Recovery is like a puzzle where the addict not only puts the puzzle pieces together, but also has to create the pieces. Each individual’s descent into the hell of alcohol addiction, substance use or addictive behaviour is different, and so is each recovery journey. Often there is that little voice inside that says, ‘If you tell them, I’ll show them who you really are.’ As a result, many addicts try to handle things on their own, and family members and other people close to the addict do not understand the extent of their struggles.
To successfully recover from a substance use disorder or behaviourial addiction is no small feat. Life is taken one day at a time, and maybe even hour by hour. As the puzzle pieces are identified, a new picture begins to emerge, one of completeness, sobriety, wholeness, self-esteem, and self-love. It can be hard to know where to start, and the problems can mount up, making abstinence seem out of reach, but recovery is always possible. Here are six tips to avoid relapse and make a recovery stick.
Tip 1 – Don’t Do It Alone
Those with a substance abuse disorder become masters at keeping secrets and hiding their pain, struggles, and relapses. A key factor to success in recovery is relationships and a support system. There is a much greater chance of recovery as part of an Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or Sexaholics Anonymous group. Treatment centres and rehab programs can offer further accountability and safe environments for detox and professional help. Sponsors (those who have walked the road to recovery) and accountability teams (those also on the road to recovery) can provide further support when temptation strikes, or if a setback occurs.
12-step programs, rehab programs, treatment centres, and AA/NA/SA support groups are a great first place to start the journey into sobriety. These people can help manage the ups and downs that come with recovering from a substance abuse disorder. There is community and solidarity in associating with those who have walked or are walking the recovery journey. However, there comes a time in the journey to sobriety where the addict should branch out from this community and learn how to do life, not just recovery. Associating with those who will love, support, and accept a recovering individual and teach them how to do life is important. People who are learning any new sport, hobby, or skill do so by gaining knowledge through training or mentorship under someone who can teach the ropes. The same can be said of sobriety. To progress in recovery, the addict should begin to associate with healthy individuals who can teach, encourage, and support life skills.
Tip 2 – Get Professional Help
There is no shame in needing help. Support groups and self-help groups cannot replace the wisdom and insight of a trained psychologist or counselor. Often there is a deeper reason for substance abuse, whether it is childhood trauma, depression, anger, emotional abuse, or any number of other issues. Regardless of whether or not addiction is at play, a good psychologist can help identify these deeper issues and help individuals process them in a healthy way. Working through these issues takes time and focus, and should be done as part of a professional treatment program, using tools such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and motivational enhancement therapy. These individuals can also help monitor progress and analyze relapses, should they happen.
Almost everyone needs help from time to time. It is up to recovering addicts to disclose that they are in recovery, as well as the nature of their addiction and their progress towards lasting abstinence. The world does not need to know that a psychologist or counselor is involved. Their value, however, cannot be replaced. They can arm those in recovery with coping skills, tools, tricks, and relapse prevention plans to ensure that a deep and full recovery happens.
Tip 3 – Understand Your Triggers
A key step to preventing relapse is to identify those triggers, urges, warning signs, cravings or urges, and motives that create a greater risk of relapse. Self-awareness is essential to recovery, and writing down triggers can be beneficial to identifying and avoiding them. Risk factors could include stress, social pressure, illness, toxic family members, boredom, environmental factors, and sensory triggers like smells, sights and sounds. This list could go on forever, and no two people will have the same list. The H.A.L.T method is a common starting point for identifying triggers:
H – Hungry
A – Angry
L – Lonely
T – Tired
These four physical or emotional states, if not taken care of, can leave an individual at higher risk of relapse. Relapse is often a progression. For example, being hungry may not, in and of itself, be a high-risk situation. However, hunger could lead to irritability, which could create a desire to escape the problem, which could lead to a relapse.
Tip 4 – Be aware of Transference
Transference is where one addiction is replaced by another. Scott was a long-time abuser of pornography, and on his journey to recovery he used food, internet, and even household chores as a replacement for his addiction. He wasn’t progressing in his recovery; he was just replacing one problem with another. This can often be the case for those in recovery. They may say “I’m done with drugs or alcohol but now I binge eat, shop excessively, or exercise to the detriment of my body.” Eating, exercise, and shopping are part of everyday life, and when done in moderation they are healthy. However, each of these activities can have the same outcome as a relapse would. It is important to understand the motives and attitudes behind activities, and to ensure that the appropriate progression in recovery is still being experienced.
Tip 5 – Health and Diet
Get a physical done. For many addicts, the consequence of their addiction has resulted in significant damage to their bodies. They may have sexually transmitted illnesses, high blood pressure or hypertension, asthma, heart or lung disease, cancer or mental health conditions. It is well known that tobacco and nicotine can cause many types of cancer, that methamphetamine can cause severe dental issues (‘meth-mouth’), and that opioids can lead to overdose and death. Getting a routine physical is an act of caring for oneself. An addict may not realize that they have certain complications or ailments until they see a physician. This may also be an awakening for those in recovery.
More and more information is being discovered into the gut-brain connection and how the food we eat affects our bodies. The microbes that live in our gut also make other chemicals that can affect how our brain works. This is why it is important to examine the food we eat, how it makes us feel, and what results may play out. For Scott, sweet foods (not only highly processed foods but naturally occurring ones as well) significantly exacerbate feelings of stress and anxiety, which triggers the temptation to relapse. While it is important to consider how the processed food we eat makes us feel, the same goes for seemingly healthy food. Does the diet an addict consumes promote sobriety, or does it potentially trigger a relapse?
Many addicts live a sedentary lifestyle. Alcohol is consumed at the bar, a sex addict sits in front of the computer, and the drug addict sits or kneels in a living room or basement. Rarely does an addict work out, run, or live an active lifestyle. One three-month study found that performing one hour of yoga six days per week significantly increased dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain, that along with many others, is responsible for feelings of euphoria and happiness. Neurotransmitters like dopamine also spike during drug and alcohol use, resulting in the ‘high’ an addict feels. If dopamine can be sparked with healthy activities done in a healthy way, these activities can be an important part of a relapse prevention plan.
Tip 6 – Give Back
Winston Churchill once said ‘“We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” After an extended period of sobriety, one of the best things to do is to mentor or sponsor someone who is just starting their journey. Wisdom and insight have been gained along the way, and this knowledge can only transform if it is shared. Walk alongside someone new in their journey, share the woes, hardships, and successes that have come, and encourage others along the way. This also gives mentors and sponsors a new way to re-live and review the basic concepts and principles that have aided their recovery, that they may have gotten away from. Seeing others progress in their recovery journeys can give those alongside them new hope and encouragement in their own recovery. While recovery does get easier over time, addicts should always keep the principles that have promoted their success close.
Successful recovery involves a lifestyle change. The first weeks and months can be the most grueling part of pursuing a sober life. Withdrawal symptoms can kick in, temptations are everywhere, and relapse is a constant concern. When relapse does happen, it is important to not kick yourself too hard, get discouraged or give up. Careful consideration should be given to the precursors to the relapse to prevent it from happening again.
Over time it does get easier. Self-awareness is an important component to making recovery stick. As an addict begins to have more self-awareness, and to develop or restore meaningful connections with a spouse, family members and other people, the triggers and temptations become easier to identify and avoid. Abstinence becomes easier and one’s physical, emotional, and mental health starts to return. Hopefully, in time, this results in feelings of worthiness, value, and self-love. Recovery is always possible.
Carnes, Patrick. “Facing The Shadow, Starting Sexual and Relationship Recovery (Third Edition)”. 2005
Photo credit: Bär Baer. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.