How to Handle Rules and Emotions After Treatment For Substance Abuse

Probably the first thing you want to do after completing treatment is just take a deep breath of fresh air. Probably the last thing you look forward to doing is starting in with a slew of rules designed to keep you on the straight and narrow. Then, there are all those pesky emotions that start nipping at your peace of mind like hungry crows perched in the trees waiting for a peanut handout. The whole beginning recovery scenario can seem daunting and pretty scary, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some thoughts on how to handle rules and emotions after treatment for substance abuse.

Anticipate your Homecoming

We all know that our minds can set us up for just about anything. All too often, in the past, you’ve undoubtedly allowed your mind to convince you that just one more hit, one more drink, one more day gambling and downing shots at the casino or track was perfectly okay, that you had everything in control. How about turning your mind toward something a lot more positive? Instead of dreading your return home, worrying about all the things you’ll have to do to begin your new life in recovery, give yourself an immediate lift: anticipate your homecoming. After all, you’ve worked very hard to get to this point. You’ve gone through detox and sat through hours of lectures and group discussions, probed your deepest fears and reasons for using, learned and practiced coping techniques, and created a plan for your recovery. It certainly wasn’t easy, but you should feel a great deal of self-accomplishment. Your reward is to go out into the real world and return home to your family, to begin to live a clean and sober lifestyle. Think how much of an achievement this is, really. It’s actually like being reborn because, in a sense, you are seeing the world in a whole new light. Whether your family plans a welcome home get-together or it’s going to be a small family celebration, frame your thoughts around the idea that this is a big deal for you. The people who love you and care about your well-being are thrilled that you’re coming home. They may also be a little hesitant, unsure, even fearful – but so are you. You’re all in this together. Think how wonderful it will be to sleep again in your own bed, to wake up and have your morning coffee at the kitchen table with your spouse or partner or parents, to be free to plan your day the way you choose. The whole prospect may make you giddy with excitement. That’s a good thing. It sets the stage for getting down to business and helps prepare you for dealing with rules and emotions after treatment for substance abuse.

Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Before we go any further, it’s important to cover something that’s essential to successful recovery. You need to get adequate rest each and every night. Think of the time you spent sleeping as recharging your batteries, replenishing your energy, and allowing your thoughts to take a well-needed rest. Recovery experts recommend aiming for a good 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. If you find that you are unable to sleep, get up and leave the bedroom for a while. Pick up a book and read it until you feel your eyelids become heavy. Then return to bed. Don’t eat anything heavy or engage in physical exercise as that will just aggravate the situation and prolong the time before you’ll be able to sleep. Do drink a glass of water to keep hydrated. You can also sit in a room with dim lights. The dim lighting will actually signal your brain that it’s time to rest. Establish a pattern of going to sleep and rising at the same hour every day of the week. This prompts your body to create a natural rhythym. In no time at all, you’ll have adjusted to a regular sleep pattern. This will help immensely in your goal to smooth out the edges of your early days of recovery – and better prepare you to deal with rules and emotions you’ll encounter every day.

Eat a Good Breakfast

Just as your body needs sleep in order to recharge, it needs fuel in the form of food in order to jump-start your energy and sustain it throughout the day. It seems elemental that doctors have always recommended people start their day with a good breakfast. What’s amazing is that so many of us ignore this advice and think we can get by on a few cups of coffee and maybe a cinnamon roll. Caffeine and sugar, now that’s not the right way to go. No one says you can’t enjoy your coffee. Many of us have looked forward to our cup of joe as a part of our everyday routine for years – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But do eat some nourishment along with it. Have some toast and an egg of some sorts (hard-boiled, soft-boiled, scrambled, over-easy, an omelette). Maybe toast a bagel and eat it with light or fat-free cream cheese or a tablespoon of peanut butter. Half a grapefruit or whole grain cereal with fresh berries is also a tasty way to get in the morning nourishment. None of these suggestions take much time at all and the best part of it is that you’re well on your way to being able to handle whatever the day brings. One of Alcoholics Anonymous acronyms is H.A.L.T. which stands for the rule: “Never allow yourself to become hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.” That’s when persons in recovery are more likely to slip, or do something they wouldn’t if they’d only paid attention to taking care of themselves. Since H.A.L.T. actually applies to the sleep and breakfast recommendations, we’re mentioning it here. Obviously, you’ll want to eat regular and well-balanced meals throughout the day. Bring along nutritious snacks for times when you get hungry between meals. This can be as simple as a small box of raisins, an apple, or a handful of walnuts. Just be sure you don’t ever allow your stomach to start growling from hunger. When you’re hungry, your nerves are likely to get on edge, and your emotions may get the better of you. Rules you’ve set for yourself may be quickly broken. Not a good thing. Be proactive and start each day with a good breakfast. It doesn’t have to be huge. Just eat something nutritious to get you going.

Have a Discussion with the Family

If you haven’t already, now is the time to sit down with your family members and have a discussion about your early days in recovery. This is critically important since everyone needs to have a good understanding of how your life has changed and will continue to change in recovery. Things aren’t going to be like they were. A lot of your old behaviors are no longer appropriate. Explain to your loved ones that you learned a lot during treatment about how to cope with triggers and urges and how you need to avoid people, places, and things that caused you to use in the past. They may not fully comprehend what you’re saying – or they may have a pretty good idea based on your past behavior – but you need to lay it out for them in honest and clear terms. You also want to ask for their support and encouragement during the tough times that may be ahead of you. Mention that you know you haven’t been easy to live with, and you are sorry for all the pain you’ve caused, but you are committed to your recovery. To the extent that they can see your sincerity, even if they don’t fully believe it yet, this is a good start. Recovery experts recommend that you talk with your loved ones regularly about any problems you are encountering in trying to stay clean and sober. Your family members may be able to help by coming up with ideas for different ways of handling tough situations. Beyond that, your family is one of the two most important support networks you have in recovery, the other being your 12-step group.

