People in early addiction recovery are like ticking time bombs – relapse is often just one stressor away. For many, the holiday season is that stressor. Family conflict erupts. Reality falls short of their expectations. Stress builds. Then, friends, coworkers and family members, even those who don’t ordinarily drink, throw parties or host gatherings where alcohol is readily available. This is a powerful physical and psychological trigger for anyone in early recovery, prompting intense cravings that can feel impossible to resist.
Thanks to scientific research, we have a number of highly effective strategies for reducing the risk of relapse. Unfortunately, some of the most effective approaches are also the least utilized. Here are four relapse prevention tools that can help recovering addicts, especially those with a history of relapse, stay sober over the holidays and beyond:
#1 Integrated Treatment for Underlying Mental Health Disorders
Roughly half of individuals who struggle with drug addiction also have other addictions or mental health disorders. Because appropriate dual diagnosis treatment can be difficult to find, many people end up choosing a therapist or drug rehab that focuses exclusively on substance abuse – or, more likely, pays lip service to treating dual disorders but lacks the staff and resources needed to treat these intricately intertwined issues. Without addressing both the underlying issues (mental health disorders) and the symptom (drug abuse) at the same time, relapse rates are significantly higher.
In an ongoing quest to find the secret to happiness, scientists have come back to the same answer time and again: relationships with other people. In a 2012 Australian study, researchers found that the quality of a child’s relationships with family and friends has a greater effect on their happiness as adults than intelligence, wealth or academic success. The U.K.’s National Child Development Study showed that middle-age adults who regularly meet up with 10 or more friends have better mental health than those with five or fewer friends.
Given the connection between social ties and mental health, it comes as no surprise that people who feel socially isolated are more likely to struggle with substance abuse. New research shows the reverse is also true: Drug abuse may be the cause, not just an effect, of social isolation. According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, teens who drink are more likely to feel like social outcasts than students who avoid alcohol.
Thus, an important part of addiction recovery is restoring close ties with other people. After bidding farewell to their drug-abusing associates as well as many of the healthy relationships they once had, most addicts in early recovery are faced with building a social network from the ground up.
We talk a lot about the potential for stress, transitions, relationships and other major life changes to trigger a relapse. With much of the focus on the “Big Three” – the people, places and things to avoid – day-to-day issues like money lurk in the shadows as a silent threat to sobriety.
Among the first tasks of early recovery is getting a job. This is a critical step in rebuilding confidence, repaying debts and achieving goals but it also means having a steady flow of cash – something that used to be closely tied with drug use. Here are a few tips to help you safeguard your sobriety while regaining your financial stability:
Broaden Your Personal Inventory. As part of your recovery from addiction, you may have taken a personal inventory. As part of your financial recovery, you need to take an honest look at your assets, debts and expenses. The process may be discouraging so have a plan in place for dealing with negative feelings to guard against relapse. Ask a friend or family member to take inventory with you and stay focused on improvements you can make in the future rather than dwelling on past mistakes.
Alcoholics Anonymous is founded on the concept of one addict helping another. This emphasis on service is not based on religious dogma or speculation, but rather decades of experience with what works in addiction recovery. Until recently, science has focused on discovering new medications to treat addiction. Few researchers have subjected the 12-Step principles, which have helped millions of people achieve long-term recovery, to rigorous study. As a result, many core principles of 12-Step recovery have been marginalized as “unscientific.”
Fortunately, we are on the precipice of a new era in addiction research – one that is determined to learn from the success of AA/NA and find out why 12-Step recovery has been effective for so many addicts.
Given all the buzz about the biological roots of addiction, it may come as a surprise that it’s not necessarily having a long line of addicts in the family or an “addictive personality” that sets a recovery effort up for failure, but more to do with your willingness to get real about your disease. Here are five signs your recovery is headed in the wrong direction:
#1 Refusing to Ask for Help
While some people recover on their own, the vast majority cannot stop using without a strong network of family or friends, a trusted therapist or some other form of support. Refusing to reach out for help, whether that includes inpatient or outpatient treatment, counseling or self-help support groups, is often a sign that long-term recovery isn’t going to be a reality.
What is the number-one enemy of recovery? Many people say drugs, alcohol or the disease of addiction itself. Perhaps you’d point to unsupportive friends or a flawed health care system or a dysfunctional home life. However, there is a much loftier, much more conniving opponent threatening your sobriety: you.
