This is the final article in our series on addiction and the five stages of grief. While this will follow the same format that has been followed thus far, we will likely not spend as much time on this particular stage. Unlike the other stages we have covered—denial, anger, bargaining, and depression—acceptance does not have a negative impact on those who experience it. This is the stage that we have been working toward all along. This is the stage where we learn to embrace our grief, whether it be caused by addiction or other circumstances.
When we reach the stage of acceptance, we learn that we cannot deny reality. We cannot use anger to stave off our sorrow. We cannot bargain away the truth. And while we may succumb to depression for a time, we eventually must move on so that the wounds may begin to heal. But alas, we may sometimes think that we have reached the stage of acceptance when we have in fact slipped deeper into denial. We’ll discuss this further below, and explain how you can tell the difference between true acceptance and its sneaky doppelgangers.
Defining Forms of Acceptance
German author and public speaker Eckhart Tolle once said: “Accept—then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.” It is perhaps quite telling that Tolle once spent time in a Buddhist monastery, seeing as his definition of acceptance appears to fall in line with the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Some have criticized the Buddhist notion of acceptance as being quite radical, while others such as psychologist Tara Brach have embraced this radicalism as a necessary component of true acceptance. This is no less true when accepting the circumstances of one’s grief. To accept the uncomfortable realities in our lives, we must undergo a major mental and emotional metamorphosis. We must, as Tolle said, learn to stop working against the truth.
It does not matter whether acceptance is expressed out loud or simply implied through our actions and general demeanor. When we have reached the stage of acceptance, we will generally discover a sense of inner peace. At times, our acceptance may be qualified or conditional. Tiny Buddha, a blog promising “simple wisdom for complex lives,” notes that acceptance comes easier when we are able to identify a lesson that we may learn from our predicament. But for us to identify such a lesson, we may require that certain conditions be met. These conditions may be simple, such as spending some time in the other stages of grief while we learn to properly adjust our minds and become more susceptible to true acceptance. In speaking of addiction, we often mention the condition of “hitting bottom.” In other words, our situation must sometimes become worse before we are able to see it clearly for what it is. The night is always darkest before the dawn.
One form of acceptance to which many addicts (both active and recovering) can relate is social acceptance. As is implied by the term itself, this is when people learn to tolerate the social presence of those they do not understand. Addicts and alcoholics may sometimes be intolerant of those who do not use their drug of choice, feeling that they have nothing in common with such people. Likewise, the friends and families of those who struggle with addiction may not know how to practice social acceptance. Due to the many negative personality myths and stereotypes surrounding those who suffer from addiction, our loved ones may come to feel that they do not know who we are. It can hurt quite a bit. But in truth, our loved ones do not enjoy it any more than we do. For to lack social acceptance is to lack understanding, and no one wants to feel baffled by those they hold dear to their hearts. Imagine the mother who feels as if she doesn’t know who her alcoholic son is anymore, and you’ll see why the mentality of social acceptance can be so difficult to attain.
Finally, there is self-acceptance. This form of acceptance is perhaps the most relatable to addiction, as it entails a mindset in which we are able to assess our own identities with a level of objectivity. We are not required to like what we see, and we very well may not. Acceptance is not the same as approval. But in the long run, those who reach a state of self-acceptance can begin to heal in extraordinary fashion. It will become easier for us to embrace the things we do like, but we will also learn to handle our defects in a new way. We will accept the things we cannot change, while developing the courage to change the things that we can. And with our newfound objectivity, we will be granted the wisdom to know the difference.
Acceptance in Active Addiction
When in active addiction, true acceptance is all but impossible. The addict has an overwhelming tendency to try to control everything around them. They vainly attempt to impose their will on all that surrounds them, hoping that they can control their situation and turn it into something that works for them. Psych Central notes that this delusion of control is generally an unproductive defense against reality. Our avoidance of the truth serves little purpose other than to sever our connection with the real world, allowing us to descend deeper into an abyss of drunkenness and self-deceit.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, acceptance is the backbone of Step One. In the first chapter of AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, founder Bill Wilson writes that “little good can come to any alcoholic…unless he has first accepted his devastating weakness and all its consequences.” Again, acceptance is not the same as approval. We are not required to enjoy the fact that we are addicts or alcoholics, nor are we required to beat ourselves up for our disease and the transgressions we have committed as a result of it. We are required only to accept the truth of our condition so that we may learn how to live with it. This can often be a much more difficult task than it sounds. While many believe that the first step is simply admitting that we have a problem, there is more to it than that. We are also required to admit that we cannot face this problem alone. We are required to relinquish our delusion of control.
