Recovery Pitfalls and Common Sense Ways to Get Past Them

Most individuals entering recovery from substance abuse or addiction to various behaviors are well aware that life isn’t going to be a breeze for the first few months or so. If you’re about to enter or have just entered recovery, you’re probably pretty familiar with the litany of pitfalls that you might encounter. What you may not know, however, is how to avoid them. Here are some common sense ways to get past recovery pitfalls.

Running into Old Friends Who Use

Your counselors drilled this one into your head: You can’t be around people, places or things associated with your past substance use. Easy enough to say, but hard to do. What happens if you work with these individuals, or they live next door, or are part of your family’s social group? You’ll need to be creative, in some instances, in order to steer clear of anyone that can re-ignite your desire to use. How do you do that? How can you avoid running into old friends who use? After all, it’s a free country and people can come and go pretty much as they please. Even if you go out of your way to avoid them, you may still bump into them in the grocery store, at your son’s football game, at church, the beach, even hiking the neighborhood trails. The truth is that you may not be able to avoid them at all times. But you can arm yourself with effective things to say when these old friends invite you to hang out, party, or use. Say something like, “I’m 30-days sober and I’m going to stay that way,” or “It’s good to see you again. You know I’m in Alcoholics Anonymous (or Narcotics Anonymous) and sobriety is a top priority with me.” After a while, these old friends will stop coming around or calling. Your continued sobriety will be like an affront to them. They may want to quit themselves, but don’t really want to go through the trouble. Maybe it once was fun to try to get you back into using – hey, misery loves company – but now the novelty has worn off. They’d much rather continue their self-destructive behavior without being reminded that you made it to sobriety. And you can’t make someone else want to be sober. They have to want to do it themselves.

Nightmares and Sleepless Nights

There’s nothing worse than not being able to sleep for nights on end due to nightmares or other causes. A restless night’s sleep is just as bad, in many cases, as not being able to sleep at all. Either way, you aren’t physically rested for the next day. When you’re tired, you’re more irritable, anxious, prone to making mistakes, and much more likely to gravitate toward alcohol or drugs again. Will having a few beers make it easier for you to sleep? Is going off your sobriety worth taking that beer out of the refrigerator? You know you won’t be able to stop at just one, so why bother? Nightmares and sleepless nights may be caused by an underlying medical condition that is either connected with your prior substance use or is entirely separate. A better solution to overcome the pitfall of nightmares and sleepless nights is to discuss the fact of your inability to sleep with your primary physician. Be sure he or she knows you are in recovery for alcohol or drug addiction. If you have continuing care or aftercare as part of your rehab program, get in touch with your counselor and see what can be done to help you. It could be that a few sessions with the therapist may be all you need to ditch those nightmares and sleepless nights for good.

Anxiety and Depression

There will be times in recovery when things just don’t seem to go as well as you’d like. This is common and nothing to be overly concerned with. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something about these feelings. If you are anxious or depressed for an extended period of time and these emotions are causing you problems in your daily life – and threatening your sobriety – you definitely need to get some help to overcome them. Anxiety and depression can be treated with medications and counseling. Just as with the pitfall of nightmares and sleepless nights, discuss what’s going on with you with your doctor and/or your therapist. Together, you should be able to arrive at a constructive plan to help you get past these troubling emotions before they do damage to your sobriety.

Cravings That Won’t Go Away

Cravings are unpredictable. Some come and go quickly enough and many seem to be confined to the early days of recovery. Don’t be surprised, however, if you experience cravings to use many months after you’ve been in effective recovery. Cravings can strike anytime, anywhere. In fact, they often come out of the blue, so to speak. You see or hear something and it brings back that old desire to use. You can’t help the fact that cravings occur, but you can do something constructive about them. When you experience a craving, practice some of the coping mechanisms you learned about during treatment. Use distraction, vigorous physical exercise, meditation, deep breathing, reading, counting – whatever works, use it. If you still have trouble, call up your 12-step sponsor and talk it out. Go to a meeting and get support and encouragement from your fellow 12-step group members. It’s often said that cravings generally last 15 to 20 minutes. That’s not a long time to deal with. So, if you can get past that timeframe, whatever it is in your case, you’ll be a) over the craving, b) better equipped to deal with cravings the next time they occur, and c) feel more confident in your ability to overcome cravings.

Taking On Too Much Too Soon

We all want to get back to our normal lives as soon as possible in recovery. That’s what real recovery is to most individuals, anyway, being able to resume everyday activities. What you may not think about, however, is that you’re like a long-distance runner that’s just starting out after being sidelined with an injury. You’re not up to the all-out pace right now. It’s better to ease off on some of the more demanding aspects of your former life – or even restructure your life so that you have different obligations you need to deal with on a daily basis. You may wish to consider getting a less demanding job or transferring to a different department. Talk with your boss about gradually adding to your workload – after you reassure him or her that you are committed to your sobriety and are eager to rejoin the workforce and do your best job. Don’t worry about being left behind for a promotion or a plum assignment. If you work yourself into a frazzle, you’ll not be your best and you’ll surely jeopardize your hard-won sobriety. As you become more accustomed to life in recovery, you will be able to add more responsibility to your plate. Your boss will see how well you handle things and will be more amenable to giving you the opportunity to succeed.


