Recovery Tools

Aspects of Treatment: Essentials in Recovery

Willingness – Openness – Honesty


The three essentials of recovery from addiciton or alcoholism are Willingness, Openness and Honesty.  The 12 step groups have adopted this as foundational to recovery, and use the acronym H.O.W.: “Honesty, Open Mindedness and Willingness”.  These are the essentials of recovery.
From the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous 

Why are these so important?  Why do so many experts in recovery agree?   Lets break it down, in no particular order.


What is Willingness?

Recovery from addiction or alcoholism is hard-recovery is much, much more than just stopping use.  Abstinence, or stopping the use of alcohol or drugs, is the first, and most important step in recovery. And in order to stop using, you must be willing to stop.

Psychotropic drugs – any substance which affect a persons mental state -outside of a prescribed, monitored and strictly adhered to administration, must stop.   However, there are many different types of abstinence.

Abstinence is typically interpreted as complete abstinence, but see below:

  • Continuous abstinence: not consuming the drug of choice during a specified period of time
  • Essentially abstinent: not consuming more than a specified amount of the drug over a period of time
  • Minimal abstinence: achieving a minimal period of recovery during a period of time
  • Point-in-time abstinence: not consuming the drug of choice at a single point in time (e.g., the past 30 days)
  • Complete abstinence: continuous abstinence from all alcohol and other drugs
  • Involuntary abstinence: enforced abstinence due to hospitalization or incarceration

When entering recovery, with the goal being the ability to stop using alcohol and drugs and get our lives back, we have to be willing to take the steps necessary to make that happen.  If we have been incarcerated, we might not like the consequences, but are we ready to stop using?   If we are only not using due to the circumstances, that might be considered involuntary abstinence.  

Many times, outside forces, such as family or job pressures, move us to a recovery environment, such as a family home, a detox facility, even a residential recovery program.  We are placed in a situation where the use of substances is not available, maybe not really even wanted for a while-these instances are considered circumstantial abstinences, or point-in-time, minimal or essential, but without a willingness to remain abstinent afterwards, many go back to using.  A common factor that frustrates many family and friends of ours is that we really might not want to completely stop-we just really want the consequences of our use to stop.  

To begin and sustain abstinence and begin recovery, we have to be willing to begin.  Willingness, by definition, means:  “the quality or state of being prepared to do something; readiness.”     

What Do We Mean By Openness?

The second key essential component for recovery is openness, or the ability to be open minded.  The definition of open-mindedness is: “willing to consider new ideas; unprejudiced.”   When entering into recovery, it is imperative to be open minded about the process of recovery.  So many times, we have a pre-conceived idea about what recovery should look and feel like.  Well meaning family and friends might believe and say;   “Well, you aren’t using anymore, you should feel great!”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We might be exhausted from what we have been through.  Our health, our mental well-being, our spirit, have been ravaged by our disease, and we have only just begun!

Being open minded is having a willingness to try new things or to hear and consider new ideas, willing to consider new and different ideas or opinions, being receptive to new and different ideas or the opinions of others, and finally, having a mind that is open to new ideas; free from prejudice or bias.  Often in our addictions, we have tried various ways to control or stop our use.

We have heard a lot of ideas about how to stop and cannot, so we have a predispositionate sense of what will work best for us because nothing else has.  We sometimes have a false sense of our disease and may become convinced that if [fill in the blank] and [fill in the blank] are in place, we will be able to stop our use and consequences.  Being open minded allows us to hear different ideas, points of view, learn from other’s experiences, and shift thoughts out of our own heads.

Spirituality is also a large component of recovery; and open-mindedness to this concept is key.  Spirituality may come at a later point in recovery, but being open-minded is crucial to your recovery journey.

What About Honesty?

Addiction and alcoholism are diseases of the brain-that is, our brains are hi-jacked by psychotropic substances and, while under the influence, our ability to have control over what we say, do, think and even feel is compromised.  We become masters at hiding the truth of our addiction-we white-lie, under-report, make excuses, confabulate (add in what we think should be there in grey or black memory areas), hide our use, hide the paraphenilia of our use, steal to support our use, and so much more.

