Break Out of Your Past – Make a New Life in Recovery
No doubt you have a few things you’d like to forget about your past addictive behavior. It’s safe to say that everyone who goes through treatment and enters recovery has some skeletons in their closet they’d prefer to keep hidden away. The trouble is, if you don’t face your demons and own up to your responsibility, there’s no way you can make progress in recovery. Easier said than done, you say? No one said it would be easy, but the alternative really isn’t much of an option. You know you don’t want to slide back into your old habits. So, just how do you break out of your past and make a new life in recovery?
While each person’s path is unique, there are a few things you can do that may help. Take these suggestions and try them on for size. If some of them work, keep doing them. If they work a little, but not enough for your liking, try to modify them to make them more applicable to your particular situation. If something doesn’t work, give it a rest and maybe go back to it at a later date, perhaps when you have a bit more time in recovery. Or, discard what isn’t providing any discernible results.
Ready? Here goes.
Make a Fresh Start
Some recovery experts – and the addicts in recovery themselves – refer to the time after treatment as a rebirth, a new life, and an opportunity to make a fresh start. Whether you adopt this mindset or look at your life in recovery in a different fashion, there is some merit to the idea. So, don’t reject it out of hand.
First of all, you are approaching your post-treatment life with a different set of values. You are committing yourself to a life of sobriety, with all that this commitment entails. And, honestly, sometimes this is going to be a real challenge. Give yourself the benefit of beginning your new life with a clean slate – free of the misdeeds and lies and damaged relationships of the past. No, you can’t undo what has been done. You may be able to repair some of it in time, but you cannot escape your responsibility with respect to your actions. Sure, addiction is a disease. There is no blame that should be attached to that fact. But you do need to own it (your actions), and the key to your recovery is how well you are able to put into practice the strategies and coping mechanisms you learned during treatment, how solid your support system is, and your willingness to put in the necessary hard work to live a healthier, clean and sober lifestyle.
What better way to do this than to start over? For some in recovery, this may require moving to a new location (apartment, different area of the city or town, different city or state). It could also – and more often – mean that you’ll need to stop seeing your former friends. Anyone connected to your former life who continues to drink, use drugs, or engage in polysubstance abuse or addictive behavior is simply going to be off-limits to you. There’s no getting around it. You simply cannot be around those people, places and things that will serve as triggers for you to use again. It can’t be done. Bottom line: You have some hard decisions ahead of you – and many of them involve starting over.
Learn How to Say No
Beef up your ability to turn down invitations to do something you know is counter-productive to your sobriety. This means learning how to say no – and mean it. Well-meaning former acquaintances (even those who are not substance users or abusers) may bring over some near-beer for a celebration of one of your sobriety milestones (6 months, a year, etc.). You should probably limit any celebrations to close family for the first year, just so you’re comfortable being around people who know of your commitment to being clean and sober – and won’t undermine your efforts, however innocently intended.
Saying no also means that you can’t just have one drink and think that you’ll be able to control your intake. The same thing goes for drugs, or gambling, or compulsive sex, or any other kind of addictive behavior. There is no one time only. That’s absolutely not going to work. You’ll need to tell yourself – and others who may try to entice you into the behavior – that you’ve made a commitment and you are not going to involve yourself in circumstances that jeopardize your recovery.
Making a break from the past also means that you’ll be saying no to taking on too much responsibility. Don’t overload your plate while you are just getting acclimated to your recovery. Too much stress will overwhelm you, put added strain on your coping mechanisms, and contribute to relapse faster than you can imagine.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to take on new responsibilities slowly – at least for the first 6 months to a year in recovery. This does not mean that you avoid making any changes during this time. In fact, you should be making positive changes on an ongoing basis. Get involved in new leisure activities. Join groups with similar interests.
Focus on New Priorities
With your new life in recovery, you will be drafting and refining goals. What you decide to do is your decision. After all, it’s your recovery. But, of course, you will want and need to involve your spouse, partner and family members in your decisions. If nothing else, they are the ones who will rally around and support you during your recovery, and you want them to be in sync with your plans.
