Life in recovery is rewarding, but that doesn’t mean the road is always easy. Most recovering addicts know that the crucial first few months after you leave your drug of choice (DOC) behind isn’t the time to test the waters by heading out to parties, special events, and bars. It’s far more important to protect your sobriety and head to an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting or low-key socializing with friends.
The need to reign in on everyday entertainment activities that present an increased risk for relapse may seem isolating, but it’s a necessary evil at first. Doing so gives you time to get back on your feet, acclimatizing you to your new sober lifestyle with much less risk. Once you’re more experienced with handling stressors, and you have a few months of sobriety under your belt, it’s time to think about getting back into the game.
But how exactly do you get your social life back without risking your sobriety in the process?
Like every other aspect of recovery, it’s a multifaceted approach that focuses on slow reintegration and support.
Avoid Old Stomping Grounds
Firstly (and perhaps most importantly) is the avoidance of old stomping grounds. One of the main tenets of recovery is to take the addict out of the environment they’re used to. That includes friends, homes, and neighborhoods where it’s easy to slip back into old patterns.
It takes just one friend who is still using to convince you that a few hits won’t hurt. Add to this peer pressure and shame and you have the perfect recipe for relapses. Worse yet, if you do relapse, your old friends are likely to convince you to just stay; they’ll help you out. That can seem mighty tempting when you’re questioning whether it’s wise to call your sponsor or head home and admit to the slip.
To be clear, sober friends who are completely willing to respect your journey aren’t the problem. If someone is willing to stay sober around you, and agrees to spend time with you while avoiding potential triggers, spending time with long-time friends and family members can be a good thing. The issue lies in spending time with people who do not yet see the value in being sober.
Maintain a Therapeutic Connection
Whether it’s attending meetings or seeing a therapist, it is extremely important that you maintain a therapeutic connection when you’re venturing out into the world again for the first time. Blunt honesty with your therapist or support group pays because it allows you to get support and guidance for what’s really going on, not what you want the world to think is going on.
All of us gloss over the details once in a while (sober or not), mostly in an attempt to ensure that we present the best face possible to the outside world. But doing so can limit our ability to learn how to forge healthy, respectful relationships as we aren’t being fully honest with those who support us.
Although it might seem strange to talk about that first date, new friendship, or evening out on the town, a neutral and therapeutic third party helps. They see the situation from a fresh perspective, and the lack of rose-colored glasses often allows them to point out potential dangers or triggers when you may be feeling swept away.
Essentially, your therapeutic connection provides an additional layer of checks and balances to keep you safe when socializing. Accountability matters!
Start with Safe Socializing
Before you learn to walk you have to learn to crawl; that includes recovery, too. In order to succeed, you need to undo all of those old, maladaptive behaviors and then re-learn how to exist in the world without substances, especially when socializing. Dive into fast and you could find yourself drowning.
Make an attempt to socialize in safe environments first, long before you head out to potentially triggering locations like bars and licensed dance clubs. Be extra-cautious with where you go, who you see, and how long you spend there for the first couple of months. If there’s any risk that alcohol and/or drugs will be present, it may be best to avoid the location for a few months until you feel more confident about your ability to say no.
Seek Out Social Recovery Communities
If you live in the city, you may already have access to social recovery group activities. Some areas provide opportunities for recovering addicts to get out and into the world under the watchful eye of a group lead. This could include hiking, swimming, running, spending time at the park, going to a movie, or even heading to a fun restaurant to eat together. Take advantage of these opportunities whenever you can; these new friends will often become a big part of your new life as you move on from old, maladaptive environments.
A quick note of caution: Be careful with activities like exercise and eating. Unfortunately, a past addiction does make you more susceptible to food and/or exercise addictions, especially if you’re in the early stages of recovery. Try to mix your activities up to avoid replacing your drug of choice (DOC) with a new “addiction.”
Take Up a Shared Hobby
If you don’t have social recovery groups in your city, or if you live in the country, consider taking up a new shared (sober) hobby instead. This is the perfect time to get involved in hobbies that don’t involve substances, like crafting, playing cards, quilting, woodworking, horseback riding, aerobics, or any other group and club-oriented activity.
Even taking lessons and night classes at the local community college can help you to get out there and meet people who share the same interests without jeopardizing your sobriety.
Remember: Downtime Is Important, Too!
Last (but certainly not least) is careful attention to the fact that downtime is crucial to your recovery, too. There is a propensity for some recovering addicts – especially extroverts – to try and fit in as many social activities as possible; this is usually related to feelings of loneliness or boredom. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with healthy socialization, too much of a good thing can be more damaging than its worth.
Strive to balance each evening or day out with quiet downtime filled with self-care. This could be as simple as taking a long, hot bath with your favorite bath bombs, or it could be as complex as escaping the city to rent a cabin in the woods for a few days. Although socialization and human contact is as much a need as food and water, it is still possible to overdo it and become burned out. And social burnout, unfortunately, is a major player in relapse.