We blame others, ourselves, circumstances.  And we lie to ourselves.  We do this because we are addicted-not because we are bad people without morals.  Many of us are mothers, fathers, grandparents or students.  Many of us work, write music or books, play in politics, work in law enforcement, the medical industry.  We are everywhere.  But when it comes to our addiction, that is our dirty little secret.

When we enter into recovery, we have to meet this head on and get real, really real, with ourselves.  We need to tell our medical team, if there is one, the absoulute factual accounts of our use-our life depends upon it.  And we have to be completely honest with ourselves.

If you are in a relationship with a significant other, or live in a room with a close relative or best friend, these people need to know what is going on-they most likely have a pretty good idea, but they might not have a clear idea of how deep your use is.  In the 12 step groups, Honesty is discussed frequently and consistently, and there are some who believe that total honesty about every single thing that you have done in your addiction must be laid out on the table.  The saying is;  “You are only as sick as your secrets”.  Others believe that while complete honesty about your use is necessary, the behaviors are not critical to be laid bare to every person as a requirement for recovery.

One thing is clear, from all perspectives-outside of complete honesty about your use of substances, choosing who to add to your circle of supports in your recovery is personal and infdividual.  Confessions about what you did while in active addiction are completely your choice of when, and if, you choose to disclose.  Your truths should be weighed to ensure that they cause no harm to the person you are confiding in, and, probably most importantly, should cause no harm to you.


My Thoughts on This Subject:

I believe you have to be willing to want to stop using alcohol or drugs; I also know that for many of us, the first reason that we enter into recovery may not be the same reason we stay in recovery.  I’ve seen very successful interventions where the using person went to a treatment center kicking and screaming, and stayed.  Their initial reason (my family made me) changed over time (I want this for me).  Willingness just has to stay-stay willing.  

That willingness to stay happened because they remained open, or Open-minded.  What worked isn’t working anymore.  Listen, and maybe you’ll learn something.  Maybe, you’ll teach others things.  That’s how it works.  But keeping an open mind is essential.  

And about honesty-being completely honest about your use of alcohol or drugs is vital in early recovery.  Your doctors NEED to know.  Your counselor or your therapist NEEDS to know.   And those who share your home must also know.   All alcohol and drugs need to be removed from the home as a support for you.  If your loved one cannot not drink or use in your home, then perhaps there is a problem there that needs to be addressed. 

Think of it this way-if your loved one was diagnosed with diabetes, would you keep chocolate bars, ice cream and sugary sweets around?  Would you eat those now forbidden foods in front of your loved one?  Of course not.  Your home needs to be safe and free from any kind of reminder of your use or temptation to use.  Your life depends on this.

And finally, remember this:  You do not have to bare your soul and your secrets.  You don’t.  Think of it as a ‘need to know’-your healthcare team needs to know your use, but they don’t need to know every soul secret you have.  Share only when and if you feel safe.  With the person or the people you trust.  Your truths should be weighed to ensure that they cause no harm to the person you are confiding in, and, probably most importantly, should cause no harm to you.   


The 12 Step Groups have instilled H.O.W. in their literature; below is from Cocaine Anonymous:  

“H.O.W. – Honesty, Open-Mindedness and Willingness

Honesty, Open-Mindedness and Willingness

Welcome to Cocaine Anonymous. We are all here for the same reason—our inability to stop using cocaine and all other mind-altering substances. We wish to assure you that there is a solution and that recovery is possible. Many of us have found that to begin our journey from the misery, terror, and pain of addiction to the solution of recovery, it was necessary to embrace three spiritual principles: honesty, open-mindedness and willingness.


When we arrived, many of us knew very little about being honest. We had practiced being dishonest for so long, it had become a way of life. For months and years, we had built walls around us of falsehoods and fantasy. Of these, the most personally destructive was denial. We denied we had a serious problem with drugs and alcohol. We told ourselves that we could manage our lives, that we were in control, or that other people were to blame for our problems. When we finally arrived at the point where our dishonesty no longer served us, we had reached the end of the line.

