When my colleague Patricia Meyers got clean in 1997 after years of alcohol and drug use, she wanted to tell the whole world. Her father, however, urged silence. “I remember on a trip when I was in early recovery, he said, ‘You need to know if something happens, if something goes missing, you are going to be the first person they look at.’”
Actually, recovering addicts have a lot to grieve. The activity that has been the central focus of their lives is now something they can never do again. The only comfort they have known is gone, and their life requires a complete overhaul. That’s a lot to take in, especially at a time when they are least prepared in terms of ego strength and coping skills.
The 22 million Americans addicted to drugs aren’t as “different” as they may think. Added to their ranks are nearly 150 million obese or overweight Americans who are compelled to eat in much the same way addicts are driven to get high.
Although it has taken awhile for science to catch up with human experience, we have learned that certain foods affect the brain in similar ways as drugs like cocaine and nicotine. In a study by Yale researchers, just looking at a milkshake lit up the same areas of the brain that become hyperactive when an addict sees cocaine.
Fear is normal at every stage of recovery. Everyone enters rehab with some trepidation, even if they’ve been in and out of treatment for years. Likewise, most people leave rehab full of worry. What will happen when they leave the one place they know they can stay sober? How will they cope when the feelings they’ve been medicating come flooding back?
When you think about how the average person responds to a horror movie or passing a traffic accident, it is clear that, in some cases, fear actually draws us in rather than repelling us. Fear makes us alert to danger; it helps guide our decision-making process. But too much fear can be paralyzing in life and, in addiction recovery, can be a precursor to relapse.
Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and graduations are widely celebrated, sometimes in grand fashion. We make a big fuss over getting a driver’s license at 16 and aging in to the right to drink alcohol at 21. But these aren’t the only, or necessarily the most important, occasions worthy of observance. After all, when the work is as hard as recovering from addiction, every milestone merits recognition.
Addicts are sometimes reluctant to self-congratulate, partly out of concern that they won’t be able to continue living up to their own expectations. But celebrating your recovery serves a number of valuable functions. Even years into recovery, celebrating reminds you where you were, how far you’ve come and how easy it is to fall back. When life gets stressful, or you’ve disappointed yourself or someone else, circling back to your recovery can be a reminder that you’ve faced bigger hurdles in the past and prevailed.
Once, twice, three times in rehab – the story isn’t uncommon. For many recovering addicts, it takes multiple treatment attempts to get well. Disappointed, angry and ready to give up, addicts and their loved ones are left asking, “What went wrong?” Here are a few possibilities:
#1 Wrong Understanding of Addiction
Prolonged drug use alters the chemistry in the brain, doing damage that can take weeks, months, even years to reverse. As a chronic, relapsing disease, there is no quick fix for addiction. Expecting to go to treatment for 30, 60 or 90 days and be “cured” is a set-up for relapse.
A) Great! An opportunity to share my ideas and meet some interesting new people.
B) I need a drink.
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.