12 Steps: Surrender

Reservations, Powerlessness and Surrender

Reservations are little ideas, beliefs and loopholes that we leave for ourselves. We reserve the right to hang on to them, not realizing that we are really protecting some aspect of our addiction. Most of us started recovery with some reservations. They may have gone like this:

Opiates are my problem; a little drink now and then won’t hurt me. Alcohol just about ruined my life. I don’t ever want to drink again. Of course, I’ll still smoke a little weed when I’m feeling stressed. I don’t relate well to other women, so I’ll need a male sponsor. If my mother died, I don’t see how I could handle it without picking up. They say we’re as sick as our secrets, but they can’t mean everything. That one thing will never pass my lips.

We may be sincere about wanting recovery, and may be working diligently toward it by going to meetings, doing step work, and almost giving ourselves fully over to the program that’s recommended. But as long as we hold reservations, consciously or unconsciously, we are fooling ourselves.

One of the worst effects of reservations is that this kind of thinking keeps us from bonding with other recovering people. Recovery works because we are a fellowship with a common purpose: to stay clean and sober, and learn how to live that way. We do this by accepting that we can’t do it on our own, and that we need the guidance and support of others who have been successful at what we want to do. Reservations  prevent us from developing the close, trusting relationships that make those things possible.

Fighting is so much a part of addiction — fighting for the next fix, the next drink, the time to use, protecting our ability to keep getting high — that we forget how to stop fighting. When we are able to relax and stop struggling, we begin to gain the benefits of our recovery program, along with a huge sense of relief.

Move Away from the Addiction. Don't Stay and Fight

The problem is that we’re still trying to control our addiction, when what we really need is to let go of that control, let go of our reservations, and accept the reality that our addiction is far more powerful than we are — that we must move away from our addiction, not stay and fight.

Once we are able to surrender, the feeling of relief is amazing! We are no longer forced to twist our thinking around so that we can try to have things two ways at once. We no longer push, push, push back against our program. We no longer have to deal with the stress of always trying to be right, in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. We are, at last, able to relax and recover.

We must surrender before we can win!

Sobriety Got Me Though One Heck Of A Week

Occasionally in life we have periods that just plain suck. As a sponsor of mine was fond of saying, “When I got sober, life didn’t get better right away, but it got real clear!” The difference is, in sobriety we're able to feel our pain, work our way through it, and come out the other side in a healthy way, instead of stuffing all those feelings and having to deal with them later when they start squishing through the cracks in our mental armor.

One of my oldest friends passed away last Friday. I’ve known Ed since I was about 10 years old. He was one of the first kids I met when I moved to a new town, and his friendship made a huge difference in my adjustment to an environment that I was in no way prepared to deal with. Over the next six or so years we weren’t inseparable, by any means, but most of the time each knew where the other was and pretty much what he was doing.

Ed and I studied, worried about the things teenage boys do, hung out, camped and hunted, and did all the usual high school stuff — most of it together. We even had a singing act that we were known to inflict on folks occasionally. (Neither of us ended up in show biz.) Along with a couple of other guys, we almost literally dragged each other out of the confusion of adolescence into whatever state you’re in when you graduate from high school. My girlfriend and I set him up on a double-date with Judy, the girl he was eventually married to for nearly 50 years. Ed and I were tight.

After high school and college we had only occasional contact for the next thirty years or so. I, of course, became a drunk — some other things, true, but still a drunk and addict. About to get drafted into the Army after college, Ed joined the Air Force instead. In typical all-or-nothing fashion, he went on to become a highly-decorated officer. As head of the White House communications unit, he accompanied Presidents Ford and Carter everywhere they went. As a lieutenant colonel, he headed the communications team that travels with Delta Force. As a full colonel he was boss of an outfit so secret I don’t even know what it was. Then, although he was being groomed for general, he retired. He told me he did so because he decided his family needed some stability after being dragged all over the world. So he put down the sword and took up the plow as a teacher, dean, contributor to the community we grew up in, and as a man of god.

To say that I “miss” Ed would devalue our relationship, which was the kind where you just take up the conversation you didn’t finish the last time you were together — however many years ago that may have been. I didn’t have to be around him during those years. I just knew that he was wherever, and I was wherever, that our friendship stretched between, and I had faith that it might stretch but that it would never break.

