The Usual Suspects: Breaking Down Roadblocks to Recovery

The Usual Suspects: Breaking Down Roadblocks to RecoveryThe road to recovery is a unique journey that each newcomer takes once the commitment to sobriety has been made. How many times has someone new to the clean and sober state wished for a guide to living in sobriety, one that could prove useful in avoiding the common mistakes and setbacks – or just misguided thinking – that so often bedevil the newly sober? There are a good number of articles, pamphlets, blogs and books on the topic of how to make a recovery journey as effective as possible. Hidden within those are many gems, suggestions having to do with recognizing and avoiding what we’re calling here the usual suspects: common roadblocks in recovery. Here, then, is a list of some of the more prevalent roadblocks someone new to sobriety may encounter. Beyond just a recitation of what can or could happen are some ideas on what to do to avoid the roadblock or, just as valuable, what to do to come back from it.

Taking on Too Much

Fresh out of rehab or treatment to overcome addiction to alcohol or drugs, or compulsive gambling, workaholism, overeating, compulsive spending, or compulsive sexual behavior, the tendency for many newly recovered individuals is to take on too much, too soon. There is a nearly universal feeling that a great deal of time has passed and there is a lot of ground to cover to make up for what that person was not around to take care of. This feeling of needing to rush right back into the thick of things extends from home to school to work to involvement in the community and with friends. The newly clean and sober individual may feel that he or she has something to prove and, therefore, goes head over heels into projects and tasks that they clearly aren’t ready for. While common, this doesn’t mean that everyone succumbs to this roadblock in recovery. The first step in overcoming any roadblock is to recognize its existence. The fact that there is a lot to do doesn’t mean that a person has to jump right in and volunteer to take it on. According to recovery experts, just the contrary is the correct approach. Know that recovery is a learning process and an ongoing journey. There should be no rush to pile on more and more responsibilities and venture into projects and tasks just yet. Allow for an easing-in, a gradual return to such roles and obligations. After all, the priority isn’t how much can be accomplished in a short period of time. What should take precedence above all else is recovery and tending to recovery-related activities and tasks.

Becoming Easily Frustrated

There’s nothing so disappointing as frustration, especially when attempting to do something that should be easier to accomplish than the effort turns out to be. A common complaint among the newly-recovered is just how frustrating even the most ordinary tasks can be. Add to that the unsettling feeling that maybe there’s something wrong or missing, and the take-away may be a flagging motivation to continue. Here is a tip for what to do when you find yourself becoming easily frustrated. Just stop and breathe. Take a minute or longer to think about what it is that you are trying to do and how you are going about it. Perhaps you’re going about it in too much of a hurry. You may be skipping important steps in a rush to complete the task, thus sabotaging your overall efforts. By stepping back a bit to analyze your approach, you can help avoid the frustration you might otherwise feel. In addition, once you find that taking things a bit slower helps to minimize frustration, you may also realize that utilizing successful timing and techniques will prove useful in future endeavors.

Taking Too Big of Risks

Wanting to get on with life may mean that the newly-recovered individual plunges ahead with risky tasks and tries to take on challenges that are clearly over his or her head – for the time being. There is a real danger in taking too big of risks, especially in early recovery. Guarding against the likelihood of entering into risky activities takes some practice. It isn’t something that comes naturally, not if you are trying to get back into your normal life as speedily as possible. But, in this case, as with many other aspects of recovery, being quick is not the best approach. Take the time to carefully and thoroughly weigh and balance the risks versus rewards of anything that you are contemplating doing. Are you ready for the challenge? Do you have enough knowledge or skills to do the job justice? Are you trying to cram many steps into fewer ones, possibly skipping some crucial interim maneuvers? This may make all the difference in the world. It is also advisable to talk with your 12-step sponsor and other trusted members of your support network, including your loved ones and family, before embarking upon an activity or zeroing in on a task or goal that could entail too much risk for you at the present time. If the goal or task is still deemed important, plot out a timeline and an action plan that will minimize the risk and maximize the potential for success.

