Overcoming alcoholism or drug addiction is an exercise in facing your fears.
Think about it from the perspective of the struggling alcoholic for a moment. They are living in fear. Everything that they do is based on fear and anxiety in their addiction.
This is why they fall into a pattern of self medicating every day.
It took me a long time before I was willing to admit this to myself. This is because I was stuck in denial.
My denial evolved like this:
First I took a drink one day and I discovered that I really liked alcohol. In fact, I was alcoholic and I did not yet know it. So I continued to drink in ever increasing amounts in order to have more “fun” in my life. This was the only thing that seemed to make me happy any more.
After many years of drinking and using drugs, all of the “fun” had been squeezed out of my addiction. There was no fun left in it at all. I was just existing and I had to drink every single day.
What had changed?
What changed was due to the evolution of the disease in my life. It went from being fun to being necessary because I am an alcoholic. Therefore I drank way too much every single day for a really long time, over and over again. If you do this for long enough then eventually being completely smashed and drunk becomes the new “normal” for you. It is no longer a bunch of fun to get completely drunk or even tipsy, because this is how you expect to feel every single day.
The problem is, your brain is being stubborn about the whole thing and it continues to hang on to the idea that you can still take a drink or use a drug and have instant fun whenever you want. This is the promise that alcohol and drugs made to you in the beginning, right? This is the reason that you became an alcoholic–because the drink or the drug magically transformed you in an instant and made you happy. You secretly vowed to never give that up after you discovered it, because you had finally found something in life that truly made you happy.
And your brain just about never lets go of this idea, which is why we stay stuck in denial for years or even decades. We are remembering the past, remembering how our drug of choice worked so well on us and made us so happy. And the problem is that we might go light on the sauce for a few days, then drink heavy again and BAM! Suddenly you get a taste of that old medicine. Suddenly it is like getting drunk all over again for the first time. And your brain lights up and says “yes, this is it! This is how you need to drink every single day, stupid! This is exactly what I want!”
But of course you cannot drink like that every day and get those same results. You only felt extra good and drunk because you had gone through a few “light” days of less drinking (or no drinking at all) in which you were miserable (or at least wishing the whole time that you could get smashed). Seriously, this is a good way to figure out if you are an alcoholic in denial or not. Just take a few days off completely, then hit the sauce again. Is it a lot better when you do so? If so, you are experiencing the problem of tolerance, and this is a clear sign that you might have a deeper problem with real alcoholism or addiction.
And so the question becomes: Why drink every day anyway? What drives us to self medicate over and over again, on a daily basis?
The answer is fear.
I don’t want that to be the answer. I wish it was something else. But I had to face that myself. I had to face the fact that I was afraid in my life, and that was why I was chasing my tail for so long by drinking. It was fear that drove me to drink every day.
Many alcoholics cover this up with other stuff, even in recovery. They will say that they drank because they were angry, for example. But of course anger is really just a secondary emotion, it only comes out as a result of something deeper. That anger is almost drive by fear. But it is hard for many people to admit this, to look inside and figure out what is really going on, and then to be honest with the world about it.
If you can look inside and confront your fears and then share them with the world, you will be doing very well as far as your recovery efforts.
If you want to get clean and sober and you are struggling to do so, you might also take a look at the idea that you are running away from something. You are driven by fear. Aren’t you tired of being afraid? Isn’t it exhausting to live in fear all the time, only to try to medicate it away with drugs or alcohol? This is a horrible way to live, because I have lived it.
The solution is to face your fears. I am sorry that this is the answer, I really am. I had to face that truth myself and it was not easy.
How did I face my fears?
I surrendered, first of all. I gave up the alcohol and drugs because I knew that they were no good for me and that they were killing me. I was going to die if I did not stop. So I stopped, and in doing so I faced the fear that I was going to have to live sober.
I was anxious. I was afraid to interact with people without being able to drink or use drugs. I was afraid of rehab. I was afraid of AA meetings. I was afraid of having to speak up in front of others. I was afraid to share what was really going on with myself.
