Being in recovery from addiction is not a solo endeavor. It is absolutely essential to develop a safety net of like-minded people who understand what you are going through. You will need this safety net of support when you hit the inevitable low spots ahead. Developing meaningful connections with other people is necessary in recovery from addiction. This is known as our “we.” Other words that express this sense of “we” are fellowship, congregation, hood, sangha, or community.
At first it may be difficult to open up to others. In our addiction, our trust of others and ourselves may have been damaged. Being vulnerable with others and sharing honestly can be absolutely frightening. It is essential, however, to avoid the next relapse. This authentic connection supports long-term sobriety.
It is also challenging for most people in recovery from addiction to ask for help. We feel unworthy and do not want to take the risk of rejection. Struggling with shame, guilt, and remorse traps us into this lonely place of existence that over time is unsustainable without numbing. We eventually find it necessary to pick up a drink or a drug even though we did not plan on it.
We are wired for connection. We are happiest when we have people in our lives that we feel close to and can talk to openly and honestly. This will take some time to build. Patience and perseverance will be necessary. People are still people and just because we are in recovery it does not mean that they will suddenly be ready to be connected to us in a meaningful way. It will take time and our consistent ability to keep doing the next right thing.
Below are five specific practices that will be very helpful in developing that necessary “we” in recovery from addiction.
The truth is: Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.
Five Practices for Developing the “We” in Recovery From Addiction
Show up. This practice involves simply showing up. Woody Allen famously said that “80% of life is showing up.” This means keeping our commitments and doing what we said we will do. It involves engaging with others in social activities and consistently showing up. Being consistent is a key factor because that is what allows others to get to know you. Whether it is church, the gym, or an AA meeting, just keep showing up. This will take a lot of effort. Having a buddy to go places with really helps us to just show up.
Be Selective. The practice of being selective requires us to discern where we will be finding our “we.” It is not about going to as many AA meetings as you can possibly fit in to your schedule in order to just check off that you went. Look for quality meetings that share how to live clean and sober and not just share war stories of the days of using. Whatever venue you chose to find and cultivate your “we,” make sure it is a positive place that will give you the support and tools to live happily without drugs and alcohol. This is all about quality not quantity. Find the places that have the people who are joyful, positive, and eager to be of service. It is not about collecting phone numbers that you will never use.
Be real. Be vulnerable. Belong. This is perhaps the most frightening of all. People who suffer with substance use disorder learn to hide their authentic selves in order to fit in. It is the price that has to be paid for feeling a part of rather than the pain of feeling apart from. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and renowned author, states, “The truth is: Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.” Not being true to our self creates inner conflict. This disconnect will eventually cause so much discomfort that relief is sought through our drug of choice.
Be worthy. Getting caught in self-criticism and self-doubt leads to a constant sense of impending doom and a deep sense of insecurity. Nothing saps confidence more than self-pity. This big “I suck” factor can be overcome by paying attention to our own self-talk and how we talk to others about our self. Self-worth takes time to build; it helps to state it as a distinct intention and work daily to overcome the self-centeredness that fuels a lack of self-worth. Finding a spiritual path and practicing its tenets will certainly help to gain skillfulness in dealing with self-loathing.
Acceptance. Accept others for who they are not and not who you want them to be. This is a huge challenge and will require daily awareness and lots of grace for you and for others. Our need to control damages our relationships and shuts us off from those we love and care for. We shut down, shut off and create barriers when we try to control others. Begin to notice all the ways you try to make people do what you want them too. Whether it is while driving, interacting with co-workers, or hanging out at home. This lack of acceptance not only manifests in attempts to control others, it also occurs when we want something we can’t have or don’t want to lose something we do have. Acceptance feels like a passive practice but will actually take all the strength, courage, and faith that you have!
These necessary practices for recovery from addiction are all interconnected. When practiced together they become a powerful safety net in which to create the container for personal transformation and then be ready to go out into the World and help others.
Connecting with others, developing that “we,” is the antidote to the loneliness that is said to be worse for people than obesity and air pollution. And for the person in recovery from addiction, being alone to much means we stay inside our own heads and focus on ourselves which inevitably leads to finding it necessary to pick up a drink or a drug.
Cultivating the ‘we’ in recovery from addiction is one of the best relapse prevention tools you will have in your recovery toolbox.
For those of us who have suffered from substance abuse and all the devastation it causes, we know how extraordinarily difficult it is in early recovery. At times weeks and months of sobriety will pass with us having feelings of remorse, fear, and shame.The self-critic is raging, the impending doom is relentless, and the fear that it will always be this way can be overwhelming.
