Take Bite-Sized Steps in Recovery

You’re out of treatment and about to begin your first few days and weeks of recovery. Now what? Just the prospect of being on your own again is both liberating and more than a bit scary. That’s perfectly understandable, since you’ve just left a structured environment where if you ever had a problem, there was always someone right there to assist you to get back on track. Now, however, it’s all about you. While early recovery can seem overwhelming, it certainly doesn’t have to be. There is a secret that can help you go through this initial phase a whole lot easier: Take bite-sized steps in recovery. Bite-sized steps – what does that mean? Let’s use meals as an analogy. Taking bite-sized portions means you only put a small amount in your mouth at a time. You fully chew each bite before taking another. Furthermore, you put smaller portions on your plate to begin with. Now, look at recovery in much the same way. Rather than go flat-out with a complicated regimen, trying to attack all your goals at once, running here and there and getting nowhere, gradually ramp up your daily activities. Do only what is absolutely necessary at first. Later on, you can modify, add, eliminate, or replace.

Focus on Your Needs

It may sound selfish, but it’s not. In early recovery, you need to focus solely on your needs. You’ve just been through an enormous change – getting clean and sober, learning about the disease of addiction, learning how to identify and recognize triggers to use, getting instruction about and practicing coping strategies and techniques. Your head is probably still whirling with all the things you were presented with during treatment. Not only that, but you discovered something about yourself that you didn’t even know you had: the ability to make a profound life change. You don’t want to jeopardize your newfound sobriety by taking your focus off what’s really important in these first few days, weeks, and months of recovery. You simply have to tune out all distractions to your all-encompassing goal of maintaining sobriety. For many, this is easier said than done. You may be returning home to a family that’s dependent on you as the breadwinner – and it’s been difficult while you were gone to treatment. Naturally, they and you will have expectations, wants, and needs. You will find yourself torn between doing what you know you need to do for your recovery plan and what the family wants and needs. This can prove very tough and, if not handled properly, can quickly derail your sobriety. You can’t be all things to all people, not your family, friends, employer, or anyone else. For now, you have to focus on your needs alone.

Communicate with Family Members

One way to ease the strain of returning home is to have a loving but honest conversation with your spouse or partner, parents, children, or other family members living with you. You can do this individually or in a group, and talk with each one separately to address any concerns. For a couple without children, it’s more clear-cut. Speak with your spouse to lay out a preliminary plan that you’ve been recommended to follow by your therapist. When your spouse knows that this is part of your overall ongoing recovery program, it may be more palatable. What should you say? Begin by reaffirming your love and appreciation. Let your partner know how much his or her understanding and patience means to you – not only during your treatment, but also in this first phase of your recovery. You could say that you certainly don’t have everything figured out and you know there will be some rocky times, but with love, understanding, and support, you’ll both get through it just fine. Mention that you’ll need to do some things on your own as part of your recovery, now and in the future, but as much as possible, you will be as present as you can be in the relationship and will include your partner whenever appropriate. Children also need to know the basic ground rules, but they don’t need an exhaustive explanation. You’ve been in treatment and now have some things your therapists recommended that you do to keep yourself healthy and ensure that you’ll be around to be their father. Use whatever words will reassure your children. Tell them and show them that you love them – but don’t try to smother them, overcompensate for being gone or to make up for past misdeeds. Just love them, talk with them, and strive for honest interaction at all times. If there have been some particularly rough times in the past as a result of your addiction, recognize that your children may take some time to again trust you. If they’re aloof, defiant, anxious or depressed upon your return home, it may very well be that they’re afraid that things will go back to the way they were. It’s a matter of self-preservation, of survival. All you can do is to say that you are much better now and are going to work hard every day to make sure you stay this way.

First Things First

Okay, after you’ve determined that you’ll focus on your recovery needs, and you’ve begun to communicate with your family that your first priority is to concentrate on your recovery, what should you do next? Even though you may be exhausted by all the excitement of coming home, don’t fall back on the couch and let the hours pass. You need to initiate your recovery plan. This is the plan you created with the help of your therapist before you completed treatment. It contains the recommendations for action steps, short- and long-term goals that will sustain you during your first months of recovery. Note that recovery is an ongoing process. It isn’t something that you have now and can forget about. You have to work at recovery. Although it may seem difficult or strange or frightening at first, know that it does get easier. Over time, you won’t even have to think consciously about certain things you do in recovery. You’ll just do them. They will become a part of your life, as basic, life-giving, and natural as breathing. So, right now, get out your recovery plan and study it. Take a look at the first things you’ve set out for yourself as priorities. These may include lists of daily activities or a general focus on areas you’d like or need to address. Most likely, your recovery plan includes making a daily schedule to help keep you on track. This simple step – making a daily schedule – helps keep those in recovery better focused on what they need to do when. There’s no way to forget that there’s a meeting you need to go to, not if it’s listed right there on your to-do list for today. And, make no mistake about it – going to your 12-step meetings is a priority for the first 90 days of your recovery. Speaking of bite-sized steps in recovery, while you’re studying your recovery plan and making out your daily schedule, be sure to include all time increments throughout the day. Here’s a simplified view of a typical daily schedule.

  • Plan to get up at the same time every day
  • Eat breakfast (no skipping this all-important meal)
  • Get ready for work or your day
  • Go to any scheduled doctor or therapist appointments
  • Take any prescribed medication as directed
  • Meditate
  • Exercise
  • Eat lunch
  • Go to 12-step meeting or meetings (you may need them several times a day in the first few weeks)
  • Do errands, tasks or projects that need attention
  • Have dinner and spend time with the family
  • Meditate
  • Plan your schedule for the next day
  • Rest and relax, and
  • Go to bed at the same time every night

Obviously, in the first few days and weeks, your daily schedule will be more concentrated on putting your strategies and techniques into practice, attending 12-step meetings, healing your body-mind-spirit, re-connecting with your family, and regaining your self-confidence and trust in your ability to make the right decisions in your recovery.

