Congratulations on making the first steps of addiction recovery. You’ve listened to the pleas of your loved ones, and perhaps you even completed an inpatient treatment program at a recovery center. Now you’re ready to start a new life and continue working on yourself, hopefully leaving the turbulent past behind.
The ultimate goal of all former substance abusers is to maintain sobriety. Everything else – finding a new job, participating in various treatment programs for substance use disorders, attending meetings at Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, rebuilding relationships with friends and family, adopting new healthy habits – has the sole purpose of preventing relapse and permanently improving their way of life.
Long-term sobriety is not easy to achieve, particularly for those with co-occurring disorders. It will take a lot of dedication, determination, and self-exploration. You will need help from others, but you will also be doing a lot of work yourself. With this guide, we aim to educate and provide information on what is necessary for relapse prevention and leading a stable, prosperous life in recovery.
Big Goals and Smart Goals
Setting goals in recovery is imperative for a good outcome. You need to know what you’re working for and what the result of your efforts will be.
However, a lot of the goals people in recovery set up for themselves are big. Huge. These goals include finding new employment, perhaps switching careers, resolving housing problems, reconnecting with friends and family, and similar important but intimidating things.
Goals like these are valid, but they also take a long time and a lot of hard work to complete. No one can maintain constant motivation and excitement if the goal is too far away or seems too difficult to accomplish. That’s just human nature.
Instead, try breaking these big goals down into smaller goals – smaller wins, as we call them. Sober living is based on celebrating small wins that contribute to your recovery. These wins can be anything from sending out a total of 10 resumes to potential employers to hanging out with a friend you haven’t seen in a while to making a new healthy recipe. No matter how insignificant it may seem, these small steps will keep you motivated and eventually lead you to achieve your big goals.
Celebrate Small Wins
- Notice how far you’ve come
When you’re doing little things every day, it may not seem like you’re making much progress. Big wins we mentioned above are rare, and they don’t come along often. It’s easy to get discouraged if you feel like you’re not moving forward.
However, we assure you that you are moving forward, but you may not notice it. Take a moment to look back at where you were a month ago. Two months ago. A whole year. The progress is there, slow and steady, and all you need to do is take notice of it once in a while.
- Start a journal
You don’t actually have to write down what you had for breakfast each day or how long you waited in line at the bank. The purpose of a journal is to write down your accomplishments, however big or small they happen to be. It will give you a better sense of how you are doing.
Not only that, but keeping a journal of your thoughts and emotions will give a treatment professional – a counselor or doctor – a glimpse into your behaviors. If you’re starting to struggle in your daily life, the journal will help explain why that may be so you can find a way to fix it.
- Share your success
Your support system – people close to you – will want to know about your wins. They want to cheer on you, celebrate your milestones, and see you prosper in your sober life. Don’t hesitate to share your successes with your loved ones. Talk to them about your accomplishments and embrace their positivity.
An encouraging atmosphere will motivate you to work on your goals and stay on the right track. If you feel proud of achieving something, share it with your friends and family. Perhaps even organize a small, trigger-free celebration for the occasion. It will energize you to continue.
- Reward yourself
Similarly, reward yourself for the small wins (and the big ones, of course). Make a list of rewards that don’t involve high-risk situations or the chance to get exposed to drugs and alcohol. If you achieve a small win, buy yourself that new book you’ve been dying to read. If you meet a big goal, go on a picnic with your family or a fun trip with your friends.
Pamper yourself with things that will aid your recovery and motivate you further. These can be activities you do by yourself or with others, or small gifts that support your new hobbies. Keep adding to the list of rewards as you think of unique gifts and events that make you happy.
- Live in the present moment
Living in the present takes practice. Not obsessively replaying past mistakes or worrying about the future is difficult if your future is uncertain and your past is painful. However, mindfulness and appreciating what you have at the moment is an often overlooked part of recovery.
Recovered addicts cite yoga and meditation as incredibly helpful with learning how to be mindful. Yoga is an excellent exercise for the body as well, so you’d be killing two birds with one stone by getting into this practice.
- Remind yourself why you’re here
Don’t lose sight of what the ultimate goal is. As you’re working through your recovery plan and setting goals and writing down accomplishments, every once in a while, remind yourself why you’re doing it all in the first place.
You’re here because you don’t want to live like you used to. You don’t want to keep hurting those around you or yourself. You’re doing this because you’re building a new life for yourself away from all that. Keep that in the back of your mind as you’re going forward.
The Structure of Relapse
The secret to avoiding relapse is to familiarize yourself with how it comes about in the first place. Relapse isn’t an instant thing – former addicts don’t always simply wake up one morning with a sudden urge to use. Instead, this is a struggle and a process that takes weeks, sometimes even months, to happen.
Relapse starts looming over an individual long before they are even aware they’re at risk of reaching for drugs or alcohol again. To recognize the early signs of relapse, it’s important to learn about the three stages of relapse:
- Emotional relapse
At the earliest stage, the recovering addict doesn’t think about using again. They’re still working towards overcoming their addiction, and returning to their old ways doesn’t cross their minds.
However, they don’t take care of themselves as they should. The main characteristic of emotional relapse is a lack of self-care. The individual isolates themselves, doesn’t share their thoughts and feelings, doesn’t sleep or eat well, doesn’t maintain personal hygiene, and generally neglects themselves because of either internal or external factors.
If this stage lasts long enough, it leads to the next one.
- Mental relapse
Mental relapse is when the first thoughts of using start to form, even though the recovering addict tries to fight them. But it’s difficult to fight against something that has been associated with pleasure for so long.
