How to Structure Your Environment in Early Addiction Recovery
Don’t worry. These are tips and techniques that have worked for many individuals, but there’s nothing to say that you can’t come up with some equally effective ones on your own. And there’s no test you need to take, no one to answer to, and nothing to prove – except, maybe, to yourself in how much easier recovery can be when you put a little structure into it.
1. Simplify your daily schedule: Too many duties, chores, assignments, projects, or to-do lists that you endlessly draw up and fail to complete will only serve to leave you frustrated, disappointed, angry, or depressed. The best thing you can do in your first weeks and months of recovery is to simplify your life. Eliminate all but the essential activities or duties from your daily schedule – especially for the first 90 days. Why is that? Addiction recovery specialists say that the first three months are the most critical. It’s during this time that many well-intentioned persons in recovery slip, prone to falling back into pre-treatment routines that get them into trouble, or giving up under the pressure of cravings and urges that they’re ill-equipped (not sufficiently practiced) to cope with.
How can you go about simplifying your daily schedule? Ask yourself what is absolutely mandatory that you do today. If you’re unsure, you probably don’t need to do it, so scratch it off your list. If you can go either way or if, for example, your job doesn’t depend on you doing it, cross it off. If you wind up with only one or two things you simply must do, that’s a great start.
2. What to say to others: You might get some flak from others in your family, at work, or even friends, when you try to simplify your daily schedule or pay attention to what’s important for your recovery. That’s actually to be expected. Although they’re well-meaning individuals, no one except you really knows what it’s like to go through this sometimes difficult and confusing time. Well, no one except another person in recovery. And, even then, every person’s situation is unique. So, back to what do you say to others who wonder why you can’t spend time with them, take on this extra assignment, go for the long business trip, entertain clients at the bar, or some other form of subtle or not-so-subtle persuasion?
The answer is, frankly, that depends. If the person is someone who knows that you are in recovery, all you need to say is that you’re following the recommendations of your counselors or working your program. Tell them that you need time to work your recovery plan and that means taking a break from all unnecessary extracurricular activities, family pressures, or other demands on your time. If the person knows nothing about your situation, a polite “I’m sorry, I’m not available at this time” should be sufficient – or use words that you deem appropriate to the situation. Definitely don’t go into a long dissertation about overcoming your addiction, how hard or easy treatment was, or all the many worries and sleepless nights you may be going through lately. They not only don’t need to know, it will probably scare the daylights out of them. This is your business, your recovery. The person to tend to it is you.
3. Mind the basics: Of course, getting back to feeling in tip-top shape and maintaining your sobriety entails more than just streamlining your schedule and having rehearsed things to say to others. Part of your new and structured environment in early recovery involves taking care of your nutritional needs and getting adequate rest. As it often happens, when you’re in early recovery, you’re still recuperating somewhat from the residual effects or chronic conditions resulting from your addiction. You may be anemic, weak, have muscle atrophy, or have trouble warding off infection. Many who return home following treatment say they just want to hole up and sleep for a couple weeks straight. Many do just that, although they do make time to go to 12-step meetings and counseling in between sleeping sessions.
Begin by stocking up the refrigerator and pantry with wholesome foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat, seafood, whole grain cereals, breads, and rice or pasta. If you’re not a cook, and have no one to cook for you, buy a good cookbook or research some recipes online and create menus filled with nutritious, easy-to-make meals. In fact, creating tasty dishes can be a form of therapy for you, besides being good for your overall health.
You’ll also want to ensure that you’re eating a solid three meals a day, beginning with breakfast. This is one meal you don’t want to skip. Forget about just a cup of coffee or a latte from Starbucks on your way to work. That’s no way to treat your body, especially in early recovery. You need the fuel from food to keep you going through the morning hours, and your brain functions better with the morning breakfast boost as well. Don’t think you can skip lunch or eat a candy bar at your desk, either. That’s just no fuel and empty calories, respectively. When you’re hungry (as you’re bound to be when you don’t eat), it’s too easy for cravings and urges to surface. You’re also more likely to become jittery, nervous, frustrated, stressed out and prone to making mistakes or rushing to faulty conclusions. For dinner, it can be a light meal, if you like, but be sure to allow enough time (2-3 hours) so that you’re not eating right before you go to bed.
