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Stop Stressing about Your Addictive Past

If you are an addict now in early recovery, you know all too well that there are good days and bad days – and some that threaten to derail your new-found sobriety. Sometimes you just can’t help yourself. You obsess over what you did in the worst days of your addiction, how you hurt people, the damage you’ve done to your reputation, how you ruined your relationships with people you love and care about, how you lost everything you have – including your self-respect. Stress is like an ever-present cloud that follows you around and the worst part is the stress you impose upon yourself. Listen up. You need to stop stressing about your addictive past and move forward in your recovery.

Easier said than done, you may say – and you’re absolutely right. But there are ways that you can help yourself to dump the self-imposed stress and get on with your life. Read on.

Figure Out What’s Bothering You

A lot of self-imposed stress is an accumulation of all the nagging thoughts of our past misdeeds, a ton of emotional baggage left over from the dark days of addiction, and worry over things that we may not even remember clearly now – but know must have happened due to the way others treat us or go out of their way to have nothing to do with us. But carrying around a mountain of black thoughts, emotions, and worry is totally counter-productive to successful recovery. In fact, the more you stress about your addictive past, the less likely you are to put your energy into more healthy pursuits in recovery.

Before you can work on eliminating stress from your life, you need to figure out what’s bothering you. For now, don’t worry about what’s the most worrisome. Just start making a list of the things that trouble you and cause stress on a daily basis.

Don’t know where to begin? Here are some hints.

• Look around you. – Right where you’re sitting or standing, take a good look around you at your home environment. What do you see? Are you disgusted, dismayed, saddened, or angered by the lack of organization, sense of deprivation or loss of possessions you once held dear or that seemed important to you? Do you feel that because of your addiction, your home is empty of significant relationships or that friends no longer come around? Does your home look like a warm and inviting place or has it become just a place to crash and exist in the tedium of self-imposed sameness? Are large pieces of furniture or fixtures or appliances missing, sold to finance your habit?

Simply taking a physical inventory of your home environment will give you plenty of things to put on your list of what’s bothering you. It’s natural to feel overcome by stress when you blame yourself for causing such misery. Who could feel
comfortable or welcome healing in such an atmosphere of negativity?

Just keep writing down the emotions and feelings you attach to physical things you see in your environment. This is a good start and reflects the stress you have about what negative consequences result in your home environment due to your addiction.

• Take a good look at yourself. – Now, get up and look in the mirror. Yes, this is really necessary. Too often those in recovery never really look at themselves. They can’t bear to. What they see is just too painful. Looking in the mirror means you have to summon the courage to face the consequences of your actions. Sure, addiction is a disease and you shouldn’t blame yourself for having it. But, of course, most addicts in recovery do – especially in the early days, weeks, and months. For now, get past thinking about that self-blame and just note what you see.

Who do you see staring back at you? Do you even recognize the person or is this a total stranger to you? Don’t stress over this, either. It’s very common for those in early recovery to be shocked at their reflection in the mirror. The person looking back at them may seem haunted, gaunt, filled with sadness or rage or grief or regret. Maybe the accumulation of years of addiction has left this person ragged, confused, and unable to think rationally or seem in touch with reality. Some are blown away by how old the stranger appears. Does this match what you see in your mirror?

The things you write down are stresses that you have about what you’ve done to yourself as a result of your addiction.

• Think about your job. – One of the key elements of a successful recovery is having stable employment. Without a regular job – let alone one that you find satisfying and rewarding – recovery is filled with stress about finances and loss of self-esteem. How can you become a contributing member of society if you don’t have a job? And, even if you were able to hang onto your old job, what happened as a result of you being away for treatment for your addiction? Did you lose a promotion, get demoted, or have your office or other perks taken away? Do you have fewer employees to supervise or now have a boss that you used to manage?

How do your coworkers act around you now? Are they distant, suspicious, and afraid to trust you? Do they leave you out of conversations or stop talking when you approach? Do they fail to invite you to lunch or to get-togethers at their homes? Or do they try to act like nothing has happened and encourage you to join the gang at the bar after work just like the old days?

Think about how you feel going to your job now. Do you dread interacting with others or even making eye contact with your boss? How are you doing with being able to meet your project deadlines or complete your assignments? If you need help with something, do you even bother to ask for it or are you afraid that your boss and coworkers will think you’re not up to the job. Are you stressing about getting fired?

