Lessons Learned at Rehabs for Alcoholics

Lessons Learned at Rehabs for Alcoholics


There are a number of “lessons” that you learn at rehab beyond what the therapists and the counselors there try to teach you.

Sure, there are going to be some obvious instructions given. Go to meetings every day. Get involved with a supportive community. Get a sponsor. Work the steps. And so on.

But after you have gone through the process of treatment you can look back years later and see some of the broad strokes rather than the fine details.

Treatment itself is a process, not an event. This is a common mistake that nearly everyone makes at first. They think that they can just go to rehab (once) and be cured forever. It almost never works out that way. We think that it should work out that way, but it rarely does. Treatment is a process. It takes time and effort to evolve in our lives.

One of the reasons for this “disconnect” is because we generally become willing to attend treatment before we actually hit our lowest bottom. This is a problem. The reason this is a problem is because we generally cannot remain sober unless we have hit our total rock bottom and surrender fully. In my observations, most people who attend rehab for the first time in their lives have not yet hit their lowest bottom. They have not completely surrendered to their disease. They are at a place of “half acceptance.” They know they have a problem but they are not yet willing to do whatever it takes in order to overcome that problem. Of course there are exceptions to this, but this is simply what I have noticed while working in rehab for 5 plus years. Most people are not truly ready to change on their first time around in treatment.

At any rate, once the alcoholic is truly ready to embrace change in their live, then they can go to treatment and follow through and then look back some day on the lessons learned.

These are the lessons that I learned.

Lesson number one: Abstinence is the first part of the solution

Total abstinence is the first and more important thing that you should learn in recovery, in my opinion.

This is what real surrender is all about, after all.

The alcoholic is accepting the fact that they cannot drink successfully. Therefore they must not drink. Period.

For me, this had to become my highest truth in recovery, my guiding principle.

The most important thing in my life was that I not take a drink or use addictive drugs. Period. That became my highest truth, my most important concept in recovery.

So many people forget this.

So many people that I lived with in long term treatment ended up forgetting this, or screwing it up somehow.

So many people try to concentrate or focus on other things in recovery. For example, there were a few people in my early recovery who I believed were “more spiritual” than I was. These people intimidated me a little bit and worried me. I was afraid that I would relapse because I was missing out on something that they seemed to have.

The truth was that my highest truth in life was simply abstinence. That was my greatest priority and my deepest gratitude. Simple abstinence.

These other people who were “more spiritual” than I was all ended up relapsing over the years. And it took a long time for me to realize that I was not necessarily doing anything wrong, or missing out on anything important. I had to watch these people relapse in order for me to realize the truth: Abstinence is the most important thing in recovery.

How could anyone miss such a simple truth? Your most important task each day is to simply stay clean and sober, period. Everything after that is mostly just details. Sure, you can distract yourself with spiritual growth and other shiny objects. But ultimately the strength of your recovery is based on how deeply you grasp this simple truth:

That your life gets better and better if you do not drink or use drugs.

Therefore, abstinence must become (and remain) your highest truth in life.

This is the foundation of your recovery. It should represent at least half of your mental energy. That you will do whatever it takes to remain clean and sober.

Of course you will need to strike a balance in recovery. Part of this balance involves striving for personal growth, for improving your life situation. But the other side of the equation should be simple abstinence: Not taking a drink no matter what happens. This really is just as important as all of the personal growth stuff!

Abstinence is your highest truth. Embrace it.

Lesson number two: How many times have you been here? What is missing? Commitment? Growth?

This one is tricky, as no treatment center will point this out (as a general rule), though a skilled therapist or counselor may do so.

How many times have you been to treatment?

The answer to this (on average) would likely shock the average person.

Most people who are in a rehab have been to treatment before. Most people who get clean and sober have been to rehab more than once. It is a bit of a revolving door kind of business, unfortunately.

The reason for this is based on what I said earlier: Treatment is a process, not an event. Most people end up in rehab before they actually hit rock bottom. They have more drinking to do when they attend their first rehab. They are not yet finished.

