Getting clean and sober isn’t easy, but managing to hold onto your sobriety long-term can be even more precarious. Why do some sustain while others fall prey to chronic relapse?
Given all the buzz about the biological roots of addiction, it may come as a surprise that it’s not necessarily having a long line of addicts in the family or an “addictive personality” that sets a recovery effort up for failure, but more to do with your willingness to get real about your disease. Here are five signs your recovery is headed in the wrong direction:
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine, and writes a blog about addiction. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes a teen drug rehab at The Right Step and Promises young adult rehab.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
#1 Refusing to Ask for Help
While some people recover on their own, the vast majority cannot stop using without a strong network of family or friends, a trusted therapist or some other form of support. Refusing to reach out for help, whether that includes inpatient or outpatient treatment, counseling or self-help support groups, is often a sign that long-term recovery isn’t going to be a reality.
Perhaps your refusal is more subtle. You seek out support but then routinely ignore the wisdom of other people who have been where you are. For example, you may tell yourself, “Others lack the willpower to be around the people, places and things that remind them of their past drug use but I can handle it.” Or you may go off your medication to treat a mental health disorder even though your therapist and others have warned you that this dramatically increases the risk of relapse.
Recovery is more than a decision not to use drugs or alcohol; it is a new way of life. Coping with anger and irritability, grieving the loss of drugs and alcohol as your primary coping mechanism – all of these take a great deal of effort at a time when you may feel you have nothing left to give. That’s where others will gladly lift you up, if you let them.
#2 Continuing to Search for a Quick Fix
For many addicts, the pattern of searching for a quick fix for every problem is difficult to undo. Drugs were a reliable and immediately gratifying escape from life’s challenges, even though the high was short-lived and carried consequences of its own.
But recovery requires deep personal exploration and a willingness to identify and process the underlying issues. Although medication can aid in recovery, it is not by itself a long-term solution. Going to rehab or therapy can be immensely healing, but not if you’re just going through the motions. In other words, scrap the quick-fix mindset or run the risk of experiencing only a hint of what addiction recovery can offer.
#3 Making Excuses for Unhealthy Behavior
When you don’t do the hard work of recovery, the underlying issues will find ways to come to the surface, each time with a new disguise. You may not self-medicate with drugs but you may numb your emotions with food, dive into romantic or sexual relationships too early in recovery, or compulsively shop or gamble to get a rush. Because these behaviors provide relief at a time when you’re in desperate need, denial will set in once again and you’ll seek out ways to justify them.
In some cases, the excuse-making may be less obvious. Perhaps you feel nervous about attending self-help meetings so you come up with reasons not to go (e.g., “I don’t like the people there”). Or you work your recovery program but stop taking care of yourself through diet, exercise, and finding fun and creative outlets to enjoy life in recovery. While there is no right or wrong way to recover, you must actively confront excuses to stay sick in all their various forms.
#4 Believing that Your Recovery Is Doomed to Fail
Whether you’re a 12-Step supporter or not, there is great wisdom in the principle of “one day at a time.” Recovery is a process that ebbs and flows. Sometimes it’s easy to stay sober, sometimes it’s a painstaking, minute-by-minute battle. While it’s natural to second-guess yourself at times, believing that your recovery is doomed, or that life will never be as good as it was while using drugs, is “stinkin thinkin” at its worst.
It’s true, drugs were fun (for a while) and recovery is hard (for a while). But if you talk to people in long-term recovery you’ll hear endless testimonies of how recovery is possible even in the most dire and seemingly hopeless situations and how wonderful life can be without drugs or alcohol.
#5 Thinking You’re Cured for Life
One of the most common mistakes in recovery is taking short-term success as a guarantee of a long-term cure. Sure, they say addiction is a chronic disease. Sure, people relapse even 10 to 20 years into recovery. “But I’m different.”
This type of complacency or over-confidence often leads back to drug use. You start romanticizing your drug-abusing days and convince yourself you can use in moderation or switch drugs of choice without awakening the sleeping beast of addiction. Recovery often gets easier over time, and working a program takes on different meaning many years in. But as a chronic disease, you’ll need to remain in tune with your feelings and relapse triggers and continue making healthy choices even when you feel invulnerable.
So, take stock of your own recovery. Is it secure, or is it in jeopardy? In any given moment, it’s one or the other. You’re either working your program or you’re taking small but significant steps back into old patterns. By checking in with yourself regularly, you can ensure that you don’t veer too far off course.