Much of our self-worth is tied up in what we do for a living. It shouldn’t be that way, but this isn’t unique to those in recovery. The simple truth is that healthy individuals do everything they can to find enjoyment in their chosen field, to find work that’s fulfilling and pays the bills at the same time, and to always strive to learn something new – even in the most repetitive tasks or assignments. Sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? And when you’re in recovery and stressing about not having a job, not being able to get a job, losing what you have on your job, or being fired from your job – all this is a tremendous load of stress you pile on yourself because of your addiction.

• Think about your family and close friends. – While you were gambling every dime you could get your hands on, or drinking away your paycheck, or snorting cocaine or buying illicit drugs on the street you probably didn’t give much thought to what your actions were doing to your family and close friends. If such thoughts did cross your mind, they usually left as fleetingly as they appeared. All you thought about was the next time you’d be able to use, how you’d get the alcohol, drugs, etc., or getting over the effects of using until you could use again.

The rupture of family ties is one of the most severe and serious losses we can endure as a consequence of our addictive behavior. When we finally come out on the other side of treatment and have our new-found sobriety, we are often devastated to learn that there’s no one left back home that’s willing – or able – to support us any longer with encouragement, nonjudgmental attitude, and understanding. We’re not even talking about forgiveness here, just simple presence. A huge cause of stress to addicts in recovery involves the brutal acknowledgement that what they’ve done has destroyed relationships with family and friends. Even if the relationships haven’t been irrevocably severed, they may be severely damaged. This worry alone is enough to result in self-destructive stress.

• List your financial losses. – Addiction treatment is costly. If you are like many individuals in recovery, you will be paying off this debt for a considerable period of time. Even if you do have generous benefits as a result of employer-paid health insurance that picked up a good portion of the treatment cost, there are still the hefty deductibles and co-pays that you’re responsible for. This debt burden is part of what may stress you over your financial situation.

What about your house, condo, townhouse, farm or other property where you live that you own? Are you in the process of losing it through foreclosure or bankruptcy because of your addiction? Are you about to be or have you been evicted from your apartment? Did your parents or spouse or partner or friend kick you out and now you can’t afford a place to live?

Many persons in recovery have also had serious scrapes with the criminal justice system and legal bills and court costs to pay as a result of actions they took, crimes and misdemeanors they committed during their addiction. Not only can these be hefty, they can also be seriously demoralizing – thus adding to non-stop stress about your addictive past.

• Think about your outlook. – Do you have any idea what you’re going to do in the coming years of your life in sobriety? Have you avoided putting together a recovery plan because you feel you don’t deserve to be happy or to pursue goals because of your addictive past? Avoiding taking care of what you need to do for your future is another cause of stress. It’s rooted in feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, helplessness, remorse, guilt, shame, and despair. You can’t move forward until you unburden yourself of the stress inherent in holding onto these destructive feelings.

If your future seems bleak and without purpose, it may be that you are stressing too much about your addictive past. You aren’t giving yourself the permission to dream and make plans. Taken together with all the other stress over your addictive past, this is a sure prescription for a stagnating recovery – or worse, a slip into relapse.

What to Do to About Stressing Over Your Past

Now that you’ve made a thorough self-inventory of the actions, emotions, and thoughts that are tied to your addictive past and cause you to stress out over them, it’s time to take action to rid yourself of the negative pattern. While it won’t be easy, especially at first, with practice you will get better. Will all of these tips work for you? Some will, and others may not. The key is to take what works and use it. Ditch what doesn’t work, and modify those that work but could be better. Tailor everything to your situation and go from there.

