A friend of mine said when he finished his program he was “like a wet dog on a back porch. They couldn’t get rid of me.” They ended up offering him a job. For me, getting out of rehab was like being pushed out of the nest not knowing whether or not my wings would work. I’d have stayed there forever if they’d let me. From the minute I was admitted into treatment the thought of “life after rehab” literally took my breath away. After all, forty-two days in a program built around relapse prevention made one thing clear – this place didn’t give guarantees.
I went straight from rehab to a friend’s apartment in New Orleans’ Quarter. I would wander the streets feeling as though I’d been skinned alive. I’d sit on a step at every corner, smoke a cigarette, and pray that I would stay clean for the next five minutes. The word “terror” doesn’t come close. My first two weeks in the real world consisted of laying on a sofa for hours trying to make sense of the third step, smoking cigarettes on random steps killing time between meetings, and going to bed – where sleep failed to come. The only thing I had on my side was that I had no personal history with New Orleans. I knew no one. Thank God.
Recently I was in a shopping mall with a client who’d just returned home from treatment. She suggested we grab lunch in a little restaurant on the ground floor. It wasn’t until we were seated that she casually mentioned she’d spent many afternoons there drinking martinis. I would have known even if she hadn’t told me because the place electrified her. I handed the wine list back to the waiter and a look of disappointment came over her face. She sunk behind her menu. “The food here is great. I totally forgot about the bar when I suggested this place. Honest!” I’m sure she had. I’m never surprised at the tricks the brain will play on the newly sober person. They’re unconsciously drawn to risky situations and, once there, begin to play a form of mental chicken. They test themselves – which is a really dangerous game to play. While she commented on the cocktails at nearby tables, her disposition flipped from euphoria to gloom. We ate quickly and skipped dessert. I knew there’d be emotional backlash. She’d either become surly or would want to crawl back into bed when we got home. The experience gave us a lot to work with and talk about – how to safely navigate through day to day life without setting yourself up for additional emotional fallout.
“Am I going to be staring at glasses of wine for the rest of my life?”
In early recovery, my stomach would flip every time I passed a freeway exit that lead to any bathroom I’d ever shot coke in. Some days all it took was the Hollywood Freeway South sign to constrict my chest. It felt like I was losing my mind. If the whole world reminded me of using, how would I ever stay clean?
There will always be restaurants, parties, and work functions. There will be comedy clubs and rock shows. You get clean so you can become part of life – not hide from it. In early recovery, the key is to not test oneself by going it alone.
It takes time to build sober memories. Things that used to send me over the edge seldom affect me now. The Hollywood Freeway South sign is now just a sign. When I see it I’m filled with pleasant memories of fun times I’ve had and people who have passed through my life in recovery. I no longer look at the underside of spoons. People drinking wine at the next table are simply strangers experiencing a moment in their own life.
I would have never believed that the haunting memories of people, places, and things connected to my drug days would ever be replaced by equally powerful memories of my life clean and sober. It happened when I wasn’t paying attention. It will happen for you too. Remember – it takes time to create a new history. In the meantime, be mindful not to play chicken by deliberately placing yourself situations that are going to push you out on an emotional ledge. If you have to go anywhere that you know will be slippery, don’t go it alone.