Early Recovery & Resiliency

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.


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.

2. Acceptance

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.

In early recovery being resilient and maintaining sobriety are exercise & nutrition.


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.

3. Self-Care

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.

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