Amid the heavy media coverage of the opioid crisis in North America, a portrait of the type of addict who enters recovery is finding its way into the minds of the general public. Anyone who’s ever watched Intervention or any HBO addiction documentary sees how low things must go before addicts and alcoholics stumble into recovery. Homelessness, degradation, loss of ties to family and loved ones, health consequences and shattered lives. While this “at home entertainment” is partially responsible for normalizing conversations about addiction at the dinner table, it does a disservice to other substance abusers because the “rehab-ready” bar is set so low. What happens to the woman drinking a bottle of wine when she gets home from work, night after night? Or the man who’s discovered that a few benzos throughout each day improves his performance on the job? Or the mom who found a doctor who refills her script and never questions the back pain she initially got Vicodin for in 2011? What happens to this population of high-functioning drug and alcohol users when even their friends say they aren’t bad enough to “qualify” for rehab or AA?

I wish there was a way to write this OUT LOUD so it jumps off the page at the reader:

It doesn’t matter how much you drink or what drugs you’re taking, if you’re reading this it’s because something has changed. You can’t seem to escape a gnawing sensation in the pit of your stomach telling you things aren’t right. Maybe the feeling’s coming from somewhere near your heart or it’s a nagging voice in your head. Your secret life involving drugs and alcohol torments you but the few times you’ve tried bringing it up to a friend, they laugh it off. Why wouldn’t they – after all, your life is completely together. They’re certain you don’t need AA or, god forbid, rehab!

You start drinking a little bit more to make these feelings disappear for another night, another month, until one day you start google searching “addiction” and “recovery” on your computer. Maybe that’s how you found yourself here, reading this essay.

After a few nights on the internet, you’ll start having thoughts like “I need to get clean and sober” which you’ll immediately counter with “What’s the rush?”. Now you’re back to the impossible task of moderating and controlling your drug and alcohol use. When control proves to be impossible, you’ll still dance around giving it up altogether. Maybe you’ll frame quitting with “I’m going to do a 90-day cleanse” or “I’m just taking a break from …” All this bargaining and deal-making is normal. It really doesn’t make any difference what you tell yourself or your friends. The only thing that matters is that you give yourself a chance. Experience firsthand what “being in recovery” means and what it feels like.

Quitting drugs and alcohol will sometimes make you feel like a fish on dry land. You’re wrestling with a force trying to undermine your efforts at every turn. You’ll find yourself debating whether or not you really needed to get clean and miss your first support group meeting. You start building a case that you don’t really qualify for a support group with “real” drug addicts and that this is something you should be able to do on your own. Next comes the bargaining process. It’s not that you’re against sobriety, you happen to love sobriety – but what are you going to do when they make a toast at that wedding you’re attending in eight months? You aren’t giving up on recovery – you want it, you really do – but it’s not the right time. You can’t be rude to the bride and groom. Next spring you will get sober.

Despite all this madness going on in your head, you decide to let people in recovery teach you how to do it. They help make the transition less agonizing. You follow their suggestions and immediately experience relief, hope and enthusiasm. You think a lot about gratitude until you lay your head down. That’s when the wheeling and dealing thought process begins, insisting you need to cut back on some of this recovery stuff. This happens to everyone but never fear – it’s not the new normal. You’ll wake up with another day clean and sober.
Here are some simple suggestions to make this as easy as possible:

Find a support group and ask them what worked for them. Call these people (or instant message if you find them online).

Get fresh air for at least 30 minutes twice a day.

Exercise – even if that means putting on your favorite tunes and dancing in your apartment even if you feel embarrassed in front of yourself.

Drink a lot of water.

Eat healthy food even if you keep consuming food that brings you comfort. Get nourishment.

Don’t stress out over sleep. Sleep might suck for a while but your life won’t fall apart over it as much as it might if you keep on the path of drugs and alcohol.

Don’t spend all your time worrying about the future. Look at an object in front of you and describe it in your mind in such detail that if you were on the phone with a painter he’d be able to capture the image perfectly.

Remember – when you start ruminating over anything that brings you anxiety or feelings of despair, take an action to get out of your head. Be a train conductor of your brain and switch tracks. A few jumping jacks will do the trick.

Every time your head tells you the words forever, never and always recognize that it is a trick. Approach recovery one day at a time and let life surprise you. This is a brand-new experience. There’s no point projecting what it’s going to be like or what it will feel like. You’ll only find out by living it.

  May 31, 2017

Patty is a nationally recognized certified recovery coach and writer. She lives in New York City.

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