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The hard lessons recovery from alcoholism taught me

Here are a few thoughts about what I have learned during my experience with alcohol addiction and recovery. Some people will probably say that I am being too negative. But recovery is not a picnic and not everyone survives it. Its lessons are hard.

Here goes.


Many people view the alcoholic as a spoiled joy seeker, endlessly looking for excitement. But that is not the truth. Addiction is lonely. Alcoholics are masters of disguise and at hiding pain. Alcoholic loneliness comes with a deep sense of depression, isolation, loss of meaning, and detachment, even when we are surrounded by others. To compensate for and camouflage their feelings, alcoholics often hide in the open. But this usually turns into simply drinking alone as friends disappear.


Recovery is lonely. The recovering alcoholic is caught between two worlds. On one hand, there is a life built around drinking, often with others who drink heavily as well and tempt you to return. On the other hand, there is the world of recovery. While family and friends may support your recovery, they are not actually a part of that world. Unless they have been through recovery themselves, they do not really know what you are experiencing, So, you must enter into the world of recovery essentially alone, albeit with the well wishes of others.

Crossing the threshold into recovery means leaving one world behind you before you even understand the new world in front of you. This beginning is intensely lonely and uncertain. But the reality is that most people will relapse in recovery, perhaps many times. The loneliness of relapse is amplified by feelings of despair, disappointment, and lost ground. The fact is, recovery occurs from within. This internal battle is one we have to fight by ourselves, even though others may help arm and prepare us.


This is going to sound harsh. But I have learned not to trust other people. It is probably more fair to say that people are in our lives, sometimes quite fully, but they are there only conditionally. So, their support and love are conditional as well. This is simply a reality. While we praise unconditional acceptance and love, it is rare, almost mythical. The danger is that we may expect it and allow our recovery to become dependent on it. But it may not be there when we need it most.

I have found that people are most supportive in early recovery, but their patience and interest is strained when we face relapse and we struggle. Of course, this is partly our fault. The trail behind addiction is littered with the negative consequences of our own actions. We have to keep in mind that trust and support are reciprocal. Often, we have not been trustworthy and loving to others. So, the expectation that trust and love will be there, or will spontaneously blossom, is probably unfounded.


I have an addictive script that is deep within me and will probably never go away. The question is not, do I have another relapse in me? The answer is yes. The question is, do I have another recovery in me? The answer to that question is unknown. But in their heart, every alcoholic knows what will happen if they return to drinking.

Being aware of our addictive script helps recovery. There is a recovery technique called, play the tape. When faced with a trigger or a desire to return to a pattern of drinking, we can simply walk through our relapse and drinking script. When we play it out fully, we see that, no surprise, it does not end well. We can stop the script. It is our choice.

An addictive script is predictable. It is a script that I know and a script that everyone who knew me as an alcoholic knows. We are polite enough not to talk about it, but it is on everyone’s mind. They are just waiting to see if it will re-run or not. Some people will hope it does not, even though they suspect it will. Others will hope it does, just to see you fall.

While we may pick ourselves up and regain recovery, a relapse invites others to judge us. It is usually not positive. Old memories die hard. They likely already see us as an alcoholic and not as a role model of recovery. When we act out our addictive scripts, we simply invite a charge of hypocrisy and we erode the fragile faith that others may have in us. This is one reason 12-Step programs can be life-saving. They connect us others who understand addiction on a deep, personal level and will accept us even when times are rough.


Our emotions are bullies. When I face a trigger such as anger or despair, I can feel it rise within me. It is there, emotional, powerful, and real. We have to remember that our mind and our emotions were formed 10,000 years ago in the Ice Age, a time when powerful survival instincts were ingrained within us. These instincts have strong action potentials. They create a heightened awareness of threat and a propensity to react. When I face a relapse trigger, my emotions stomp all over my ability to think. My caveman brain wants to fight my modern brain. The fight usually ends in a draw. But in recovery a draw is a win if it prevents a full-blown relapse.

Fortunately, our ability to think sits between our emotions and our actions. We can feel emotions, but we do not have to react to them. We do not have to translate our emotions into actions. Recognizing this boundary between feeling and doing has saved me many times. It may not be the most pleasant experience to have emotions and despair fighting within you, but it does not have to lead to relapse, even though our inner caveman (or cavewoman) is screaming for it.


There is more to stopping drinking than stopping drinking. To stop drinking is to stop a negative, but it does not build a positive. Recovery is an intense fight just to get back to zero, back to even, back to a fresh start. We still face the challenge of building a new, positive, and fulfilling life. Recovery is like a plot of land covered in weeds. I can pull all the weeds, but I don’t have a garden unless I plant something. The problem is that we can become so exhausted just pulling the weeds that our energy to plant has run dangerously low. But this is the reality of recovery. It is a long fight.

The good news is that when we rebuild ourselves, we get to choose who or what we want to become. Sure, we have to live with the addictive self that stays chained within us, but we can finally find and follow our true destiny. We can rebuild ourselves and our self-image in any way we choose. We may be scarred, but we are free.


People will still hate you when you recover. We cannot undo all the damage we have caused in our lives. No matter how perfect we become, someone from our past will remember and hate us for what we once were. To be fair, it is our fault. Not all sins can be forgiven and not all mistakes can be corrected. Even when corrected, there will still be the memory of the transgression. It is usually a painful memory. This is a fact I wish I could make others understand before they make the shift from social to problem to addicted drinker. You can fully recover, but in the eyes of some people, usually people you have hurt or who naturally hated you to start with, you will never be fully redeemed.

That is my list.

If I had written this list a few years ago or were to write this list again a few years in the future it might be different. But these are my lessons.

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

Books and blog,

Facebook, The Coping Expert,

YouTube, The Coping Expert,

(Image credit Toasting from Freepik)

(Image credit Person alone from Freepik)

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