What I Learned at an Alcoholic Rehabilitation Center

What I Learned at an Alcoholic Rehabilitation Center


There are two kinds of things that you learn from being in an alcoholic rehabilitation center.

One, you learn actual stuff. People tell you things about recovery and you listen to them. Then you try to go apply those things that you learned.

But two, you learn quite a bit from the experience itself. Not from what you are told in the groups or in therapy, but simply what you learn from the experience of being in rehab for a while, and everything that comes along with it.

Unfortunately for me there were several layers of learning that I had to go through. I did not just go to rehab and “get it” all at once. I had to learn some things the hard way. The people in treatment tried to help me out and give me the shortcut to success, but I was not having it. I was too stubborn to listen the first time. And the second time. But by the third time I had been beat up enough by my disease that I was finally ready to listen.

Part of the problem was that I had not yet fully surrendered when I went to those first two treatment centers. I had not yet reached a point of total and complete surrender, so my efforts were doomed from the start. It did not really matter what I learned while I was there because I did not have the right mindset or the right attitude. I was willing to try but I was not yet willing to do whatever it takes in order to embrace recovery. It doesn’t work unless you are willing to do whatever it takes.

How to surrender “for real”

The way to surrender so that you are successful in recovery is to get really miserable in your addiction. Then you have to realize this of course, and furthermore you have to also realize that this is never going to change if you don’t do something radically different. That is a lot of realization that has to occur. Failure to realize all of these things is commonly referred to as “denial.”

If you are stuck in denial then this will prevent you from reaching the point of surrender. If that is the case with you or a loved one then my suggestion is that you start to accurately measure just how happy you are in your addiction. Get honest with yourself on a daily basis. One way that you can try to force this is to keep a happiness journal. Actually write down how happy you are each and every day. Get detailed. Write down exactly why and how you are happy (or lack happiness). Just get it all down in writing and keep doing this consistently. If you keep a happiness journal as described then this will force you to look back some day soon and realize the true extent of your misery. If you are alcoholic then you are not happy; you are in fact miserable. Realizing this is priority number one.

Some people will argue that this is a very negative way to live. They misunderstand the situation. You are not creating misery in your life, all you are doing is recognizing it for what it really is. You are trying to break free from denial. You cannot break free if you are stuck under the delusion that drinking can bring about instant happiness. In the past that may have worked at one time but those days are long gone, and it is time to realize that. The only way that you can fully realize this is to start measuring. You must increase your awareness. One way to do that is by writing it down. Write down how happy (or miserable) you are each day. Keep doing this until it forces a realization. At some point you will realize that you are not happy at all, and that it is time to try something different.

This is similar to how I finally broke free from my own denial. I could have done it a lot faster if I had been writing it down. But I simply started making note of my happiness mentally, and I slowly realized that I was almost never truly happy any more. I was miserable 99 percent of the time. This is all it took for me to finally break free from denial. I had to really realize and appreciate how badly the alcohol was doing its job these days. Its job was to make me happy at a moments notice. It no longer worked. I simply had to realize that on a very deep level.

This is how to surrender fully. You must realize totally and completely how useless your drug of choice has become in getting you what you want. If your drug of choice is still working for you then you are not going to quit. I would not expect you to either. But at some point addiction will change that situation, and the alcohol will stop being so effective. It will still cause you to black out eventually, sure, but in the meantime are you having fun while getting drunk? I wasn’t. I reached a point where I would start drinking and I would be miserable right up until the point where I finally blacked out. I was either miserable and drinking fast, or I was blacked out and could not remember any of the “fun.” And I had to get honest with myself and realize that I no longer could be a “happy drunk” who enjoyed the whole night long process of slowly getting hammered. Those days were gone. It used to be fun. Now it was just misery and then blackout, misery and then blackout.

The first two times that I went to rehab I failed to learn this critical lesson. I had not surrendered fully and therefore I relapsed after leaving rehab.

The third time I went to rehab I realized that I had reached this point of true surrender. I was so sick and tired of being miserable that I was willing to do whatever it took.

This was the critical lesson that finally set me on the path to a new life in recovery.

How to listen to other people and take their advice

When I finally reached this point of true surrender, doors started to open for me. I was willing to do whatever it took and so therefore I was given an opportunity to build a new life. The first thing that happened was that I was recommended to go to long term rehab. This worked out well for me because I needed more help and support than what I could get at a short term program.

I had to be willing to listen to the counselors and therapists and to follow through with what they were suggesting.

This was a new skill to be learned. In active addiction I never used this skill, ever. I was in control of my own life and I did whatever I wanted to do. I was not used to listening to others for advice or feedback.

This trend continues beyond short term recovery as well. For example, as you remain clean and sober and become stable in recovery, you may start to seek feedback and advice in terms of personal growth. So you may not need advice at that time on how to stay sober directly, but you may still benefit from seeking advice from others on how to improve your life or your life situation. This is a process that never ends in recovery and therefore you may always be on the lookout for helpful advice. Instead of advice being about others controlling you, it is more about opportunity. One of my mentors put it like this: “Always be the stupidest person in the room.” That way you can always be learning something. If you think you are the smartest person in the room then you cut off any opportunity for learning anything.

When you listen to others and take their advice then you benefit from their experience and wisdom. Maybe they went through some trials and they made a lot of mistakes during their recovery journey. If you can learn from that and then avoid those mistakes then it will save you a lot of hassle and heartache. This is why we need help and support in recovery. So that we don’t have to reinvent the process every time through trial and error, but instead we can benefit from the mistakes that others have made before us.

How to get out of my own way and do what I am told to do

This is something that I consciously chose to implement while I was at a treatment center.

But it did not just happen magically. I had to earn the right to push myself out of the way.

