12-step recovery programs use the term surrender as something that people do…sometimes surrendering themselves to the program, to the idea of recovery, or to the process of the 12 steps. While a great idea, it is most often impossible for a person to actively surrender themselves to anything. They can agree, think about it, try it out, submit or open themselves to the possibility, but surrender is something that must come to them from without.
Most newly recovering people cannot fathom what surrender means. A common phrase they hear is, “Surrender your drugs and alcohol” or, “Surrender to the program” (Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous). That may sound like a great idea, but what does it really mean? Do whatever we say, and you will recover? Don’t even think about it! Listen to your sponsor and they will tell you what to do and not do to recover? I hope not!
Most successfully recovering persons will admit that they had no intention of surrendering anything when they got their start in recovery. What they experienced was the death of their ego into a state of total annihilation. It was no longer possible for them to continue to drug, drink, gamble or whatever their addiction demanded of them. They may or may not have been willing at that moment to stop. They were willing to admit total defeat of their own determination to control their addiction and its outcomes. They were willing to try anything for relief of the desperation that they experienced at the time that they were surrendered.
Recovery circles are full of persons who do not, long-time recovering, know how to surrender their lives, their character defects, or themselves to the recovery process. With gritted teeth, they may attempt to set aside various behaviors, attitudes, or personality quirks that are unpopular or bring them trouble. But to surrender is to allow their permanent removal, which is not something that can be done by any person. This is the reason that so many in today’s society experience disdain for those who become addicted. They see addiction as something they should be able to surrender and walk away from. Not possible.
Yet, even in the meetings where they should have this concept well ingrained into the lingo you hear the term surrender bandied about like it is something that one does. Actual experience teaches otherwise…addicts get surrendered by their addiction. Behaviors are surrendered when they are removed from the repertoire of the addict. This process is covered fully in steps 6 and 7, where the recovery process requires that they become willing and ready to have the Higher Power remove their defects of character. Nowhere does the recovery process require that they surrender them. Most often, they do not know which ones will be removed anyway. If they have lied, cheated, stolen and abused their families, which ones will be removed for them to stay on the recovery road? Sometimes all of them, sometimes none of them are taken. This is the source of another recovery term, “Let Go and Let God,” which is more appropriately used when referring to letting go of behaviors, ideas, attitudes, beliefs and addictions. Surrender is not possible in the war an addict wages against their addictive patterns of behavior, thinking, or living but something that may happen to them if they are willing to let them go or give them over to a Power that can do that job.
Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.