Addiction robs us of all that is good and right.When we stop numbing and start feeling, we must immediately begin sorting through all the difficult emotions and be able to bounce back from what the Big Book of Alcoholic Anonymous calls “certain low spots ahead.”We will need to be resilient in order to avoid relapse.
We come to finally be free from drugs and alcohol and find ourselves painfully low on confidence, courage, and self-care.How does someone afflicted with addiction actually rebound?Where does resiliency come from?
Not only are we dealing with difficult emotions, we are quite possibly unemployed or underemployed, homeless, or perhaps unsure where our next meal will come from.This has nothing to do with economics.This is all about the bridges we have burnt, people we have let down, and the self-harm we have inflicted.
Resiliency in early recovery is essential.The battle is real.Without intentional practices and behaviors, relapse is a strong possibility. We need a relapse prevention strategy. There are two necessary approaches:mindset & action.
Mindset refers to the way we look at our current experiences.What are our expectations of others and ourselves?What are we paying attention to?What dominates our thinking? Action refers to deliberate behaviors that we practice regardless of whether we “feel” like to or not.
A RESILIENT MINDSET FOR EARLY RECOVERY
1. Focus on The Good
This mindset involves noticing those things that happened in the day that were good.This practice comes from psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson. Dr. Hanson explains that taking in the good helps to overcome the negativity bias of the brain.Simple things like light traffic, a warm hello, a good meal, or a sunny day can make up those good things.When we think about the good things it is important to actually ponder them for one minute or so.Be specific.Remember the brightness of the sun, the actual feel of the warmth.Really download the remembrance of that good thing.This rewires the brain toward wellness.With time and practice, we begin to overcome that impending doom – or black cloud – that has been following us. This practice builds resiliency in early recovery away from the fierce pull of addiction.
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states “Acceptance is the answer to all my problems.”In early recovery I remember trying so hard to get people to trust me again.I wanted to change their reaction to me.To stop walking on eggshells around me.Many people in early sobriety just want a job, a girl or guy, or some other condition to change.The Big Book also states “I stopped fighting everyone and everything.”Acceptance means just letting things be as they are.Not pushing away what I don’t like or clinging on to what I do.Finding that middle ground.No more high highs and low lows.Acceptance does not mean that the emotions of these circumstances will suddenly be gone.Frustration, disappointment, anxiety, hurt and fear still show up.We are just in a different relationship to them.It is kind of like letting the feelings surface, naming them, and just accepting them.I often say that today I take care of my difficult emotions the same way I take care of the positive ones.I notice, name, and let be.They cruise through the day with me but I am in charge, not the difficult emotions.I drive; they ride along safely strapped in.It is not necessary too change or numb them.We peacefully coexist.
3. Enthusiastic Willingness
Relapse prevention means we must chase our authentic path (more on this below) with an enthusiastic willingness.When we were active we chased drugs and alcohol with an “all in” attitude.Every waking moment was spent figuring out how to get what I needed, how to hide it from others, trying to figure out how to function just enough so no one would get in my way. What does enthusiastic willingness in sobriety actually look like?I am absolutely motivated to do the next right thing even when I do not feel like it.The work of early recovery can be uncomfortable at times.Developing new friends, finding out what path to recovery I am committing to, talking about what is truly going on in my head and my heart, and some days just simply getting out of bed can be tough.Enthusiastic willingness means I am willing to do whatever it takes to maintain sobriety.
ACTIONS FOR RESILIENCY IN EARLY RECOVERY
1. The “We”
Early recovery requires that each individual develop a community of like-minded people in which to share the journey.In AA this is called the “fellowship.” In church this is called “the congregation.”Call it a team, sangha, or community.The fact is that we are wired to be with others in meaningful connection.Staying clean and sober is definitely not a lone ranger sport.We need others.So how will you build your We?Where will you go to find the people that you can be honest with about what is going on for you?This may be a sibling or a best friend.But we will need a handful of people to support us over the coming months.This is in part why people who regularly go to AA stay sober. More on this topic will be forthcoming in another blog post.For now, cultivate those connections that understand and accept you as you are today and know what you are going through.