Not obviously anyone who has been to treatment multiple times (nearly everyone who attempts to sober up) is missing something. Otherwise, they wouldn’t come back for more treatment, right?

So part of what you must learn when you attend treatment is what has failed for you in the past. What were you missing when you last tried to get clean and sober? What caused you to fail, to relapse?

This is an extremely important analysis to make. Why did you relapse? You need to figure that out so that you have a chance at preventing it in the future.

For example, the last time I went to rehab I had to take a look at my previous attempt. What had I done wrong that caused me to relapse? The answer to me was obvious: I had not followed through. The therapists and counselors had suggested that I go live in long term treatment, and I had not been willing to do that. In fact, I resented the suggestion (at the time) and therefore did not follow through in any way, with meetings, sponsorship, or anything. So I had left treatment and relapsed immediately.

When I finally surrendered and went to rehab again, I had to learn from these past mistakes. Obviously I needed to find a way to follow through. In fact, what I did was to ask the therapists if they could place me at long term rehab. They found placement for me and so I was able to get the support that I needed by living in treatment.

If you have been to treatment before but you continue to struggle, then there is something that you are missing, something that you have yet to learn.

You need to figure out what that is. The best way to do this is to simply surrender in total, go to rehab, and do what they suggest you do. In doing so (and following through) you will eventually be able to look back and see what you had been missing in the past.

Lesson number three: Follow through and aftercare

As I said above, the main ingredient that I had been missing in my past sobriety attempts had been my follow through. I was never willing to do the things that I needed to do in order to remain clean and sober.

It was strange when I was living in long term rehab that nearly all of my peers relapsed. You would think that if a person had committed themselves to living in a long term treatment center that such a person would be fully surrendered to their disease, and ready to embrace any changes that are necessary in order to stay sober forever. You would think that if someone is willing to live in rehab for an extended period of time that such a person would be totally serious about changing their life.

Not so.

As I said, nearly everyone that I lived with in long term rehab ended up relapsing.

Why is this?

I am not sure about the “why,” and I don’t think anyone ever will be. It is very hard to answer the question of “why.” But I can tell you “how” these people relapsed.

They stopped doing what they needed to do in order to stay sober. Simple as that.

Recovery is all about change. Recovery is all about making positive changes.

Just living in rehab is not enough. Just going to treatment is not enough. Remember, treatment is a process, not an event. Therefore, the time spent in rehab is really just a starting point for an unfolding process.

I know a great many people who have gone to rehab, started doing the right thing and going through the motions, but then later lost momentum and slowly reverted back to their old ways.

Maybe they haven’t had enough pain and misery in their life yet.

Maybe they are “constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.”

Maybe they are just unlucky and get caught up in their addiction again.

Maybe they suffer some injury and get hooked on pain medications, which lead them back to their drug of choice.

Maybe they get sick of attending meetings for some reason, and just quit going.

Maybe they have such intense anxiety that they never get over their fear of meetings, so they can’t reach out to others for help.

These all try to determine “why” someone stops following through, and eventually relapses.

We may never know why though. All that matters is that they stopped doing what they need to do, and this caused them to relapse in the end.

Therefore the solution is to keep doing what you need to do. You must commit to taking consistent action, to building a new life for yourself, to following through on taking positive action.

Every single person who relapses can look back and say “I did not follow through. I did not do the things that I needed to do in order to stay sober.”

Every single one. It’s all about the follow through.

Go to rehab. Ask for help. Do what you are told.

Not easy. Not fun (at first). But very necessary.

Lesson number four: Honesty with counselors and therapists

This is another lesson that I had to learn very early in my recovery process. Or rather, I did not learn this quickly enough and it cost me several years of additional misery.

When you are trying to get help for your addiction, one of the most important things is that you are honest with the people who are trying to help you.

If you are not completely and totally honest then everything will eventually backfire on you. You have to be honest if you want to change your life and get the help that you need.

