Letting Go

Recovery from addiction involves surrender and acceptance.

Posted Jan 16, 2019

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David was a highly regarded surgeon in a West Coast hospital when an intern found him asleep at his desk with an empty bottle of whiskey and a half-empty bottle of self-prescribed Oxycodone. He had just finished an intricate surgery and likely had been high while operating.

The intervention that I planned with the dean of his medical school ended before it began. When David walked into the dean’s office and saw his colleagues gathered there, he fell down crying. “I was getting ready to kill myself on the way home,” he said sobbing. “I’ve completely lost control and will do anything to get help.”

David went off to a renowned treatment program for medical professionals, with the knowledge that he was going to lose his job and his medical license if he didn’t get sober. Then, as if he had no memory of his breakdown, he spent the next six weeks denying that he had any drug problem at all. Finally, his fellow doctors sat him in the center of a circle. One by one, they told him that he was powerless in the face of his craving for drugs and that his life was unmanageable.

“You guys might have a problem,” David responded. “But there’s nothing wrong with me.”

A young nurse, who was addicted to prescription pills, followed David out the door. He bluntly told David that he was going to die unless he found a way to accept that he was just like everyone else—an addict in need of help.

“For whatever reason, at that moment, I understood that I was dying of a delusion,” David told me later. “My sense of entitlement and specialness disappeared, and I finally recognized that I was addicted to alcohol and Oxycodone.”

This breakthrough moment was the beginning of David’s sobriety. Virtually every recovering individual I have ever known has a similar story to tell. Whether they are doctors or teachers or city workers or homeless men in the shelter where I work, they take their first step toward recovery with an admission of powerlessness.

How or why anyone makes this psychological shift is something of a mystery. For some, the precipitating event is a personal tragedy or an intervention. For others, it is an experience in treatment or drug court, where the option is to surrender or go to jail. A significant number, including James, attribute their acceptance to a transcendent power greater than themselves.

“I know that some people recover without a spiritual experience, but in my case, the two were inseparable,” says James. “I was completely empty inside and didn’t have the internal resources even to admit that I had a problem.

“With each step of surrender, I could feel my humanity coming back,” he adds. “It was like developing a muscle in my brain that was about far more than recovering from addiction. Acceptance and surrender remain everyday spiritual practices for me even to this day, when I no longer struggle with alcohol and cocaine but still have the ordinary problems of life.”

Although most medical professionals acknowledge that an invisible region of human experience affects physical and mental health, the role that surrender and acceptance play in recovery is not generally understood. No matter how much physicians give lip service to the concept that addiction is a disorder that includes loss of control, when faced with patients (or family members, friends, or colleagues) who compulsively use drugs, we revert to thinking that they are not trying hard enough to stop.

Yet another mystery of addiction is that trying harder seldom works. Paradoxically, addicted individuals find in surrender and acceptance the inner strength to fight for their lives. With this personal empowerment, they can take the next step in early recovery: facing the mountain of problems that their addictions have created.

On the Other Side of Surrender

Surrender is not something you do just once. It’s a process of giving up your own way of doing things, over and over again, and surrendering to whatever program you are in—whether it’s Twelve Step–based, cognitive behavioral therapy, or something else.

But that first moment of letting go is important. It opens the door to a power of change that not only saves your life but enables the character transformation needed to sustain long-term recovery.

There is a version of yourself waiting on the other side of surrender that you could never imagine having the power to become while you are in active addiction. It is your true self, the person you were meant to be.

James B., coauthor of the book The Craving Brain: Science, Spirituality, and the Road to Recovery.