Some people have what it takes to get sober, and others are just not ready yet.
Realize first of all that everyone who struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction could, potentially, get clean and sober.
The question is not “Is it even possible?” Trust me, it is possible for any alcoholic or drug addict.
The question is one of willingness. It is a question of timing.
The question really becomes:
Is the alcoholic willing to do what it takes at this time?
And of course there is no “maybe.” It is completely black and white. Recovery is unforgiving in that it is either pass/fail. You either remain sober or you relapse completely. No grey area. No in between.
And so in many ways it always comes back to a single principle: Willingness.
We can measure addiction and recovery in many different ways, along many different lines of thought.
For example, instead of talking about willingness, we can put everything in terms of honesty instead.
Is the alcoholic willing to get totally honest with themselves yet, or not?
In the end it is the exact same question as talking about the willingness concept.
And you can do the same thing with open mindedness. As in: “Is the alcoholic open minded about recovery?” The answer is either yes or no. No in between. And so this, too, becomes just another way to measure both willingness and/or honesty.
The three concepts are really the same thing, they all point in the same direction, they are all tied to the same outcome.
Either you are honest with yourself about your addiction, open minded about recovery, and willing to take action…..or you are none of those things. It is all three, or nothing at all.
So if you are stuck in addiction then you are lacking in those three areas. Which one? They are all the same thing, ultimately. They are completely intertwined.
And if you have reached the point of “true surrender” and you are suddenly moving forward towards real sobriety and making real progress, then we know for certain that you are experiencing all three of those things: Honesty, open mindedness, and willingness.
So to some extent you can frame the discussion by talking about any one of these three things. When you talk about one of them you are really speaking about all of them. Because if you supposedly have willingness but you lack honesty and open mindedness then guess what? You are not really willing at all.
Or let’s say that you claim to be open minded, but at the same time you are not willing to take action and make significant changes in your life (go to meetings, go to rehab, etc.). So are you really being open minded like you claim you are? I would argue that no, you are not being open minded.
I used to try to argue that I was not in denial (when I was still drinking) because I freely admitted to anyone who would listen to me that I knew that I was an alcoholic. There, I said it. So how could I be in denial?
What I was missing was the key point: I was no longer in denial of the problem because I admitted that I was alcoholic. But I was in denial of the solution. And I was also in denial about my happiness. I was lying to myself and telling myself that drinking made me happy. In fact I was miserable. So by the textbook definition of denial I was right, in that I was no longer in denial of my disease.
But this is completely useless. I was still in denial of my own misery, and I was also in denial about the solution (“AA would never work for me, blah blah blah”).
Therefore it was still denial.
For better or worse (we don’t have a choice in this I am afraid), recovery is entirely pass/fail. And therefore this whole concept of surrender which entails being honest with yourself, being open minded to new ideas from other people, and being willing to take action based on those ideas…..is entirely pass/fail as well. You either do all of those things or you hold back and stay stuck in denial.
You can try to dance around this fact and play games and whatnot but ultimately you are either in recovery or you are not. You are either willing to make massive changes in your life or you are still stuck in your addiction.
Now an outsider might argue back at this and say “Well the author in this case freely admits that they are alcoholic, and therefore they tend to run to extremes in their life, and this is just their opinion and how they see things! Maybe they believe that recovery is all pass/fail and that it is all black and white, but the rest of their world can make up their own mind about it. Some of us can find a happy medium and a middle ground where this author obviously could not.”
And that is a fair argument to make. I would have made it myself before I ever took a drink or a drug in my life.
But now that I went through my addiction and I have been in recovery and I have worked with so many other alcoholics and drug addicts, I now think differently. I am not trying to bend the rules to fit my little world, this is just what I observe! Both in my own life and in the lives of others. So by all means, you can try your recovery strategy that might be based on some sort of middle ground, maybe you can learn to moderate successfully (I never could!) or maybe you can be honest with yourself but at the same time lack willingness. I have never seen any evidence that this could possibly work for a real alcoholic though.
As they say in AA, if you can find a better way to stay sober, “our hats are off to you!” And you have my genuine gratitude. But I have never watched someone recover who did not have to surrender fully (read: Get honest, be open minded, be willing to take massive action).
