What is the secret of overcoming addiction for alcohol and drug addicts? Why do so few make it in the beginning when they try to turn their life around and get help?
What is the secret formula to sobriety?
Even while I was (somehow) managing to stay sober in my first few years of recovery, I was constantly seeking the deeper answers to these questions. I was not buying into the “truths” that I was being told in mainstream recovery.
I mean, for the most part I could see the basic setup that most people were recommending, and I could see how it all fit together. Go to detox, go to AA, get involved in AA, get a sponsor, work through the steps, sponsor someone yourself, do service work, and so on. I could see how this would work for certain individuals. But I did not necessarily buy into the idea that this was the exact course for everyone, and I also did not buy into the idea that this was the only course for ME.
Therefore I started to question things. Later on I started exploring alternative avenues of recovery. Today I can look back, see what worked for me (and what was less than helpful), and try to help guide other people through my writing and what I found.
I also have the luxury of having worked in a detox, residential, and long term treatment center for over five years (full time). During that time I formed a lot of additional opinions about what it really took to remain clean and sober in recovery. I watched a whole lot of people try to recover, then fail. Many of them did this over and over again. And the disturbing thing was that you could never have predicted many of these failures because the people seemed to have everything going for them at the time. But one critical element was always missing when people relapsed, and that is why only something like 5% or so (roughly) make it through the first year or two of sobriety without relapsing. Statistics will vary quite a bit if you try to find actual success rates but for the most part only about 1 out of 20 alcoholics will still be sober after a full year from trying to get sober. If this seems low to you then perhaps you can find data that says 1 out of 20 will make it to five years sober. Either way the odds can be a bit depressing and in some cases overwhelming if you choose to get worked up about it. My advice is to ignore the odds and remember that you are not a statistic!
Why 95 percent of addicts and alcoholics relapse within the first few years
Now then, why do most people relapse in the first few years of recovery?
Or rather, a lack of surrender.
Quite simply, they fail to fully surrender to their disease. They thought that they were “done” drinking, but in reality they had a little piece in the back of their mind that still really wants to just go get loaded. Perhaps every alcoholic will always have that piece but when you reach the point of total surrender it is definitely destroyed, at least temporarily. When you reach what I call “full surrender,” that little voice inside of you that tries to get you to keep drinking, using drugs, and self medicating…it sort of just dies. It is finally swept to the side because you are so miserable that you no longer have the energy to go chase that next high. You suddenly see the futility of it all. This is how to glimpse past your denial. You must realize that the fun is finally over, for good.
Now if you were to go to a dozen rehabs interview a hundred people you would find that most of them are not truly done drinking and using drugs yet. Some of these people might be fooling themselves though, simply because they have learned what they need to say in order to fit in to the recovery culture. They have been told that it is all about surrender. They have been told that there is a better life in recovery. But until they actually hit bottom and become so incredibly miserable that they no longer care about their own life, they are probably not truly ready to quit drinking for good yet.
This is the main reason why some rehabs can become a bit of a revolving door. Alcoholics and addicts come into the rehab, they sober up, they start feeling good, and then they go back out to conquer the world again. Even if their intentions are good (I am not going to drink for any reason, one day at a time!) and even if they have learned much of the “recovery language,” they still will fall flat on their face if they had never reached a point of full surrender to begin with.
You might describe a successful path in recovery like this:
* Follow through.
Of course we could modify that sequence a bit, add a few terms in there, maybe take one out or change them up, etc. But ultimately that first term on the list is not ever going to change, and that is “surrender.” If you try to juggle that one or manipulate in some way then you are going to just get a big helping of relapse served up to you at some point.
It is the deal breaker. Surrender is the one critical component that you can’t fake.
I know this because I tried to do it once. Twice, actually.
I went to rehab three times in my life. The third time I stayed clean and sober, which has brought me to over 12 years of continuous sobriety now. But what about those first two rehabs? What happened then?
I can tell you exactly what happened. I had not yet surrendered fully to the disease of addiction.
But I wanted to do so. I wanted to surrender. And at the time I believed that there was a chance that I had, in fact surrendered.
I am an alcoholic and a drug addict. I am out of control. I know this but I don’t want to admit it. Because that would mean that I would have to do something about my problem.
