The first step in every 12-step program of recovery and healing reads as follows:
We admitted we were powerless over [our addiction]—that our lives had become unmanageable.
So basically, when we enter treatment and 12-step recovery, we are asked to accept that we have lost the battle, that our problem has beaten us, that we cannot control or overcome our addiction no matter how hard we try.
Sometimes individuals new to recovery think that surrendering in this way means we have given up, that we should no longer hope to create any sort of lasting sobriety. But that is not the case. The surrender that is asked for in early treatment and Step 1 of 12-step recovery is not in any way an admission of permanent defeat at the hands of our addiction. In fact, we do not surrender to our addiction at all. Instead, we surrender to reality—most notably the reality of having an addiction that we need to deal with.
When we surrender to the reality of having an addiction, we can then take steps to address that addiction. We will always have our addiction because there is no permanent cure for addiction, but we don’t have to remain active in our addiction. Once we accept that we have an addiction, there are concrete actions we can take to control it.
Interestingly, as our recovery progresses, most of us find that the concept of surrender extends well beyond the addiction itself. This is best described in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, which states:
When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, or situation—some fact of my life—unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. … Unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.
This passage was initially written to help alcoholics learn to accept life on life’s terms as part of staying sober, but it applies to every recovering addict, regardless of the nature of the addiction. We need to accept that we cannot control the thinking and behavior of any person other than ourselves. Sure, we can set healthy boundaries around the behavior of others to protect ourselves, but we cannot control their choices. They will think what they think and do what they do and there is nothing we can do about it.
In this life, all that we really have control over is ourselves. The only thing we can change is ourselves. And much of the time, the easiest thing to change about ourselves is our attitude toward the choices that other people make. To do this, we need to surrender to our lack of control over people, places, things, and situations that upset us. We must learn that because we are addicts, we need to place more value on peace and serenity than on being right – even when we’re 100 percent certain we’re right.
If we value our sobriety, we must learn to surrender – not to the addiction itself, but to the fact that we have an addiction and we need to deal with it on a daily basis to keep it from destroying our lives; not to the behavior of other people, but to the fact that we cannot control their behavior. Surrendering to these realities – these facts of life – is necessary to both short-term and long-term sobriety and healing. Without full and willing (though possibly grudging) acceptance of these realities, we are considerably more likely to be miserable and to relapse.
For addicts, of course, surrender is difficult. In fact, it is our unwillingness to surrender to reality and address the problems that kept us living in active addiction despite the endless consequences we faced. Thus, we may need to practice these acts of surrender on a regular basis, giving voice to surrender in therapy, in 12-step meetings, and with our loved ones until surrender finally sinks in. We must also remind ourselves that by surrendering to the reality of our addiction and the people, places, things, and situations that we cannot ever hope to control, we are actually, paradoxically, empowering ourselves – facilitating lasting sobriety and a happier, more fulfilling life.