2. Authentic Path
When we are getting out of rehab we are told to do things like “Go to ninety meetings in ninety days.”“Get a sponsor.”“Just don’t drink.” While these things in and of themselves are not bad, they may or may not be what we need.Sometimes we wait for other people to tell us what to do for our recovery rather than figure it out ourselves.We must begin finding our own authentic path of recovery.For most of us it is multiple practices, behaviors, and ways of being.For me, regular AA was not enough for me to live happily clean and sober.I found that a yoga and meditation practice were essential.I also found that going to solution-orientated meetings like 12 step meetings where people talked about how to live in the solution rather than just tell war stories of using is more helpful to me.Some people like the gym, church, and/or therapy.There is no one right way for everyone.You must go out and find your own authentic path to maintain sobriety.This usually involves finding out what works by experiencing what doesn’t.
Self-care often feels like a chore in early sobriety.Taking care of ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally are crucial to relapse prevention.It is what Dr. Rick Hanson calls “Being on my own side.”Treating myself like I would a good friend.Getting enough sleep, eating regular healthy meals, drinking enough water, and exercising some takes care of the body.Making sure we are sharing our thoughts and difficult emotions with trusted people and watching out for recurring fear, shame, and guilt that will make it necessary to numb.Seeing the doctor and dentist are necessary first steps to reclaiming our health. Limiting caffeine, toxic people, and ruminating are very helpful in early recovery too.Asking for help, being of service, and trying to stay positive are also helpful.
Resiliency is a necessary skill when healing from substance use disorder.In early recovery from addiction, we need a road map for avoiding relapse; a relapse prevention tool kit. The mindsets and actions for those first few weeks and months in recovery that are described above will help you to not find it necessary to pick up a drink or a drug in order to cope and to be able to put together some long term sobriety.
A Society Truth. Humans beings face an onslaught of societies’ expectations from the day they are born. Being an alcoholic or a drug addict in society adds a whole new layer of complexity to the way we view ourselves and our self-image can be distorted worse than what brought us to the first drink or first addiction. This is fairly common knowledge in all ranges of addiction. Judgments come in a lot of different blended colors as well but across all divisions of society, the stigmas look and feel alike and they all result in shame which can worsen a persons mental state into deeper addictions (eating disorders, sexual disorders, etc…) Alcoholism however seems to take on a fairly demeaning judgment as we continue to develop through society.
Societies pressure and demands on the alcoholic is so skewed because alcohol and drinking is accepted as a part of how we interact on an enormous scale. It is also legal to buy and consume alcohol. This adds pressure to individuals who know they cannot control their drinking but continue to try to so they won’t be chastised by their peers.
Let’s talk briefly about cigarette smoking as an example of addiction and judgment. Cigarettes, like alcohol are legal to buy and consume. We all know that they will definitely cause disease and death. So will alcohol. We also know that people most widely accept that smoking can be cured with willingness and medical help. If I smoke too many cigarettes, it is highly unlikely that I am going to lose my job, my family, my home and live in my car smoking cigarettes. People might ask me to quit for my health or might be annoyed with my habit but I am not going to be looked at or made to feel too uncomfortable about it. Plus, I am likely not to be smoking much in social circles as it has become mostly respectful to be clear of others who do not smoke in closed areas.
So let’s take this same scenario and apply it to alcohol consumption. I am going to use my experience with my neighbors for this one. My neighborhood is very nice. It is mostly middle class with a sprinkling of heavy hitters; doctors, dentists, state trooper, firefighter, corporate directors, stay at home moms, party planners, etc. The beauty of the mix of people we have is that we all get along really well. We also have found the standard common bond which is BOOZE BABY. See how I got a little excited there? It comes out once in a while.
Anyway, we have some heavy drinkers but I took the cake. I would drink until I passed out. (I had been doing this pattern since my college days; it never changed) Most events would find me drinking to warm up for the event, during, running home to do more “during” and eventually pass out on my couch. What did I say? What did I do? Needless to say, no one questioned my behavior and a drink was at the ready if I walked out my front door and bumped into any one of them. Let’s fast forward to a hypothetical. My husband kicks me out, I lose custody of my son, I lose my job and I am now living in my car. What would those same neighbors say? What if I let my disease continue to own me because I couldn’t handle the pressure of being labeled an alcoholic? If I didn’t seek help, that outcome was staring me in the face.
