The path to sobriety is often a rocky one, full of hills to climb and curves to navigate. It is completely normal to experience a setback or even relapse on the lifetime journey to maintain your recovery from addiction. Life is full of circumstances that can make alcohol and drug abuse recovery challenging. The passing of a loved one, an overwhelming job, or something on a larger scale like the global pandemic crisis can bring up a whirlwind of emotions that may tempt you to numb with damaging substances and behaviors. Fortunately, you aren’t alone on your journey from addiction. Others have walked the path ahead of you, and there are plenty of people cheering you along the way. Here are some ways to push through setbacks and get back on the road to sobriety and healing.
- Acknowledge the setback and accept that you aren’t where you want to be, but treat yourself with the same compassion you’d give someone else in the same position. We often offer a degree of grace and forgiveness to others that we don’t allow for ourselves. For example, when children are learning to walk or play a sport or musical instrument, we don’t expect them to master the skill without a degree of trial and error. They make mistakes, learn from them, and keep improving as they continue to practice. Berating them for their mistakes is generally counterproductive and can diminish their desire to try. It can give them a degree of anxiety and fear that can interfere with the learning process.
Likewise, there are skills to be learned in the recovery journey. When stressful life events occur, it’s easy to fall back into old patterns when new ones aren’t firmly established. If you’ve had a setback, it’s tempting to berate yourself, but being too critical can ultimately counter your goals. If “I made a mistake” turns into “I’m a failure” or “I’ll never get sober,” it can diminish the desire to keep moving forward. You may feel like you’ve come to the end of the road when you’ve really only come to a curve. Take a deep breath, look in the direction you want to go, and take the next step.
- Try to see a setback as a learning experience. With some reflection and help, you’ll probably determine where the recovery process broke down. Is it possible that peer pressure or lack of environmental control were contributing factors? What were the feelings that led to unwanted behavior? Were there counterproductive thoughts behind the feelings? No one wants setbacks, but if we learn from them, they can strengthen previously weak areas. When we identify problem areas and work on them, we’re less likely to make the same mistakes going forward.
- Break the chains of secrecy. Alcoholism and drug addiction thrive in darkness, which is why there’s an important Alcoholics Anonymous saying that “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Studies have shown that confiding in a doctor or writing down a secret can reduce the level of stress hormones in the body, so simply acknowledging your missteps to someone and bringing them into the light is an essential step toward healing.
As important as that step is, it’s often hard to take it because of the fear of disappointing and angering people. It’s true that not everyone will be as supportive as you’d like them to be, so it’s wise to give a bit of thought to who’s most likely to be understanding and helpful. Confiding in a supportive person first can give you the emotional strength to then talk to those who may be less understanding. Sometimes your primary support person will help you talk to people you’re afraid to confront.
You may choose to confide first in a doctor or therapist. Or maybe you’ll want to talk to a friend or family member who you know will support you no matter what. Maybe someone farther ahead on the recovery path would be a good choice – someone who recognizes the challenges but knows they can be overcome.
- Regularly attend a support group. Fellow members can provide accountability, advice, and the comfort that comes from being seen and understood. Humans are social beings, and the importance of connection related to sobriety is beginning to be more fully understood. For example, in one interesting study rats were forced to choose between social contact with another rat or access to heroin or methamphetamine. Whether they were first given access to the drug or were already addicted, the rats consistently chose social interaction. Even when the animals lived with others, they preferred increased social contact over drug use.
It’s unclear how many parallels can be drawn between the animals’ behavior and human experience. Still, the study provides intriguing clues into the role that social support may have in the recovery journey. It’s easy to minimize the importance of support group attendance and of finding ways to stay connected to others, but keeping it high on the to-do list may be one of the most important things you can do to maximize your chances of ultimate success.
- Reinstate or develop new emotional self-care routines. Setbacks often come from a desire to self-soothe and to manage the discomfort that comes from stressful events. We can’t generally choose the events in our life that cause us stress, but the choice comes in how we react and prepare. We can choose to incorporate habits into our routines that help us become more resilient and less likely to let stress derail us. Safe and healthy ways to manage stress include practices like breathing exercises, meditation, writing in a journal, enjoying humorous books or videos, and engaging in enjoyable hobbies.
It’s important to remember that all stress-relieving activities aren’t created equal and that some are ultimately counter-productive. It’s not uncommon for people in recovery to turn to gambling, sex, or unhealthy foods and find themselves with new challenges instead of or in addition to the old ones. People whose primary addiction was to drugs may be tempted to turn to alcohol, and people in recovery from either drug or alcohol use disorder may turn to cigarettes.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry involved having a conversation with people in recovery at an initial interview and then again three years later. Smokers were found to be more likely to be using drugs or have a substance use disorder during the follow-up interview than nonsmokers were. People who began smoking between the first and second interviews were almost five times more likely to be dealing with substance use. Sometimes, what initially seems like a way to manage stress can end up increasing it.
- Take care of your physical health. Our physical and emotional states can’t be easily separated, and each affects the other. Our bodies and brains function best when we’re paying attention to diet, exercise, toxin avoidance, and sleep.
Sleep can be a tricky issue for people in recovery. Drug and alcohol use can affect sleep patterns, especially during active use and in the early recovery stages. Sometimes sleep is one of the links between stress and relapse. Stress can disrupt sleep, and when it does, people may be tempted to turn to addicting substances that can either help them get to sleep or overcome daytime drowsiness that sleep disturbance can cause. Many of the mental and physical self-care exercises that help manage stress can also help with sleep. Optimizing nutrition and making sure you’re getting the right balance of vitamins and minerals helps get adequate rest. If sleep issues are interfering with recovery goals, and they don’t resolve on their own, you may want to consider cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, sometimes called CBT-I.
- Consider getting help from a therapist, or increasing the frequency of visits if you currently see one. Trained counselors help people evaluate their goals and determine the roadblocks to meeting them. If you’re already working with someone, he or she may have a head start in helping you determine where your recovery journey got off track. If you’re beginning therapy with someone new, give the relationship some time, but accept that not every counselor and client are a good match for each other. The therapeutic alliance (the relationship between patient and therapist) is a vital variable in helping people address their substance use, so if you’re frustrated with the therapy process, don’t conclude that it won’t be effective for you. You may just need to be patient and try another counselor who might be a better fit for your personal preferences and needs.
- Be open to the possibility of returning to either residential or outpatient rehab, or attending for the first time if it hasn’t been part of your journey. If you initially got clean on your own, good for you. It shows a degree of discipline and focus that should serve you well as you move ahead. Ultimately, however, going it alone may not be the best way to get sober. The authors of a study published in the journal Addiction determined that “compared to individuals who obtained help, those who did not were less likely to achieve 3-year remission and subsequently were more likely to relapse.“ The type of support that people need will vary, but it’s clear that learning from others makes the journey easier.
Attending rehab isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of your strength and dedication to the goal of sobriety. It’s a simple acknowledgment that your condition isn’t being managed as well as you’d like and that something needs to be adjusted. The Right Step Hill Country offers residential, outpatient, and partial hospitalization services and can help you get back on track. We can help you become who you want to be. Call us today to find out your options at 844.675.1628.