Addicts are expert self-saboteurs. Addiction itself is, in some ways, an act of self-sabotage. Rather than dealing with uncomfortable feelings and finding workable solutions, addicts turn to drugs and alcohol, temporarily escaping one problem only to create bigger ones. Here are a few ways addicts continue to get in the way of their sobriety, even years into recovery:
Inside an addict’s mind runs a soundtrack of self-attacks: “I’ll never get it right.” “I don’t deserve to be happy.” Many addicts suffer from a core belief that they aren’t good enough or don’t deserve anything but the misery they’ve known in active addiction. They accept self-judgments and abuse they would never tolerate from other people.
Often unbeknownst to the addict, these thoughts translate into feelings of hopelessness and defeat, leaving the addict feeling desperate for a high and powerless to resist. Recognizing and intervening in this ongoing negative commentary and substituting more accurate thinking is an essential skill in recovery.
“I’ll never do that again.”
“I used to be addicted, but now I can limit myself to just one drink.”
Lies are a natural and virtually automatic way of life for addicts. As a result of denial and diseased thinking, addicts (often very convincingly) lie to their loved ones to keep them around, to the world to avoid stigmatization, and to themselves to preserve their drug habit. They lie about the big things and the small things – to feel important, to avoid rejection or judgment, to keep up appearances – until they’ve created a fantasy life that is far more tolerable than their current reality.
The dishonesty, though understandably hurtful to others, serves a purpose in the addict’s life. If they stopped lying, they’d have to quit drinking or using drugs and face a shameful pile of hurt they’ve inflicted on the people they love. That’s quite a load to bear, especially for the addict who is complacent about getting sober or who tries to face their past alone. It’s much easier to hide emotions, keep up the double life and continue using.
One unexpected benefit of finding your way into recovery is that you pretty quickly learn who your real friends are. During active addiction, you are ironically both socially isolated and part of a drug-abusing community. You may spend a lot of time together and feel a bond based on your shared preoccupation with drugs. But that doesn’t mean those people are your friends.
Not surprisingly, when an addict gets clean, their “friends” don’t always have their back. In fact, some become downright toxic to their recovery. Here are a few reasons the people you thought were your friends may end up sabotaging your recovery efforts:
• Addiction drives away most of an addict’s true friends.
• Whether they use drugs or not, your friends may not understand the disease of addiction. Even if they want to be supportive, many are in denial or don’t know how to stop enabling.
• Your sobriety spells the end of the friendship. Drug-using pals don’t want to lose a friend, but even more, they don’t want to stop using drugs.
• Your recovery holds up a mirror that shows them the reality of their lives – a vision they may not be ready or willing to see of themselves as an addict who needs help. They may be afraid that you’ll start preaching to them or rat them out to family, friends or law enforcement and put an end to their lifestyle.
• They have tried to quit unsuccessfully. It can be disheartening to see someone else succeed in what they can’t do so themselves.
• They don’t have a drug or alcohol problem, but want to continue to enjoy an occasional beer during a football game or glass of wine with dinner without worrying about their influence on you.
• A romantic partner or spouse may be concerned that your efforts to improve your life will lead to separation, divorce or finding someone else.
Setting boundaries is an essential skill in life, especially for people in recovery. Addicts often grow up in dysfunctional homes, where boundaries were either too rigid (leading to suppressed emotions or distant relationships) or too enmeshed (depriving them of a sense of personal identity). Later in life, their interpersonal relationships may continue to be defined by old roles and patterns, increasing the risk of depression, anxiety and addictive or compulsive behaviors.
As part of recovery, addicts learn how to set boundaries and to respect other people’s boundaries in return. In the addiction field, treatment providers often refer to this process as embracing the authentic self. While it may sound like psychobabble, it is really a process of discovering who you want to be, how you want to interact with other people, and taking responsibility for the consequences of your choices.
You’ve waited all year for a much-anticipated break from the grind of daily life. You’ve researched all your options and planned every detail of your summer vacation down to where you’ll eat and what you’ll wear.
But if you’re in recovery from addiction, you may have overlooked some of the details that matter most.
How will you handle triggers to drink or use when you’re in an unfamiliar environment, faced with new challenges and stressors? What happens when you’re feeling stressed or anxious and the person next to you on the plane is drinking? Or your travel companions decide to hit up every party they can find in a one-week period?
You can’t predict every temptation that may arise, but you can take steps to safeguard your sobriety even when you’re away from home:
#1 Consider a Sober Holiday. New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Hawaii are continually among the most popular vacation destinations, but why limit yourself to what’s conventional? Many resorts, cruise lines and travel companies offer alcohol-free vacations in these and other hotspots.
There are even sober music festivals, spas, camping trips, surf and ski getaways, sailing expeditions, safaris, and golf and yoga retreats. In addition to putting away the alcohol and scheduling sober activities and meetings, vacation-goers are surrounded by a supportive community of people in recovery.