I had a choice in my life:
I could keep living in fear, and continue to use drugs and alcohol on a daily basis to try to alleviate that fear.
I could face my fear directly and give sobriety a chance to work in my life. Doing so meant asking for help and taking direction from other people.
This was the choice I was facing. I wanted to avoid it, to be honest. I did not want to face that fear directly, but in the end I realized that it was either face the fear or keep living in misery.
In order to overcome the chaos of my alcoholism I had to confront my fears and take action. I had to put my foot forward and elicit real change. It was hard, and it took guts.
What is your biggest challenge that you face in recovery?
Now up until this point I have been talking about the fears that you face BEFORE sobriety.
Just getting clean and sober is all about facing that big fear. It is about facing the fear of sobriety and all of the other little fears that may come along with it (such as anxiety, fear of sharing with others, fear of speaking at meetings, fear of making changes in your life, etc.).
But let us say that you take the plunge and you decide to get clean and sober. You have faced your fear of sobriety head on and you went to rehab and you asked for help. Things are slowly getting better and you realize that you no longer live underneath that huge blanket of fear every day–that fear that you would normally medicate every day with drugs or alcohol.
But there are still fears in your recovery. The big fear of sobriety is gone, but other fears remain. We are not instantly healed just because we stop putting drugs and alcohol into our bodies. Our minds can still play games with us. We will still have some fear in our lives that we can seek to overcome.
And this is where the opportunities are. Your biggest fear in your life at any given time is probably also your biggest opportunity for growth. This was obviously true in terms of your addiction itself, which was run by large amounts of fear. You tackled that and your life got better as a result. The same thing can happen with lessor fears. If you face them and you overcome then your life gets better.
I am personally annoyed at this phenomenon. I don’t like the face that you have to do something uncomfortable in order to reap the rewards of personal growth. I don’t like the fact that you have to expose yourself, or ask for help, or face a fear in order to make big progress in life. I would prefer to stay safe and not have to expose myself to such risks and tackle these fears. But this is how personal growth is truly made in life. You face a specific fear and as a result you learn and you grow. Life gets better on a permanent basis.
Think about it. If you are living in fear on a continuous basis, then your life is made worse by this fear. It is not just a one time fear, but this is a fear that affects your everyday life. Therefore it has a negative impact on your day to day happiness. When you have fear or anxiety about something, that moment of fear or anxiety is canceling out any chance at happiness in that exact moment. You cannot be happy when you are afraid or anxious. They do not coexist. Because your brain is basically saying to you “No, I cannot be happy right now at this second, I can be happy later when this anxiety or this fear is gone, but right now I am facing this threat, and therefore I have to worry or obsess about it and I do not have time to be happy.”
If you live in fear or anxiety then you are not happy during that time. Or rather, you may be somewhat happy but you could certainly be a lot happier and more free if you were to overcome that anxiety or fear.
And this is why it is such a huge opportunity in your life and in your recovery. If you have a fear that you face on a recurring basis then you have a huge opportunity for growth. If you can face that fear and overcome it then you will create a huge amount of happiness going forward, and this is a permanent gain that will affect the rest of your life. It doesn’t just reward you once, facing that fear rewards you permanently, over and over again.
How to identify your next opportunity for personal growth
In order to do this you must get honest with yourself.
This is just like when you were struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction and you had not yet become clean and sober. You were stuck in denial and you were living in fear. At some point you had to get honest with yourself, realize that you were living in fear and misery, and decide to face the fear in order to try to overcome that situation.
In recovery it is the same process. You must get really honest with yourself. You must slow down enough to take a good, long look at your life so that you can identify what is really going on inside. What you are really feeling. And this should not be too difficult if you are honest with yourself, because your fears and anxiety should stick out in your mind like a sore thumb.
Identify your fears. This must be done before you can tackle them and attempt to move forward.
