Getting sober is a multi-step process. For many alcoholics and addicts, it takes years to shift from being abstinent to enjoying a healthy sober lifestyle. Along the way there are many hurdles to overcome, some large and some small. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common issues that come up.
This is a biggie: once you’ve gotten clean from your primary drug of choice you can now see other substances or behaviors that are also functioning like addictions in your life. Classic examples? Nicotine and caffeine are extremely common addictions that many alcoholics and addicts put off dealing with until their recovery is on solid footing. Other common addictions that come to light after you stop drinking or using drugs include overeating, compulsive exercising, and Internet addictions. You might start wondering about the notion of an addictive personality, and you may start to take a critical look at all sorts of behaviors and habits you have developed. Don’t panic! The definition of addiction is a whole lot more complicated and subtle than just “something you do a lot.” Use your sponsor and your therapist (and yes, if you’re starting to examine your own behavior closely, a neutral person to help you on that journey is a really good idea) to start to tease apart just what habits are helpful to you and which ones may be harmful. Sometimes these issues aren’t so black and white. They also may change over time. For example, the best way to handle smoking in early recovery is not the same as what’s suggested when you have a few years of sobriety under your belt.
Another phenomenon that occurs for some people as they become sober is that mood issues come to the surface. For some people who drank or used drugs, being high or drunk felt “normal.” For people with depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, using drugs or alcohol to feel normal is often referred to as “self-medicating.” You might not have known that you were affected by a mood disorder—all you knew was that drinking or drugging made you feel better. It took the black cloud away, eased the anxiety or helped pacify the rage. But now, in sobriety, you’ve got all the emotions and mood issues bubbling up to the surface and no alcohol or drugs to help you deal with the intense emotions. For those who have mood issues as well as addictions, enlisting the help of a good therapist is critical. There are techniques that do help with depression and anxiety, and some medications that may also help. Self-help groups for people with addictions and mood issues can be another important way for you to connect with others, share information, stay sober and feel better. Juggling an addiction while depressed or anxious isn’t easy, but treatment can make a huge difference.
One of the AA slogans you’ll hear over and over again is “people, places and things.” Don’t hang out with the same group of friends with whom you drank or used, don’t haunt the same bars or clubs, and don’t keep paraphernalia lying around. But what about when your partner was your drinking or drugging buddy, and your home was where you drank or used? When one-half of a couple gets sober, this can put a huge strain on a relationship. If your spouse is still drinking or using in your home, this is obviously a giant trigger for relapse. Separation or a divorce can also lead to relapse; the emotional, financial, and logistical stresses of dealing with the break-up of a long-term relationship are tremendous. You might feel like you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, but sometimes relationships like this can survive sobriety. Use the advice, suggestions and support of people who’ve been in this situation. Talk about what’s happening at your AA meetings and ask your sponsor and your therapist for help. Consider couples therapy so that your discussions with your partner don’t become battles. Prioritize your recovery front and center while also trying to respect and understand where your partner is coming from—not all that long ago you were in very similar circumstances with very similar opinions or habits. Remember that recovery is a process, so you’re never exactly finished. You’ll keep growing, finding new levels of enjoyment and satisfaction in life, but also new challenges and frustrations or disappointments. And you’ll learn to take the good with the bad—enjoying what you can and learning from the rest.