The road to recovery can be difficult. If it were an easy journey, more people would be choosing the path of sobriety. Knowing what to expect during this time of transition can assist with giving an extra boost of resolve when you are tempted to throw in the towel. The following is an overview of the various areas of difficulty that you are likely to encounter during this restructuring period of your life. These difficulties are well-known to substance abuse survivors and professionals, and support exists for any of these areas that you may struggle with.
The first difficulty that many people experience when getting sober is withdrawal. Withdrawal refers to the shock of a body to no longer receiving the input of a substance that it has come to rely on for regular functioning. Symptoms of withdrawal vary along with the type of substance in question, but often involve flu-like features. Headaches, nausea, body temperature dysregulation, and intestinal problems are some of the most common symptoms.
Once the initial effects of withdrawal are navigated, a person in recovery will be faced with choices about how to build a physical life which doesn’t include drugs or alcohol. He or she may notice that there are large chunks of time that were wasted by using, and these blocks of time now need to be filled with other, more healthy, activities. Using this newly discovered free time to focus on repairing the damage that substances have done to the body is a good approach. Not only can a good diet and exercise contribute to a longer and more energetic life, they can also assist with the mental and emotional aspects of recovery.
The primary function of drugs and alcohol is that of altering our mental perceptions of reality. While we are experiencing the desired effects of a substance on our ability to relax, have fun, or focus, our brains are actually being physically altered. Consistent substance use can actually rewire our brains to a point that it forgets how to function without the instructions from the drug.
The way that this happens is more complex than can be explained solely by the chemical reactions in the brain. Humans have an innate desire to experience the sensation of being rewarded. This desire to experience reward is what motivates us to work hard toward our goals and aspirations. Drugs and alcohol produce an artificial feeling of reward, and one which requires no hard work to achieve. This can be a problem for a person who is starting out in recovery. No longer having access to the immediate gratification of chemical reward can be frustrating and depressing. It takes time for a person in recovery to retrain the brain into understanding that the real rewards will only come after some time and effort have been extended.
Apart from retraining our thoughts to be focused on longer term goals, there also tend to be some issues requiring processing adjustments. You may find that your short term memory is rusty, or that your attention span is nonexistent. Those experiencing this can take heart in the knowledge that science has finally shown that the brain can regrow neurons after being damaged through drug and alcohol use. It may take some time, but you have a good shot at being able to get back up to mental speed after a long enough period of sobriety.
Closely linked to mental difficulties is that of emotional difficulties. Our emotions can be tricky things, influenced by everything from hormones and human instincts to our developed thought patterns. Drugs and alcohol play a very large part in influencing these emotions, and a person in recovery may find that he or she does not know what to do with the experience of intense, sober, feelings. Some of these feelings may be exactly what the person in addiction was seeking to avoid through the numbing power of substances.
One of the most powerful techniques for navigating the intensity of emotions during recovery is the practice of mindfulness. Being mindful allows you the space to just let the emotions pass through, without trying to control them, act on them, or fight them off. Validating your experience of emotions in this way, without allowing them to dictate your behavior, can provide a doorway into exploring yourself and your needs in a new, healthy, way.
Substance abuse can be devastating to relationships. A person in active use will often end up cutting ties with those who disagree with the addiction, and gathering people around who support it. During recovery, this social pattern will need to be reversed. Old relationships will likely need to be mended, and new relationships – with sober friends – will need to be formed. Isolation from others can be a red flag for relapse, and you will need people around you who will hold you accountable for staying engaged in your recovery.
Depending on how far addiction ended up taking control of your life, you may find that you are now in a position to need to rebuild your approach toward providing for your basic needs. It may be the case that you need to find new housing, get a job, or obtain some career training and education. The consideration of gaining all of these necessary resources can be daunting. It is important to not attempt to do too much, too soon. It didn’t take a day to sink into addiction, and it will take more than a day to get out of it.
While giving yourself time to get to know yourself better, be on alert for any resource links that become available to you as you continue to connect with your sober support system. Many communities offer temporary assistance with housing and job training, along with providing ongoing education and encouragement in maintaining your sobriety. As social awareness of the nature and prevalence of substance abuse grows, more resources are becoming available.