As we learn to let go of this control, we will often find that we are better off without it. Failure to find acceptance during our periods of active addiction has often caused us much more sorrow than we are generally aware. In describing Step Three—the step in which AA members are suggested to surrender control completely—Bill Wilson compares the addict/alcoholic to an actor who is attempting to fulfill all roles, both onstage and off. He writes: “What usually happens? The show doesn’t come off very well. He begins to think life doesn’t treat him right. He decides to exert himself more. He becomes…more demanding or gracious, as the case may be. Still the play does not suit him. Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying.”
Wilson refers to the actor in this case as “a producer of confusion, rather than harmony,” a person who may wish well but has ultimately driven others away with their attempts at control. It is not only addicts and alcoholics who sometimes exhibit this type of well-meaning yet controlling behavior, as we will discuss in a bit. However, this demonstration of good intentions gone awry hints at another form of self-acceptance which must be embraced by every addict before they can enter recovery. See, while accepting our disease may be half the battle, we must also accept that we have many character defects that exist outside of our substance abuse. Step Six of AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions notes that some of these defects may serve us well for a time, but will ultimately spiral out of control.
Chapter Three of Alcoholics Anonymous, quoted earlier, refers to the addict or alcoholic as “an extreme example of self-will run riot,” which can unfortunately hamper our journey into acceptance. This is why we must often hit bottom, why we must risk losing someone or something that we thought could never be taken away from us. For it is only when our own self-will has so rapaciously bereaved us of the life we thought we held dear that we will finally accept the true nature of our addictions. This is the point at which we are truly ready to recover.
Acceptance in Addiction Recovery
Once we enter recovery, we will often find that we have trouble accepting far more than our addiction, or even our other character defects. There is a commonly quoted story in the back of Alcoholics Anonymous entitled “Acceptance Was the Answer” that addresses this very issue in detail. The author, Paul O., writes on page 417 of the fourth edition: “Shakespeare said, ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.’ He forgot to mention that I was the chief critic. I was always able to see the flaw in every person, every situation. And I was always glad to point it out, because I knew you wanted perfection, just as I did.”
This eager criticism does not subside the moment we enter recovery. Paul also writes that “unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy.” You may recognize this as sounding awfully similar to the views espoused by Eckhart Tolle, as discussed earlier. This is not likely intentional, but it is not sheer coincidence; this is the overlap of two great men who truly understand the healing power of acceptance for what it is. We do not have to be overjoyed with the current state of society to become well-adjusted and productive members of it. We do not have to agree with the actions of others in order to accept that they have as much a claim to the Earth as we do. There is a fundamental difference between accepting and condoning. If we cannot change what we do not condone, then we must accept it for what it is and learn to adjust. This is not martyrdom or self-sacrifice, but merely a fact of living.
We must also remember the difference between accepting and condoning when we are attempting to reach a state of acceptance with who we are. Throughout our journey of recovery, we will often be charged with the task of facing our inner demons head-on. We must look back on our lives and recognize that, for all the resentments we have built from the harm done to us, we have harmed quite a few people ourselves. In fact, we will often discover that those we resent the most are people who we have treated anything but kindly. Ironically, many others who we have treated with spite and malice are people from whom we sought nothing but approval. A Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet on self-acceptance notes that this yearning for social acceptance is often born out of our own tendencies toward self-loathing. We cannot accept ourselves, so we seek the favor of others. In other cases, our inability to attain a mentality of self-acceptance has caused us to turn others away, to become aloof and standoffish.