One of the best things about your future in recovery is the freedom you have to explore new options, different directions, take on exciting new challenges, and learn something new. The range of possibilities is virtually endless, limited only by your own holding back. But there’s really no reason for you to avoid putting a particular goal on your list for fear that you think it’s out of the realm of possibility for you. Who’s to say that’s true? In fact, as new ideas and opportunities occur, jot them down. You can modify, eliminate, or add to them as you go along. Just because it may involve a long-term commitment – what’s wrong with that? Recovery is a lifelong process, so you should have some increasingly challenging long-term goals to keep you motivated and moving forward.
While you were in treatment, your counselors focused on the mind-body-spirit balance, healing the whole person, not just the addiction. Remember that you aren’t your addiction. You have an addiction, but it doesn’t define you. This is very important to keep in mind as you begin to think of tackling short- and long-term goals – or even adding them to your recovery plan. In line with the balance between your mind, body, and spirit, you should focus on goals that help strengthen and maintain that equilibrium in recovery. For example, your addiction may have ravaged your body and your healing may take many months for the various symptoms or complications to mend. Liver and kidney damage, impaired motor functions, cardiovascular problems take time to heal. You need to focus on getting your strength back, on eating nutritious and well-balanced meals, getting enough exercise and plenty of sleep. Gradually, your physical – and mental – condition will improve. And, when your mind and body are better, it makes it easier for your spirit to mend as well.
How do you focus on healing your mind and spirit? It isn’t as simple as taking precautions to eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep, but it isn’t difficult either. What you do is cut yourself some slack, to begin with. Allow yourself time to get reoriented to your new life of sobriety. Participate in 12-step groups so that you surround yourself with others who understand what you’ve gone through (and are going through) and can offer you ongoing encouragement and support. Sure, the emotional roller coaster is tough to take, since there will be some days – and maybe you’ve had some of these already – that are almost too much to bear. The weight of responsibility, the anguish and shame and remorse over past deeds, financial burdens – all of these may come down and threaten to crush your spirit. You don’t know where to turn or who to trust. Again, utilize the 12-step network to help galvanize your resolve to live a clean and sober lifestyle. Many persons in recovery say that they couldn’t have made it through some of the difficult times without their sponsor and fellow 12-step group members.
In addition, such groups often offer skills training, job fairs or placement services, and many other services. Alumni may come back to provide instruction, guidance, or work as volunteers to staff various functions. This is a great way for you to network, gain necessary training and skills, learn how to write a resume, fill out a job application, or practice going to a job interview.
Uplifting your spirit takes different forms depending on your religious or spiritual upbringing and inclination. If you find strength and comfort in religious beliefs, prayer and meditation may be the appropriate way for you to find spiritual balance. If you are not religious or are spiritual in a non-denominational manner, perhaps the belief in the power of the self or spirit is what guides you.
When you find yourself feeling out of sorts, overwhelmed, taking on too much, or just confused over all the choices you need to make, ease up a bit. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Be with close friends. Take time off to do something that you enjoy – with no sense of obligation or responsibility other than to do something good for yourself. In other words, you need to make time to take time for leisure activities. This will help bring things back into focus, and balance out the mind-body-spirit connection.
How to Mend Frayed Relationships
One of the most difficult things to do in recovery is to repair relationships that were strained or damaged in the worst throes of addiction. For many in recovery, these are the relationships with spouse or partner, children, parents and other close relatives. If these individuals live in the same household and are there when the individual returns home from treatment, rebuilding the bond becomes incredibly difficult. There may be long silences, times when family members tiptoe around, afraid to say the wrong thing or make a wrong move, fearful of their loved one backsliding into relapse.
There’s the whole issue of trust, so important to healthy spousal relationships and so hard to repair once it’s been abused. And, let’s not forget love. During the period of your treatment, much uncertainty about the future no doubt plagued your spouse, partner and loved ones. They worried how you’d return, if you’d genuinely commit to sobriety, if things would ever go back to normal.
Naturally, you worry and wonder how you’ll be received, and how – and when – you’ll regain their trust, not to mention love.