How to Handle Troublesome Emotions

What about the days when you dread getting out of bed? Maybe you tossed and turned through the night, plagued by vivid dreams or an overwhelming craving to use. Maybe you’re under stress after going back to work and being confronted with unreasonable expectations on the part of your boss or co-workers. You feel ill-prepared to deal with everything all at once and just want to hide. You may even feel depressed, anxious, and fearful. What should you do? Talk with your counselor and/or your 12-step sponsor. Tell your family that you’re having a rough time. By all means, if your job is stressing you out, you need to have a conversation with your supervisor to get the issue resolved. It isn’t that you’re trying to skirt your responsibilities. It’s just that you need time to adjust to your new life in recovery. It’s important to reaffirm your commitment to being clean and sober, and to ask for your supervisor’s understanding for the times you may need to leave early or attend your 12-step meeting during your lunchtime. If you approach this discussion with a proactive plan of action and are effective in showing your commitment not only to recovery but to being a more productive and reliable employee, you should be able to work things out amicably and to the best for all. If, on the other hand, your job is entirely too demanding and you’re just falling behind more and more, you may wish to consider asking for a reassignment or transfer to another department, or even look for a new job. Keep in mind, though, that gainful and regular employment is one of the pillars of effective recovery. Don’t use your recovery as an excuse not to work. You need to work in order to re-establish normalcy and stability in your life. Another tip in dealing with troublesome emotions is that, just like cravings, they usually don’t last that long. The trick is to sustain yourself through the period without resorting to unhealthy behavior or having a slip. In fact, some of the same techniques you use to deal with cravings and urges may work just as well in helping counter unwelcome emotions. Try distracting yourself. Go for a walk or engage in vigorous physical exercise. Take up a project or work in the garden. Get involved in a hobby or recreational pursuit. Go out with friends to see a comedy. Spend time playing with your children, grandchildren, or doing something with the family.

About Establishing Groundrules

In order to move ahead in recovery, you know you need to set some groundrules to follow. These are valuable because they help you establish routines and schedules that will return stability to your life, give you self-confidence and work to restore or build your self-esteem. The rules you seek to follow are most likely ones that you discussed with your therapist during treatment and prior to your return home. They may be part of your overall recovery plan. Some of these rules may include attending 90 12-step meetings in 90 days (the so-called “ninety in ninety” rule of Alcoholics Anonymous). Another rule may be to never take out your frustration or anger on another – for whatever reason. When you feel overwhelmed by emotions or stressed out over work, family, social, or other situations, call your 12-step sponsor or go see your therapist. During such times, you and others need space – a breather, if you will – in order to re-establish calm and order. Of course, your rules will include no drug or alcohol use whatsoever. That’s pretty much a given, but it goes beyond just saying you won’t use them. You have to steel yourself and know how you’re going to deal with former friends who invite you to party, or establish new routes to go to and from work so you avoid the places where you used to use or buy drugs from dealers. In fact, picking up on what you created in your recovery plan with your therapist, make a list of the things you’ll do in the various circumstances that you might find yourself in that could cause you to slip. Be firm about adhering to these rules. Remember that you have created them for the sole purpose of helping you maintain effective recovery.


Life in recovery is more than just rules and learning how to deal with emotions. If that’s all there was to it, recovery would be pretty boring. The secret to effective recovery is something experts would like to be able to publicize and get out to millions. But there’s just one problem: there isn’t a single secret. There are many routes to recovery, and each individual follows his or her own path. One of the ways to get there that does help is to set goals. You have a dream, or an idea of what you’d like to do or where you’d like to be in a year or five or ten. This is a goal. But it takes a good number of interim steps, short-term goals, in order to realize that long-term goal. What could some of these short-term goals be? They may include getting or changing jobs, going for a degree or finishing one, making time to spend with family and friends in social and recreational pursuits, making a budget and getting out of debt, buying a home, having children, planning for retirement. Creating goals for your life in recovery isn’t a one-time thing. Your recovery plan is ongoing, constantly changing. So, too, are your goals. You achieve some, and find that new opportunities have opened up. Perhaps some of your former long-term goals will now be revised. You may now be able to see a future that previously you thought unattainable. Goals, then, are to be actively worked. Don’t be afraid to pencil in new ones and delete those that are no longer desirable or that you have moved past. Goal-setting is a positive and forward-looking process that keeps you focused on effective recovery and living a life that’s productive and happy and fulfilled.

Signs you are in Recovery

In a recently-published handbook for recovery, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) lists four signs that let individuals know they are in recovery. Since they are so appropriate to the discussion here about how to handle rules and emotions after treatment for substance abuse, they are reprinted below:

  • I can address problems as they happen, without using drugs or alcohol, and without getting stressed out.
  • I have at least one person I can be completely honest with.
  • I have personal boundaries and know which issues are mine and which ones belong to other people.
  • I take the time to restore my energy – physical and emotional – when I am tired.

Live in the Present

There is one final thought about how to handle rules and emotions after treatment for substance abuse that may help you – just as it has helped millions of persons in recovery. Live each day in the present. The past is behind you and doesn’t define you. What happens in the future depends on what you do today. Just focus on today doing the best you can for yourself in recovery. As they say, take recovery one step at a time – and one day at a time. You can do it.

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