01 Apr How to Conquer the Fear of Relapse
Relapse is not a four-letter word. That said, there is a lot of trepidation and many questions over the possibility of relapse – will it happen to me, what can I do to prevent it, will it happen again, does it mean I’m a failure, and so on. Addiction treatment professionals counsel that the best way to get past these fears is through education and skills training. Simply put, you need to learn as much as possible about relapse and coping mechanisms to help you prevent it.
Beyond what you learn in treatment, once you’re back in the real world, it may seem tough at times to remember what it is you’re supposed to do to remain clean and sober. Here are some tips that may help.
1. Have a Plan – for Every Day – You wouldn’t set off on a cross-country journey without a map and an itinerary for how to get there and what to do along the way. The same principle holds true for how you plan to live the next few years of your life in recovery. Hey, it’s a whole new world for you now. The old habits and routines simply won’t cut it anymore. Not only are they dangerous and can quickly land you back in trouble, but it’s just foolhardy not to have a plan. If you have been tardy in drawing up your plan, now’s the time to get going on it.
Where should you begin? Start with today. What are your goals for today? What do you want to achieve? It could be as simple as being on time for all your appointments, your job, seeing that you get all your errands done, make dinner for the family, work on your homework or hobby, whatever. The point is to put it down on paper. Jot everything down you can think of and then start prioritizing according to what’s most important to get done and what would be nice to get done. Go all the way through the list until you’ve assigned a priority to each item.
Next, map out your plan for tomorrow, and then the rest of the week. Don’t worry if you can’t think of everything to put down all at once. This will get easier the more you do it. And you can add items as you think of them. Also, remember to cross things off your list as you complete them. This is important as it builds your self-esteem and self-confidence as you reach your goals, however minor or major.
Now, get to work on doing the things on your list. Time management experts advise that it’s tempting to go for the easiest items, leaving the tougher ones for last. That may work for some people, but most of us waste our time doing the small stuff and never get to the big jobs. Even though we’re talking about recovery here, the point is valid. Try to balance doing easy tasks – cleaning your desk, picking up supplies – with the more challenging ones – assembling materials for tax returns, painting the garage, etc.
2. Acknowledge Relapse Could Happen – There’s no sense hiding behind a wall of denial. You can’t avoid a relapse by refusing to recognize that the potential is there, and it’s real. Experts recommend that you acknowledge that you could falter, give in to a craving or fall in with the wrong crowd again. Just acknowledge that relapse could happen despite your best intentions. Just because you say it aloud (or think it) does not mean that it will happen. Just the contrary. By stating that you know the potential is there gives you the power to be more in control over your actions. Remember, it isn’t the thought that causes relapse, but the action that follows. By expressing the truth – relapse could happen – you deprive the thought of the power to haunt you and make you feel as if you can’t do anything about it. You can, and you will, be able to deal with the pitfalls of relapse.
3. Don’t Dwell on It – After you’ve acknowledged that relapse could happen, don’t dwell on the thought. You need to get on with your life and the business of daily activities. The more you are actively involved in something productive – whether it’s with your hands or your mind – the less likely you are to get caught up in the quagmire of wondering what if, how long, why, and what can I do thinking. A good practice to follow – and this holds true whenever the ugly thought of relapse pops into your head – is to get out and take a walk. Physically get up and go out of the house or office and walk around the block, or parking lot, or on a trail, in the mall, wherever, just walk. The act of walking and breathing fresh air will deflate the blockage of nasty thoughts. It may be a diversion, but it’s a healthy one, and one that will produce a dramatic change of mood.
4. Replace Negative Thoughts with Positive Ones – Here’s another easy and effective strategy. When something bad occurs to you, a negative thought or series of thoughts that plague you and keep you from your tasks, or sleeping, eating, or enjoying any activity, make a conscious effort to replace the negative thought with a positive one. Let’s take an example. Say you begin thinking about all the fun you’re missing by not being with your drinking friends, or you long to be with your buddies smoking a joint and knocking back beer. Turn that negative into a positive by thinking instead about how happy your son or daughter is when you give them a big hug or the joy you feel when something you say or do makes your wife smile. What you’re doing, in effect, is transforming a negative emotion into a positive one. Once you’re in the positive mode, it’s pretty hard to slip back into the negative. You have to really try hard to do that – and who wants to be negative, anyway? So, the next time negative thoughts threaten to derail your sobriety, veer your thinking toward something uplifting, positive, loving and promising. And this time, do allow the positive thinking to remain with you.
5. Find an Outlet – Let’s face it. We all need something we can turn to that occupies our time, and our concentration. You need to find an outlet, something you enjoy or think you may enjoy. It doesn’t matter what it is, either. It could be that you’ve always wanted to learn how to snowboard or parasail or take up golf. Maybe you hanker to create jewelry or paint in oils or water colors. Fancy conquering a foreign language? Becoming a pastry or gourmet chef? Working with your hands in carpentry, woodworking, sculpture, or ceramics? For some in recovery, going back to school is high on their list of priorities. Completing or beginning a degree program, learning a trade, or just taking some classes is certainly well within reach. You don’t have to go full-time. There are part-time, weekend, and evening classes that may work out for you. This applies to learning anything new. If you have the will, there will be a way. Look into what you can work into your schedule and, yes, put this on your list of things to do.
6. Seek Support – No one expects you to be able to figure everything out on your own all the time. You’d have to be superhuman to be able to do that, and none of us is that perfect. In fact, we’re all human beings, and, as such, we need the help of others from time to time. This is not a sign of weakness, but strength. You will find that if you seek the support of others when you encounter a rough patch, or stress builds up and you feel that you are at a breaking point, or you just need someone to talk to that understands, being with others in your support group can make all the difference in the world. In fact, it may very well be the single most important part of your recovery, the needed bit of assistance that allows you to remain clean and sober.
Your support network could be members of your immediate family – your spouse, children, and other adult family members – or your trusted friends, co-workers, member of the clergy, therapist or other counselor. For many in recovery, their support network includes their 12-step group sponsor and members. The beauty of your 12-step alliance is that it is always available to you. Your group asks nothing of you except your uncompromising desire to be clean and sober, and to help others with your support as you are able. Besides, these people have all been in situations like yours. Each of them has struggled with the cravings and urges. Many have relapsed and gotten back on track with the support and encouragement of fellow members.
Whatever your support network consists of, don’t be afraid to use it. Sometimes you just need someone to listen, not talk. The shoe may very well be on the other foot later on in your recovery. At that time, you will be in the position to be able to give back to another in need of assistance. For now, make good use of your support system. It’s one of the best things you can do to conquer your fear of relapse.
7. Be Prepared – The old adage that “The best defense is a good offense” is especially true when it comes to recovery. Another is, “Be prepared for any eventuality.” What do these two sayings have in common? They both involve careful preparation. Here we are talking about the preparedness or readiness list you should have in place just in case you are tempted to relapse.
What does such a list entail? First of all, it should include a list of names and telephone numbers of people whom you trust that you can call for help. If you find yourself tempted to go into a bar or are already there and feel you may not be able to stop yourself from drinking, call your sponsor or friend and have them talk you through it or come get you – whatever it takes, whatever you need. It could also be a series of things that you will do to prevent you from giving in to your cravings. Again, this will be unique to you, and only you know what may work or not. You could discuss this with your therapist or 12-step sponsor or group members, but in the end, it is your personal preparedness list. In fact, when some people find they’re at the end of their rope and are about to pick up a drink or get back into drugs, they head right off to a 12-step meeting. That alone may be enough to sidetrack the temptation and keep them clean and sober.
8. Don’t Beat Yourself Up – It’s important to keep things in perspective when it comes to your recovery. Some days will be up days. Some will be down. That’s not only the nature of being in recovery. It’s the fabric of life. We all have our ups and downs. Being in recovery tends to make us think our lives are more difficult or different than everyone else’s, but that’s only true to the degree that we believe it to be so. It isn’t really that our lives are so unique or that our challenges are any more or less formidable than the next person’s.
Where this sense of perspective is important applies to days when it seems to us as if we’re not accomplishing our goals fast enough, or that we have failed to get where we believe we should be at this time. Again, this is not unlike your neighbor down the street or the guy at work or the student you attend class with. Each of those individuals has times when he or she feels disheartened about progress or lack thereof. Instead of harping on our failures, the better strategy is to look forward to the rest of today and tomorrow, and to devising new and more creative ways of realizing our dreams, coming to grips with our problems, and overcoming our obstacles. Beating yourself up over your shortcomings – real or perceived – won’t accomplish anything other than to make you feel worse than you should. Life in recovery, like life for everyone else, is a series of incremental steps. Not all steps are in a straight line forward. Some are lateral first and then forward. Some backtrack and then move forward. The point is that the journey continues. Keep the horizon in view and take the steps necessary to move forward.
9. Get Back on Track – Okay, some of us will relapse. We’ve acknowledged right at the outset that it could happen. So, if it does happen, then what? You get right back on track, that’s what. Addiction treatment professionals say that the worst mistake those in recovery can make is to give up, to feel that they are failures and are doomed to a life of downhill spiral. If you falter, take a drink, smoke a joint, pop too many pills, you need to resume your regimen of 12-step meetings, counseling, seeking support and redouble your resolve to live clean and sober. It’s as simple as that. You just get back on the schedule that worked for you before. In fact, figure out what worked best to keep you from relapsing and then do more of that. Your support network (sponsor, counselor, therapist, spouse, etc.) may have other suggestions that you can try.
10. Learn From Your Missteps – If you do have a relapse, and many in early recovery do, the best thing you can do for your future is to learn from what went wrong. This goes beyond tips and techniques to keep you from caving in to your cravings and urges. It also applies to your overall strategy, possibly your goals. Perhaps you have been thinking too short-term. Lacking a long-term goal, many in recovery become disillusioned and disheartened when things don’t turn out the way they want or planned in the short haul. You need something to work toward that is far enough off that it requires a series of steps, or mini-goals, to achieve. In other words, you need something of value to work towards. This should involve a meaningful goal, perhaps for you, but also for your family. It could be providing for your child’s or children’s college, or buying your first or new home. It could be finally becoming financially independent, or again being financially stable after a period of debts due to your addiction.
You may also find that you need to cultivate a new group of friends. If part of what went wrong is that you wound up hanging out with friends that use drugs and/or alcohol, you know that you need to stop being around others who will only tempt you back into your old habits. You simply cannot afford to be around alcohol, drugs, or other addictive behaviors. Period.
Bottom line: Relapse does happen. It isn’t the end of the world. With the support of your loved ones, trusted friends, 12-step sponsor, members, counselor or therapist, you will be able to get through it and past it and resume your recovery. So, rather than worry and be afraid of the what if and why and how could this happen, concentrate more on the business of charting your plan for your future. Then go out and make it happen.
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