Why sobriety requires massive action
Why does recovery take massive action? What’s up with the massive part? Is that just a cool buzzword to try to inspire people to do better?
No it is not a cool buzzword.
Let me tell you how I came to start calling it “massive action.”
When I as in very early recovery I lived in a long term rehab center that housed twelve men. I was one of them. We lived there for six months to two years. There was a therapist who did counseling and there were two group sessions each week and we had to go to AA meetings every day.
Now at the time I was watching my peers very carefully. When I moved in I had all of two weeks sober and was pretty fresh out of detox. I looked up to the guys who had 90 days sober, six months sober, some of them even had a year or more at that time. I was in awe of this.
And so I started living there and “working my program of recovery.”
And my peers started to relapse. This was shocking to me.
Now you would expect that it should not be too horribly shocking for alcoholics to drink or relapse in recovery. But for me it was still a shock every single time. I don’t know why. Maybe I had more faith in their program. Maybe it was because I understood them to be living in rehab, so they should take it more seriously. I am not really sure but I was shocked every time someone relapsed.
And it kept happening. Over and over again. Very few of the people that I met in long term rehab stayed sober for the long run. Very, very few.
So as I went through my first 20 months of sobriety (while living in long term rehab) I was forming my opinions about recovery and developing my own strategy.
My constant thought was: “How can I avoid relapse when it seems to be so common and prevalent among my peers?”
So I would look at examples of people who were doing well in recovery. Not just my peers in treatment but also people “on the outside,” people at AA meetings who had decades sober, people like my sponsor from the 12 step program (that I was required to have), and so on.
So I started to pay attention. I actually stopped putting so much credit in what was said at meetings unless the person had more than a few years sober.
Now that sounds like a terrible judgement, I realize that. And I constantly heard people (including those with decades of sobriety) telling everyone that even the newcomer who has 3 days sober has something valuable to share. It was our duty (I was told) to listen to everyone at meetings (no matter how little sobriety they had) and to try to extract some knowledge from them. Or at the very least, a lesson of some sort.
So I started doing that but I could not help but judge people. I did not want to learn from people who had recently relapsed. All they could teach me was what NOT to do. I did not want what they had.
So I took the advice literally: “Take what you need and leave the rest.” Also: “Stick with the winners.” That implies judgement. You have to figure out who the winners are in recovery if you want to stick with them!
So I stopped beating myself up and I started to make judgments. I started to find the winners and ask them questions. And I stopped taking advice or putting much stock in listening to someone who had a few weeks of sobriety.
One theme that I noticed around this time was that “the winners” that I was identifying in recovery all took massive action.
Listen to someone talk at an AA meeting who has over a decade sober. Ask them what they did in the beginning to stay sober. Ask them if they went to a lot of meetings, or if they had to try hard.
Get ready for an earful.
Maybe some of it is exaggeration. But I kind of doubt it. You ask one of the “winners” in recovery to tell you about their experience in early sobriety, and you will hear a tale of massive action. Ask them what they did to get through the tough times. They will tell you how they went to two, three, four meetings in a single day. They will tell you how they called their sponsor every single day. They will tell you how they lived in long term rehab for 20 months (my own story!). They will describe massive effort.
Seriously, find at least three or four of these “winners” at an AA meeting and ask them to describe their efforts in early recovery. Then ask yourself if you are trying as hard as what they describe.
Everyone tells you not to compare yourself to others like this, but think about it: You have two groups of people who try to get sober….those who “make it” and those who relapse. You are allowed to interview these two groups of people and ask them how much effort they put into early recovery. How can you not compare yourself to the winners? How could you not do this and then check yourself and say “I just want to make sure that I am putting forth the right kind of effort to insure my sobriety.” To me that just makes good sense. Compare away. Find the winners in recovery (most likely at AA meetings, easiest place to discover them) and then compare yourself to them. If you are in early recovery then ask them what their early recovery was like. Ask them for suggestions. This is the essence of sponsorship. This is how recovery works at the individual level. One person shows another how it worked for them.