But self-acceptance is not the belief that we cannot or should not change. We can accept who we are and still strive to become better. We must simply realize and come to grips with the fact that, no matter how much we change, we will still be ourselves. We will still be burdened with the beautiful imperfections that make us human. Psych Central notes that perfectionists who attempt to overcome their own humanity are generally less happy and more stressed than those who accept that they are flawed. Perfectionism does us no favors. It holds us to a standard that nobody can reach, leaving us forever dissatisfied with our own state of being.
Once we have entered recovery from addiction, perfectionism should go right out the window. And it should be followed by our tendency to become overly critical of others. These are not the tools for attaining serenity and contentment. These are not the qualities that will allow us to become happy, joyous and free. If anything, these are forms of denial, convincing us that there exists a notion of true perfection. Acceptance delivers us from this false pretense, allowing us to enjoy a life of recovery based on truth and reality rather than deception and self-trickery.
Acceptance and Codependency
Bill Wilson clearly understood the impact of alcoholism and addiction on friends and family members, seeing as the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous contains three chapters that are not addressed to alcoholics at all. The first of these three chapters is dedicated to the wives of alcoholics. While this chapter primarily counsels patience and understanding, it also notes that some alcoholics are simply bad-intentioned. In these instances, the wife (or husband, as the case may be) must do what is best for everybody by ending the relationship. Acceptance of such a circumstance can be difficult, especially in abusive relationships that have caused a codependent spouse to feel as if their presence is somehow the only thing keeping the addict or alcoholic remotely stable. But maybe, just maybe, this will be the wakeup call that is needed in order for the addict to get help. If not, then it is still better for spouses to part ways than for the codependent to feel trapped with someone who does not intend to get better.
The following chapter is dedicated to the entire family, and notes that the family of the alcoholic will often exhibit the same type of controlling and critical behavior that many exhibit in periods of active alcoholism and addiction. As a result of long-term exposure to a loved one’s disease, the entirety of the family unit has fallen prey to a similar spiritual illness. While there are times at which we must accept that an addicted loved one cannot be forced into recovery, there are also times at which we must accept that they are truly doing their best. This can be problematic, because their “best” might not look quite the way we’d prefer. But if they have expressed a sincere desire to stop abusing substances, and they have done everything that has been asked of them, then we must accept that some of their defects may still be lingering. To truly accept a loved one’s addiction, we must accept the nature of addiction itself.
The tenth chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous is addressed to employers, although parts of its message may apply equally well to friends and family members. One of the most important parts of this chapter is the acknowledgement that understanding does not always result in permanent acceptance. According to Bill W.: “When dealing with an alcoholic, there may be a natural annoyance that a man could be so weak, stupid and irresponsible. Even when you understand the malady better, you may feel this feeling rising.” Not only does this passage note that understanding cannot breed acceptance on a permanent basis, but it also draws attention to the fact that acceptance itself may not be permanent. We may slip back into denial and believe that we can control others. We may regress back into perfectionism and excessive criticism. This doesn’t make us bad, or less sympathetic. It simply shows our tendency to cling to an image of perfection that does not truly exist.
In AA, there are many sponsors who say that Step One is the only step that can be taken 100%, and that it is the only step which absolutely must be taken 100%. The message is that acceptance is important, and without it there can be no spiritual growth. Those who have never been to a codependent’s support group may be surprised to learn that Al-Anon actually uses the same twelve steps as AA. In an Al-Anon podcast on the merits of Step One, multiple speakers talk about how this step has benefitted them. They have learned that they cannot control their loved one’s substance abuse, nor should they allow it to control them. Through acceptance, they learned how to live their lives in alcoholic households without succumbing to the pressures of codependency.
It can be difficult to accept that the addict or alcoholic in your life has such a troubling disease, and that the best solution is sometimes to let them hit bottom. Once they have entered recovery, it can be difficult to accept that relapse is a stark possibility. It can even be difficult to accept recovery itself, as the families and friends of addicts and alcoholics may feel as if their loved one has become distant, spending more time at recovery meetings than at home. But the only way to escape the shackles of codependency is to recognize that you have a right to live your life the way you choose. You do not have to bend to the will of your loved one’s disease. The sooner you accept that you cannot control their addiction, the sooner you can take charge of your own life.