Speaking of bed, you need a good 8 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Most adults do, and this is even truer for those in early recovery. You may even require more. If so, and your schedule permits, get more sleep. But don’t just languish the hours away in bed. There are many more things that need your attention for the early days of your recovery.
4. Make meetings a priority: While you were in treatment, you learned the value and necessity of attending 12-step group meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous. These fellowships are comprised of others in recovery that are committed to being clean and sober and to helping fellow members do the same. Most addiction treatment specialists say that recovery is only as successful as the quality of the support network the recovering individual creates and maintains. The truth is that some people may be able to complete treatment and make it on their own for the first few months of recovery, but this is like Sisyphus attempting to carry the massive boulder uphill: sooner or later, everything will come crashing down. The burden is just too great. Why shoulder such self-imposed difficulty? It’s so much easier to go to meetings, listen to the stories and accounts of what worked for others who may have gone through similar (although each person’s recovery is unique) circumstances, and adapt what you hear to your own situation.
You may have heard that Alcoholics Anonymous has a semi-official rule about attending 90 meetings in 90 days. It’s even referred to as the “90-in-90 rule,” according to some written accounts of personal recovery. What it means is that the individual who is new to recovery should make it a practice to attend 90 meetings in the first 90 days. This can be one meeting each day for the full three months, or it can sometimes take the form of 2 to 3 meetings a day (morning, afternoon, and evening). Doubling or tripling up on meetings may even be a means of preserving your sanity during especially troubling times or when you feel a crisis coming on. However you do it, and whether or not you hear about the 90-in-90 rule, you should make attending your 12-step meetings a priority. This is one of the activities on your daily schedule that takes priority over everything else – especially in early recovery.
Finding the meeting location that feels most comfortable to you may take some doing. But there’s nothing that says you have to stick to one location. Vary your meeting locations, days, and times. Not only will you be keeping it fresh, you will also avoid becoming bored by seeing the same people and possibly hearing the same stories over and over again. When you do find a meeting location where you jell with the other members, this can become your home base meeting group, the one you return to at least once every week.
5. Learn structure from other 12-step members: Besides making attendance at 12-step group meetings a priority, do more than just sit there and listen. It’s not a job. It may be the most important thing you do for yourself in early recovery. Why is that? No matter what you hear during the meeting, there’s bound to be something that you can learn from the person speaking. You don’t have to like the speaker. AA, for example, and other 12-step groups as well, isn’t about the person. It’s about the process of learning how you can overcome addiction and live a full, productive, and sober life.
Many 12-step groups offer special programs, workshops, and seminars that deal with various aspects of recovery. Some deal with how to structure your life to avoid stress, how to prioritize decision-making, learning how to better cope with urges, or other particularly relevant topic. There are also alumni who return to give back to the 12-step group and volunteer their time in job fairs, practicing interviewing techniques and resume writing, training members in various skills, and offering their expertise in many other areas important to recovering individuals.
If you become close to several group members, use them as sounding boards or ask for their support as you try your hand at structuring your environment. While 12-step groups are nonjudgmental, and they aren’t a substitute for treatment, nor do they offer treatment, the support and encouragement you receive from participating in them can be the difference between feeling good about how you’re handing your day-to-day environment and feeling lost, confused about what to do and when to do it. So, make use of your friends and allies, including your 12-step sponsor, in helping to structure your environment.
6. Clear the clutter around you: Here’s a simple technique that can help you greatly in structuring your environment. No one likes a messy house, not even the person who’s become accustomed to it. When you return from treatment, you see the world in a different view. Use this new world-view to closely examine your home environment. This is where you spend the majority of your time, work notwithstanding. You owe it to yourself and your recovery to make it a clean, organized, and inviting place.
Start by clearing out the clutter from every room in the house. You could begin in the bedroom, since this is where you sleep and rest from the challenges (and opportunities) of the day. It should be a peaceful place, not one that’s piled with boxes and strewn with tossed-aside or dirty clothing, shoes, purses, wallets, and other accumulated items. Remove food detritus, leftover cartons and containers. Scrub, dust, launder, and vacuum everything to make it squeaky clean and fresh. This is a good start.
Next, go to the room where you spend another big chunk of time. That’s most likely the living or family room. Tackle this room the same way you did the bedroom. After that, move on to the kitchen, garage, other bedrooms, etc. What should you do with items that you have removed from a space and don’t know where to put them? Keep the three “Rs” in mind: reduce, reuse, and recycle. If you don’t absolutely need it, haven’t worn or used it in two years or longer, donate it, sell it, scrap it, or recycle it. If you’re not sure, put it in a pile you label “Maybe” and go back to it when you’ve finished the rest of your de-cluttering task. Never leave a maybe pile for longer than the time it takes for the donation truck to arrive. If you haven’t decided by then, donate the item.