  1. Resolve to handle what you can: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it takes a lot of effort and time to learn how to overcome and deal with the stress that’s built up as a result of your addiction. Instead of beating yourself up over this failure or that, resolve that you will handle what you can each and every day. Some days you will be better at banishing self-destructive thoughts and getting on with life, while other days it may seem like you’re just treading water. You may start off fine and with firm purpose only to find yourself stressing during the course of the day over something from your addictive past. Tell yourself that you’re doing the best you can – and keep at it.
  2. Take a break if things mount up: Who says you have to stand there and take it – even if you are the one that’s dishing it out? When you’re obsessing over past actions, take a break – literally and physically. Go out for a walk. Engage in vigorous physical exercise. Meditate, do yoga, listen to music, garden, cook, sew, paint – whatever it is that takes your mind off what’s bothering you, do it. Stressful thoughts are a lot like cravings and urges. If you can get past the 20 minutes or so that they typically endure, you’ll be okay. Why not make this break time meaningful and do something you really like? That will give you even more positive results – banishing stress and feeling good about yourself.
  3. Talk it out with someone you trust: If you’re like most people in recovery, part of your regular routine is attending 12-step fellowship group meetings. When you find that you’ve been obsessing over your addictive past and are stuck in a rut, possibly feeling compelled to use again, step up your attendance at meetings. Go several times a week, or even daily or several times a day if you need to. Don’t feel you need to tough it out. That’s a trap. You’re not your best counsel when you’re stressing over bad things from your addictive past. Take advantage of the support you receive from your 12-step sponsor and talk out what’s bothering you. He or she is committed to helping you in recovery and won’t mind at all that you’ve asked for guidance or just to listen. If you’re not in a 12-step group, consider joining one. Go online and search for one that is appropriate to your addiction. Another option is to talk with a member of the clergy, a family member, or trusted friend. If you have aftercare as part of your treatment program, go for counseling to learn how to deal with destructive stress and obsessing over your past.
  4. Forgive yourself: Everyone who’s in recovery has a litany of things in their past that they’re not proud of, things they’d do anything to take back – if only they could. Putting up the wall of shame and carrying it around with you is not the answer. Yes, you did do some very bad things. Yes, you do need to accept responsibility for your actions during your addictive past. But that doesn’t mean that you have to self-flagellate and condemn yourself to a life of misery and lovelessness as a result of your addiction. Before you can begin to find meaning and hope, however, you need to first forgive yourself. Say it aloud when you wake up and before you go to sleep. Repeat it during the day (silently is fine, if you’re afraid someone will hear). This mantra of self-forgiveness is like taking a vitamin or basking in a few minutes of sunshine daily. It will do you a world of good. Even if you don’t believe the words at first, say them anyway. Eventually, it will start to sink in. If God or your higher power can forgive everything, certainly you can forgive yourself.
  5. Get Outside Yourself: Some people say you can’t escape your thoughts. That’s another trap and a copout to doing the heavy lifting in recovery. You not only can escape your thoughts, but you can do something good in the process. What does this mean? When we are obsessing over a particularly devastating action or words from when we were in the throes of addiction, we’re turned inward. We only think about ourselves – what we did that resulted in negative consequences. Turn the tables on your stressful thoughts. Stop them in their tracks. Do this by getting outside yourself and doing something for someone else. Don’t look for something in return. Just do something to help another, whether that something is assisting your elderly neighbor with grocery shopping, or helping a friend paint a house, or teaching your children how to swim or fish or ski. When you put all your energy and concentration into helping another, you have no time for stressing about your past. Try it. You’ll be amazed at how it works.
  6. Start Over: For some individuals in recovery, the only way to move forward is to start over. This may be a result of losing everything – house, family relationships, job, and friends – or by choice. Instead of endlessly stressing over what went wrong as a result of your addictive past, create a new future that better aligns with the kind of life you want to live. This doesn’t mean that you can just walk out on your responsibilities to your existing family, work, or your financial obligations. If you still have these responsibilities, it’s up to you to take care of them. Family counseling or therapy can help you and others learn to deal with the new reality of your life in sobriety. This may mean a temporary or permanent change. You may find that starting over in a new town or state is appropriate – with or without your family. It may be that you want and need to change jobs, whether to manage your personal life better and pay more attention to your family, or because the job was too stressful, or fraught with temptations to use, or many other reasons. Before you make the decision to start over, however, examine your motives thoroughly. Be sure you are not just trying to escape a situation. Whenever you flee to get away from something you’ve not dealt with, you can be sure it will find you in your new location.

How Long Does It Take?

Most likely you’re wondering how long it will take before stressing about your addictive past will become, well, a thing of the past. There is no prescribed amount of time that’s the same for everyone. Just as we’re all unique individuals, our addictions are also unique – and so is our path to recovery.

The only truth about successful recovery is that you need to give it as much time as it takes. The good news is that the more you practice coping skills, learn and adopt healthy behaviors, expand and solidify your support network, and start mapping out new goals for your future, the quicker you’ll find yourself feeling self-confident about your recovery journey. From time to time you may have a stressful thought about something from your addictive past – just as the occasional cravings and urges may resurface. But the difference is that you won’t dwell on them or do something counter-productive to your recovery as a result of having them. You will be better equipped to deal with stresses and challenges that occur now, today, and not worry about what happened in the past.

Give yourself a good six months to get your feet solidly on the road to recovery. During that time, you will undoubtedly find that you’ve stopped stressing about your addictive past. Now, you’re focused on creating a joyful life full of purpose in recovery.

Posted on August 11th, 2010

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