No Major Life Changes in the First Year

Addiction recovery experts and 12-step groups alike recommend that there be no major life changes made during the first year. Of course, there are some times when the choice is out of your hands entirely. If someone close to you dies, or falls seriously ill, gets injured in an accident, or you lose your job due to a collapsing economy, for example, these are major life changes over which you have no control. But to the extent that you have the ability to make or not make major decisions affecting your life, put them off during the first year. Some examples include buying a new home or selling the one you have, deciding to get married or divorced, opting to have children, quitting your job, selling everything you have and going off to live in isolation, and so on. Whatever it is, if it seems extreme or a major departure from your normal life, you probably shouldn’t be doing it – at least, not now. If, after a year of sobriety, you still feel that this decision you’re contemplating fits best with your overall recovery goals, then that may be the time when you can begin to look at it. There’s an underlying reason why experts recommend no major life changes during the first year of recovery. Major life changes are huge stressors. When you’re stressed, your body suffers. Your overall balance is thrown off and you’re less able to withstand the cravings and urges. As stress mounts, the situation worsens. You may suffer anxiety, depression, and sleepless nights. You may feel more agitated, quick to anger, make inappropriate remarks, bad decisions at work or at home. You may fail to recognize a trigger or be incapable of resisting the temptation to use. You want to escape the pain. You’re tired of thinking of all the problems. You just want release. You’re on the road to relapse. That’s the danger with making major life changes.

Manage Day-to-Day Stress

What about the stress you encounter on a day-to-day basis? Again, using the bite-sized steps analogy, make it a practice to use your coping mechanisms on an incremental basis. Let’s say that your job is filled with stress: deadlines to meet, correspondence and reports to write, keeping the boss and your employees informed, fierce competition inside and outside the company putting your nerves on edge. When you come home, you find yourself feeling short-tempered, in a foul mood, like your head is gripped in a vise and ready to explode. How can you manage this kind of stress? One solution is to take the time to separate your consciousness from the stress. Many people do this by meditating. This technique can be as simple as sitting in a quiet, darkened room and closing your eyes. Concentrate on the sounds of your breathing going in and out. Count or say a phrase in a repetitive fashion. You can also learn how to meditate by buying a CD, DVD, or book or by taking instruction. Other ways to get outside your stress include Pilates, yoga, and deep breathing exercises. Again, you can teach yourself or learn from an instructor. Look back at your daily schedule when you find yourself engulfed in stress. What things can you eliminate or cut back on from your daily routine? Start carving out small blocks of time – say, 15 minutes twice a day – during which you can be by yourself, calming your thoughts, becoming more centered, more relaxed. This will help you when you come back from your mini-breaks to be better able to focus on the issue or task at hand – without being overwhelmed by stress. Talk over how to handle stress with other group members during your 12-step meetings. Techniques and tips that work for others may prove helpful to you. In addition, things that you’ve discovered are effective for you may be of use to others. Brainstorming ideas as a group is also good.

Gain a Healthy Perspective

Releasing the burden of your addictive past is necessary to be able to move forward in recovery. You undoubtedly talked this over with your therapist during treatment and, to the extent that you have continuing therapy available to you as part of your aftercare program, you may still do so. It’s important as you progress through the first few weeks, then months, and the first year of recovery that you begin to see where you’ve made significant progress. Being able to look at the gains you’ve made toward achieving your recovery goals is proof positive that helps you realize something incredibly important: It helps you gain a healthy perspective. Think about this for a minute. When you first begin recovery, everything’s kind of up in the air. You don’t know if you’ll be able to make it through the first days, let alone weeks, of being on your own. What if you can’t take it? What if your former drug- or alcohol-using friends drop by and you can’t help yourself and start using again? What if your spouse leaves you and takes the kids? What if you blow up under pressure and tell your boss off – only to get fired or demoted? What if recovery is too boring or you’re too depressed or anxious? What if, what if, what if….? Taking bite-sized steps in recovery means checking back to see the small improvements you’ve made each day. It takes a little time to be able to recognize these advances. You won’t necessarily see them after just a few days. But over a week or two, you can definitely see some things are becoming a little easier. Add up the days you’ve been sober, for example. That’s a great start and proof that you’ve made a significant achievement. Live in the present and give yourself credit for the good things you’ve done for yourself and your recovery today. Thank your higher power or spirit or the power of the self for the opportunity to see life with all its challenges and possibilities. Will every day be progress? No, that’s not how it works. Some days will be good. Some will be fantastic. Others will be challenging in the extreme, or feel like a stagnation or even setback. But recovery isn’t a straight-line process. There will be good days and those that are not so good. Consistency is what matters. Adhere to your recovery plan, refining it as you go along. When you achieve a short- or long-term goal, you should always have new ones to take its place. Always strive toward what’s next on your list, while enjoying and being firmly present in the here and now. Take the time to enjoy all of life’s riches. This includes loving your family, spending quality time with them as well as with your friends, working at a job you enjoy or doing something you love with a passion. Be in nature and fully appreciate the beauty and symmetry – and awesome power. Life is all around you and in you, creating, evolving, and moving forward. Final recommendation: Take life one day at a time. This is a bite-sized step that makes recovery not only well within reach, but so much easier to manage. Now, go do it.

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