You Can't Do It On Your Own
Updated: Jun 16
Addiction is a contentious area. The causes and the treatments are subject to much debate. But there are two basic truths about recovery to which I subscribe. Others may choose to agree or disagree. The first is that there needs to be proper self-acknowledgement of a problem and a desire to get well. The second can be summed up as “you can’t do it on your own”.
I used to tell quite a few people that I’d lost control of my drinking. I was aware of it. You have to choose carefully who you can tell, of course. I told some friends and close colleagues at work who I could trust. Admittedly, it was sometimes to find excuse for my poor behaviour. But I had already reached the first stage of self-acknowledgement and confession to others.
When I look back, it was an early cry for help. Despite this, however, it was several years before my first referral to alcohol treatment and more than ten years before my eventual recovery. I didn’t really make clear to others the depth of my suffering – they were certainly not aware until my brief hospitalisation and entry into alcohol treatment.
Too often, there is a failure to acknowledge the problem. Nobody wants to admit openly to what might be judged as a flaw. We don’t want to admit lack of self-control because it might be perceived as weakness. We don’t want to confess that our behaviour may be very hurtful to others. We don’t know who to tell – it might be dangerous to family relationships and work.
Elton John told the story of his turning point in an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1997. He said that it takes three little words – “I need help”. But many fall at that first hurdle, for whatever reason, and the outcome is usually a continued downward spiral.
Acknowledgement of the addiction to self and to others is a necessary but not sufficient condition of getting better. It’s a necessary first step because you will not commit to getting better if your starting position is one of denial. Having acknowledged the problem, here are some of the reasons why you can’t get better on your own:
First, it’s too easy to slip back. That’s because it’s too easy to cheat if you haven’t told anybody else. I remember a business conference when the drinks tray came around. I thought nobody would know, so I just took one glass and it turned into several.
Second, it takes a lot of motivation and discipline to stick to a recovery programme – there is more chance of success when the process is properly designed and supervised.
Third, and most importantly, trying to do it on your own, without the support of others, and after repeated failures, puts you in a very lonely and tough place.
You need somebody to look out for you. I remember being at a leaving party for somebody at work. I had started to drink again. A colleague walked across the crowded room, took the glass from my hand and walked away again without saying anything. I thanked him.
We need somebody to perform the role of Virgil. In the Inferno, the first part of his Divine Comedy, Dante describes how the Roman poet Virgil acts as his guide through the nine circles of hell. On their journey, they encounter the suffering that results from past behaviour. Virgil acts as a fellow-traveller, somebody who can guide and point to a way out. We can think of this as a person who can spot the warning signs and knows where it will end. It is important to keep in mind that the outcome is positive.
I came across the story of the American Eric Arauz when looking into the Divine Comedy and addiction. Eric suffered a tough upbringing and was a veteran of the Gulf War. He battled against mental ill-health, and addiction to alcohol and drugs. In his book An American’s Resurrection, he discusses how his friend and fellow-sufferer became his Virgil or buddy.
Arauz later became a member of the faculty at Rutgers Medical School, an adviser to public health bodies, and an inspirational speaker. In a blog post in 2014, he said of his friend Kevin, his Virgil, “He didn't lecture me. He spoke honestly to me and let me speak honestly to him when he needed a Virgil. We would suffer, bleed, and succeed together”.
In effect, in my opinion, the same approach is advocated by Carl Rogers, the eminent American psychotherapist, who developed Person- or Client-Centred Therapy in the humanist tradition. He coined the phrase “unconditional positive regard”.
Simplifying, inevitably, (and using some of my own artistic licence) what he said was as follows. When he was conducting therapy, he found what was very effective was when he took off his white coat, put down the clipboard and stepped into the shoes of the other person. He listened in a non-judgmental way and showed empathy. Such an approach, he found, elicited a positive response. It encouraged the person to discover his or her own path to recovery through a process of self-actualisation – achieving “congruence” between the “ideal self” and the “real self”.
Who can perform this role of confidante in a less formal setting? It could be a friend or work colleague. It might be a member of the family, though it is often very difficult for sufferers to open up to people who are too close. Rather than a single person, it might be a support group or a fellowship meeting.
None of this is to deny that proper medical attention may be required, through medication or formal therapy. It’s just to say that the sufferer needs somebody to join him or her on this journey. Ideally, this would be a person who has “been there and done that”.
You can’t get better on your own – many will be there for you because they have been in your shoes before!