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Getting Sober Again: It Takes what it Takes

She asks a very reasonable question, “How many times does he have to hit bottom before he gets it?” I shake my head, “As many times as it takes.” This is a conversation I’ve had with countless wives, girlfriends mothers, daughters. It’s not as if men don’t struggle as affected others. They’re just less likely to seek help for the person they love and they’re far less likely to seek support for themselves.

I’m happy to talk to families about addiction…I just can’t necessarily give them answers that offer any peace of mind. There are certain inevitabilities in life. Birds fly, fish swim, alcoholics drink and drug addicts do drugs.

We do what we know to do until we’re sufficiently motivated to change. Feeling compelled to stay clean/sober comes from “hitting bottom”, the state of having experienced progressively overwhelming loss and pain.

Everything about addiction is counter intuitive. Most folks think of hitting bottom as something we ought to help an addict avoid. When we protect an alcoholic or addict from the natural consequences of their behavior (enabling), we rob them of incentive to change. There are exactly two motivators for getting clean/sober and they are God and Suffering.

Really wrapping your head around the nature of addiction requires tolerance of utterly irrational and completely destructive thought processes.

The best way that I have found to understand people I cannot relate to is to put who I am aside for a few minutes and try to see the world through their eyes (this takes a lot of practice). I consider everything I know about the person and their experiences. I reflect on everything I intuitively sense about them. I stretch my imagination and try to feel what they feel. When I do this with an active alcoholic/addict I feel compulsion, intense fear, and I believe that the things that are killing me are necessary to get through my day. Folks in self help aren’t exaggerating when they refer to “the insanity of our disease.”

Getting and staying clean/sober is one of the hardest things a human being can do. Withdrawals and detox are only the beginning. The expression “coming out of the fog” describes the first 30-90 days of sobriety, but processing difficulties and memory impairment are far longer lasting. Recuperating physically is 6-18 months for many.  In the midst of these processes, the sober person attains enough clarity to accurately perceive the wreckage their life has become.

The emotional roller coaster of early recovery is intense. Long before hitting bottom, the addict/alcoholic came to rely exclusively upon a substance to deal with every stressor and every negative emotion.  Now they face the world, those they’ve harmed, and (hardest of all) themselves without the numbing effects of their drug of choice. For this reason alone, many will relapse and/or return to using with a vengeance.

Most any person with long term recovery will tell you that the commitment to being clean and sober is a 24 hour proposition. One day at a time is all we can manage. Fortunately it is all we need to manage. We are never fully healed and must always guard against the disease of addiction. Really getting that we can never safely drink or drug again comes only from ample desperation. Acceptance is always optional.

Supporting people we care about in recovery requires that we be genuine. Walking on eggshells around the newly sober isn’t good for anyone. They have the same fears we do – that they will go back to using. It’s always easier to go back to what we know. The more scared, hurt, or unsure we are, the more likely we are to regress.

To the families of those in recovery I say that accountability is everything. Accept nothing less. Offering both encouragement and candid feedback about what we notice is the best support. There will be times your loved one appears to teetering on the edge of a cliff. Saying nothing because you’re afraid of upsetting them will leave you both afraid. Be direct and honest. Don’t shame, don’t guilt, don’t yell. Just say what you see and what you feel.

For those who have fought long and hard, each attempt at recovery requires overcoming the fear based belief that taking the next drink or drug is inevitable. It’s not. Openness, Honesty, and Willingness are the keys to developing the program and the support you need to have the life you want.

“Never, never, never, never give up.” Winston Churchill

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