Things get bad. Then they get worse. I break down and agree to go to rehab. Everyone in my life is telling me to get help. So I finally agree and go to treatment.
I am in rehab. I go through detox. I go to the groups and the lectures and the AA meetings inside of the treatment center. I listen to what they are telling me.
They are telling me: “You have to want recovery more than anything else in the world.”
They are telling me: “You have to surrender in order to succeed in recovery.”
They are telling me: “You have to stop fighting for control and just do what people tell you to do.”
I want for it to work. I want to be happy and sober. But on the other hand I cannot imagine facing my life without alcohol or drugs. I want to get wasted.
So I have this idea in my head. “Am I really surrendered? Truly?”
After all, I am here in rehab for 28 days. That has to count for something, right? I don’t want to be miserable. Can they somehow make me happy while I am totally clean and sober? I just want to get loaded.
Do you see where this is going? The alcoholic or drug addict who finds himself in treatment does not know if they are truly at the point of surrender. Because just being in treatment is one level of surrender. How are they to know if it is a deep enough level of surrender? They cannot possibly determine that they are not at FULL surrender.
On the other hand, it is possible to know when you have reached full surrender. I knew it the third time in rehab. Even though the first two times in treatment I did not realize that I had NOT surrendered, the third time I was able to tell that I was definitely in a state of full surrender.
This is because I was overwhelmed with misery. I no longer cared about my life. I no longer cared about myself. I was done. Completely done. Stick a fork in me. I was ready for something different.
This is an important point: The alcoholic cannot tell when they are NOT in full surrender (such as when they go to rehab but later relapse), but they CAN tell when they are in a state of total surrender. An important distinction that is too subtle for most people to realize.
And ultimately it probably doesn’t matter much. You may fool yourself, go to rehab, then relapse. But you will never reach total surrender and then fool yourself. Because total and complete surrender is the point where you are really, totally and completely DONE with alcohol and drugs.
Most people relapse in the first year because they try to get sober before reaching this point of surrender.
Simple as that. No surrender, no recovery.
Fake surrender, end up relapsing.
Fool yourself into surrender, end up relapsing.
The only true path to recovery is when you reach that point of total misery and despair, where you finally become willing to change. It takes a whole lot of pain, unfortunately.
How to avoid becoming a statistic yourself
If you don’t want to become a statistic in early recovery then your path forward is clear:
1) Break through your denial before you try to get clean and sober. Otherwise you are just wasting your time. This means that you should go to rehab only after you have reached a point of full surrender.
Problem: How do you know if you are at full surrender? If you are not, then there is no way of knowing that you are not (until you relapse). If you are at full surrender, however, you will realize it and ask for help.
Given that conundrum, you should probably ask for help so long as you are willing to give recovery a try. There is no penalty for trying to sober up versus just saying “screw everything” and drinking yourself silly. In other words, it doesn’t hurt to try. If you fail then you will know that you were not ready yet. If you succeed then you get the greatest gift in your life that you could ever possibly receive. You get another chance at life!
Is it possible to choose to surrender?
Yes and no.
No because you cannot fake it. You cannot just fake it totally and “choose” to surrender right now and then get great results. Once in a program, it is possible to “fake it ’till you make it,” but that is another issue that does not deal with surrender. The problem is that true surrender is fundamental to recovery. It has nothing to do with specific recovery programs. No one can recovery from addiction without surrendering to it first. It is fundamental, and therefore you cannot fake it.
Yes, you can choose to surrender though by building up to the decision. In order to do this you have to do some really hard work. That means getting honest with yourself. Very difficult for the typical alcoholic or drug addict! No one likes to be honest with themselves in this situation because they normally do not like what they see when they take a good long look at themselves.
To do this start asking yourself if you are truly happy. Sure, keep drinking or using drugs, but then make sure that you are measuring just how happy your drug of choice is making you each day.
Are you happy all the time? Are you happy as much as you thought you were? Are you happy even a little bit?
I didn’t think so. If you are, then you don’t have a drug or alcohol problem. Feel free to go enjoy your life and remember to always moderate your consumption!
Real alcoholics and drug addicts are NOT happy all the time. They are miserable. And they cannot enjoy life will moderating their consumption. They have lost the power of choice in how much or how often they consume their drug of choice. And above all, they are miserable nearly all of the time.
