Second Surrender: How I Landed in Rehab at 7 Years Sober

By Arthur Becks 03/03/17

I thought most guys in AA went to work, hit a meeting, and then came home and spent five hours in the darker recesses of the internet.

A man covering his face while looking at an open laptop computer
Addiction can return in many forms if the root trauma isn't addressed.

“It’s like it’s written on a marquis outside a theater,” he said with a wave of his fingers.

“The Second Surrender.”

And then like so many old-timers in AA, having said what he had to say, he walked away. I had just raised my hand saying I was about celebrate my seventh anniversary sober in AA. I thought he was crazy of course. I thought I was doing great.

I’d never wanted to be an alcoholic let alone be in recovery. My sponsor always says, “You’re on the local train to acceptance.”

And in many ways he’s right.

When I came in I knew I was powerless over alcohol, but I still didn’t believe in alcoholism. So I refused to say I was an alcoholic. Instead, I said I was “recovering in this program.” I didn't go in for the steps, but I didn’t drink either. I went to meetings, did a ton of group therapy and yoga, ate well, and in many ways my life got better. But in many ways things also got worse. I was increasingly anxious and busy. People said I was touchy.

As the year went on, I kept hearing Andy’s words. He’d hit a nerve. I began to acknowledge that my jaw was kinda clenched. My life was a little ordered. There was very little room for chaos or mess. I realized that I could fall apart at any moment, have a breakdown—but more scary than that was the knowledge that I might never fall apart. I worried that I could be stuck. I knew there was something I was avoiding.

That’s when I began to talk to Charmaine, an intake counselor at a rehab that specialized in people who hit walls in sobriety. Charmaine had all the patience in the world. We would chat for 45 minutes at a time, sometimes a few times a week. I know there was a profit motive behind her calling me but had she not, I don’t know that I’d have ultimately gone to treatment. She told me people came to their facility when they fell apart in sobriety, often around 10 years.

She told me that they specialized in trauma and that their rehab program lasted five weeks. She kept calling me back for about eight months to see how I was doing. Once I answered the phone on a business trip in Europe, and it was her. So with her looking over my shoulder for all those months, I began to see that despite things being good I wasn’t doing that great. There were quite a few traumatic incidences from my childhood that I wasn’t dealing with. I spent too much time alone, isolated and I avoided emotional stimulus. Talking with Charmaine, I began to come around to the idea of going to treatment for avoidance, a symptom closely related to PTSD.

My AA sponsor had been to treatment at 11 years sober and shared some of his experience with me as well.

“Everybody has their thing they need to deal with,” he told me. “Otherwise you don’t stay sober.”

It was his shared experience that sealed the deal for me. Setting off, I was reassured by the knowledge that he’d be there when I got back and that he’d know a bit about what I had gone through.

At my first morning in rehab, the counselor told us that 95% of recovery was covered by the 12 steps, but that 5% is trauma work.

“You’re always gonna be a pickle,” she said, “so don’t think you can drink again if you take care of this stuff.”

She also said alcoholism and addiction is created by trauma, that that’s how you become a pickle. I don’t know whether that is true or just something they need to justify their services. I have resigned from the debating society, so I just went with it for the time I was there.

I was initially in a group for people with childhood abuse issues. But I was quickly diagnosed as a sex addict and transferred to an all-men's group. I had no idea my online night-time activity was problematic. I’d never spoken to anybody about it. And to tell you the truth, nobody had ever asked. I thought most guys in AA went to work, hit a meeting, and then came home and spent five hours in the darker recesses of the internet. They also told me at rehab that I ate terribly and suggested I meet with a nutritionist to learn what a balanced diet looked like.

In the sex addicts group, we weren’t allowed to talk to anyone else in the rehab. We wore special color-coded name tags and ate all of our meals together. They told me I couldn’t masturbate while I was in treatment either, and that essentially in that department I was powerless too.

“Masturbation is the pilot light of sex-addiction,” they said.

We combed through my childhood traumas and in that safe environment we began to see how that pain had been warped into my defects of character—something they related to step six. My job, they said, was to face the pain to not fall short and act out—step seven. Treatment was there to help me with that, they said.

It was a brutal five weeks, like open heart surgery without the anesthetic. There wasn’t even caffeinated coffee, which proved the most difficult thing to give up. Sometimes I would walk around the small campus just to take my mind off the fact that there was no way to take my mind off of things. We were only allowed hokey DVDs and recovery literature in the common rooms. I craved zoning out the internet, but was instead faced with an onslaught of trauma-focused group therapy with 12-step meetings at night. With the help of our group of sex addicts, I deleted all of my nefarious online accounts and started a path to sexual sobriety. It’s a path they told me I would fall off again and again. They told us that with sexual recovery, slips and dealing with them gently are a part of recovery.

Not that the counselors gave us an out.

“Yes, there is all this trauma,” they said, “but now you are doing it to yourself. And you are the one who must stop it.”

That crushed me. I was more comfortable being a victim than my own worst enemy.

Going back to work and my AA home group after five weeks in rehab was disorientating. My world had turned on its pivot and I had to catch up. My therapist, sponsor, and home group were crucial in this regard. Unlike people who go to treatment in the beginning, I had a support structure to come back to. I still come up short on my defects of character, but steadily less and less. My life is a lot less structured now and there is room for the unexpected. I generally take it easy and I don’t need to be so in control.

It turns out Andy was right. It’s been seven years since my second surrender and my life is nothing like it was then. It’s full of people, a healthy amount of messiness, and a lot of unknowns. I’m in a committed monogamous relationship, something I didn’t ever think I’d be able to do. My relationship to the program is different. I am more teachable and ultimately I trust more. My sex addiction is, for the most part, managed by steps six and seven. It’s painful when I fall short, but those times are fewer and far between, and my sponsor picks me up with the same line when I do.

“Join the club,” he says. “Everyone looks at porn.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix