As every former addict knows, two battles must be fought. First, you must stop. Second, you must maintain your recovery. While the first is relatively easy, the second is not, often demanding lifelong commitment and determination.
Underestimating Your Enemy
First, be careful not to underestimate addiction. This is especially dangerous when the individual has been sober or clean for a long time. The longer they go without smoking, drinking, gambling, taking drugs, or whatever it may be, the safer they feel and the less vigilant they become. That does not mean once an addict always an addict, but it does mean that a relapse is always possible. So never underestimate your enemy.
When trying to maintain your recovery, it is best to take things one day at a time. If the thought that you’ve been sober for 5 or ten years gives you a thrill and makes you even more determined, then that’s fine. And there is nothing wrong with marking the anniversary of your last cannabis joint or last visit to the local bar. But in general it is best to focus on each day. People who survive long treks through brutal environments, like deserts and snowy wastelands, often recall how they would focus on some small object a few yards ahead of them – a boulder maybe, or a cactus – and think of nothing but reaching it. All thoughts of rescue, of home and children, and above all of the immense distance left to travel, were put to one side. Once they reached that object, they selected a new one and focussed on that. And this is how you must treat your recovery: just focus on getting through each day and then congratulate yourself at the end of it.
Treat addiction with respect. You cannot just dip your toe back into that world to “see what it was like.” Either you stop or you don’t. There is no happy compromise. If you have been addicted to something, then obviously it had a powerful hold over you. If it did so once before, it could do so again. And never underestimate how treacherous the mind can be. If you want to do something (and many addicts secretly long to return to their drug, they just don’t want the suffering and destruction that goes with it), you will find reasons why you should.
Indeed, many addicts will convince themselves that a quick whisky or line of cocaine would actually be a good idea! For example, an alcoholic may reason that by returning to his old bar and having a beer he will remind himself what a grim life he was living and why he should continue with sobriety. Deep down, he just wants a drink, but he cannot admit this, so he justifies his decision with absurd reasoning.
Giving Yourself a Fighting Chance
Maintaining your recovery is a battle, and your body and mind are the battleground. The stronger these are, the easier you will find it. Boxing trainers often repeat the words “train hard, fight easy” to their students. Well, the same could be said of addiction. The better your physical and mental health, the more chance you have of maintaining recovery. So eat healthily and get moving.
Begin by taking a careful look at your diet. Unfortunately, many recovering addicts need something to fill the hole left behind. Anyone who has tried to quit smoking, for example, will probably recall piling on weight as they turned to chocolate and candy to satisfy their craving for nicotine. Some people have addictive personalities and can easily swap one addiction for another – gorging on junk food instead of cannabis or heroin. Many former drug addicts will use alcohol or strong prescription drugs to keep the cravings at bay, while some recovering alcoholics turn to cannabis, and so on!
But if you do not take care of your body your energy levels will drop, you will sleep poorly, and, worst of all, you may slip into depression. Such things weaken resolve and leave you more vulnerable to a relapse. Exercise is also very important. Ideally, find something that gets you outside and close to nature. Not only will it keep your body strong and hard for the coming fight, it will also lift your mood.
A trigger is something that sparks off a relapse or a binge. And these vary from person to person. For example, a recovering alcoholic whose children refuse to speak to him would be wise to keep away from their neighborhood. If he passes them in the street and they cross the road to avoid him, or pretend not to recognize him, the pain may be too much to bear. What would take that pain away? Alcohol! For someone else, it may be an ex-husband or wife, the grave of a deceased parent, even the sight of a re-possessed house. Just be aware of the things that cause you pain. When you are in pain, you want to escape, and a relapse into drink or drugs is the quickest and surest one available.
Of course, there are other, less dramatic triggers. Perhaps the most obvious would be old friends. Drug takers and heavy drinkers often become addicted through their friends. As the addiction takes hold, those who share their love for cocaine, or beer, or whatever it may be, are the only ones they want to socialize with. So stay away from such people. Not only will they be likely to pull you back into that world, their attitude can be hard to resist. And the sight of them will bring back good as well as bad memories of your addiction.
The truth is, many alcoholics and drug users love alcohol and drugs! These things make you feel wonderful. If they were good for you, most people would use them throughout the day. In other words, people rarely give up drink and drugs because they hate getting drunk or high; they stop because these things wreck their health and make them violent and self-destructive. Many former addicts want to be persuaded to re-enter that world. When you hang around with people who are still using, that is just what happens. Don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise.
Stress and depression can also act as triggers. If you know bad times are coming at work, for example, be conscious that this could cause a relapse. The imminent death of a beloved grandparent, friend, or even dog must also be approached carefully. It takes raw courage to get through such things without escaping into the comfort of old addictions. Even the sight of a bar where you enjoyed drinking sessions, or a racetrack where you once had a big win, could trigger a binge. The key is to know your triggers and to be wary of new ones.
Addiction, like any other form of mental illness, keeps you wrapped up in yourself. You need something else to focus on. If you have just emerged from years of drinking, gambling, drug taking, sex addiction, etc., think back to life before these overwhelmed you. What did you love to do? Maybe you had a passion for music or swimming. Was there something you were just getting into when this all began? Could you return to these things? Get into the basement and unearth your guitar or poetry books. At first you may feel awkward and uncomfortable. Indeed, you may even feel oddly ashamed and unworthy – as though you are in need of forgiveness for abandoning things that gave you so much pleasure.
Volunteering may also help. Obviously, you are well-placed to help those trying to recover from the same thing as you. But you needn’t just focus on what you know about. Spending time with those in pain can be enormously helpful. People in that state tend to be raw and open, finding it easier to let others in and empathize with them. Best of all, you could volunteer to work with those who were on the receiving end of your addiction. For example, if you were a violent alcoholic who beat his partner, you could work with victims of domestic abuse.
If you were addicted to heroin, you could help run a support group for those who have lost children to the drug. Not only will you feel a new sense of purpose and meaning, exposure to the consequences of addiction should persuade you that you were right to stop. And it is a healthy reminder that addiction is not a victimless crime. When you pay money to a heroin dealer, you encourage him to keep dealing, which means more parents having to bury their son or daughter.
Finally, be kind to yourself. If you do slip and drink a glass of whisky or smoke a joint, it isn’t the end of the world. The mind, remember, can be your worst enemy. You would not be the first person to take a sip of beer and then hear a little voice saying “well, you’ve had one sip, so why not take another? Since you’ve messed up, you may as well make the most if it.”
This is something you need to mentally prepare for. How will you handle such a slip? Will you use it as an excuse to binge all over again? It is also very important not to use the possibility of a slip-up as an excuse in itself. Never underestimate the inventive ways the mind will convince you to go back.
Above all, maintaining your recovery demands courage. Do all you can to give yourself the best fighting chance, and then grit your teeth and dig deep.