Common Pitfalls in Recovery and How to Avoid Them

Posted on May 27th, 2010

If you’ve been in treatment for addiction, you’ve probably heard the comment that recovery isn’t a straight-line process. In fact, recovery sometimes seems like a journey of two steps forward and one step back before any significant progress occurs. While that’s not always true, it does happen often enough that recovery proves difficult for many who are trying to create their new life of sobriety. Here are some of the most common pitfalls in recovery – and how to avoid them.

Cravings and Urges, Anxiety and Depression

More than any other pitfall, cravings and urges prove to be the most powerful cause of relapse. This is especially true for those in early recovery who haven’t yet had enough experience in utilizing the coping skills they learned during treatment. For individuals with co-occurring substance use and mental health disorder, the anxiety and/or depression that go along with the cravings and urges is sometimes more than they can handle on their own.

Some addictions are so powerful that no amount of self-talk, self-help or coping skills alone is enough to overcome them. For these, it may take a combination of medication-assisted therapy, counseling, and self-help groups to get the addict firmly on the road to recovery.

If you are having problems with cravings and urges, the first step is to talk with your counselor or therapist, if you still have one as part of your treatment plan of continuing care or aftercare. Your attending physician may need to prescribe some form of medication to help eliminate or reduce the cravings, or help with the anxiety and depression that often accompanies them. If you are prescribed the medication, it’s important to give it time to work. Some medications, particularly antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, take about 4 to 6 weeks to begin to work. If you stop taking them because you don’t feel they’re working, your symptoms will roar back even stronger. That’s decidedly the wrong approach to take. Definitely speak with your doctor to let him know what’s going on, though, since there is no single dose or medication that works for everyone. Often the medication dose or type needs to be adjusted or changed. Unfortunately, this does take time, but the results (less cravings, anxiety and depression) will be worth it.

The whole point of taking medication to help with cravings and urges, anxiety and depression, is to get you to the point where you are more practiced in utilizing your coping skills and have a little more time under your belt being clean and sober.
Of course, continued participation in your 12-step groups (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and so on) will help strengthen your commitment to sobriety, and the ongoing encouragement and support will prove invaluable in your ongoing clean and sober lifestyle.

The Lure of Old Friends

Let’s face it: It’s sometimes lonely when you’re newly clean and sober. You don’t know where to turn, since all the things you used to enjoy doing and the people you once hung out with are, for the most part, off-limits now. Another huge pitfall is when those newly recovered attempt to go back and pick up with their old friendships – including those who continue to use. This is a trap of the first magnitude.

First of all, you don’t have the slightest likelihood of being able to resist the temptation to go along with the group when they order rounds of drinks. The old, “I’ll just have tonic (or coffee)” won’t cut it. Sure, you may start along this road, but by the time the gang gets into their second or third round of drinks, you’ll be bending your elbow with your own shot – and be right back into your addiction. And, don’t kid yourself that you can have just one. Booze (or drugs, or gambling, or sexual compulsion, etc.) is like a poison to you. There simply is no such thing as just a little and being able to handle it. The only solution is to go cold turkey and never touch it again.

Frankly, this also applies to seeing those old friends. You’ll just have to let them go. Find some new friends – and make sure that they are non-drinkers or non-users of any kind. Yes, this is a huge adjustment. No one said it was going to be easy. If it were so easy, there wouldn’t be any persons in recovery slipping into relapse.

Finding new friends isn’t the difficult proposition you may think. Figure out what you like to do – or did like to do before you became a slave to your addiction. Join a group that engages in that type of activity. It may be cross-country skiing, whitewater rafting, photography, ceramics-making, woodworking, stamp collecting, or a reading group – whatever. Your shared interest will form the basis for conversation, certainly enough to get you going on making a new acquaintance. And that acquaintance may lead to a sound friendship. You’re well on your way to finding new friends and a healthier lifestyle.

Life is Boring

A common complaint – and a frequently-cited pitfall – is that life seems boring and dull without the stimulation of alcohol, drugs, or other addictive behavior. Yes, it would seem that way if all you concentrate on is the party-hearty feeling you used to get when you were high. But, isn’t it also true that you had to use more and more often in order to achieve that high? And that downward spiral led you to your addiction – and, ultimately to the point where you made the genuine commitment to become clean and sober. You were tired and sick to death of what was happening to you as a result of your addiction. Beset by physical, psychological, social and a host of other problems, once you hit rock bottom, there was only one route that made sense: to get treatment.

So, understandably, now that you’re in recovery, you may experience some days where it seems like you’re only doing repetitive, going-through-the-motions actions. It will take a while before what you need to do to maintain your sobriety, such as making and adhering to daily schedules, going to 12-step meetings, seeing your counselor, paying attention to you nutritional and physical well-being, will become second nature. The truth is that the longer you are in recovery, the more attractive the clear and level-headed focus you have will become. You will be able to see, smell, hear, and taste life’s richness to an extent you haven’t in a long time – if ever. You’ll be able to remember what you said and did – no more blackouts and difficulty concentrating. Your short-term memory will improve, as will your overall ability to function in an optimum manner. Think of it as your body (and your mind) springing back to life. 

Avoid the pitfall of seeing life as boring and dull by deliberately adding new elements to your daily repertoire. Figure out a goal that is really desirable to you and put this into your recovery plan. Having goals is what makes life worthwhile. The pursuit of those goals involves a forward momentum that is, in itself, positive and self-fulfilling. So, put some new goals on your list – and make some of them short-term and some long-term. Once you achieve a goal, move on to the next one. As you progress further in your recovery, more opportunities – and more goals – will become available. Seize them and keep moving forward.