Hanging Out with Former Drinking/Using Buddies

Granted, being in recovery can seem a bit lonely at times. A number of former friends – particularly those with whom the newly-sober individual spent many hours drinking, drugging and hanging out for all hours – may seem tempting to reconnect with. The misconception among many newcomers to recovery is that it is somehow OK to spend a limited amount of time with those old friends. The truth is something altogether different, however. Recall the recommendation during rehab to avoid the people, places and things associated with past addictive behavior? There is a good reason for this admonition. That is because the period of early recovery is quite fragile. This is when a person who has only recently been cleansed of all traces of toxic substances is vulnerable to relapse. In fact, the first 90 days is the most challenging time, the period when relapse is more likely than any other time. Feelings of loneliness may be accompanied by guilt over skipping out on old friends, but consider this. Anyone who doesn’t support your recovery isn’t a true friend. Those who are still living a lifestyle involving alcohol and drug use, or any process addiction, isn’t going to abide by the sober living choices that you’ve made. They are much more likely to want you to return to your former bad habits, with fairly predictable results. There is no such thing as having one drink and that’s the end of it. Even hanging out at the bar or over at a buddy’s house while drinking and drugging is going on is going to take its toll. Starting out with soda and water won’t last for long, especially when other party-goers are getting progressively sloshed and becoming louder in their insistence that you join in on the fun. How can the newly sober individual possibly hope to counter that trigger? The truth is that old friends will have to go. Now is the time to make new acquaintances, people who share sober living goals and offer the prospect of finding an interest in new and healthier activities. It may take time for these new acquaintances to become friends, but if a life in recovery is deemed valuable and worthwhile, the payoff will be well worth the time and effort.

Skipping Meetings

Once someone in early recovery decides it is OK to miss one or two meetings, that person is on a slippery slope. Ditching the responsibility to participate in 12-step self-help groups is tantamount to thumbing your nose at reality. There is no substitute for being in the company or even the same room as others who are truly committed to sobriety – as you ostensibly are. One missed meeting will become a regular occurrence and before long, it will be weeks between meetings. An awful lot can happen in the interim. Those former friends who continue to drink and use will start to sound like a good way to spend some free time. Once the temptation to “just have one” becomes a reality, there may be no stopping the train that’s just left the station. If finding a meeting group that feels comfortable is an issue, there’s an easy solution for that. Shop around until you find one that offers a reasonable expectation of comfort, or at least familiarity. At least give a group a minimum of six times to see if it grows on you. After all, people come and go to different meetings all the time. Sooner or later, you’ll begin to see familiar faces, possibly some that will become friends. If you have a sponsor, he or she will be upfront about the necessity to attend meetings. Learning the principles of recovery, starting work on the 12 steps, and navigating the sometimes turbulent and emotional territory of early recovery requires ongoing support and encouragement – the kind you can get only in the rooms of recovery. Bottom line: while it may seem like a burden at first to regularly attend 12-step meetings, plant the thought firmly in mind that this is an activity that is absolutely essential to getting a firm grounding in recovery and being on the way to living a life in effective sobriety.

Avoiding Goal-Making

The importance of setting goals that are reasonable and realistic is a time-proven recommendation for those in recovery. It is never more important than during the first few weeks and months of recovery, however, since this is the time when relapse is a very real possibility. But when it comes to sitting down to actually create the goals, many newcomers to sobriety say that this is a tough sell. Not only do they feel as though they can’t come up with goals they can likely succeed at, they may also complain that they can’t think of any goals, period. Some of this is avoidance of the task, while some may also be reticence to commit to something that may not prove all that desirable or worthwhile in the long run. Here is a tip for how to deal with avoiding goal-making. It isn’t a life commitment. Therefore, any goal that you do put down isn’t irrevocable. This should lessen the tension and allow more freedom to put down goals on paper. Keep in mind that any list of goals should remain flexible. This is so that you retain complete freedom to revise them when and if the time comes or you feel that another goal takes precedence or is determined to be more valuable in the long run. If nothing else, you will find that your 12-step sponsor will ask about the kinds of goals that you have arrived at as part of your beginning the work on the 12 steps – which is itself a goal.

Inability to Stick to Set Goals

In line with the tendency to avoid making goals is the inability to stick to goals that have already been set. Many a newcomer to recovery gets trapped in this corner, feeling like there’s no good outcome once a particular goal starts to seem too difficult, too time-consuming, or just not worthwhile enough. Sticking to goals that you have set for yourself, however, is a sign that you live up to your word. The concept of creating goals and working to achieve them, despite any difficulties you might encounter along the way, is integral to successful recovery. In other words, you need to be able to follow through on your commitment. If you begin a task or start work on a goal, you need to be willing to do what it takes to stick to it through completion. This does not mean that you have to complete every goal on your list, even those that are no longer relevant or have been replaced by new goals. The point is to stay on top of your list of goals, revising them as necessary, so that you are not spinning your wheels or letting opportunities go to waste when you should be continuing to work on current goals. Often what happens is that the newcomer runs into trouble on a certain aspect or a particular goal and shoves it to the sideline, not really knowing how to proceed. Talk with your 12-step sponsor if this happens, since the guidance you will receive may just be what you need to break the logjam and get back to working on the goal in question.


Putting off until tomorrow – or sometime in the future – is another common roadblock in recovery. It is easy to excuse this behavior as necessary, believing, as so many newcomers to sobriety do, that something is too difficult or takes too much time or they don’t have the right knowledge or skills. The problem with procrastination, however, is that it tends to be self-perpetuating. The longer you put something on the back burner, the less likely that you will go back to it and take care of what is needed. Maybe the underlying reason for the procrastination is fear. The best way to conquer fear is to confront it head-on. Examine what it is that is causing you to put off work on something you need to do. Figure out a way around it, ask for help from your 12-step sponsor, line up your resources, and put a plan into place so that you can tackle whatever it is that is causing you to delay action.