After you have identified your fears you can then prioritize them if you want. Which one dominates your life? Which one has the greatest negative impact on you? Whichever one you choose would be your biggest opportunity for personal growth.
Then you must face the fear. There is no specific formula for this because many fears will be vastly different for people. But the basic essence of it is that you must take action. You will probably need to ask for help from someone in order to conquer your fear.
For example, one thing that can be very useful is to find someone else who has gone through the same experience. Find someone else (possibly in recovery, but not necessarily) who has faced the same fear that you are facing. If you don’t know where to find such a person then you might try going to an AA meeting and talking in a meeting about your fear (this of course takes a certain amount of courage in itself for most people!). If you do this repeatedly then eventually you will get a lot of feedback and advice about how to face that fear. Actually, you will get one better than that: You will hear stories from people about what actions they took in order to overcome their fear. Instead of “advice” you will hear right from the source how they actually did it. Think of this as getting “really accurate advice.”
Now you don’t necessarily have to go to AA meetings in order to get this sort of advice about facing your fears, but it is definitely one venue that makes it easy to ask for help and feedback. Most AA meetings allow someone to bring up the topic at the beginning and so if you go to enough meetings then you will certainly get your chance to do so.
Identify your fears, figure out what the biggest one is, then make the decision to face it head on. If you do not know how to do that, then you must ask for help from other people, so that they can tell you how they did it. The easiest way to do that is by asking others in recovery how they overcome your exact fear.
Of course then you have to actually take their advice and act on it. This is where the magic will all happen. You take action, move beyond the fear, and live with more happiness and freedom as a result. It takes a lot of work to actually do all of this (identify the fear, ask for help, follow through with life changes) so many people will not actually do it. They would rather be lazy and stay stuck in fear, missing out on the rewards. It takes hard work to live the good life in recovery!
Living without fear or regret
If you work through this process once then you will realize that it holds the key to true freedom.
You were struggling in addiction and you finally surrendered and asked for help. You became clean and sober and now your life is getting better as a result.
Don’t stop there though. There is still fear in your life, and those fears and anxieties that remain are probably much of the reason that you drank or used drugs in the first place.
Therefore your task is to tackle those fears so that you can live a more stable life in your recovery.
If you have fear in your life during recovery then you are more vulnerable to relapse. If you are living without fear then you are much more protected from the threat of a random relapse.
If you want to “build a moat” around your recovery and protect it, then you need to do the work that is necessary to protect yourself. That means making changes in your life.
Some of those changes will be external (stop going to the corner bar every night), while some of the changes will be internal (eliminate fear, resentment, self pity, anger, shame, guilt, etc.).
Making these changes (both internal and external) amounts to “doing the work” in recovery. When they tell you that it takes real work in order to recover, they are usually talking about these changes. In fact, most people who talk about “the work” are really referring to the internal changes that must be made. It is difficult to do this sort of work by yourself, without any guidance or help at all. This is because we assume that our thought patterns are normal, and therefore relatively healthy. We have nothing else to compare them to.
For example, take the person who has been walking around their whole life in anger. They are really angry at the world, at others, at themselves. They use their anger to cover up their fear. And they have lived this way for as long as they can remember. This person doesn’t even realize that the anger is unhealthy, or that it is not normal. They assume that other people walk around with the same sort of mental circus going on upstairs. They must be taught what is “normal” thought process again, and that the anger is actually toxic to their peace and happiness.
Most of us are not in this extreme of a condition (where we walk around in constant anger). But there is still a lesson there for all of us, because we all have at least some fear (and possibly anger) in our lives. In fact, the labels themselves are not as important as we might think: Fear, shame, guilt, anger, hurt, etc. It is all negativity, and it all stems from the same “core.” Our job in recovery is to identify these things and then take action to eliminate them. That is how we become happy and healthy in recovery.
Every fear (or other negative entity) in your life becomes an opportunity for growth. Figure out what you must do to eliminate it, then set about to doing the work. Keep doing this over and over again and your life will get better and better.