Perhaps the message here is that the individual tactics don’t matter so much, but the intensity of those tactics matter. The consistency matters. The willingness matters.
Are you willing? And how are you showing that willingness today? These are the questions that can drive your success in recovery.
What are you willing to do in order to build positive momentum in recovery?
If you look at people who have recovery successfully in the past you can learn a great deal about the process.
And it is a process.
It starts with a foundation.
For me, the foundation was surrender. It was the final breakthrough of my denial. I gave up, asked for help.
On that foundation I took massive action. Someone suggested treatment and I took massive action. I checked into a facility and I started listening and learning.
More foundation. Medical detox followed by inpatient rehab. Counselors making more suggestions. I took them. More action.
I had to be ruthlessly honest.
I went to rehab once long before this and I lied. I lied to myself and I lied to the counselors. No recovery is possible without total honesty. So I relapsed after that one.
But after I surrendered “for real” I was willing. I was taking suggestions. I was listening to the professionals who were trying to help me.
And I was taking action.
There are two things that you have to do in order to take “massive action” in your life:
1) Listen to suggestions from other people. Ignore your own ideas in favor of other people. People you trust, people who have more experience than you. People who have wisdom.
2) You have to be consistent and persistent. So you take action every day. You don’t say “well, it’s Friday, I guess I won’t be willing for today. I can go back to that willingness stuff tomorrow. I just need a day of from taking action and being honest and being willing.” You can’t do that. You have to be consistent. Every day.
And that is really it. That is the entire secret of recovery if you want to know the truth. Simply listen to other people and then take positive action every single day. Without fail.
Because remember: Recovery is entirely pass/fail. If you take a day off from being honest and open minded and willing then it all falls apart. You lose all of your progress in an instant.
Early recovery is all about momentum.
It is hard to get sober because it doesn’t seem like much fun at first. Suddenly your “party sauce” is gone and you are not having much fun, right?
But it gets fun. Sobriety is a wonderful trip, if you allow it to be.
But you have to give it a chance. And in order to do that you have to build some momentum. You have to keep taking positive action every day so that it builds your life into something wonderful.
And it does get better. Here is another cliche that you hear in meetings: “It gets greater, later.”
Annoying, right? No one wants to hear that stuff. That is gets better in the long run. Who wants to wait when we could (should?) be having fun right now!
But of course it is true. That’s why it gets repeated at AA meetings. Because there is wisdom in it. The old timers have tested it out and found it to be true. Stick and stay and in the long run your life will get really, really good.
The benefits of sobriety start to multiply in the long run.
It all starts out very slowly though. Which is what makes it so tempting to just say “screw it, let’s forget all of this sobriety stuff and go get drunk!”
But we all know where that will lead us. More misery and chaos.
So you have to be willing to fight through the “early recovery doldrums.” You have to be willing to put in the hard work so that you can build some positive momentum.
It does, in fact, get greater later. They are not just saying that to annoy you. It is actually true.
So you have to muster up a bit of faith and realize that they are telling you the truth. And that you can have this amazing new life in sobriety and be even happier then when you were “partying” all the time. But it’s going to take some work….
“Willing to go to any lengths…”
Before I got sober “for real” I was stuck in denial.
One of the things I as in denial about was treatment.
I did not want to go to rehab. I had already been there twice, and failed.
I did not want to go back.
And I did not want to go to long term rehab, which I took as a threat. The idea of living in rehab sounded like prison to me.
I was scared. And I was stuck in denial.
So what happened is that eventually I got miserable enough that I finally became willing.
I was so sick and tired of being sick and tired that I finally surrendered to everything.
Not just surrendered to my disease (which I had admitted to in the past), but to everything. I surrendered fully and completely.
I wanted out.
I wanted a new life.
And I was finally willing to face my biggest fears in order to get it.
I was willing to ask for help.
I was willing to go live in rehab.
I was willing to sit in AA meetings in spite of anxiety.
I was willing to do anything.
And this was what it finally took for me to turn my life around.
I had to be willing to take massive action.
Then I had to actually follow through, and do it.
What about you, what was your path to willingness like? How did you finally become willing? Or are you still struggling to “get there?” Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!