In this stage, the individual thinks about their past and maybe casts a positive light on those past events. They remember the places where they used and the people they shared the experience with. They may even start finding moral openings, so to speak – events or situations where it would be okay to use again.
The final step in mental relapse is when the individual actually decides to use again.
- Physical relapse
The third stage of relapse is the physical act of using. It arrives at the end of a long process that represents a slow decline back into addiction.
The good news is that you can learn to recognize the early stages of relapse because it is such a slow process. Identifying the moments when you’re struggling is crucial because then you can seek appropriate help. If self-care is becoming hard for you – or if you already imagine what it would be like to use again – turn to your support system or a professional so can they help you get back on track. As you will see in the five rules of recovery below, asking for help is imperative in staying clean and sober.
Relapse triggers are places, people, objects, or emotions that remind you of the time you were using. They are called triggers because they may trigger a desire to use again.
Some former substance abusers feel that avoiding triggers is a sign of weakness – that they are somehow not strong enough or have enough willpower to resist the potentially damaging effects of a trigger. However, your recovery does not revolve around willpower. It revolves around restructuring your life so that you feel fulfilled and happy. That way, if you accidentally get exposed to a trigger, it won’t cause any serious consequences.
Find out what your triggers are, and do your best to avoid them. There is no need to purposefully tempt yourself and risk relapsing because you feel you have to prove something to yourself or others.
Here is the list of most common triggers for recovering addicts:
- Feelings: positive, negative, and neutral (anxiety, shame, fear, insecurity, boredom, confidence, sexual arousal, etc.)
- People: friends, coworkers, employers, former drug dealers, etc.
- Places: bathrooms, schools, concerts, hotels, a friend’s home, bars, night clubs, etc.
- Objects: TV, empty pill bottles, furniture items, cash, drug abuse paraphernalia, etc.
- Situations: parties, celebrations, holidays, different festivities, etc.
Make a list of potential triggers for yourself. Discuss these with someone you trust, such as a friend or a therapist. If you feel uncomfortable around alcohol, avoid going to bars with your friends. Ask them if they can drink non-alcoholic beverages while they’re with you. It may seem like an imposition on them, but if they genuinely want to see you succeed, they won’t mind switching things up to protect your sobriety.
The Five Rules of Recovery
You will hear about them in various recovery programs and alcohol and drug treatment centers and read about them in recovery books – the five rules of recovery are the foundation of minimizing relapse risks and overcoming addictive behaviors. They are five relatively simple guidelines you need to keep in mind while you’re getting sober in order to remain sober.
1. Change your life
The hope that you will be able to get back to your old life – only without using – is a misguided one. The circumstances of your past life were precisely the ones that led you to start using in the first place. By sliding right back to where you were before your substance abuse treatment, it is only a matter of time before you relapse.
Instead, change your life. Not your entire life necessarily – just change several essential things about it. Avoid triggering places and people. With professional help and therapy, shift your negative thinking patterns. Find a job, a new hobby, and a new lifestyle that will support your recovery from addiction, not hinder it.
2. Be honest with your recovery circle
When we say ‘be honest,’ we mean ‘be honest about yourself.’ Your recovery circle should consist of the people you trust and those who love and care about you. Friends, family, doctors, treatment providers – anyone who makes you feel safe and is there to help can be a part of your recovery circle.
Share with them. If you are having a hard time, tell them about it. If you are proud of an accomplishment, celebrate with your recovery circle. Be open about your past behaviors, and acknowledge that you might have hurt others. Honesty and communication are the basis of healthy relationships that will ultimately help you break your addiction.
3. Seek help
You gain nothing from attempting to recover on your own. It might be a matter of pride, stubbornness, or even guilt or shame, but you will need all the help you can get on the road to recovery. Experience has repeatedly shown that those with strong support systems succeed in staying sober.
Don’t be afraid of asking for help. It doesn’t matter who it is – a friend, a family member, a person in your group meetings, a therapist – talk to them. Self-care groups are particularly useful for you to hear stories from other people in recovery and learn what coping strategies they use and know that you are not alone.
4. Focus on self-care
To prevent the onset of the emotional relapse stage, practice self-care. Learn how to be kind to yourself. Recovering addicts often feel like they don’t deserve to be happy or to treat themselves every once in a while (with safe, non-triggering activities).
But we would argue that recovering addicts need more self-care than the average person. They need to nurture positivity within themselves, to grow mentally and emotionally, and to accept themselves as they are. Practicing mind-body relaxation is seemingly a small segment of recovery, but it brings the most stability to your new life.
5. Don’t bend the rules
Everyone’s recovery journey is different, but the same basic principles apply to all (the importance of small wins, the three stages of relapse, and the five rules of recovery we’re discussing here). Addiction treatment depends on adhering to professional advice and not insisting that you’re doing things your way.
Don’t bend the rules for yourself. The rules exist for a reason. Your story may be different than the person sitting next to you in group meetings, but following the same rules will help both of you in the long run.
The Path Forward
To keep winning against addiction, you need to learn as much about your opponent as possible. Learn about what addiction is and how it manifests – what thought processes and life circumstances lead to it. Learn what the first steps toward recovery are and how to devise a treatment plan. Alcohol and other drug rehab centers can only do so much. It is up to you to maintain your sobriety for the rest of your life.
Consider the concepts we’ve outlined in this guide to smart recovery. Break down your big goals into smaller ones that are easier to achieve, and that will keep you motivated. Study the psychology of relapse and how (and why) it may happen. Learn how to recognize the first stages in yourself. Remember the importance of self-care.
Above all else, ask for help when you need it. You are not alone in this, nor should you be alone. If you’re looking for professional assistance in your recovery, give us a call at (619) 630-7844 or visit our website. We would be more than happy to give you a hand.