How to Overcome the Tough Part in Early Recovery

If you’re new to recovery and wonder what it’s all about, or you are experiencing some uncertainty and discomfort and are afraid you may not make it, you’re not alone. The fact is that recovery, like treatment for addiction, is unique to each person. Some people say they go right back to their lives (minus the addictive behavior, of course) with no major problems, while others struggle mightily – especially during the first few weeks and months. There’s no straight-line path that every person follows. Still, you don’t have to eat yourself up with worry. Here are some things you can do to overcome the tough part in early recovery.

Aim to Keep Your Life Simple

There’s a good reason why addiction counselors recommend patients try to streamline their lives following treatment. You’re just coming off an intensive program to overcome addiction and are now trying to get your life back on track. A lot of things are going through your head as you navigate the daily stresses and challenges that life throws at you. It’s doubly hard for those new to recovery, since there are so many obvious reminders (triggers) and cravings to use.

One way to give yourself some help in early recovery is to try to maintain as simple a schedule as possible. Eliminate all complicated projects or stress-inducing activities. Of course, if you’re working and your boss gives you a tough assignment to complete, saying no really isn’t an option. Just do the best you can and don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. In this regard, you’re just like every other employee. If you need more resources or people to help get the job done, politely but firmly request it.

Keeping your life simple also means adhering to a 12-step group meeting rule of no major life changes during your first year of recovery. Major life changes include everything from getting married or divorced, changing residences (unless you need to in order to remove yourself from partners or friends that continue to use), quitting or changing jobs (unless absolutely necessary), deciding to have children, and so on. There will be ample time to make these major decisions when you are stronger in your recovery and more confident in your capabilities.

Keep it Green – Go to 12-Step Meetings

Speaking of 12-step meetings, you need to go to them as often as you can. Here’s another so-called 12-step rule, one called “Keeping it Green.” This refers to newcomers (those new to recovery) being required to attend 90 meetings in 90 days (“90 in 90”).

If you think this is impossible, take a moment to mull it over. When you’re in a time of crisis, such as you feel yourself about to relapse (slip), or you’ve just received an eviction notice, lost your job, or other major setback, you need the support and encouragement that’s only available to you through your 12-step sponsor and fellow group members.

There are meetings available morning, noon, and night somewhere in your community. You could attend three in a day when you need it most. You could also participate in meetings online or through teleconference. No matter where you are in the continental United States (and many foreign countries), there are meetings available for you to attend in one form or another.
With this easy accessibility in mind, it should be no problem for you to meet the 90 in 90 rule. Best of all, it’s an excellent way to overcome the tough part in early recovery.

Get a Sponsor

When you’re fresh out of treatment and start going to 12-step meetings, after a few times in attendance you should get a good idea of how the whole process works. Chances are that you were introduced to the concept during your addiction treatment, especially if you were in residential or intensive inpatient treatment. If you didn’t go through formal treatment but did it on your own or with the help of a private therapist, attending 12-step meetings may be new to you. You’ll soon get the rhythm of the sessions.

Finding someone you’d like to ask to be your sponsor doesn’t have to be an arduous task. Go to a few meetings and see who seems to be a natural leader. You’ll want to look at individuals who have been successfully in recovery for at least one year. It also helps if you admire the person or feel that you have a lot in common or that you can learn something from him or her. Of course, the person has to agree to be your sponsor. He or she may have too many current responsibilities to take you on or may welcome the opportunity to serve as your sponsor. In any case, if the first individual you approach can’t do it, try another one.

Why is a sponsor so important? This is the person you call first in a crisis. He or she is committed to helping you navigate the 12-step process, listening and offering nonjudgmental encouragement and support, and, in general, being available to you anytime. Where else can you find someone who can fill such a role? In fact, many people who are new to recovery say that their sponsor was a lifeline that helped them maintain their sobriety in times of crisis.

Mix it Up

Another technique to keeping yourself sane and on-track in your recovery is to mix up your meeting attendance. Try out several different meeting locations. You’ll get a feel for the different personalities and group energy and will undoubtedly find one or more groups that naturally appeal to you more.

Pick one to serve as your home meeting location, that is, the one meeting you commit to attending each week regardless of
any other meetings you choose to attend. Your home group is most likely the one where your sponsor is.

Mixing up meeting attendance helps keep things from getting boring. You don’t want to become immune to hearing the same stories from the same people. By going to different locations, even though others will be mixing it up as well, you’ll keep a fresh perspective and always find something new to learn. In addition, you’ll widen your circle of sober friends and acquaintances.

Be Vigilant About Your Needs

You can’t take on the world when you’re new to recovery. Along with keeping your life simple, attending 12-step meetings regularly, you also need to pay attention to your own needs. And you simply must be vigilant about taking care of what you need. This may include taking better care of yourself physically, since addiction often takes a tremendous toll on the human body. Emotional and spiritual components need attention as well, so be sure to get any additional counseling or therapy and soothe your spirit or get in touch with your higher power.