Defeatism and Negative Thinking

Although they sound similar, defeatism and negative thinking are distinctly different. They are also both common roadblocks in recovery. When you feel defeated, you lose motivation. It’s like all the steam escapes from the engine, leaving you stuck on the tracks and going nowhere. You don’t feel equipped to continue on, nor do you have the energy to do so. Defeatism, unfortunately, is another self-perpetuating emotion that can cause serious problems in recovery. Negative thinking, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily tied to defeatism – although it often accompanies it. When someone constantly thinks of things in a negative light, there is no upside. Why bother going through the motions, exerting time and effort to achieve a goal when the result is likely going to be failure? That is the insidious nature of negative thinking. And, even worse, the more a person engages in negative thinking, the more negatively they will begin to view their life in recovery. How do you get rid of defeatism and negative thinking? If there was a simple and failsafe method to do so, wouldn’t everyone be using it? The truth is that you have to learn how to recognize when you find yourself feeling defeated and listen to the words that come out of your mouth that are constantly negative in nature. This is a sign that you need to do something to turn the situation around. Becoming conscious of your emotions is always the first step in learning how to change them and not permit them to lead to a downfall. Try to figure out the root cause of the defeatism and negative thinking. Is it that you haven’t been successful in as many goals as you think you should be? Are you afraid of failure or success? Do you need assistance, either in the form of support and encouragement or additional training, financial help, possibly recommendations from others? It is also quite possible that further counseling from a mental health professional might prove helpful, especially if depression and/or anxiety accompany the feelings of defeatism and negative thinking. The good news is that all these are reversible, given time, appropriate help and determination to change.

Wallowing in Guilt and Shame

Just as there is no single program of treatment that works universally for every person trying to overcome addiction, there is also no single approach for how to overcome the tendency to wallow in guilt and shame following rehab. For some individuals in early recovery, guilt and shame are so prevalent that these powerful negative emotions threaten to derail the very sobriety that was so recently gained. While it may come as little consolation, time will help to heal anyone suffering guilt and shame. But it also requires firm support and nonjudgmental encouragement from trusted members of your support network, as well as, perhaps, professional counseling. No doubt every person in recovery today has something in his or her past that brings feelings of guilt and shame to the forefront. Giving in and wallowing in them, however, is tantamount to putting the brakes on recovery. Guilt and shame have no place in effective recovery, so the goal should be how to overcome these destructive emotions and get on with the business of living a clean and sober life. Many in the rooms of recovery have said that they only began to overcome their guilt and shame by working the 12 steps, particularly the ones where they listed all the wrongs they’d done that had caused harm to others and the crucial step of making amends for such harm. Self-forgiveness is a huge part of the process in learning how to overcome guilt and shame. After all, this is a new life that you have chosen, a second chance, an opportunity to change past behavior and live a life that you want in sobriety.

The Cascade Effect: When Everything Comes Toppling Down

The biggest roadblock in recovery is unquestionably the fear of relapse, of what happens when everything comes toppling down. This is the cascade effect, the virtual tsunami that plows under everything in its path. Newcomers to sobriety are so fearful of relapse that they may even do things that hasten its occurrence. As previously mentioned, skipping meetings, taking on too much, too soon, avoiding goal-making, inability to stick to set goals, becoming easily frustrated, hanging out with former drinking and/or using friends, skipping meetings, procrastinating, defeatism and negative thinking, and wallowing in guilt and shame all can combine to bring on relapse. Seeing the momentum going in the wrong direction should be the first sign of warning. If one or two of the common roadblocks start to occur, it doesn’t mean the train is going to derail and you’re destined to relapse. But if you find that several of these roadblocks are present, it’s time to take constructive action to thwart relapse before it happens. Double up on meeting attendance. Get into in-depth discussions with your 12-step sponsor and your loved ones and family members. Go back into counseling. Re-examine your daily schedule and try to eliminate whatever is unnecessary or that doesn’t have recovery-oriented applications. If you do relapse, keep this in mind: It isn’t the end of the world. You can bounce back from relapse. It will take hard work, determination, perseverance and a lot of support and encouragement, but you can do it. Millions of others have done so. There is no reason to believe that you cannot succeed in coming back from relapse as well. Confronting the fear of relapse head-on helps deflate its power. Stick to the proven methods for effective recovery. Take proper care of yourself. Make sure you include time for fun, for spending time with loved ones and close friends. Do activities that you find enjoyable. Learn something new every day. Cultivate a positive attitude and learn to believe in yourself. Most of all have hope. Life in recovery is very much worth living. Indeed, it is a precious gift that keeps on giving.  

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