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Relapse Prevention: Keeping Your Cool, Keeping Your Distance

Drama, intrigue or troubled “interpersonal dynamics”—no matter what term you use to describe it, you all know what I’m talking about: the conflicts, arguing, gossiping, and “snarking” that go on among groups of acquaintances, both “IRL” (in real life) and on the various social media sites. For some people, drama of this type is a way of life, and it isn’t a negative thing at all. For some people, it is fun and entertaining—they stir the pot and watch it boil, and never really get upset about any of it, no matter how much screaming (or texting in all capitals) happens. For others, though, arguing, fighting and generally interacting in a heated, unkind, and negative manner is really disturbing. The hurt feelings or anxious, torn up inside way it feels to get into an argument is truly distressing. For these folks, these types of relationships and interactions are a real risk to sobriety.

Drama Addicts
For some people, the “thrill” of an argument is compelling. When you get angry or upset with someone, your body produces chemicals that fuel the “fight or flight” response. The result is what most people call an “adrenaline rush.” Regardless of whether this is an actual addiction, some people definitely seek this rush—you may have heard the term “adrenaline junkies.” If they can’t ski black diamonds every morning before breakfast or go skydiving after work, certain types of interpersonal relationships seem to fill that need for a spike in adrenaline.

In recovery, you will meet these people. They will be at work, in your social circle, and at your Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings. You will learn to recognize them quickly, but maybe not quickly enough to avoid getting drawn into some difficult interactions. Often these folks are initially fun to be around because they can be dynamic and compelling company—they are often passionate and intense and those are great qualities. When that passion and intensity are aimed at you in anger, however, it can be a lot less fun. If you find yourself getting swept up in a whirlwind of emotion early in your recovery, be as careful and protective of your newborn sobriety as a mama bear is of her cub. It’s better to avoid a relapse than to recover from one.

Lifestyle Addicts
Another related risk to your sobriety is the replacement of your addiction to alcohol or a substance with “overdoing” it. What do I mean by overdoing? Doing too much too soon, and getting overwhelmed. If you are doing a 90 in 90 (90 AA or NA meetings in 90 days), then go for it, focus on that, and do it with awareness and focus. Absorb and digest as much as you can and enjoy the immersion in recovery. But while you do that? It is not the time to move, take on a new job or get into a relationship. While you might be forced to take on some major life transitions in early recovery because of your specific circumstances, when you have the choice to wait, early recovery is a time when you should wait, focus on your sobriety and make choices that support and protect your sobriety. Not sure what the best choice is? Ask your sponsor, your therapist and your doctors for advice—not your former drinking buddies!

Leave the Drama on the Stage
Early recovery is a great time to work on getting to know yourself. While you’re drinking or drugging, it is pretty much impossible to develop real self-awareness—the substances get in the way. As the fog clears and your brain, body and psyche recover, you have a great opportunity to pay attention to your own inner workings. You might find that you are a person who really loves the drama of being in the middle of a lot of intense emotion—maybe that mirrors your experiences growing up, or maybe you just love the energy of being in the center of a storm. Either way, this is a great thing for you to find out about yourself. Don’t judge it—just manage it. Channel that energy into an arena where it will be positive. Maybe joining a local theatre company would be the right outlet for you, although that’s not always a perfect fit for everyone.

If you discover that you are an “overdoer” acknowledge this and again, don’t judge, just manage. Find ways to balance doing with rest and quiet time for reflection. You may find that joining a church or other spiritual group will be helpful, or that meditating daily (even for as little as two to three minutes at first) will help you balance the impulse to join everything and do all of it!

Most importantly, learn to say no. Whether you are dealing with drama or tempted to get in over your head with volunteer projects, the ability to say no is key. Saying no is a concrete way of practicing good boundaries and good boundaries keep people safe, happy and sober. Ask your sponsor for help learning this skill if you know it is a tough one for you. Ask your therapist for help working through your family history around setting boundaries. And remember, practice makes not perfect, but better. And little by little, life gets better. It is work but it is well rewarded.

Posted on February 1st, 2014

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