When you first come home from treatment, a normal reaction is to want to curl up in bed and stay there for some period of time. It’s all too new, your emotions are still raw, and you’re worried about your ability to do all the things you’ve been taught during treatment about how to stay clean and sober. In order to avoid seeing the people, places and things that caused you to use in the past, you opt to hibernate at home, only going out for work and bare necessities. This is decidedly the wrong approach for several reasons. Not only does isolation keep you stunted, growth-wise, it also allows you to have too much time on your hands. Intrusive thoughts and cravings find places to roost when you’ve only got yourself and four walls to contend with. And you know from your past substance use that you’re not always your own best counsel. Buck the desire to stick it out at home by going to 12-step meetings, as a start. These are safe places to go and you’ll be surrounded by people who understand what you’re going through. They’ll offer encouragement and support in a non-judgmental way. You can also join groups where you can make some new friends. This is healthy and exposes you to a world beyond your normal environs. Check out recreational groups, maybe some that go on cross-country ski trips or regularly go downhill skiing. If you like to flyfish, join a flyfishing club. Get involved in cooking classes, or go back to school to learn a language, get or finish a degree. These are just a few examples of places where you can meet new people who may become friends.

Shutting Out Your Family

It may be tough facing the people who love you most – your family. But you do yourself a huge injustice – and threaten your recovery – if you fall into the trap of shutting your family out. The two most important components of your support network are your family and your 12-step group. Your family members may have become estranged due to your addiction. Maybe you caused them a great deal of harm and that precipitated the separation. Maybe some of them still use and that’s part of the problem. While you can’t be around someone who uses, even if it is a family member, surely there are some family members who don’t use. In other words, you do have loved ones who care about you and with whom you should be sharing a relationship. How do you rekindle family relationships that have been strained? How do you reconnect with them after treatment? What should you say or do? There’s no guidebook that has all the answers. Much of what you do and say will depend on your personal circumstances. The best advice is to start slow. Don’t expect too much from your family members. Allow them time to adjust to having you back home. You may not feel like talking about your treatment and you may still have problems communicating. Give it time. Try your best and let them know that you love them and want to do all you can to live in sobriety.

Skipping 12-Step Meetings

Just because you attended 12-step meetings for a short period of time doesn’t mean that you should discontinue your participation. Sure, you can stop going to meetings on a regular basis, but that’s going against the recommendations of your therapist and contrary to what all the experts say. What’s so important about attending 12-step meetings? This is like your extended family, and is comprised of individuals who are committed to their sobriety just as you are. The benefit of continued participation in 12-step meetings is that you get more confident in your own ability to sustain long-term recovery. Whatever situation or crisis occurs in your life, someone else in the group has also been there and can offer encouragment and talk about what worked to help them get through the rough patch. Many in recovery continue to go to regular 12-step meetings years after they first began their recovery journey. They regard it as healthy maintenance on one hand, as well as an opportunity to give back to others.

Beating Yourself Up for Your Past

Everyone in recovery has something in their past that causes them pain. It could be that you did something so awful that you lost your family, your job, your home, all your savings, or injured or killed another as a result of your addiction. There’s certainly no shortage of reasons to feel bad about what may have happened in the past. But beating yourself up about those actions you took in the past will do nothing to help sustain your recovery. On the contrary, when you’re stuck in the past, you’re not moving forward. Blame of any sort is counter-productive to healing. You have to acknowledge what you did and make amends and move past it. You’ll learn more about these things by going through the 12 Steps. Once you let go of the past, a great burden will be lifted from your shoulders. In essence, you’ll have a clean slate. You’ll be free to choose how you will live your life in sobriety unhampered by painful memories of past thoughts, words and deeds.

Blaming Others for Your Situation

Are you bitter over something that happened when you were addicted to substances, something that someone else did or said that you feel harmed you? What purpose does blaming others for your situation (that you were fired, lost your spouse, went bankrupt, went to jail, etc.) hold now? Blame is like cancer: it spreads and destroys everything in its path. If you hold onto blame, your recovery goes nowhere. Getting rid of the tendency to blame others means that you have to accept responsibility for your own actions. Stop thinking that others put you in this situation. No one forced you to use substances, engage in compulsive gambling or sex or other process addictions. You chose your actions – just as today you choose sobriety. If you find yourself harboring feelings of blame, get some counseling. Talk with your 12-step sponsor and your spouse or loved ones. Don’t keep these feelings bottled up inside. They’ll only hamper your recovery.

Feeling Overconfident About Your Recovery

What about when life is really going good? This is a terrific outcome and one to be appreciated – but not taken for granted. The danger and a common pitfall is to become overconfident about your recovery. When this happens, you tend to slack off your routine, skip meetings, feel like you can tackle anything, and take on too much. You may become too self-absorbed or stop taking care of yourself. Remember that you are in recovery. You will always be in recovery. This means that you exercise good judgment and keep doing the things that help you sustain your long-term sobriety. It’s good to feel good about where you are in your recovery and to gain increasing self-confidence and self-esteem. Just remember that, in order to keep your life of sobriety moving forward, you need to maintain vigilance, expand your horizons, and continue to fill your life with purpose and joy and love.

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