Loss of Family

For some in recovery, there’s no family to go back to. Either the relationships were so damaged by the addict’s behavior, or some other reason caused the severance of the bond. In any event, when the family is not available to the individual in recovery, it makes it very difficult for the person to find the necessary support and encouragement to continue living a clean and sober lifestyle.

While family is the most important source of encouragement and support to the newly recovered, it isn’t the only one. Trusted, close friends can also serve as this support lifeline, as can a member of the clergy, family doctor, or counselor. For many in recovery, however, 12-step groups serve as their surrogate family. The benefit of participation in 12-step groups has already been mentioned, but it’s worth noting here that your 12-step sponsor and fellow group members are always there for you – just as your family would be if they were around. Like a strong and loving family, 12-step group members are non-judgmental and only want to offer you the kind of support and encouragement you need.

In fact, they’re probably even more understanding than family members. That’s because they know exactly what you’re going through, having been through the rigors of early recovery and suffering their own cravings and urges and overcoming other pitfalls that threatened relapse. They will be able to offer you ideas and solutions that worked for them and that may be able to help you. You will be assured of always having a kind and understanding ear from your 12-step sponsor, no matter what time of the day or night you need assistance.

Avoid the pitfall of feeling sorry for yourself because you don’t have the readily available support from your family by seeking the kinship of others in recovery in 12-step groups.

Loss of Job

If you lost your job, or it’s no longer available for you to go back to, this could be a major pitfall that threatens relapse. Economic hardship due to loss of income from a job is a contributing factor to many failed attempts at sobriety.

One thing is certain: You can’t sit at home and feel sorry for yourself or think that no one will hire an ex-junkie or alcoholic in recovery. That’s simply not true. But no one will hire you if you don’t get out there and look for a job. Granted, it will take some doing, especially if your former actions pre-treatment landed you in a lot of trouble. You may have done some jail time for embezzling or theft, or made colossal errors in judgment at work, embarrassed co-workers or your boss. Some of this may be repairable, if you go to see your former employer and present your case. You need to demonstrate that you are now clean and sober, have made a commitment to remaining so, are attending 12-step meetings and vow to do everything you can to regain your employer’s trust. Maybe they’ll take you back. If they aren’t ready to do that, ask that they at least give you a decent recommendation as you search for new employment. That’s not too much to ask, and they may very well be glad to agree to it.
You may need training to enter a new field, or to advance in the one where you were once employed. Use job-training fairs and workshops offered through your 12-step group to see what’s available. Sign up for skills training, or take courses at community colleges, universities or get involved in an apprenticeship. Many alumni of 12-step groups participate in skills workshops or job fairs and offer assistance in job placement. These are excellent resources that are readily available to you. Take advantage of them.

Recognize as well that it may take some time for you to regain the income level you once had. It’s also possible that you may not get back to that level – and that’s okay, too. Instead of beating yourself up over your perceived lack of financial gain, acknowledge that you are building your foundation for a solid and clear-headed future – one that’s clean and sober. You will attain financial responsibility again, given diligence and commitment. It may not be the top of the financial heap, but you won’t have the same stressors and problems you once had either. On the other hand, you may surpass your wildest dreams, enter a new career and find yourself richer (financially and other ways as well) than before.

No One Loves Me

While you were in the depths of your addiction, you may have done some pretty despicable things. One of the consequences of your actions may have been the loss of your spouse or loved one. Such a loss is devastating to the person in recovery who depends so much on the unconditional love and support from those closest to him or her. Wallowing in the self-piteous state of “no one loves me” is a pitfall that, while not easy, can be avoided.

You have to move on. It’s as simple and as brutally honest as that. Sure, your loved one may come back to you at some point in time. But you can’t pine over it and you definitely can’t expect it. Neither can you demand it. Showing up at your loved one’s door won’t do anything but alienate him or her. In this case, time is going to be your ally. You need time to get over your feelings for this person and to hopefully make room in your life for someone new. Even if your loved one does forgive you and want to have you come back, it will necessarily involve a significant amount of time – time during which you will need to demonstrate your newly-achieved sense of responsibility, commitment, and sobriety.

Saying that you need time is only recognition of reality. It doesn’t mean that you need to sit at home companionless. By all means, go out and meet new people. As previously mentioned, you will make new acquaintances when you join groups to pursue similar interests or hobbies or sports or entertainment activities. Some of these individuals may become close friends and, possibly, more than that.

Instead of thinking that no one loves you, think about becoming a more loveable person. Change the inner you to reflect your new and healthier lifestyle. Adopt a positive outlook on life. Believe that anything is possible – because it is. You don’t have any limits on what you can achieve or who you can become. Whatever you hold dearest to you – a loving family, close friends, being a true friend to others in need – is available to you.

Reach out. Extend yourself. Be someone who others can trust – and love. The rest will come naturally enough.

And Now – Go Out and Live

These are some of the common pitfalls in recovery – and how to avoid them. Are they a complete list? No, of course they aren’t. Recovery is unique to each individual, and every person has a different slant on the kinds of things that stand in their way of sustained sobriety.

The important point to remember is that recovery is achievable. It doesn’t matter the route it takes, whether you relapse once, or several times, or never. What does matter is that you take what works for you and continue to use it to avoid the pitfalls. If something doesn’t work quite well enough, see if you can modify it to make it work better. Discard methods that prove inadequate. And, keep on going.

Now, the best advice anyone can give is for you to utilize all your skills and techniques, embrace your new and positive outlook, and go out and live. Life in recovery is rich with possibilities. Go for it with gusto.
 

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