I did this by going to rehab a few times, and failing. I had to resist this idea at first and then see how that did not work for me. I had to resist this lack of control and then relapse so that I could see how necessary it was to let go of the ego.

What am I talking about? I am referring to our stubborn nature to want to hang on to control in our lives and do our own thing, rather than listening to others.

When I first got into rehab I was stubborn and you could not teach me anything. I did not believe that I was in the right place and I did not believe that I needed all of these meetings. I wanted to leave and go smoke marijuana. Drinking was my problem but I did not see the harm in smoking weed. Obviously I was still very early in my addiction and I did not realize that “a drug is a drug.” I heard people say this during that first rehab visit but I did not believe it for myself. I was still in denial and I wanted to go get high.

Obviously this line of thinking was not doing me any favors. I left that rehab and continued to smoke weed and eventually drank again too. My problem was that I was trying to stay in control of things and I wanted to do things my own way. I did not want to give up all the drugs, I just wanted to stop drinking. Well that doesn’t work, as any experienced addict or alcoholic can probably tell you. A drug is a drug, and they all lead you back to the same place: misery. Eventually you stop caring and you will just go back to your drug of choice anyway.

So perhaps I should say that this is something that I failed to learn at rehab. Because people told me that this was the case but I did not really believe it. Or I simply did not want to believe it. At any rate, rehab tried to teach me this lesson but I had to learn it the hard way. I could not just take the information they gave me and accept it at face value. I had to go against their advice and learn things the hard way (at least in this particular instance).

But at the same time there were other lessons that I learned in treatment that I actually did accept at face value, and I was able to learn immediately from them. But the difference had to do with surrender. The things that I learned “the easy way” were only because I had already reached that critical point of surrender. I was done banging my head into the wall at that point. So I chose to listen.

When I finally reached this critical point of surrender, here is what I did.

I made a deal with myself upon entering rehab. I felt like such a fool and such a screw-up, so I said to myself:

“I am not going to decide anything for myself. If I have any sort of idea about what I should do in my life I am going to run it past other people first and get their opinion. I will not allow myself to make any decisions on my own, period.”

My ego had already been squashed into oblivion. So instead of trying to deny this and struggle against it, I finally accepted it. I said to myself “you know what, they are right. I have screwed my life up totally and completely, and if I am going to fix it then I had better listen to other people’s advice in order to do so. I am done being in the driver’s seat.”

So this was the attitude that I took in order to start rebuilding my life in recovery. I lived by the advice of others for a few months. I stopped trying to control everything and I just went with the flow.

This worked. Things started to get better, much to my amazement. I did not really think that this would work, but it did. I pushed my own ego out of the way and started taking advice from other people, and my life improved dramatically. I used to think that I was pretty smart, but now I could see that listening to others was actually the smartest move that I had made in a long time. It was working, and my life was improving.

So again, this was not really something that I learned from the rehab center. Rather, it was a tough lesson that I finally experienced during my third trip to a treatment center, and it was a big part of the key that finally unlocked my recovery. Up until this point, all I could do was struggle for control and relapse. I had to finally let go of everything. Really let go. That was when my life started to change for the better.

I am not sure this can be “taught.” I had to experience it based on my surrender. My intense misery drove me to take this huge risk. The risk was listening to other people and ignoring my own better judgement. I had to do that in order to make progress in recovery.

How to start building a new life with positive action. Incremental growth

When I left short term rehab I went to live in a long term treatment center. I stayed there for 20 months. It was there that I learned the real power of positive action.

I did not become instantly happy when I moved into long term rehab. It took a few months. During those first few months of recovery I was taking positive action every day, but I was still pretty miserable. For example, I was going to meetings every day. I was working with a sponsor. I was talking with my peers all the time about recovery. I was going back to school. I got a job. I was doing everything that I could do in order to build a more positive life.

To be honest, it was not working as quickly as I would have liked. I was still miserable on some days (distracted enough on the other days).

Somewhere between 3 and 6 months sober, something changed. All of a sudden I stopped being miserable.

Why did this happen?

It happened for 2 reasons. These two reasons are the only “recovery program” you will ever need:

1) I had completely stopped putting alcohol and addictive drugs into my body. I remained abstinent.
2) I was taking positive action every single day. I was actively pursuing personal growth.

It did not happen overnight. This personal growth stuff takes time. I was still having “bad days” when I was 90 days sober.

But some point soon after that I reached this magical point in my recovery.

And this point has to do with accumulation.

When you are staying clean and sober and you are taking positive action every single day, you are accumulating positive energy. It builds. It grows over time.

If you relapse then you wipe the slate clean and you have to start over from scratch. Relapse ruins the entire process and destroys it completely.

But if you remain abstinent AND you are also pushing yourself to make positive changes on a regular basis, then your life will get better and better. The problem is that we often cannot see these changes right away. It takes time until we are able to look back and see how far we have come in our journey.

People tried to tell me that this might happen, but I had to experience it for myself. They tried to tell me that one day I would realize that I was living a happy life without alcohol, but I did not really believe them when I was struggling to get sober. I learned the truth when I was in long term rehab. My happiness in recovery was a result of the personal growth I was making.

How to transition into long term recovery, or how to expect that shift to occur by watching others

If you pay attention in recovery then you will see all sorts of examples of what NOT to do.

People can easily get stuck in their recovery. If they stop growing then they relapse. It is as simple as that.

Therefore you will slowly figure out the solution: You have to stay engaged in personal growth. You have to stay open to new life lessons. You have to be willing to change and to grow.

Now and forever.

If you stop growing then you will probably relapse. If you stick around recovery then you will see evidence of this over and over again.

By watching people you can get an idea of what your true path in recovery must be. You have to keep pushing yourself to take positive action. If you get lazy then you risk relapse.