Early recovery can be a struggle – it takes time to readjust to life without the use of mood altering substances. Staying on the path of recovery requires a shift in perspective, changes in behavior and in all aspects of a person-s life. Addiction is not pretty and recovery is not easy – but it is simple and there is hope! If you know the common struggles that recovering addicts experience they can be met with a plan and knowing what you’ll face and how you’ll get through it will help smooth the road ahead. Here’s what to watch for:
1. Friends, family, and loved ones.
Those closest to a recovering addict can also be the root of many early struggles. Rebuilding relationships is a difficult process fraught with complicated emotions that a newly sober individual may have trouble managing. Dating and new relationships are also a minefield of challenges. Holidays and special occasions can be complicated; if loved ones have access to the problem substance a recently recovered addict may be tempted.
How to meet the challenge: Make sure you have a strong support network outside of your family. Stay in touch with this network constantly so they can help you work through your emotions and limit the amount of time spent with any destructive influences.
Boredom or a lack of purpose can individuals in early recovery extremely hard. In active addiction, so much time is devoted to fueling the addiction that it can be difficult to fill gaps in the day. These gaps can be large (a free night, or a day off), or small (15 minute breaks at work), but for a brain that has become accustomed to regular stimulation it can be a struggle to find new activities to replace old habits and lifestyle. This boredom can stem from a lack of purpose born from shame – a feeling that plays a huge role in active addiction in the first place.
How to meet the challenge: Helping others is an effective way to beat boredom and lack of purpose. This could include volunteering at a shelter, engaging with community, or donating time to a charity (just make sure to avoid any place that will bring you into contact with substances that can be abused). Finding sober meetup groups and activities in your area can also be a fun way to add new activities to a healthy lifestyle and meet other likeminded individuals. Fighting boredom will be difficult, but finding purpose will make a big difference.
3. Mental changes.
Unfortunately, even after the initial withdrawal is complete, the brain of an addict isn’t done changing. For example, sleep is often the first thing affected by recovery, and it’s one of the most difficult challenges to deal with. Insomnia, irregular sleep patterns, and extremely light sleep contribute to fuzzy thinking (brain fog), trouble concentrating, exhaustion, problems with memory, and even a deterioration of physical coordination.
Recovering addicts may also notice problems with rigid, repetitive thinking, unexplained irritability, and difficulty troubleshooting or solving problems. These problems may be especially noticeable to individuals who work in the business sector.
How to meet the challenge: Addressing these issues is difficult because some doctors prescribe drugs that can lead back to dependency. (This even includes natural health doctors. “Natural” substances can be just as addictive as synthetic ones.) It’s important to only visit doctors who understand addiction and have been trained to treat those recovering from it. To help encourage sleep and a reduction in irritability some recovering addicts recommend meditation, mindfulness practices, physical exercise and other mental exercises. Reach out to your support network for suggestions on what they did to overcome mental challenges or find a qualified therapist or counsellor who can teach proper technique and see if this works for you.
Everyone faces stress and, in low amounts, stress can be a useful part of normal motivation. Properly managing stress can lead to powerful feelings of accomplishment and can help provide a sense of purpose.
Unfortunately, long term substance abuse can suppress deep rooted feelings interferes with the body’s normal ability to deal with stress. This means that, in the first few months of recovery, individuals will have much stronger reactions to stressful events than normal.
How to meet the challenge: Dealing with stress will require a network of supporters. The most powerful stressors involve time pressures, so it’s often not possible to step back from the situation for long. Reaching out to those who have walked a path of recovery can share what they had done to alleviate stress. Reaching out and asking for help will let you work through your stress quickly and reduce the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that can come from feeling overwhelmed.
5. Managing emotions.
Much like stress, everyone occasionally feels powerful emotions and a recovering addict (who may have started substance abuse in part as a way to eliminate those emotions) will need to learn new coping strategies to process emotions in a healthy way.
