The Transformative Power Of Acceptance

By Jamie R. Smolen, MD

young man holding head in hands

The consequences of addiction are inescapable. It’s a risky, dangerous, and even hazardous way to live. As addicts become helplessly compelled to keep taking more and more drugs, they enter a state of desperation, attempting to get high and are disturbed when they can’t achieve the satisfaction they seek. This happens because their bodies have developed a high tolerance. Eventually, their primary objectives are to hook up with their dealers and buy whatever fix they can afford, sometimes it’s just to keep from getting dope sick. They will do just about anything to prevent the excruciating pain of drug withdrawal. Combine that with the mounting cost of their unaffordable habit and sooner or later, practically all of them want to stop but are unable to do so.

Addicts who get hooked on prescription pain killers may try to taper off, taking smaller amounts each day. The need to take more is overpowering and it’s unstoppable. They try numbing the pain of withdrawal with alcohol or sedatives but realize those are not adequate substitutes. They even switch to opioids used for detoxes like methadone or Suboxone but lack the proper knowledge to use them effectively. At this point, many addicts are at their peak of vulnerability and become ready to ask for the right kind of help. When they choose the option of medical treatment, they can present themselves for detoxification at specialized facilities.

Highly skilled and well-trained personnel are there to render medical care and assist the addicts who are ready to take that first critically important step in the process of recovery.

When addicts have developed a high tolerance for drugs their brains have entered a state of imbalance. Withdrawal can be physically and emotionally unbearable. It can even be medically dangerous especially when seizures or delirium occur. Severe withdrawal may require medically supervised urgent care.

Medication is needed to stabilize malfunctions in the nervous system, the GI tract, and the circulatory system. The more out of control withdrawal gets the more uncomfortable it is. Severe withdrawal can have life-threatening consequences.

By the time addicts voluntarily enter detox they typically cannot withstand another day of agonizing withdrawal. Others may be coerced by family members who have reached the end of their rope. They hire an interventionist who takes a “stop using or else….” approach. If successful the addicts reluctantly agree to be taken to treatment. Their bags are already packed before the intervention starts. Either way, it is never a joyous experience. Usually, there is resistance, fear, and uncertainty; even hostility and strong resentment. The addicts entering detox and early recovery are not happy campers.

Many of their problems are pressing, threatening and worrisome. Once addicts agree to enter treatment it’s very common to hear them promise that they’re done with snorting, smoking, or injecting drugs. “Trust me, it’s over.” “Never again.” “I’ve learned my lesson.”  These are heartfelt emotional pledges expressed with resounding determination or mixed with genuine tears. However good these intentions are, they can’t remove the mess caused by years of partying, getting high and failing to carry out basic daily responsibilities. Treatment facilities can temporarily serve to shield addicts from the crises that have piled up. During the initial stage of medical stabilization in the protected rehab environment, addicts are customarily introduced to the recovery principle of acceptance and how it can be put to good use.

What is acceptance and why is it so important for someone entering treatment? There are many ways to define acceptance but its use in 12 step recovery is unique and requires some explaining. In human psychology, a person practicing acceptance of a negative or uncomfortable situation or condition does not attempt to change it, protest about it or avoid contact with it. The concept of acceptance is close in meaning to ‘acquiescence’, derived from the Latin ‘acquiēscere’ (to find rest in). By accepting whatever may be “the problem,” it is more likely that some peace of mind is closer at hand.

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous describes the importance of acceptance in the treatment of alcoholism.

It states that acceptance can be used to resolve situations where a person feels disturbed by a “person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — [which is] unacceptable to me”. The Big Book claims that an alcoholic person cannot find serenity until that person accepts that “nothing happens in God’s world by mistake” and that the condition of alcoholism must be accepted as a given.

The practice of acceptance in 12 step recovery is so fundamentally important that its application is considered to be essential in the early stages of abstinence. Anyone who has tried will admit that there is nothing easy about getting sober. The physical, mental, emotional and spiritual toll it takes can be the most critically important challenge that someone can face. Instead of suffering from the burdens and hardships that addiction can cause, the practice of acceptance can be instrumental in achieving peace of mind even amidst the ongoing pain. I am going to explain how acceptance works. How to learn it, apply it and be transformed by it. It’s simple, but not easy. It takes practice but it works, because for those who seek sobriety with their last ounce of hope, it has to work or all is lost.

Learning to practice acceptance requires honesty, open mindedness and willingness; the HOW of the 12 step program of recovery. Addicts have been so used to living in denial that honesty is something that is unfamiliar and easily rejected as a useful tool. Addicts first must deny the existence of the condition of addiction in order to live powerlessly under its control. Denial is the means by which addicts keep coming back for more while believing the use of drugs is recreational, harmless, and necessary to enjoy life or deal with problems.

