actually a few programs out there that attempt to disagree with this. There are groups and programs that try to teach the alcoholic how to moderate their drinking. This sounds like a great idea to the alcoholic, because to them, there is an intense fear of giving up alcohol forever. It is almost like facing death, the idea of abstinence just seems so final. Never drink alcohol again? Really? It sounds very threatening to the alcoholic.
So if they hear about a program that teaches them how to drink successfully, that sounds very enticing.
I do not have direct experience with such programs but I can tell you this much:
* The founder of one of the moderation programs later went on to kill someone while drunk driving. To me that does not sound like an image of success in recovery. It sounds like addiction.
* There seems to be two different groups that might come into recovery programs: “Real alcoholics” and “problem drinkers.” If you are a problem drinker then you might learn to moderate. If you are a real alcoholic then you can never moderate successfully.
Therefore, when it comes to “real alcoholics” in recovery, the baseline for success is always total and complete abstinence. You have to stop putting drugs and alcohol into your body if you want to turn your life around. It is as simple as that.
So the question becomes, how do you know if you are a real alcoholic?
The answer to that is going to be based on your own assessment. Unfortunately, no one else can really diagnose you. You have to diagnose yourself. And this can only be done based on your experiences in trying to quit.
The best working definition that I can come up with is this: If you can quit drinking on your own without any help, then you are NOT a “real” alcoholic. On the other hand, if you cannot quit on your own, then you are a real alcoholic.
The definition has to do with whether or not you can quit by yourself. “Real” alcoholics need help in order to quit drinking. They cannot do it alone.
Someone who can stop under their own power is really more of a problem drinker.
This is just my own working definition and it is certainly not out of a medical book or anything. This is just how I define it in my own life, and in working with others in recovery.
In my experience, the baseline for success is total abstinence. That is the first requirement to start rebuilding your life in recovery.
In order to achieve total abstinence you might check into an inpatient rehab. There they can safely detox you and get you started on the right path. This is one of the basic concepts behind treatment to begin with. It is simply a controlled environment with no drugs or alcohol. So if you stay in one for 28 days then you come out with a month sober. Simple and effective.
Of course there is more to treatment than just that, but this is the baseline for success. You have to clear your mind and stop dumping chemicals into your body if you want a shot at real change in your life.
So the question is, how do you motivate yourself to go to rehab? Because if everyone just had to go to rehab to fix their problem then it would seem like there is really no problem! But the real hurdle is in getting up the guts to attend rehab in the first place. How does the alcoholic make a decision?
How to surrender and get started in recovery
In order to make the decision to go to treatment the alcoholic must first surrender.
They must surrender to the fact that they have a disease that is only going to get worse and worse. Hopefully they have been observing direct evidence of this for many years now–that things just keep getting worse and worse for them. The problem is that they will often blame others, blame bad luck, blame anything at all except for their drinking. This is denial. They refuse to attribute their negative consequences to their addiction. They do this because they are afraid of getting sober. It is fear that keeps them stuck in denial.
Now after they admit that they have a problem, they are still not home free yet. They still have to surrender to the fact that they want to do something about their addiction. They have to surrender to the fear. It is fear that holds them back from asking for help and making changes. They must surrender to that fear and realize that it is the only way to escape from the pain and misery they are experiencing. So they have this fear in their lives and they also have this misery from their drinking. They have to accept the fear and deal with it in order to move past the misery.
Finally they have to surrender to a new way of life. This is more than just walking away from alcohol. In most cases this is embracing a recovery program in which the person is told what to do and how to live. Of course our ego resists the idea that we need to be told what to do. No one wants to admit that they need this level of help. But this is yet another thing that the alcoholic must surrender to.
So that is really 3 levels of surrender. One is to surrender to the disease, another is to surrender to their fear of recovery, and finally they must surrender and accept a new solution. I can remember being at each distinct stage of surrender and resisting it at first.
For example, I did not want to admit that I really had a disease. I did not want to admit that I might be a real alcoholic. But eventually I could no longer deny the facts. Alcohol had ruined my life and made me unhappy.
Later on I did not want to face the fear of recovery. I knew that I had a problem and that I was a real alcoholic, but I did not want to accept the idea that I might need professional help. I felt like I would rather die of misery than to face the fear of the unknown. I was scared. Eventually the pain and misery of alcoholism became so great that I moved past this fear and became willing to seek help.
And finally I resisted the idea that AA or a recovery program could help me and make me happy. I wanted to do it my own way. But eventually I had to embrace the help that I was being offered. I had to get out of my own way and listen to others for a while. Actually I had to do this for about two years or so.
And when I finally did these three things, my life started to get a whole lot better. It got better fast, too. I was amazed by how easy it all was once I finally surrendered on all three of those levels.
What are the key things to pay attention to while in rehab?
If you go to rehab then you will probably be a bit overwhelmed by all of the information that they provide you with.
This is because they only have you for a limited amount of time (28 days in most cases) and yet they feel like the amount of knowledge that they must transfer to you would take at least three times that long to properly teach you.
So what can they do? They try to cram it all into a shorter time period, and this becomes overwhelming.
Therefore, as a newly recovering alcoholic, you have to prioritize a bit. You must choose what to focus on in recovery so that you can learn what you need to learn.
So what concepts and principles should you focus on? Here are my suggestions:
1) The idea that you can never drink or use addictive drugs again. Total abstinence as your baseline for success.
2) Support systems for post-treatment. How are you going to stay sober in the first few months after leaving rehab? Who will you depend on to help you through this time? Where will you get support? Most treatment centers recommend AA meetings, though there are other means of support out there as well.