Avoid Reminders of Using

From your treatment days you know that you need to steer clear of all the old people, places and things that caused you to use. Your life is totally different now, from the standpoint that you have made a sincere commitment to being clean and sober. If you try to maintain friendships with those who continue to drink, do drugs, or engage in other addictive behaviors, you’ll soon realize that you have nothing in common with the majority of them. These people whom you thought you knew so well and who supposedly knew you so well, no longer have anything of value to offer you in recovery.

Anyone who’s tried to drink soda at a bar while their friends get progressively loaded or stoned can attest to the fact that, once you’ve adopted a clean and sober lifestyle with conviction, being around falling-down drunks just isn’t that appealing.

Of course, it’s going to be tough to part with some of these old friendships or to break long-standing patterns of hanging out at the tavern with co-workers after work. You can either be upfront about it and say that you’re in recovery and choose not to drink, or you can politely excuse yourself and say you have other obligations. Honesty is the best policy, but it’s really up to you how you’re able to remove yourself from the presence of these triggers.

And, if you continue to hang out with others who engage in addictive behavior, there may soon come a time when you say, “What the heck? Give me a drink.” Before you know it, you’ve relapsed. Why take the chance? Early recovery is just too soon to put yourself in such jeopardy.

You Need Time to Sort Things Out

Early recovery is an opportunity for you to start fresh in your clean and sober lifestyle. This entails a lot of work, however, and to accomplish this means you need time to be able to sort things out. There’s the whole 12-step process that you need to start working. Your 12-step work will involve a lot of self-inventory and coming to grips with some painful issues and feelings that
you’d rather not address – but must.

Everything is excruciatingly real in early recovery, according to those who’ve made it through the first year and are solid in their recovery efforts. Feelings come and go rapidly and without warning in your first few months. You need time to how to feel, how to identify the feelings you have and how to process them in the appropriate manner. For some, and for a period of time, this may involve a daily and/or minute-by-minute struggle.

It’s also not uncommon for those in early recovery to experience periods of forgetfulness or problems with memory. You may find it hard to concentrate, especially if you used to smoke a lot of marijuana. It takes time for memory and cognitive function to come back, so be patient.

When issues come up about your disease, bring it up in therapy and your 12-step group meetings.

Panic Attacks

Don’t think you’re going crazy if you have panic attacks. These are common for many in recovery. They usually come and go quickly enough, however. It’s really a case of your disease messing with you, letting you know that it’s still something you need to recognize. How should you deal with panic attacks? Some in recovery recommend you commit to your higher power and just ride it out. If you don’t believe in a higher power, believe in your own ability to choose the right path. You should also discuss panic attacks with your therapist and your 12-step sponsor or other close allies in the 12-step meetings.

Cravings Out of the Blue

Just as you never know when or if you’ll get a panic attack, you can’t predict when cravings will resurface. You expect they’ll plague you in early recovery, and they often do, to one extent or another. What you may not expect is that cravings and urges can surface years into your successful recovery.

The fact that you have cravings shouldn’t be cause for concern. It’s what you do about them that matters. Along with your other coping mechanisms and techniques that you learned during treatment or through your participation in 12-step meetings, here’s another tip that may help: Say the Serenity Prayer over and over in your mind while you take in deep and cleansing breaths.
It’s often said that if you can make it through 20 minutes (about the length of time cravings last), you’ll be fine. Distract yourself with games, reading, chores, physical labor, sports, and recreational pursuits, calling a friend or your sponsor, or prayer. You can even do counting exercises or physical arrangement of items. Check the clock and time how long the cravings last. This will give you a good idea of how much time you need to allocate for your coping strategies to work.

Get Your Chips for Milestones

One way to overcome the tough part of early recovery is to actively work toward the achievement of your milestones. In the 12-step meetings, anniversaries and milestones are a really big thing, celebrated by the awarding of plastic chips for 24 hours, 30 days, 60 days, and 90 days. At the one-year milestone, you receive a bronze metal coin. Most people in recovery look on the first-year anniversary as the time when their lives truly begin to take form – as well as productive shape. It’s a celebration of the hard work it took them to get to this point in their recovery, and an acknowledgement and recognition of their achievement in creating a solid foundation of recovery.

How Long Will the Tough Part Last?

The most painful and uncertain parts of early recovery may last a few weeks or months for some, while others may experience rough patches for the greater part of the first year. You have to physically and emotionally walk through your pain in order to get to the other side. Again, there is no hard and fast timetable that you can point to and figure that if you’ve made it to this point, you’re out of the tough parts forever. It simply doesn’t work that way. Ditto the fact that you can be in successful recovery for years and some crisis will occur that threatens to derail you.

Keep in mind that your 12-step sponsor and fellow group members are always there for you. They are constant and reassuring presences that only want to help you maintain your sobriety even as they maintain their own.

After you’ve been in successful recovery for at least a year and feel confident in your recovery capabilities, you may wish to sponsor a newcomer or lead a meeting. You will definitely be ready to share your story. And that’s what successful recovery really is. When you are committed to helping others in sobriety as you have been helped, that’s the best of all possible outcomes.

Posted on July 2nd, 2010

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