Denial is put to the test when withdrawal starts and the addicts are irritable and anxious with hot and cold sweats, their legs jumping like crazy while not sleeping a wink. It takes denial to make the decision to start pawning and stealing because there is not enough money to pay for the never ending need for more and more pills. Denial is what keeps someone away from treatment even when there are abscesses of infection caused by too many failed attempts to shoot up directly into a vein. When addicts are able to get honest about all the negative consequences and see how it is all directly related to addiction
then their minds may begin to open and they start listening instead of automatically rejecting.

When addicts become open minded they have achieved a level of readiness that is a step beyond any denial. Now they can acknowledge their dependence on drugs as the primary cause of the unmanageable problems. Their open minds are receptive and approachable with information about addiction. They become educated about the basics and soon understand that addiction exists in the brain and it’s there to stay. This is a scary reality and it helps to know that addiction is also a medical condition. It’s an actual disorder and can even be called a disease. Worst of all, it’s incurable. Best of all, its treatable.

Fortunately, it is possible to not only live with it, but life can once again be enjoyable without the need to get high. Addicts are then invited to take a step even closer to acceptance and become willing.

Addicts face what seems like a never ending bombardment of painful consequences that appear insurmountable. They get overwhelmed and become filled with frustration, regret, self loathing, shame and self pity. Their problems seem greater than the human ability to cope and endure. At this point, their denial can no longer completely shield them. Their defenses weaken and they become willing and teachable. They are willing to admit that when it came to “drinking and drugging” there was no way to consistently predict the outcome. Sometimes they got drunk and high and sometimes that was the farthest thing from their minds. It was perplexing and seemed to defy logic; how could they be addicted if they didn’t always want more? Yet the evidence of destruction was indisputable. Drinking and drugging kept causing bigger problems. It was no longer recreational. It was a necessary evil and there was no breaking free from its grip. But as willingness grew so did the readiness to get well. They wanted the pain to stop. They were “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” It was time to turn their willingness into acceptance and take the next steps towards getting well.

Addicts become encouraged to take further steps in the direction of recovery once they know there are others; millions, who at one time suffered the same fate from self-inflicted problems caused by abusing drugs and alcohol. They all had the same condition in common; their addiction, and somehow it was comforting. For years, new comers have been joining the fellowship of sober addicts; banning together with unity and strength.

Crossing that threshold and admitting that they belong in the rooms amongst their fellows has not only been spiritually uplifting but has proven to be a very practical way to turn despair into happiness. The power of many has reached out to help those still suffering and has shown the way when the hand of readiness reaches back with acceptance.

There other helpful services available to addicts. Experts in addiction medicine, counselors and the support from family and church make important contributions during treatment.

From them, addicts receive medication, education, coping skills, kindness, understanding and even forgiveness and love.

Addicts need only to accept these offerings, some of which are unconditional with no expectation of payback. When addicts begin to feel more and more grateful, the process of self-healing begins as acceptance slowly dissolves away shame, fear, doubt and insecurity. Addicts will begin to recognize that they are not bad people. They are sick and did some bad things. Once they are inspired to do good things, the harms done to others will soften and the repair work commences. Making up for the inflicted damages is something addicts get started on as soon as they get sober. This can take the form of a “living amend,” which
is a meaningful way to apologize beyond mere words.

Once an addict has completed detoxification they enter a stage of steadily improving mental and emotional stability. They become clearer as the days go by and feel grounded. From this vantage point addicts can take ownership and keep doing what’s right instead of only what feels good. Of course they want to leave their troubles far behind. In recovery, they are taught that there are no short cuts; an easier softer way to get sober doesn’t exist. The “way” has already been established along with undeniable proof that it works.

Millions of addicts in 12 step recovery are abstaining from drugs and alcohol 24 hours a day. They are willing to support all the new comers who are free to join. Suggestions are given for ways to establish a life of clean living.

At the very beginning of the journey into detoxification, abstinence, sobriety and recovery, addicts will see that there is no problem too great. The resources of recovery can handle
every problem through their collective experience, strength and hope. As the addicts surrender to this way of life and stop trying to find a way to win with addiction, they are transformed.

Rather than climb into the ring with an opponent who will deliver a merciless beating, they can throw in the white towel and spare themselves from the devastating blows. By surrendering, they win. By choosing not to fight they can’t get hurt. By staying away
from alcohol and habit forming substances they will never have to experience the obsession and relentless need to get high at all cost. They will no longer have to experience the crushing disappointment of never getting high enough and the price they had to pay for being that way. It is not their fault. It never was. But now they are responsible. That is the way it should be. That is the way it is. They are transformed and accept this with dignity and not dishonor. For they have been shown the way. And the way always works if they work it.

Jamie R. Smolen, MD, Associate Professor, Chief of Sports Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Division of Addiction Medicine, University of Florida College of Medicine. Dr. Smolenis the author of Hooked, a compelling and true-to-life novel about a teen’s near fatal obsession to achieve the ultimate euphoric experience with prescriptions drugs. Hooked is a reality based account of a young man’s struggle to surrender his will and choose the spiritual path of recovery. Available at