3) Personal growth as a method of relapse prevention. No doubt a treatment center will talk about relapse prevention. I would urge you to focus on the idea that personal growth is the best method of relapse prevention.
4) Holistic health. A rehab center might have a session about proper nutrition. Or they might talk about sleep habits. Or they might do exercise a few times each week. This might seem like a distraction in early recovery, but I believe that those things are critical in long term sobriety. They become more important the longer you remain sober.
So those are just some suggestions for things to focus on in treatment. Another major suggestion is that you should follow the rules in a treatment center. A surprising number of people get dismissed from treatment because they fail to follow the simple rules. This situation never bodes well for recovery. If you cannot follow the simple rules in a treatment center then it is almost a certainty that you will not remain sober at that time. People who get kicked out of treatment almost always relapse. (Source: I worked in a rehab full time for 5+ years).
How to follow up your treatment center visit with real action
You might think that after you have attended rehab that you are basically done with “treatment.” This is not really the case as your journey of change is just beginning when you walk out of treatment.
The day you set foot back into the real world is when the real test begins. It is easy to stay sober while you are in rehab. Your challenge begins when you are back out again in the real world.
What are you going to do the day that you come home from rehab?
I can tell you what you should do on that first day out.
You should take massive action. You should do all sorts of things to help you in your recovery.
For example, you should go to an AA meeting. While you are there you should tell them that this is your first real AA meeting outside of rehab. You might also tell them that you just left rehab this morning. This is one of the most important things that you could possibly do on the day you get out of treatment.
You have to rebuild your life from when you get out of rehab. You build a new life by taking action. Essentially what you are doing is replacing old behaviors with new actions.
So instead of going to the bar (or staying home and getting drunk) you might go to an AA meeting. You are replacing an unhealthy behavior with a healthy one.
This example also happens to be the most important one. What are you going to do instead of drinking? If you don’t have a replacement activity lined up that actually helps you to stay sober, then you might accept the “default solution” for a while, which is to go to AA meetings.
It is not that you have to go to AA to remain sober. You don’t. But you do have to do something. And it has to be positive, and it has to replace your drinking on at least a few different levels.
Many people in AA get purpose out of the idea of trying to help other people in recovery. So not only do they go to meetings and replace the time that they spent drinking, but they are also replacing the purpose of drinking by getting this good feeling from helping others in recovery. It is a replacement strategy on more than one level, which is powerful.
Drinking was our passion. It was what we lived for. So in recovery you have to find something new to live for. You have to find something that gets you excited or that fills you with purpose. If you do not do this then the temptation to drink will overwhelm you at some point in the future.
This is what is meant by “taking massive action” after you leave rehab. You have to start doing things in order to find out what can replace your alcoholism. There is a void in your life (and not just a spiritual void) that needs to be filled. Part of this void is simply how you spend your free time. But it also has to do with what your passion is, what gets you excited, and what fills you with purpose. In order to avoid relapse you are going to have to fill in those blanks with something new in your life.
One way to do this is to take suggestions from other people. You are already doing that if you go to treatment and listen to their advice. But after you leave treatment you should continue this trend. Get out of your own way and listen to others who would help you. People at AA meetings, your peers in recovery, a sponsor, a therapist, a counselor, people at outpatient rehab–these are all people who have helpful suggestions for you. Your job is to take those suggestions and put them into action.
Doing this requires a leap of faith. We don’t always trust that other people have our best interests at heart. And we don’t always trust that following their advice will make us happy in the end. We think that only we alone have the key to our happiness. But this is wrong. If you follow suggestions from others in early recovery then our life gets better and better.
Not every suggestion will pan out for us. This is not a problem at all. Simply move on and try a different suggestion. You have nothing but time in recovery. Don’t be afraid to take a suggestion from someone else and test it out in your own life and see if it helps you.
Doing this is a shortcut to wisdom. Say you know someone in AA and they have multiple years sober and they seem fairly happy. This is someone that you want to emulate. You want to model their success. Therefore you should listen to what they say and take their suggestions. Doing this requires a certain degree of faith. Who knows if what they are telling you will actually make you happy or not?
But here is the thing: If you just follow your own ego and try to chase happiness as you see fit, you will never find it. You will always be wanting for more. Your ego will lead you on a wild goose chase that never ends. Happiness will remain elusive. This is especially true in early recovery from alcoholism.
On the other hand, you go to AA and people are telling you what to do. You don’t really trust them and you don’t believe that their suggestions will lead you to happiness. Maybe they suggest going to 90 meetings in 90 days, exercising every day, writing about how you feel in a journal, and so on. Maybe they have lots of other suggestions as well. And so you have no real faith that these things will make you happy in the long run. What if they are a total waste of your time and energy? Why not just follow your own ideas about what will make you happy?
The reason is because your own ideas are not working. They lead you to misery. Your own ideas lead to relapse.
And if you make this leap of faith and start taking advice then you will be amazed at how it impacts your life. Things will start to get better and better and you will be completely amazed by this. You will feel as if you do not deserve the happiness that is coming to you, because it was all so easy! You just had to listen and follow directions.
Lifelong recovery strategy
Your lifelong recovery strategy should be based on two things:
1) Personal growth.
2) Holistic health.
You want to improve your life as a matter of course. You want to improve your health as well, in every area possible.
These two principles are what define your long term success in recovery. If one of these is not present then you are likely in danger of relapsing.
In order to build a recovery strategy you have to start somewhere. The place that I started was at inpatient rehab. I had to stop living a passive existence and take control of my life again. In order to do that I had to get a foundation for recovery in treatment. This worked for me when other methods of treatment had failed me (counseling, doctors, AA meetings, etc.).
What about you, have you been able to turn your life around? Did you have to go to rehab to do it like I did? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!