There is no easy solution to how to rebuild frayed relationships. The best that you can do is to take it one day at a time. Focus on living up to your responsibilities. Do what you say you will do. Go out of your way to compliment your spouse or partner and children. Do things for them – not out of a sense of obligation, but because you want to show your affection and commitment. Shouldn’t it be the other way around, you may ask? Ideally, there’ll be a give and take. Realistically, there are some hurdles to overcome. It takes time for love and trust to return after the loved one returns home from treatment. How could it be any other way? You’ll have to give it time, not take the awkwardness as a sign of failure, and keep doing your best.
Not every strained relationship – family, close friends, co-workers or others – can be repaired. If this is the case, you can’t take it as an indictment or an indication that you’ve somehow made less progress in your recovery. Human nature is such that some people just can’t forgive and move forward. It may be that you’ll need to allow these individuals to have their space, even if that means they will no longer be in your life. In some cases, this separation is only temporary, while others prove permanent.
Encourage family members to attend the family component of the 12-step groups. These groups include Al-Anon/Alateen (affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous), Nar-Anon (the family component of Narcotics Anonymous), Gam-Anon (family off-shoot of Gamblers Anonymous), and others. This is particularly valuable if your family members were not able to take part in family treatment as part of your overall treatment program. Included in some residential addiction treatment programs, family treatment may also be an extra-cost service, or may not be offered at all in outpatient treatment programs. The added benefit of 12-step family groups is that, like the 12-step groups themselves, there is no cost to join, and no dues.
What to Do if You Feel Yourself Slipping
Not every day will be full of positive outcomes. You will experience some difficult times when you are afraid that it might be easier and preferable to go back to your addictive behavior. This is common. Cravings and urges beset the individual in recovery at unpredictable times – sometimes months and years after the person has been successfully in recovery. For some individuals, continued medication is appropriate to help ease or eliminate cravings, calm anxiety and depression, and help with sleep difficulties. If you need or thing medication can help, talk with your counselor and physician about a prescription. It’s important to take the medication exactly as prescribed and to continue taking it. Some medications, particularly antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, take up to 6 weeks to begin to show improvement in symptoms. Your doctor may also need to modify dosage or change medications if there is no improvement. Be sure to tell your doctor how you feel, whether symptoms lessen or improve slightly, and any complications that arise from taking the medication.
Generally speaking, the best way to prevent relapse is to continue with your participation in 12-step groups. When you feel yourself about to slip, call your sponsor or 12-step members with whom you’ve become close. They can serve as a lifeline, listening to you without judgment, offering encouragement and support for as long as you need it – any time of the day or night. At least your sponsor will offer this 24/7 availability. Use your judgment when calling other 12-step members in the middle of the night (although you will know from how they interact with you if they are receptive to such calls). In any event, these people are like your surrogate family. They care about you and want you to succeed in recovery. If anyone can help you stay true to your commitment, it’s them.
Continued counseling, if it is available to you as part of aftercare or continuing care, is another way to get help if you feel you’re going to slip. Just because you go through treatment doesn’t mean that you’re fully practiced in utilizing the coping skills you learned. Treatment is a supervised, contained situation where counselors are always available. When you’re back in the real world, it’s quite a bit different. Naturally, you may feel some anxiety and trepidation about doing the right thing when you come face to face with cravings and urges. So, if you can get continued counseling, definitely take advantage of it.
How Long Does It Take?
Everyone wants to know how long it takes until you know your recovery is a success. Again, there is no single timetable that works for everyone. It will take as long as it needs to for you. That’s the best way to look at it. From this perspective, if it takes 1 to 2 years before you feel solidly on your feet again, you could say that that is a realistic timeframe. This means clean and sober for that entire time, during which you’ve become practiced and thoroughly able to handle increasing challenges, problems, and stressors without resorting to your addiction. For some in recovery, making it to the 6 month mark is a great boost to their self-confidence, and a sign that they are in successful recovery.
Remember, too, that even those in recovery who’ve been clean and sober for years or decades may have times when they experience cravings out of the blue. That’s just a reality, and there’s just no predicting it. The true indication of a successful recovery isn’t that you have cravings – it’s what you do about it.
For now, take each day at a time. Keep focused on doing things that will strengthen your mind-body-spirit connection. Live according to the new values you’ve determined are important. Be loving and constant with your family. And believe that all things are possible for your future in recovery.