If I'd still been drinking and drugging I would have missed the last years of that friendship, of getting to know Ed as “elder statesman.” I would have missed the bittersweet pleasure of meeting his grown kids and grandkids this week. I would have missed the grace and poise of the Colonel’s Lady, putting guests and old friends at ease while her heart was breaking. I would have missed my own grief, and my appreciation for the man Ed was and for what he gave to his country, his god, the thousands of other friends he accumulated over his nearly 69 years — and to me.

Ed’s life reminded me, once again, that it ain’t over until it’s over. If I’d ended mine with booze and drugs all those years ago, there’s so much I would have missed, a lot more than just Ed. I would have accomplished virtually none of the things that I consider important in my own life. I wouldn’t be writing this, and I think the message is pretty important:

Sobriety is worth a little pain now and then.

So are you.

Recovery Romance? Ah — Maybe Not

Valentine’s Day is one of our oldest Western holidays, dating back to the 5th Century. Valentine was executed for performing the wrong marriages, subsequently declared a saint, and ever since we have associated his feast day with love, marriage and general togetherness.

We’re told “No relationships in the first year” and here it is, the Relationship Day, so I thought I’d discuss relationships in recovery.

  • We don’t know how to have healthy relationships with ourselves, so we certainly aren't capable of having one with someone else
  • Nothing could possibly distract us more from our program of recovery
  • Relationships trigger the “I want, I want, I want” reflex that all addicts have in abundance
  • For most of us, it was so long since we had a relationship sober (if ever), that we may come to feel that we have to have drugs or alcohol in order to perform.

Lust is a powerful force. It’s intended to make us bond with another human being for purposes of procreation (that’s science, not religion), and as such there are few emotions more consuming. It’s supposed to distract us from just about everything except eating, sleeping and running away from loud noises in the bushes. It acts on our brains and bodies in the same regions and in the same way that drugs do: massive doses of dopamine and lots of “feel good” when we get what we want.

There is a reason that relationships are one of the primary causes of relapse: we are so driven that we can easily convince ourselves that “It won’t happen to me. I can have a relationship and we will recover together.” And we’re so used to having our way, convincing ourselves that it’s worth the price, that we do dumb things almost as a matter of habit. Recovery requires focus. It doesn’t need any more changes in brain chemistry than we’ve got already.

When we’re pursuing that particular pleasure, common sense takes a back seat — just as it does when we’re seeking our drugs of choice. People in early recovery can’t afford to be distracted, and can’t afford to let common sense out of the driver's seat. If we can stay clean and sober, get our act together, and learn how to live a healthy life, we have a really good shot at someday having a healthy relationship as well.  Later.

Think about it: who would want to have a relationship with someone who's as messed up as a person in early recovery?  How messed up would they have to be?  Besides, people change when they get clean. They change again while they’re recovering — often several times. Established relationships fall apart, often as not. The chances of a rehab relationship or a recovery romance working are vanishingly small. The question we need to be asking ourselves is not “Will this work,” but rather “Is getting laid worth my sobriety?”

That’s the bottom line, folks. Valentine’s Day or not.

I’m Not Sure I Want To Quit

There are a few sure things about any addiction. One of them is that no one can make us quit using; we have to want to quit. They can lock us up and deprive us of our drugs, but that is forced abstinence, not quitting. If we are free to go our own way, no one else can make that decision for us, nor enforce it.

Another thing is that in order to remain abstinent and recover, we have to want that more than anything else in our life. If we quit for someone else, or a job, or whatever, we are likely to begin again when that particular thing is no longer so important in our lives. Why wouldn't we? What's stopping us?  That said, if you want to quit for someone else, please feel free.  It might take.

The decision whether or not to quit is ours, and ours alone, because no one can make us continue to use, either (although they can give us some great excuses). That being the case, what are some of the reasons we might have for quitting on our own?

One of the most common arguments is the old, “It's my life, and it's my business if I want to drink myself to death,” or the common variation, “I'm not hurting anyone but myself.”  It's hard to argue the first one, except on the basis of insanity. (It's generally accepted that sane people don't, under most circumstances, care for the idea of dying.) But the second? “I'm not hurting anyone but myself!” How bogus is that?

The fact is, over a lifetime, we impact hundreds — even thousands — of other people, affecting their physical, financial and/or emotional quality of life.  Committing suicide, by whatever means, impacts everyone else in our lives.  Unless we have the excuse of clinical depression, it's the ultimate way to prove that we're supremely selfish.