With the help of our sponsors, we realized that for us to move from the problem of addiction to the solution of recovery, we needed to admit and embrace the truth about ourselves. Once we began to see ourselves as we really are, we found that perhaps change was in order . . . but how were we to go about it? What we discovered along the way was that to change our thoughts, we had to begin to act our way into a new way of thinking. We were not saints, and the miracle within us was not performed overnight, but when we began to practice honesty, our journey of recovery was well underway.

The path to being rigorously honest for most of us is a lifetime of work. We can only gauge our honesty today by comparing it to our honesty yesterday. Once we began to act and, therefore, think differently, we found that we could practice being honest with ourselves, which enabled us to also receive the truth from others.

Most of us had tried on our own to do everything we knew to get clean and sober, and we failed miserably. We never seemed to get it right. However, as we reflected honestly on the thoughts and actions of our using careers, we finally saw how much our perception of the world differed from reality. Once we learned to practice honesty, our recovery could progress.


After admitting that we had been truly defeated by our substance use and that we could not manage our own lives, we were left facing another obstacle: our beliefs. Although we arrived here from different ethnicities and cultures, many of us realized that our old belief systems were not enough on their own to deliver us from our addiction. Regardless of how we prayed, or if we prayed at all, it seemed we could not tap into a power sufficient to overcome our cravings and our desire to use. Some of us refused to believe in a Higher Power; others of us became convinced that ours had abandoned us. It was suggested that we seek a Higher Power that could keep us clean and restore our sanity. Regardless of our spiritual state, we had to first give up some of our old ideas and preconceptions in order to become willing to believe that this was possible.

When we reached this critical point and became willing to believe, our minds began to open. We listened with excitement as our sponsors and our fellows spoke about the solution that they had found! For the first time, we truly believed that it might be possible for us to have the answers we had sought but were never able to find on our own. We had finally become ready to take a leap of faith, which would direct us out of the darkness. Slowly, our attitudes began to change, and we began to have hope.


During our active addiction, many of us acted in ways that were perhaps unsavory or even horrendous. Those actions often got us what we wanted: the next high. While we didn’t all hit the same bottom, we recognized that our arrival there was the result of our own bad decisions, which may have seemed good at the time. We sank to those depths through our selfish and self-centered thinking in pursuit of the next binge or bender. When we began working a program of recovery, including the 12 Steps, and embracing the truth about ourselves, we realized just how negatively our actions had affected our lives and those around us. Having embraced honesty and open-mindedness, realizing that the old ways of living would no longer serve us or others, we had to stop making excuses for our actions.

All around us, we began to see the freedom that other members had gained, and we wanted what they had. They told us that recovery would be given to us freely, but that we would need to be ready to do the work ourselves. We were told our journey would not always be easy, but that it would be worth it. We may not have trusted ourselves at this point, but we learned to listen to what others had to say and to trust the process.

Just as we prepared for the actions that fed our addictions, we also had to prepare for the actions that would feed our recovery. Willingness is what precedes and sustains those actions. It begins when we take the position of readiness and prepare to work. We become open to the will of our Higher Power and accepting of the guidance from our sponsor and fellows, trusting that we will not be led astray. Armed with the truth and the belief that we could be restored to sanity, we let nothing stand in our way. This new-found willingness prepared us mentally, physically, and spiritually to begin to take action, putting one foot in front of the other to embark upon the journey of recovery.

Honesty, open-mindedness and willingness are three spiritual principles at the foundation of our recovery. Without them, a solution cannot be reached. They are not items on a list to be checked off, one at a time. Rather, they become characteristics of our new lease on life. As we become more open-minded, we also become more willing. As our willingness increases, so does our honesty. Our progress is not measured by comparing ourselves to others—only to our previous selves. As we learn to embrace these principles and practice them in all our affairs, the pathway to freedom begins to shine before us.”

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