The Joy of Surrender

By Kristen McGuiness 08/17/11
Surrendering to addiction—and to the fact that you’re not in charge anymore—is considered necessary for sobriety. Our writer examines how to get there—and where, exactly, "there" is.
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“I can’t make you surrender,” I tell a family friend as she sits across the living room from me. Her thin arms are crossed, her knee is sticking out of a hole in her jeans. Jesse is 22, a senior in college, and she is battling Oxycontin addiction. “But you do admit that you’re powerless, right?” I ask.

She shrugs, clearly annoyed that her mom has dropped her off at my house to discuss the topic. “Yeah, I get that,” she says. “When I relapsed, as soon as I saw the Tramadol [a painkiller prescribed to her dog], I knew I was going to take it. I had the idea in my head about relapsing because I didn’t feel like I was completely ready to let go. And there were so many pills in the bottle, I knew my mom wouldn’t miss them." She laughs wryly. “I am an addict.”

Surrendering control is always about the surrender of our ego—the very thing that got us into trouble in the first place.

Those words can often come easily. For years, I knew I was addicted. I would head out to the bar, or party, or a friend’s relaxed afternoon barbeque, and I would make promises to myself: “You’re only going to have three drinks. You won’t call the dealer.” And still, I would wind up sitting on some stranger’s couch the next morning, an empty plate of blow in front of me, a half-smoked cigarette clutched between my jittery fingers. Eventually there came a time when I did surrender, when being an addict was no longer the road I wanted to walk down. But no one, including the well-meaning family friend with her own experience in sobriety, was going to make it happen before it did.

According to Brother Don Bisson, a spiritual director and trainer for therapists working in addiction, “There is a very deep level of human freedom that has to be engaged in surrender. We can say all the right words. We can try to force it or coerce it or manipulate it, but there is this mysterious place of human freedom inside us that has to say ‘Yes’ no matter how much we might also be saying ‘No.’ And then we choose behaviors to reflect that.”

The choices in front of Jesse are simple: return to college and to her addiction or go into rehab and surrender. She wants to do the former. “I think I can go back to school and handle it,” she explains. “But nobody else believes that I can do it so I guess that says something. And I do have to admit: the idea of having someone there, besides my parents, helping me and watching me, it does make me feel like it would be easier to make the right choices. Because I know that if I go back to school, I know I am going to have a lot of freedom, but I also prefer it that way.”

According to the scientific papers of the late Dr. Harry Tiebout, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the world of alcoholism, “Surrender is an unconscious event, not willed by the patient even if he or she should desire to do so. It can occur only when an individual with certain traits in his or her unconscious mind becomes involved in a certain set of circumstances.”

These circumstances can come from within or they can be caused by external factors: loss of job, family, or physical health. Tiebout describes surrender as a process that “occurs when the unconscious defiance and grandiosity are for the time being rendered completely powerless by force of circumstance or reality.” He explains that this can only take place by a full surrender of the ego—which he defines as “immature traits carried over from infancy into adulthood, specifically, a feeling of omnipotence, inability to tolerate frustration, and excessive drive, exhibited in the need to do all things precipitously.”

I know that the biggest challenge for me in getting sober was the identity I thought I must lose, and did have to lose, in order to do it: the fighter, the girl who wouldn’t quit, even the part of me that was an asshole. I wanted to be an asshole. I was terrified of the real vulnerability that would come without my coping mechanisms. I just wanted to feel good.

Jesse smiles, recollecting the high points of using, and I remember how sad it was to give it up. “I love playing music when I’m fucked up,” she shares. “It’s like I get so excited about music and then I just want to amp it up more. For a while, it was hard to enjoy anything without being drunk or high. I guess it just comes with this I idea that I want to be a musician and that I’m supposed to get loaded.” I try not to sing the chorus to Amy Winehouse’s, “Rehab.”

As Jim Stimson, a social worker specializing in addiction and the author of An Act of Surrender—Recover from Alcohol and Drug Addiction and Be Happy, Joyous, and Free!, explains, “Surrendering control is always about the surrender of our ego—the very thing that got us into trouble in the first place. Our ego is always coming from a place of fear, a lack of trust, and a desire to be in control. Bill W. said that humility is the hinge upon which the door of recovery swings. That’s why surrender requires an act of faith that involves moving forward without proof. It requires we let go of our attachment to outcomes and place our trust in the process.”

I try to share my story with Jesse. How tired and alone I was, how disconnected I was from the world. I explain what my life has been like since, even referring to some of the cash and prizes in my life, but more than the outside stuff, I tell her that the greatest gift of being sober is that I don’t have to be afraid anymore. Not that life isn’t scary—bills need to paid, couples fight, I can’t predict the future (still!)—but I now have faith that all I need to do is what is in front of me, and hand over the rest.

Faith—a hard thing to explain to a 22-year old going through her own intellectual crisis and revelations. At 22, I was brashly misquoting Nietzsche and telling my parents that God was dead, but Jesse is actually in a better place with this. She tells me, “For a long time, I didn’t understand what God was, but then in high school I began to see that there were many ways to find out what God was—through the ocean or music. Now I am just trying to figure out what I want from God, from a Higher Power.”

It wasn’t just relinquishing the drink or the drug, it was relinquishing everything I had ever known: my self-will, my defiance, and the old behaviors of a selfish life. 

Don Bisson says that another great challenge of surrender is that it’s counter intellectual. “We have to let go of everything we know,” he says. “We have to look into the unknown, and let go of the mind’s view of how it’s going to work out.” He adds, “And surrender is also counter to survival—that is, if you want to survive the way that you have been.”

For me, it wasn’t just relinquishing the drink or the drug, it was relinquishing everything I had ever known: my self-will, my defiance, and the old behaviors of a selfish life. And I had to accept that they were all a part of the disease I came to know as alcoholism. It wasn’t an easy proposition. First, I had to surrender to the idea that I was powerless over all of it: the first drink and its precipitating behaviors. I drank for power and now I was being asked to surrender that. People around me suggested I find another power, one which wasn’t alcohol and wasn’t me.

Jim Stimson, like many in recovery, recommends relying on the group until one’s own personal Higher Power is found. “For me personally, what has worked, and continues to work,” says Stimson, “is just surrendering to the desire to take life in a new direction.” 

After a while, Jesse relaxes a bit. “I had a huge surrender yesterday when my Dad said the choice to go to rehab was up to me,” she tells me. “He said, ‘We don’t want to force you,’ but he knew that everyone else around me had said I should. He wanted me to feel like I had that sort of freedom. I began to understand that I am helpless. And I feel like I am finally understanding that this is about letting go…of everything.”

Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about the 13th step and dreaming about drinking, among many other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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