Why all this concentration on having a clutter-free home? There is ample evidence that shows that a clean and well-organized environment is conducive to healing, well-being, and general peace of mind. You owe it to yourself to give yourself the best foot forward in your recovery. And making your home more inviting is an excellent way to do just that.
7. Tackle bills with the same sense of organization: Who doesn’t feel stressed and overwhelmed by a mountain of bills, many past-due, some of which are even threatening? This is often the case following treatment – which can be quite costly. What’s the typical response when faced with a pile of bills? If you’re just trying to get back on your feet, you may wind up tossing them in a corner, burying them in a drawer, or just ignoring them completely. As you know from your days in treatment, if you leave things untended long enough, they’ll only get worse. So, for the sake of structuring your environment in early recovery, it’s just as important that you make a serious effort at tackling your bill-paying responsibilities.
It’s very possible – even likely – that you can’t pay many of them. You may need the assistance of a financial counselor. Ask your 12-step sponsor or other group member for a recommendation for a financial guidance professional. Or call your creditors yourself and work out a repayment schedule. Even if you’re behind on your mortgage, lenders would much rather get something that you negotiate than have to go through with foreclosure on your property.
Keep in mind that walking away from your responsibilities, while it may be an option, carries some long-term consequences. Not the least of these is what it does to your credit. But perhaps even more important to you in recovery is the fact that abandoning your responsibilities goes against what you’ve learned about being in recovery. It isn’t your fault that you have an addiction, but you do need to accept responsibility for your actions. And your financial responsibilities are part of that equation. Of course, if your financial advisor recommends bankruptcy for your particular situation, you may wish to pursue that avenue. Just be aware that it will take a long time to rebuild your credit.
8. Ask for help from your spouse or loved ones: If you’re among the lucky ones who has a spouse or loved one to support and encourage you, ask for his or her help in structuring your environment in early recovery. This doesn’t mean that you want or expect him or her to do your work for you, but that together you create a structure that not only works for your recovery but also takes into account and respects the needs of the family.
At first, this may seem like a tall order. After all, you’ve just come out of treatment, more than likely, and all anyone in the family wants is for things to return to normal. But this is the new normal, and the family environment is also bound to undergo some restructuring. Be sure to discuss this with love and respect, and take it slow.
9. Make a list of goals: Your recovery journey is here and now, but it also includes having a focus on the future. To do that, you need to craft a list of goals, things that you would like to achieve in the next 1, 2, 5, 10, or 20 years. When you first start creating your goal list, it may be somewhat vague. Don’t worry. You will fill in the blanks as you progress toward them. That’s why it’s important to put down short- and long-term goals. While you’re working on achieving the short-term ones, such as achieving your 30- and 60-day sobriety milestones, you’ll come up with ideas and steps to getting closer to your long-term goals.
For now, just list goals as they come to you. If you think of interim steps or requirements to achieving those goals, mark them down as well. This may include a long-term goal of finishing or getting a degree, and short-term goals of applying to a college or university, securing financing, choosing courses, and attending classes.
10. Give thanks for each day: Sometimes we get so caught up in our day-to-day routines – whether in early recovery or years later – that we fail to give thanks for our successes, lessons learned, and accomplishments that day. It doesn’t matter if you are thanking and acknowledging yourself, or God, or higher power, or the power of the spirit. What does matter is that you do put your gratitude out there. This is a form of structure - prayer, self-meditation, call it what you like – that pays dividends far beyond the mere utterance or thinking the words.
Make it a daily practice to express your thanks for what you’ve received that day. Even the most stressful or frustrating day deserves acknowledgement. You’ve made it through the day and have succeeded in facing many diverse challenges and opportunities. You are that much better equipped to face tomorrow.
Structuring your environment in early recovery actually gets a lot easier in time. In fact, once your structure becomes second-nature to you, it will be possible for you to devote more of your focus on expanding your reach to include even broader horizons. Further along in recovery - say one year and beyond - you will have even greater self-confidence, self-esteem, and willingness to approach your future with hope, joy, and a sense of discovery.