When we live in a society that doesn’t like the label of an alcoholic, the person who drinks too much at a party might hear the following “wow, you really whooped it up last night” or “do you even remember what you did last night?” The next day, faced with those same people they might be casually passed another beer without much cause or pause that their good friend might have a problem. In fact, in early drinking there are no red flags for the alcoholic because everyone is binge drinking in college. It is when society demands you be more responsible that it gets complicated for the alcoholic. What once was binge drinking and alcohol abuse, for the now alcoholic the underlying disease has surfaced; control and self-will are no longer an option.
There are subtle differences in the way our families handle our disease as well. If they have no prior experience and/or have had shame as a result of a parent being alcoholic or dying from the disease, they might ignore the signs. In my case, my family ignored my cries for help for a long time. We would skirt around the topic as if I just had incidents that were obviously related to heavy drinking but once a conversation ended on the topic; we moved on. They would continue to turn their heads while I would continue to get worse. I would call my mom drunk every night and she would ignore it or she just didn’t know. I use to think I was fine. Maybe she did too. On some occasions, I couldn’t remember even if I called her. The sad part is, as much as I isolated and drank alone in my home, the safer she probably thought I was.
This was also prevalent in my marriage. My husband tolerated my growing intolerance for a few reasons. One of the reasons was I could manipulate him. Empty promises that I would get “it under control” and we also additionally had added pressure of living in a neighborhood where the love for drinking never ceased. It was perfect for me and a nightmare for him.
So here I am, 44 years old and living in a society where controlled drinking and maturity has kept the majority of my peers well in check with their cultural habit.
How did I navigate quitting and moving forward to 578 days of sobriety?
Early recovery and social navigation
The first year was rough. I am not going to lie. It was tough to see myself in my mirror, let alone worry about what the neighbors might think. What I didn’t see at the time was a bloated, scared, shaky, sweaty mess. I thought I had it together before; but, lately people are saying to me positive things about my attitude and my “glow.” What got me through the birthday parties, the BBQs and the family events was the support of the few people I chose to share that I was in recovery. It helped me manage the micro-steps I needed to take to be a whole person again.
In that first year, I had to be very careful of my moods. If I felt uncomfortable at an event or needed to rest, I wouldn’t participate.One example is when the local elementary school PTO had a “wine tasting night” for parents to raise money for the school. This was not something I could participate in. It was also across the street from my home. The after party from what I understand was “epic.” Even though I felt a bit sad inside for not being part of it, my sobriety had to be number ONE. The challenges of being pressured to participate have now shifted into what I want to be in MY life, not what I want to lead people to believe I am.
The sad part is there are still people in my life who don’t allow themselves to get close to me. I have made what I believe to be better friendship amongst my peers that are not in my sober circle but I can see and feel in their eyes that they might “catch it” if they get too close. Sometimes when wine or beer is being poured, they “make sure” there is nonalcoholic beer available for me now. It is very sweet and I love that they do it but sometimes I cannot enjoy it because it reminds me of a time when my first love was alcohol. Their intentions are good; again it is the “fit in” culture.
When I started to turn the corner of a year sober, I started to meet more and more people in my normal life who share my same desire to be sober. When I look back at the person I was in my head it is cleat that is not the person that I want to be today. That person was barely making it to 9:00pm at night socially, wasn’t contributing to a conversation and would be running home to sneak a drink or finding some time to drink alone. I craved my alone time as much as I craved the alcohol. Eventually, I wouldn’t be socially aware at all if I continued to be that person.
When people ask me about why I don’t drink, I pick and choose how I share. I know it will be revealed as it is meant to be at the right times and moments. For example, I wouldn’t tell an employee at this moment in time that I am an alcoholic. I might say something to the effect of “I have chosen to treat my body with respect and alcohol in my body is not part of that.” I won’t lie and tell them I am on a diet. Someone said to me the other day, “you still on the wagon, huh.” He is an ex-employee of mine and I could easily tell him without stigma rearing its head, but doing that over a text isn’t appropriate either.
I think being open about sobriety is important as it can save lives but as sensitive and anxiety prone person, I have to pick and choose who I share my recovery with today. As my life continues to unravel its story, it is with a grateful heart and guiding spirit that I am able to see the stigma for what it is in others. For some it is their own fear. For others it is judgment. Either way, I can stand on my own and decide who will be there when I need them and who will not. This is where choosing our friendships become critical to staying sober. Once our guard is down and the doubts manifest we begin to crumble under the weight of our own insecurities. This can lead us to a peer-based decision that might someday kill us.
In conclusion, if anyone ever says to you “what you can’t control your drinking?”Tell them whatever choice words you have but never, ever, give up on caring for yourself and taking care of your spirit.