What if I want to go live in a cabin in the woods with fifty cases of gin and vermouth (I mustn't forget the olives) and simply drink myself to death alone? That doesn't cut it. How about all the heartache of the folks back home who may never know what happened to their friend or loved one, and the legal issues because no one knows if I'm dead or alive.

Let's take it from the top. If I drink and/or drug until I die (or even if I don't die), who am I hurting, besides myself?

  • My family, who love me (even though they might not be able to stand being around me);
  • My friends, who also love me in their way, and who chose to allow me into their lives with the expectation that I wouldn't cop out of the relationship;
  • The other people who depend on me — employers, employees, co-workers and the other people whose lives I influence in various ways;
  • The people who will have to clean up the mess — physical, personal and financial — comfort the bereaved, and otherwise try to make better the chaos that my death will cause;
  • The medical system that has to support the various treatments that I am bound to need before I finally manage to finish the job;
  • The users of the medical system, who are deprived of timely service because resources are being expended on me;
  • Every single person and party in the country who pays for any kind of health insurance. Why? Because one way or another, they're paying higher premiums because of my refusal to take care of myself. Either hospitals are charging more because of people like me who can't pay, or if my insurance covers me, they're paying more for their own coverage to make up the loss.

And all those people who love and care about me will die a little themselves..

Oh, by the way, how about all the people I could have helped if I'd stayed alive and worked a program of recovery, instead of being so self-centered?

The dude was right: “No man is an island….”

So sure, it's our choice. But do we really have the right to make it? Think about it.

Something Similar — Straight Talk About Going Home

The comedian Dave Gardner used to remark, “Folks are always saying, ‘Let’s do this again!’  But friends, you can’t do anything again!  You can do something similar!”

I think about Gardner's bit of wisdom when I hear people in early recovery talking about returning to their families and friends and “making it up to them.”  (This also brings to mind the idea of pushing toothpaste back into the tube.)  We say these things with the idea that we will be able to return things to the way they were “before” — if there ever really was a before.

Credit: closetartist – flickr

That’s a lovely idea, but it’s not the way reality works.  We can’t recreate the past in the present.  We can’t  make others feel the way we want them to feel, or make them forget the things we’d like them to forget.  If we return to our friends and families thinking that those things will happen, we are most likely setting ourselves up for terrific, ongoing disappointment and stress.

Stress often triggers relapse.

I’m not trying to shoot down anyone’s hopes and dreams here.  What I want to do is give people in early recovery a realistic view of the past, and what can be done about it.

 First of all, we need to understand that our perception of what happened is not the same as that of our loved ones, and that their perception is what counts.  We can’t change the feelings involved, either: the resentments, the memories of promises not kept, opportunities missed and so forth, and a lot of anger.  We can’t “do it again,” because the people are different now, and we can’t fix them.

If we expect to be welcomed with open arms and step right back into the role of father, mother, son or whatever, without any friction — well, it ain’t gonna happen.  People take on different roles when there is an addict in the family, and sometimes they don’t care to give the power up.  I mean, c’mon!  What reason is there for them to think that we won’t blow it again?  We need to convince them by our actions, because our word became meaningless a long time ago.

When we accept these facts, we are a good part of the way to where we need to be.  All we can do is show them that we are different now, one day at a time.  We need to be willing to accept their right to feel as they do.  We need to demonstrate our reliability, our honesty, and our commitment to sobriety.  We need to be able to admit to ourselves that the forgiveness will have to be earned.  We also need to realize that time is on our side.  These people want to trust us, believe in us, love us again.  We just can’t choose when it will happen.

You see, they’re scared to death.  They’ve heard innumerable promises.  We need to start keeping them.  They’ve had myriad disappointments.  We need to do our best not to disappoint them.  They’ve relied on us in the past, and we didn’t perform.  We need to show that we are reliable.  We'd like to be respected again, and we have to earn that, too.  They love us, but we need to behave in such a way that they won’t be afraid to show that love.

When we say the Serenity Prayer, we ask for “courage to change the things I can” and “wisdom to know the difference.”  We can’t change other people; we can only change ourselves.  We need the wisdom and patience to keep on doing that until others can see that we have changed, and until they begin to believe that we will remain the person that we are becoming.  Even when that happens, we won’t be able to do it all over again and get it right.

But we can do something similar.

