If you are trying to stay clean and sober, the threat of relapse is always on your mind. It begins the minute you decide to stop using, start detoxing, and begin professional or personal treatment of your addiction(s).
The first days, weeks, even months of being clean, you live in a world of extremes. One minute you are motivated to stay sober and excited to live drug-free. The next you are itching to light up and feel like pulling your hair out to pour a glass of wine. You desperately search for the reasons why you stopped in the first place –
What was so bad with the addiction anyways? It wouldn’t hurt to have just one drink (or hit), right? It will only be one…
Every day, millions of times a day, there is a mental battle raging in your mind: “Should I?” or “Shouldn’t I?”
If you “fight” the “temptation” and don’t give into your desire, a rush of excitement floods your mind and body. You’ve managed to divert your attention long enough to pass the craving! Success! If you give into the “temptation” and have that one drink, joint, snort (which typically doesn’t stop at one), the second you have your fix, there’s an equal rush of regret. In your mind you’re a failure, not “strong” enough to stop yourself.
Why is it so hard to quit? Why can’t you fight temptation? Why can’t you just stop? Does it mean you don’t have enough will power?
If you haven’t read up on the latest in drug addiction science, here is a quick news recap: addiction is a disease.
That’s right. Addiction to drugs and alcohol are like diabetes or heart disease. Why is addiction a disease? According to the NIDA’s definition of addiction, “It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain – they change its structure and how it works.” So when you think you are “fighting temptation” and having “mental battles,” you are - literally. When you have decided to not use, because your brain is addicted, it sends you mixed signals. Your disease (addiction) and the neuro-pathways that control your cravings are pitted against your logical self, the part of your brain in control of knowing better than to use.
Imagine an epic battle scene in history, books, or the movies… that is what is going on between the neurons in your brain.
This battle is sparked by “triggers” - events, sights, smells, feelings - that ignite the part of your brain that wants to use your drug of choice. Addiction is caused by a cycle of processes that often have a domino effect on your brain. Without getting too much into the science of addiction, triggers, for example, activate your cravings or the reward “go” circuitry in your brain, which is much faster then the part of your brain that “stops” the impulse to get high.
Your cravings can be brought on by your genetic make-up. Some people genetically have less effective “stop” circuits in their brains. Others have genetics that give them a stronger “go” circuit in various circumstances. Your genes also might predispose you to drug addiction or alcoholism, which is tapped into by your social context. Social context develops triggers that lead to… One area impacts the other and a vicious cycle is created and presses on. Until you stop it.
The bottom line is you want to stop and you don’t want to relapse. You don’t want to give into to your cravings to use, but it is excruciatingly hard at times.
There are reasons why you stopped using drugs and alcohol. What are they?
When you are in a good place, meaning you feel stable and aren’t fighting a craving, write down all of the reasons you quit doing drugs and/or alcohol. It could be everything from how bad you look, how horrible the hang over makes you feel, not having any money, not being happy unless you’re high, destroying your relationships, losing your job… write it all down.
When you have very low motivation to stay clean and feel like one drink or one hit of cocaine or marijuana is okay, look at the list and see where that one hit has lead you in the past.
When you walk past a bar or party, are there certain sounds or smells that make you want to use? When you come home from work, do you have a routine that inevitably leads to lighting up after a hard day? If you get into a fight with your ex, do you have the urge to forget it all and get high?
All of these are triggers - sights, smells, feelings, tastes, actions - that make you remember a memory, feeling or sensation of how it feels to get high. This triggers something in your brain that makes you want to use again. To prevent being faced with these triggers, you first have to know what they are. If you don’t know what they are, you will continue to get seemingly “random” cravings and cannot make a plan of how to stop or avoid them.
When you are in a good place (feeling stable and without a craving), write down as many of your triggers as you can think of. Keep a pen and pad of paper with you so when you are driving somewhere or walking past something that triggers a craving, write it down.
Knowing your triggers helps you to recognize what makes you want to use.
Once you know the triggers that make you want to use, AVOID THEM LIKE THE PLAGUE. Putting yourself in situations where these triggers are is asking to be tempted.
If you can’t avoid triggering situations, be prepared. After you have written down all of your triggers, write down 3 to 5 things you can do to prevent yourself from doing that. Here’s an example:
TRIGGER: Every time I drive past a certain exit, I am reminded of my drug dealer and want to call him.
WHAT TO DO TO NOT GIVE INTO THE CRAVING:
- Take a different route, so I don’t pass that exit.
- If I have to drive by the exit, have a special empowering song that I can blast on the radio that will divert my attention from the craving and reaffirm my commitment to stay clean.
- Call my sponsor or friend who said she would keep me accountable to not use, and tell her about my trigger and what I am feeling.
All three of these things are actionable steps I can do to help prevent the trigger from leading me to give into that craving.
