Yesterday we asked the question: “Is magical thinking necessary for recovery?” Today we want to look at exactly how we can seize the power of change in recovery and start creating positive change in our life.
Recovery is nothing if not change. When you are stuck in denial, the very thing that you are avoiding is change. Fear keeps you stuck doing the same thing over and over again, hoping that things will magically get better on their own. After realizing that this is not the case, some addicts and alcoholics finally see through their denial and realize that they are going to have to do something drastically different in life if they want to get different results.
One of the problems that people face in denial is in trying to determine the level of change that is necessary, or the degree of change. This is why they talk about how insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” In all truth, the addict really believes that they are NOT doing the same thing over and over, they are actually experimenting with small degrees of change, trying to find the perfect combination of:
* Self medicating themselves enough to stay in control, while also
* Self medicating themselves enough to be happy.
Because their tolerance slowly increases over time, the line between these two things becomes smaller and smaller over time and eventually it disappears.
Yet the addict is in a lifelong quest to find the perfect combination. Therefore the alcoholic will believe that they are simply not drinking the right kind of booze at the right speed and in the right amount. So instead of buying a half gallon of hard liquor perhaps they should buy a case of beer instead. Or maybe instead of getting two quarts of wine at 9% they need to find some wine that is only 6% so they do not lose control and black out. And so on. The addict or alcoholic will do this for years or even decades, making small changes to their drug or alcohol consumption in order to try to both:
* Control their drug/alcohol consumption.
* Enjoy their drug/alcohol consumption.
Of course if they are a true addict or alcoholic then they will never find that happy medium, perhaps hitting on it for one day out of an entire month or so, but being unable to duplicate it the other 29 days. But they hang on to the belief that they are about to figure everything out one day and then they will be able to both control it and be happy all the time, every single day. This is what it means to live in denial. The person finally moves past denial when they realize that this perfect combination will never exist for them.
Note that the real problem here is not that the addict refuses to change, it is only that they do not understand the degree of change that is necessary. If you would have told me that I needed to change when I was still drinking and abusing drugs I would have answered that I change my approach all the time. I was constantly finding new ways to try to control and enjoy my intake without going overboard or being completely miserable. What I did not understand was that I was using the wrong degree of change. If we could put it in some arbitrary “units of change” then what I was doing during my addiction was trying to use 100 units of change (switching from liquor to beer) and I really needed more like 10,000 units of change (living in long term rehab for 2 years).
See the difference? Both approaches involved making changes but the second approach is different in the degree of severity. That is the thing that most people who struggle with addiction are not understanding. You don’t just have to make changes in recovery, you have to make massive changes. If you fail to understand the extreme degree to which you must enact changes then you are just going to get lousy results (like trying to switch from liquor beer….not very effective!).
They have a saying in traditional recovery programs that attempts to address this exact problem: “You only have to change one thing in recovery and that is EVERYTHING.” What they mean by this is the degree of change in your life. Everyone who has successfully overcome their addiction and found a new life in recovery can look back at their journey and agree with this statement and say “yes, indeed, I really did have to change everything. When I just tried to make small changes, nothing worked. I had to make extreme changes.”
Thus, this is a huge hint to the real secret of recovery and how to embrace the power of change. Don’t just try to make small changes. Don’t try to switch from liquor to beer and expect to see different results. You are not changing nearly enough. In fact you have not really changed anything at all.
When I got clean and sober I changed:
* My job.
* My friends.
* Where I lived.
* My attitude.
* What I did to have fun in life.
* What I did to pursue spirituality.
I even changed my car! About the only thing that I did not change was my family. That stayed the same. But of course my whole attitude towards my family changed a great deal and this was because I finally understood what was really important in life now that I was sober.
Stuck in addiction with no chance for making changes
If you are still stuck in addiction then there is almost no chance for making significant changes until you get past the bottleneck and find a way to abstinence.
Once you find a baseline of stability in recovery then the floodgates of change are then opened to you and the possibilities become endless. But while you are stuck in addiction you have very limited chances at making any sort of real changes.
