By Todd Garlington, Lead Therapist, Greenhouse Treatment Center, an American Addiction Centers facility
It took losing everything I had—my marriage, my family, my business, and even my own self-worth—to make me finally see that it was time to get help. I’d been sober for 20 years. How could I have let myself get to this point again? I was in complete moral, physical and psychological bankruptcy, but I didn’t want to admit that I’d fallen “off the wagon.”
Even when a concerned friend asked someone from a treatment center to reach out to me, I still made every excuse you can think of not to go to rehab. My ego and pride overrode what I inherently knew: there was no way out of this situation without help. And I was right: almost exactly a year later, it all came crashing down.
Making the choice to enter an addiction treatment program is hard, and it can feel like there’s a lot on the line. Especially if you’re a “functioning alcoholic,” the stigma around addiction may make you fear the potential consequences. I was afraid for people to find out—as if it wasn’t already obvious. I was afraid I’d lose my job, my family and social status—as if that wasn’t already happening because of my drinking.
What I should have been afraid of is losing my life, because now, in hindsight, I truly think I would have died if I wouldn’t have gotten help.
Fear of the unknown is one of the biggest roadblocks that keep many people, just like me, from seeking treatment. Because shame often prevents people in recovery from talking about their experience—and the portrayals we see on TV or in movies are exaggerated, dramatized, or at best, a snapshot of what treatment is really like—you don’t know what to expect and that’s scary.
While you should know that recovery won’t happen overnight—it’s an ongoing process, something I only really learned after my second time in treatment—don’t let fear be an obstacle to getting the help that could save your life. Every day some 23 million Americans live in recovery and you can, too.
If you’re thinking about getting help, here’s what to expect.
- A thorough medical exam. I arrived feeling defeated, helpless, ashamed—and completely dependent on alcohol. A lot of people don’t realize that quitting alcohol cold turkey can be very dangerous, causing convulsions, delirium, hallucinations, fevers, hypothermia and even cardiac arrythmia. So, for me, that meant the first step was a medical detox. The staff conducted a complete physical exam, and asked questions about my health history and my past and current substance use. Then, they put together a detox regimen that made the withdrawal symptoms much more bearable.
- More than just a 12-step program. Another assumption many people make is that addiction treatment revolves around the 12-step program originated by Alcoholics Anonymous. And sometimes, the program’s heavily faith-based protocol turns people off and keeps them from pursuing treatment. But, there are actually quite a few different substance use treatment modalities, and the right facility will offer a variety of options to fit your needs. During the intake process, the physician will customize a treatment program that’s best for you based on the thorough assessment.
- Other people just like you. I didn’t expect to find so many people from different walks of life who found themselves in the same place as me. We all got there different ways, but the end result was the same, and it was very refreshing. In fact, the majority of treatment programs are full of regular people just like us: they’re parents, have jobs and are socially active. They’re first responders and military veterans, teachers, lawyers, doctors and even therapists themselves.
In fact, the best treatment facilities offer specialty programs for veterans, LGBTQ and professionals, for example, so that these individuals feel comfortable to share and make connections with those who understand their unique situations and experiences. And, if you happen to be a professional whose license retention requires frequent monitoring and assessment, there are impaired professionals programs designed to help keep you on the road to recovery.
- It’s not over when you leave. The idea of getting “clean” is often used interchangeably with treatment, but there’s a difference between being clean and being clear—we want you to be both. Treatment isn’t just about teaching you how to stop using. It’s also about teaching you how to maintain an environment where you don’t want to use.
I admit that I didn’t really internalize this my first time in treatment. I’d started drinking at age 13 and after a bad injury at age 16, turned to pills and other substances. While I came out of my first round of treatment “clean,” I still viewed alcohol and drugs as forbidden fruit—something I wanted but had to force myself to avoid. Clearly, willpower alone was not enough, and when I experienced pain or difficulty, I reverted back to self-medicating. As much as I wanted to think I could control it, for 20 years it actually controlled me.
The second time around, I really focused on learning coping mechanisms and skills that helped me to manage stress, regulate my emotions, and feel whole and at peace without substances. Now that I’ve learned coping skills, I don’t need substances to be happy, and it’s no longer forbidden fruit.
While getting the substance out of your system is a top priority (detox), learning those coping mechanisms is perhaps the most important part of recovery. With alcohol, this is especially important because it’s everywhere, and unlike using hard drugs, it’s socially acceptable to drink. We make sure that, when you’re ready to face the world, you have the resources and skills to continue living in recovery. Before you leave an inpatient facility, we’ll set you up with a thorough after-care program with your local primary care physician and local therapists. We’ll set up your appointments and even connect you with a sober living facility, if that’s appropriate, so that you never skip a beat. Treatment isn’t just a pause; it’s a complete reset and we’ll equip you with the tools to continue on this path once you walk out the door.
For anyone with a family history, genetic predisposition or addictive risk factors, drinking alcohol can be like playing Russian Roulette. You might be fine for years of social drinking and then suddenly you’re physically addicted.
From personal experience I can tell you that treatment will not be easy—it does require some work and dedication—but pales in comparison to living with the stress, the lies and physical symptoms of active addiction. Don’t be fearful. Be fearless in reclaiming your life.