This is important because if you are holding anything back from the counselors and therapists in treatment then it really means that you are lying to yourself as well. If you are lying to yourself then you cannot possibly sustain long term recovery. It is too difficult. People who are lying to themselves will eventually need to self medicate in order to keep up the lies. It is too much pressure to sustain without self medicating.

Really there is only one form of lie that you can tell in recovery. You either need help, or you don’t. The truth is that if you are a struggling alcoholic then you need professional help, period. The only real dishonesty that you can engage in is to try to minimize the amount of help that you need.

Unfortunately this is a very common lie. It is only natural for any human to want to minimize the damages. To tell themselves that they are less sick than they really are. To try to save face, to appear more normal, to appear less sick. It is only natural for the alcoholic to try to do these things in order to save face.

But it is important that they do not do so, that they get to a point where they are so utterly defeated in addiction that they throw up their hands and say “I really am a sick and twisted mess, please help me.” Because that is the only level of surrender that will actually work in keeping someone clean and sober. That is the only level of surrender that can produce the sort of willingness that is needed to make serious changes in recovery.

Lesson number five: Keep coming back!

This last one is tricky. Very tricky.

If you attend treatment and they have 12 step meetings (which 90 percent of them do) then they will have a saying that gets drilled into you over and over again:

“Keep coming back!”

The idea here is that they are trying to teach you follow through.

It’s all about the follow through.

In early recovery this is absolutely true. In early recovery you will definitely benefit if you “keep coming back” to meetings every single day. This is the sort of support that you need in order to be strong in early recovery. There is nothing wrong with this.

When they tell you to “keep coming back,” they are simply trying to counter the fact that 90 percent of the people who “graduate” from treatment will not be attending regular meetings after one full year goes by. The vast majority do not follow through. So they are just trying to give you a hint here, that you need to follow through in order to get through early sobriety without relapsing.

And I essentially agree with them. You need to do some amazing things in that first year of recovery if you want to maintain sobriety. Heck, I was living in rehab for the entire first year (and more).

Most people don’t have a realistic idea of what that first year of recovery really needs to be like.

I think that most people who are just entering recovery are still seeing treatment as an event. This is wrong. It is not an event, it is a process. And the process must extend for several months or even years after you walk out of that treatment center. You must somehow keep the momentum going in your recovery so that you do not relapse during the first year (like so many others do, roughly 9 out of 10 alcoholics).

How can you be the one out of ten who remains sober for that first full year? How can you be the one out of ten that does not relapse?

One way is to “keep coming back.” This means that you must dive head first into recovery and embrace this new way of life. Most people don’t get this. They may even try treatment a few times before they really grasp this concept.

Look at it this way:

You probably have to try harder at recovery than you have ever tried anything in your life before. Seriously! You should put more effort into recovery than you have ever put into anything your whole life. This is at least in the ballpark of what you must do in order to remain sober successfully.

Now the reason that I said this one was tricky is because I do not believe your first year sober will look anything at all like your tenth your sober. You must grow and change and evolve in order to remain sober in the long run.

There is a little something called “complacency” that can easily trip you up and cause you to relapse if you are not careful. Complacency can cause relapse to people who simply “keep coming back” and never go beyond that in terms of personal growth.

For the first year of sobriety, you need as much support as you can get. So by all means, keep coming back.

But in long term recovery you may need to do more than that. You may need to find your own path of personal growth, to branch out away from traditional recovery so that you can keep learning new things.

Recovery is positive action, positive changes. It is a learning process. If you get stuck in your life then you need to find a way to get unstuck. There are times when “keep coming back” is not the right answer for this. There are times when you need to push yourself to go outside of the boundaries of traditional recovery, and learn new things about yourself that are not necessarily 12 step related.

If there is one thing that I learned from the people who relapsed it is that they were not taking enough positive action. They were not pushing themselves to make positive changes every day. So I had to find a way to motivate myself to engage in that lifestyle of personal growth and change.

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