This is because your addiction will tend to dominate your life and dictate nearly everything that happens to you. This is how people play the victim while they are still abusing drugs–they cannot see that their problems are of their own making. Even when something random happens to them they complain about life and do not realize that they would be in a much better position to deal with their problems if they were clean and sober. Because of the crutch of addiction they are held back in nearly every way.
The way to break free from this is fairly obvious, you have to become open to massive change in your life and be willing to ask for help. If you are not willing to ask for help then it is unlikely that you will make a large enough change in terms of degree. The reason for this is because nearly everyone does the following two things when it comes to their addiction, at least in the early stages:
* Underestimates their disease of addiction or alcoholism and how powerful it truly is, and
* Overestimates their own ability to conquer their addiction through sheer willpower.
Addicts and alcoholics who have never really tried to get clean and sober will almost always suffer from some combination of those two problems. Because of their poor judgement in this area, they will not be willing to make the extreme changes that are necessary to overcome their addiction.
For example, someone might suggest to them that they should go to 90 AA meetings in 90 days in order to build a strong foundation in recovery. Most struggling addicts who are just being exposed to the recovery concept for the first time will think that this is a bit of overkill at first. Whether they say it out loud or not, they will think that this “90 meetings thing” is a bit excessive and probably not necessary. Secretly, they will think to themselves “most addicts and alcoholics must be a bit less intelligent than I am, so they must need to go to these meetings every day, but I am smarter than the average bear so surely I do not need to dedicate myself to making that drastic of a change in my life, right? I can still recover by putting in less effort than what the average person puts into recovery.”
Note that most people who are struggling with recovery do not consciously have this conversation with themselves….but this is still their overall attitude towards recovery. Even if they do not think it consciously, they still believe that they are smarter than average and that their chances at making recovery work out are better than average. We all do this even though we are all “average!”
If you look at the success rates in recovery then you will see how flawed this thinking truly is. Something like 2 or 3 percent of everyone who tries to get clean and sober will make it to 5 years of continuous sobriety. These are not good odds, people…..especially if you are strictly an average person trying to make it in recovery. We are all average! Therefore your goal needs to be to strive much harder than the average person is doing in recovery in order to improve your odds of “making it.”
Maybe you will find that the average person goes to 3 AA meetings each week. If this is average, then what do you think happens to over half of those people? By the numbers, most of them will relapse. So this is a clear indicator as to the degree of change that is required.
I am not saying you need to go to more AA meetings, or that you need to go to AA at all. What I am saying is that most people underestimate the degree of change that is necessary. Most people who try to get clean and sober end up relapsing before achieving significant long term sobriety. Therefore what you should take away from this is the necessary degree of change. The amount of change that you pursue in your recovery should be extreme. At the very least you should be making an effort that is significantly more than what the average person in AA does (because the average person relapses!).
You don’t want change. You want massive change. There is a difference, and finally becoming successful in recovery is about finding that difference.
When I finally got clean and sober this last time (and made it last for the last 11 years+) I could look back and say “Oh, now I see just what they meant by having to change everything!” It was as if I had to completely flip my whole life upside down, all at once, making truly massive changes in every area.
Too many struggling addicts are trying to break into recovery without making massive changes. They don’t want to rock the boat. They want to keep everything status quo for some reason. They don’t want huge ripples of change in their lives. Part of this might be the shame factor–they don’t want other people to know that they are trying to overcome addiction. This is the wrong attitude and the wrong approach to recovery. Instead of holding back and making only minor adjustments in their life they need to embrace massive change. This is the key to recovery that they have been missing all along. Until they embrace massive change, they will continue to struggle with their addiction and stay stuck.
Breaking through denial and becoming open to massive change
In my opinion the key to becoming open to this massive amount of change is to ask for help. Really this is what opens the door to your potential success in recovery.
Asking for help is a major deviation from what we have been doing during our addiction. In fact it is like the complete opposite approach to life as compared to our self seeking behavior that we used to get and use more drugs or alcohol.