If you are not at this extreme point, don’t worry….you will be there soon enough. You just have to be conscious enough to be able to realize that you are miserable all the time, and then decide to do something about it. This is the point of surrender, when you break through your denial and realize that you are, in fact, always miserable as a result of your addiction.
Until you reach this point, no permanent change can possibly occur.
The problem is, many people go to rehab, counseling, meetings, and so on…..long before they reach this point of surrender and break through their denial.
2) Take action. Read on for more details.
Massive action gets results
So after you break through denial your job is to take action.
If nothing changes then nothing changes. This is an example of profound wisdom that is found in traditional recovery circles. I am not making fun of it though because it is actually quite true as well as being non-obvious to the typical alcoholic!
Surrender. Then what?
Surrender, then take action. If you want to get good results in recovery then you don’t just want to tiptoe into the shallow end of the kiddie pool. You have to dive in head first. That means committing to taking massive action.
Most people don’t realize the full level of action that is necessary in order to change their life.
Think about your addiction for a moment. It is a massive thing that controls your entire life. It has a grip on nearly everything that you do. The people you hang around with. The places you spend your time at. The things you spend your money on. It affects all of your relationships. It affects your health in a very direct way. And on and on and on.
Addiction has such a massive impact on your life. To think that you can just make a casual change or two and be able to overcome it with ease is NOT realistic at all.
No, if you want to fight the monster then you have to be ready to step up to the plate and take massive action.
When I finally overcome my addiction I:
* Surrendered fully.
* Asked for help.
* Went to detox.
* Went to short term residential treatment.
* Lived in long term rehab for 20 months.
* Went to tons of meetings, counseling, group therapy, sponsorship meetings, and so on.
* Got involved with online recovery and online meetings.
And so on.
This was not a small pursuit. This was my whole life. I had to dedicate my entire life to recovery for several years in order to get the results that I have achieved.
Do not expect to accidentally wander into recovery and just get lucky and have it all work out with very little effort.
That never happens.
Ask someone who is sober today, who has several years. Ask them if it was super easy. Ask them if it was hard work. Ask them if it was the hardest thing that they have ever done in their life, ever.
Seriously, find ten people in recovery and ask them all those questions. You are going to find out that it takes real commitment. Full dedication.
It is the fight of a lifetime. The hardest thing you have ever done.
Act accordingly, people! Massive action.
How to overcome the silent killer of complacency
Further down the road in recovery is something known as “long term sobriety.”
Now you have several years into recovery. You are stable and happy. You have no thoughts of drinking any longer. You are really free.
Or are you?
Anyone can relapse. It is like the boogeyman.
There are people who have been sober in AA for 20, 30, 40 years who end up relapsing.
What the heck?
Yup, it happens.
And the reason that it happens has to do with something known as “complacency.”
If you have many years sober and you are stable and then something happens and you relapse, you did not just get unlucky. It was not due to external events (though it will undoubtedly look like it was caused by something specific). Instead, the relapse started long ago without any alcohol. Probably several years in the making, this sort of relapse is.
Complacency is what happens when people get lazy. They stop growing in their recovery. They stop reinventing themselves. And therefore they run out of positive energy. They stop taking positive action every day. It is only a matter of time before the stars align and some chaos hits their life and they relapse as a result.
Life is always going to have ups and downs. You will face challenges in the future. Some bad things will happen at some point, it is inevitable. But you don’t have to drink over those things if you don’t want to.
The key is, you have to be ready for the chaos when it hits.
And the only way to do that is to be proactive about it.
You have to keep challenging yourself to improve your life. To improve yourself. To improve who you are as a person.
If you look at the concept of “relapse prevention” it should hopefully break down into the following concepts:
1) Daily practice. Positive habits and actions taken every single day.
2) Holistic health. Taking care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Always pushing yourself for better health, in all areas.
3) Personal growth. Not accepting yourself on a permanent basis. Not saying “I have arrived, I am done improving.” Looking for ways to improve your life and your life situation.
This is the only way to truly be proactive about relapse prevention. It requires action and daily maintenance. Not just spiritually though, in all areas of your life.