How Do We Know Acceptance is Real?
We realize that we may have scared you when we suggested that acceptance does not exist on a permanent basis. But there is no need to be alarmed. While we may occasionally think that we have reached a state of acceptance while we are in fact immersed in denial, those who have learned to recognize the difference between true acceptance and mere complacency will eventually be able to catch themselves in a lie before it grows out of hand. The Jaywalker, a site dedicated to informing the public of alcoholism and recovery, argues that complacency or compliance is only partial surrender. Note that in this terminology, surrender is true acceptance while compliance is merely a façade, a ploy masquerading as acceptance when it is in fact merely a dressed-up form of denial.
Eckhart Tolle has actually written on this notion of surrender, defining it as “inner acceptance of what is without any reservations.” When we accept the disease of addiction, we do not resist it by trying to define it chronologically. We do not waste time ruminating on when it started, because regretting the past will not change the present. We do not spend hours upon hours gazing into the future and looking for a cure, because attempting to harness an image of the future will not allow us to let go of our control in this moment. When we embrace true surrender, true acceptance, we are enlightened. We are able to live one day at a time, not because we can but because we realize that there is no other possible way to live. The notion of changing the past or the future is nothing but an illusion, and a rather shaky one at that. If we give into it for too long, then we are setting ourselves up for a regression through the stages of grief when the illusion finally gives way to the truth.
Note that you cannot fool yourself into surrender. If you find yourself accepting something simply because you are told to accept it, then this is not true acceptance. This is compliance at its sneakiest. While compliance may often be motivated by thought, true acceptance involves our emotions. However, those who have reached a point of acceptance will not be overly emotional. Identify Magazine defines acceptance as “realizing the judgments within you and bringing presence to neutralize them.” When we reach a point of acceptance with ourselves and our situation, we are not crushed by it, nor are we overjoyed. We take everything just as it is, the good and the bad. This is not to say that acceptance and emotion cannot exist side by side—denying our emotions so wholly would be next to impossible. However, we learn to recognize the difference between the two. If you want some exercises to practice the separation of truth from emotion and sensory stimuli, look at our articles on walking meditation and Zen sitting meditation.
We will provide one last definition for true acceptance before winding down and closing out this multi-part series. Quite fittingly, this definition is derived from the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist who first defined the five stages of grief. Kübler-Ross was primarily observing patients with terminal prognoses, people who were grieving the imminent loss of their own lives. While many expect acceptance to breed instant happiness (and it can certainly make true happiness easier to attain), this is not how Kübler-Ross described it. Instead, she referred to acceptance as “a certain degree of quiet expectation.” There is a Huffington Post article that compares this to divorce. It might also be compared to losing one’s job, or entering treatment for addiction or alcoholism. We do not necessarily jump for joy. We are not quick to embrace our circumstances. But we have come to understand what is happening to us, and our mind is much calmer than it was when we were resisting reality through the other four stages of grief.
In previous articles within this series, we discussed several support groups for those who need help moving through the grieving process. We will not do that here. You should be familiar with them by now. Besides, those who have learned to find true acceptance will not need help to live and cope with it. We will, however, recommend that you join our own channels of support, such as our Amethyst Recovery Moms’ Corner and our parent alumni program. We also recommend that you go ahead and seek out relevant support groups, whether you are an addict or a codependent. By sharing your story with others, you just might help them learn to embrace acceptance in their own lives.
This newfound ability to help others is one of the most glorious aspects of acceptance. In Annie Broadbent’s We Need to Talk About Grief, one of the major points is that we cannot ease a friend, loved one, or even mild acquaintance through the grieving process if we have not been through it ourselves. Once we have learned to accept our own grief, whether it be caused by loss or addiction, we are in a position to help those in similar situations. We understand their feelings better than we possibly could have before. We are, as stated earlier, enlightened. And now we can pay it forward.
The road to acceptance is a long one. But the payoff when we get there? Absolutely worth it.