When we ask for help in early recovery, the whole key is that we need to follow through on the advice and suggestions that we are given. It is not so important as to what that advice is but rather that we follow through with it without trying to manipulate things. The more we resist the advice and suggestions the more evident it becomes that we are not ready for real change. If we ask for help from our loved ones and they recommend that we go to an inpatient treatment center then the correct response is to follow through on that and do what they suggest. If we argue that it is the wrong kind of rehab or that we have tried this before and it did not work and so on, then we are headed for trouble. We are blocking ourselves from massive change because we are not open to the suggestions that we are being given.
Massive change is possible mostly based on other people’s suggestions and advice for us. This is because we will have a tendency to believe that we do not need as much help as what we truly need in order to recover. Remember our overconfidence tendency? That means that left to our own devices, we will never likely get as much help and support as what we truly need in order to recover. We overestimate our own ability to conquer addiction. This is why you must ask for help. Your own ideas about getting clean and sober have failed you, over and over again. Why would you want to try to rely on those ideas in order to get clean and sober now? Obviously they are not going to work any differently now then they did in the past. You need new ideas, new information, and new suggestions to help guide you. Therefore you should ask for help and then take the advice and follow through on it.
Willingness to take massive action that can create change
Obviously you have to have the willingness that is necessary to make massive changes. This is what holds most people back who are still struggling with their addiction–they lack willingness. They are still stuck in denial and therefore they are not willing to go to extreme lengths in order to recover.
The way to develop this willingness is through accumulated misery and chaos. Pain is the motivator. This is why Al-Anon tries to teach families of alcoholics to step back, stop enabling, and let the alcoholic endure as much pain and misery as they can handle. The consequences of addiction will mount up over time and eventually create enough misery to motivate change. People do not change because they are happy. They change because they are miserable. The alcoholic or addict will not become willing to make massive changes until they are truly miserable. Even then they may have to miserable for a long time before they can see that it is never going to get any better.
The point of surrender is that point in which the struggling addict or alcoholic is so miserable that they are just sick and tired of everything, and they just want it to all go away. Once they reach this point they have to be willing to do just about anything in order to escape the misery that they are in. They also have to admit at this point that their misery is all of their own making. If they are still blaming others for their misfortune then they have no chance at recovering just yet. They obviously need more misery before they can see the light.
Unfortunately it is pain that motivates us to change. It is only someone who is completely miserable who will be willing to take massive action in recovery.
Dedication to building positive change over the long haul and power of accumulation
Once you have seized the power of change in recovery then your next job is to keep that momentum going. This is made possible through the power of accumulation.
Just like you accumulated misery during your struggle with addiction, you can also accumulate positive benefits in recovery by making continuous positive changes in your life.
This is how successful people in addiction recovery fight the threat of complacency and relapse–by constantly pushing themselves to make more changes. Those who fail to keep pushing themselves can easily fall victim to complacency and potentially end up relapsing.
Personal growth happens in stages. Recovery is a progression of sorts. You start out with a baseline of abstinence and for a while, that is enough. Just being clean and sober is radically different and things will start to get better quickly.
But you should not stop there, and you should not expect your life to be perfect just because you are not using drugs or alcohol any longer. This is the idea behind the 12 steps, which push people to make personal changes and improve themselves and improve their relationships. You can do the same thing in recovery both with and without the direction of a 12 step program. If you are making positive changes every day and pushing yourself to make incremental improvements in your life then you are headed in the right direction.
People get into trouble when they assume that they have “arrived” in recovery and that they have no further need of change or personal growth. This is how the threat of complacency can creep in and destroy an otherwise healthy person in recovery. We need to practice acceptance, but we also need to keep challenging ourselves to grow and to learn and to change. If we stop learning then we are letting the door open to relapse again. Positive changes keep us motivated to maintain our sobriety. The best form of relapse prevention is to be excited about the positive changes and the challenges that you have yet to face.