You must change more about your life than just to stop using drugs or drinking. If only stop using, but you don’t change anything else, you are more likely to relapse. Why?
If everything in your life is the same, the triggers that scream “I need a hit” or “I need a drink” are always in your face. Think about it: if everyday you get home from work, throw your keys in the same spot, take off your shoes around the same area, go to the refrigerator for a cold drink and plop on the couch to get drunk, the day you stop drinking isn’t the day that habit vanishes.
Sometimes, the habit is so ingrained in you and your routines are so much a part of your life, you literally need to move locations, cut off ties with friends or family, or sell stuff connected to your addiction use. You can significantly increase your changes of relapse if you separate yourself from everything revolving around your drug using habits and start creating new habits and activities that are connected with sobriety.
How do you see your life improving by not doing drugs or drinking? What are the specific areas that will get better? What are the benefits of getting clean?
When someone tells you to keep your eye on the prize, establishing new standards and visions for your drug-free life psychologically develops what “prize” you are working towards. Having dreams of your drug-free life help you develop goals to work towards. Working toward these goals help you move past cravings.
At the beginning, set small goals and visions that are easy to accomplish. This quickly rewards your effort and helps you build determination to accomplish bigger goals. If you feel like the “prize” is not good enough or motivating enough to prevent you from giving into your craving, you may need to set smaller or bigger goals.
After a binge of doing drugs or drinking, when you get sobered up and look in the mirror. What do you look like? You probably like crap.
Physical appearance is a very surface and superficial reflection of how you are feeling, but you will be surprised at how improving your outer appearance makes you feel and motivates you to work on harder areas of your life.
Women, time to shave your legs more often, paint your toenails, get a facial or massage. Start doing a physical activity once or twice a week. Buy your favorite food for dinner. Take care of yourself.
Men, time to shave your face more often, cut your nails, get a massage. Haven’t bought a new pair of shoes in a long time? Need a new belt? Go get one. Replace your strictly fast food diet with a salad and piece of fruit every once and awhile. Take care of yourself.
Just because you stopped using a blanket or teddy bear as a child, doesn’t mean you don’t need one as an adult. As an addict, drugs and alcohol were your security blanket. They were what you turned to when you needed comfort, warmth, or confidence.
Having a physical “blankey” is a small token that can help give you the security or reassurance you need to stick to your commitment to stay clean. It could be a small religious medal or charm or a favorite pair of shoes, even a cozy blanket, anything that brings you joy, peace, or a smile when you see it.
When you are trying to get past a minute of intense desire to relapse, a security “blankey” can help you feel like you are not alone.
*Idea from psychcentral.com
Stress is a huge trigger to get high or drunk. No matter how much you try to avoid stress or conflict, often times there is nothing you can do to prevent it. If you are stressed, face it head on by finding a stress-relieving tool other a joint or a drink.
When you are in a good place (feeling stable and without a craving), write down a list of things that keep you calm. This could be taking a walk, working out, organizing your closet, or mowing the grass.
Secondly, write a list of one or two things that you think would help you stay calm, but that you need to learn to do. Maybe it is learning how to meditate, rock climb, be a gourmet chef, bake, sculpt.
The next time you feel stressed, you have a list of old and new actionable activities you can channel your energy into to help you stay calm. When you consistently do these activities when you feel stressed out, overtime one activity sticks and becomes associated in your brain with helping you to distress, relax, and fight your craving.
Repeatedly using drugs or drinking alcohol is how they became associated with helping you de-stress. A new, healthier action will not only help fight the craving, you will develop new triggers in your brain that have nothing to do with using drugs or alcohol when you are stressed out.
One of the reasons why your addiction has progressed and reached the point of addiction is because you separated yourself from people who make healthy choices in their lives. You didn’t want to hear what they had to say about your substance abuse, so you stopped telling them so much, you hid you use from them, and lied about your addiction.
Your addiction may have come from lack of support, understanding, and accountability in your life. The way to get out of addiction is to find that support, understanding and accountability that has been missing for so long.
To find community where you feel supported, understood, and will to be accountable, it is important to find a group where you feel safe, accepted, and comfortable to share honestly and openly. This could be an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous group. You can find community in online forums, church groups, or groups from a treatment facility. Use these groups to help you stay clean by being honest with them about how you feel and what you are going through. Don’t fake it. You don’t have to pretend to be happy if you don’t feel happy. If you relapse, keep going to your community, talking about why you relapsed and how you feel about it.
Being honest is the best way to realistically deal with your issues and find solutions that will actually help you.
If you are able, include your family in your recovery. This could be telling them you are going through a rough time, or asking for more physical affection and emotional support, going to therapy together, or asking them to help you stay accountable to stay clean.
Many times family history is what drives addiction. However, if you feel like your husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, parent, etc, is able to be a support in any way, let them help you. This will keep you accountable and also could develop your relationships in a new healthy way that could be part of a new vision for your life.
Knowledge is power.