In Recovery, How Do I Get People To Treat Me Normally?

How do we keep our family and friends from treating us like patients, or walking on eggshells around us, especially around times of celebrations?

First of all, we need to understand that they are doing it because they love us, and are trying to protect us.  It does seem as though they’re attempting to control us in subtle ways, and because we’re feeling something like normal for the first time in years, we want to be treated that way.

However, we need to remember that, to a great degree, we are responsible for those eggshells.  It is probably going to be a while before we can expect to be treated like a normal person.  We need to earn trust and respect by being trustworthy and respectable; we are not entitled to them just because we’ve been sober for a few weeks, or even months.  As the AA saying goes, “Don't expect a medal just because you're finally doing what you should have been doing.”

On their part, our families need to understand that hearing eggshells cracking all the time is irritating, and that the best thing they can do for us in early recovery is to try to treat us as normally as possible — apart from putting temptation in front of us.

That may be hard for them, though.  Remember that for however long we were using, they got used to treating us in certain ways.  Nowadays, our total reality has been turned inside-out, but theirs hasn’t changed much at all.  Change takes time, understanding and trust. Because they do love us and want us to succeed in our recovery, they naturally feel awkward around us because they don’t know what to do.  While that can be really annoying, it’s generally not all that hard to deal with.

We need to sit down with them, discuss our recovery, and honestly let them know how we feel.  If we’re not able to do that yet, we can write them a respectful letter.  If we're seeing a counselor, we can try to arrange a family session.  We need to tell them that while we appreciate their concern, we’d like them to try to relax and be themselves.  They need to know that we’re not going to head for the street or a bar just because someone mentions drinking, or refers to things that might remind us of the past.

We need to let them know that we don’t want to “forget the past, nor wish to shut the door on it,” and that we’ll be bringing it up ourselves from time to time.  They need to know that we don’t expect them to change their lives to accommodate us.

One of the things we can do is ask them to read this article.  Regarding the celebration issue, we can refer them to this article about parties that I publish every year around the Winter Holidays.  Finally, in the case of those who were most affected by our using, we can suggest that they consider a few Al-Anon or NarAnon meetings to learn a little more about living with people in recovery.

Most of all, we need to remember that these people love us.  They want to trust us.  They want us back in their lives.  They want what’s best for us.  They always have.  If we remember these things, and that they’re just doing the best they can — the same as us — it makes getting along a lot easier.

How Do I Deal With Old Relationships In Recovery?

The question of dealing with old friends, drinking buddies and family once we’re in recovery is one of the most vexing (and sometimes complicated) things about getting clean and sober.  How we handle it can be critical to our ability to avoid relapse.

Until we have learned new ways of dealing with pressure and old feelings, we need to keep them minimized.  That’s why professionals recommend treatment and halfway houses that are well away from our home turf.  Too many times they have seen what happens when people in early recovery try to deal with old relationships too soon.  Our continued sobriety is essential to our being able to deal with those issues and get our lives straightened out.  If we relapse, we will only make things worse and we’ll still have to deal with the mess when we get sober again, if we don’t die first.  So it comes down to common sense.

Old buddies who still use or booze — we just stay away from them.  Chances are we no longer have much in common anyway.  Later on — much, much later — maybe we can hang out if they aren’t drinking or using while they’re with us.  Otherwise, it needs to be sayonara.

Family members must understand that recovery comes first.  If they can’t understand that, get a little knowledge about recovery under their belts, and support our program, then we need to stay away until we have the skills to cope with them.

This is especially true of those people we perceive as having the most  power over us: parents, siblings, wives and children.  When it comes to family, we’re with the people who hard-wired our buttons and who can push them without even intending to.  These are the people who can arouse the old feelings, resentments, insecurities and emotions with a word or a look.  Those are powerful triggers, until we’ve learned to handle our own emotions and impulses.

Because we’re addicts, accustomed to short-term solutions to our difficulties (oblivion, after all, was always just a few minutes or drinks away), it’s hard for us to realize that the solution for some of our problems is time.  In the case of relationships, that sometimes includes time away from the problem.

This is not only hard for us to swallow, but often goes against the plans and expectations of the others involved.  Nonetheless, our recovery is paramount.  We have no chance of resolving old issues and improving relationships if we can’t stay clean and sober.  Getting back on the horse too soon, in this case, makes getting bucked off again a pretty sure thing.