Emotions during early recovery can fluctuate substantially going from extreme high to low in rapid succession, and former heavy users may have difficulty experiencing pleasure at all due to changes in brain chemistry. Guilt, shame, loneliness, and fear of the future can quickly add up into a powerful mental block if the recovering individual isn’t prepared to deal with those feelings.
How to meet the challenge: Managing those feelings is a job best done by a professional counsellor or by attending residential addiction treatment. Counsellors are able to provide coping strategies, self-care techniques, and a deeper understanding of where the emotions are coming from.
6. Failing to develop proper coping strategies.
In the early stages of recovery some addicts may replace one addiction with another. It’s important to watch for improper coping strategies like excessive working out, over eating, escapism (into books, movies, games, etc.), or anything else done to excess.
How to meet the challenge: Balance is key to lasting recovery, and a strong support network will help keep you from falling into a different addiction. Becoming open to feedback and remaining accountable for our actions helps prevent against developing maladaptive coping tools.
Not every recovering addict will experience this, but some report feeling a “pink cloud” of happiness and confidence that overtakes them at some point during the first few months of their recovery. These feelings can lead to complacency, and recovering addicts can be tempted to set unrealistic expectations for themselves.
How to meet the challenge: As painful as it is, it’s important to constantly be aware that temptation can strike at any time. Having an honest network of supporters who can keep that fact out in the open will stop you from over committing or engaging in risky behaviours.
8. Self Medication.
Some former addicts may suffer from undiagnosed mental or physical illnesses that may have contributed to their substance abuse in the first place. Other former addicts may have been using substance abuse as a way to cover uncomfortable character flaws such as excessive anger, jealousy or laziness. The temptation to fall back onto substances to cope with these issues will be immense.
How to meet the challenge: A good counsellor will be able to spot these problems over time. Once they’re uncovered the counsellor can help you manage them without the help of substances through anger management classes, therapy, or mental exercise. Duel-diagnosis (being diagnosed as an addict in addition to a separate medical problem) is becoming more and more common.
9. Lack of motivation to stay sober.
This is rather obvious, but some addicts don’t truly want to stop using drugs or alcohol. Sometimes they’ve been “forced” to stop by the legal system or by friends and family. These individuals are sometimes described as physically sober but mentally addicted.
Individuals who are still mentally addicted will attach a strong stigma to addiction, and will romance the substance and cravings. They will resent anyone who tries to help, and will often rely on saying the right words to make the positive pressure go away rather than changing their actions. Cravings in individuals who are still mentally addicted will create strong feelings of self-pity, and it can be difficult to encourage anyone in this mindset to see a need for or reach out to a network for help.
How to meet the challenge: In this circumstance, the best thing to do is set healthy boundaries, and not enable the addiction or dysfunctional behaviours. It is impossible to convince someone to seek support for their addiction – but it is possible to express the negative impact their behavior has had. Successful recovery depends on the cooperation of the individual suffering from addiction as well as their loved ones.
10. Social isolation.
Social isolation, self-imposed or otherwise, can create a large obstacle to recovery from addiction. Without the ability to call or meet someone for support recovery will be difficult (if not impossible). Internal strength is important, but no one is expected to go through recovery alone.
How to meet the challenge: Getting through the low points will always be difficult, but it will be much easier in the early stages of recovery with a strong support network. Connecting with a 12 step fellowship and gaining a sponsor is a great way to remain accountable and avoid isolating. There are also online resources for individuals who live in remote areas without access to a fellowship or support network.
There’s no shame in falling victim to any of these common struggles faced in early recovery. Most recovering addicts say that, in their darkest moments, being sober for a lifetime seems impossible. Fortunately, being sober for a lifetime isn’t the goal – being sober one hour at a time is. There’s no shame in facing struggles, just make sure to focus on the right now, rely on a strong network, and (with practice) your mind and body will continue to recover. Addiction can’t be completely cured, but it can be – and is – overcome every day by ordinary people making extraordinary decisions.