Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A Guide to Sober Life

So you're ready to give up drugs...all of them, including the socially acceptable ones like booze.  Good for you.  That's a big decision.  I'm serious.  If you're one of the millions who has a true addiction--not just a pattern of binging on drugs or physical dependence but a deep psychological addiction & inability to moderate your use--quitting will be the best decision you ever made.  And also one of the hardest.  Actually, quitting isn't's staying sober that's tricky.  But being an addict is hard too.  As they say, you gotta pick your "hard."

As with any gargantuan task, getting clean must be broken down into short- and long-term steps & goals.  In the first "phase," you will be experiencing physical withdrawal & getting triggered to use everywhere you turn.  Nothing will feel fulfilling & you'll fear life will always feel this way.  (It won't).  In Phase 2, you'll feel physically better & the obsessing will have faded a bit.  But you'll realize unpleasant emotions like boredom & anxiety are an unavoidable part of life & will have to develop healthy coping skills to deal with them.  Most people need help with this part.  It's this 2nd phase that really makes or breaks a person's long-term chances of staying healthy.  Read on to find out how.

Phase One:  Acute (Short-Term) Success

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Tips for acute/early sobriety

Stay Busy.  During the acute phase of quitting & withdrawal, you'll be focused on physical comfort & distracting your mind from the desire to use.  This is actually the easy part.  Once the physical withdrawals have passed & you feel up to it, immediately get back to work or volunteering, engaging in healthy hobbies or other things to keep busy.  "Idle hands are the devil's workshop" was a favorite saying of my grandma's, and it's especially true for addicts.

Can't think of anything to make the time pass?  Regardless of where you live, you can always:  exercise vigorously, read or watch something funny, masturbate, write in a journal, do artwork, meditate, prepare & eat a healthy meal or sit somewhere & watch people or cars go by.  These things won't feel very exciting at all right now; that's not the point.  Do them anyway.  Go through the motions & keep your attention occupied during these early weeks of sobriety so you can make it to Phase 2.  Keep your mind & body active unless you're asleep.  This will improve your chances of avoiding slip-ups early on.

Clean House.  Literally & figuratively.  Use your nervous energy to do some physical cleaning of your living space.  Ideally, you'd be able to move to an entire new home or city to start over, but if that's not feasible simply rearranging your furniture & redecorating can make things feel new.  Treat quitting drugs like a breakup:  throw out all the music you listened to while high.  Delete your accounts on drug forums; erase your dealer's number & get a whole new phone if your old one is full of druggie friends.  Do everything you can to identify & purge old triggers from your environment to reduce temptation.

Cleaning house also involves cutting contact with the people who supported you in your addiction & self-destruction...even if they were family or friends.  Anyone who's toxic or makes you feel shitty is a risk to your safety right now, so avoid them at all costs.  Tell everyone you're making some changes & need some time to yourself.  If they care about you at all they'll respect this request & support you however they can. 

Phase Two:  Chronic (Long-Term) Success

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Seriously, go to therapy.

By now a few months will have passed & you'll be feeling more clear-headed & confident in your sobriety.  But for many addicts, there is a lingering feeling that something is missing... they don't feel quite "right" mentally or emotionally.  This can last months or even years in rare cases.  But it DOES get better the longer you're sober.  However, time doesn't heal all wounds.  Time + work is required to truly achieve sobriety rather than just being a "dry druggie" or drunk.

Find a professional (therapist, counselor, etc).  For the 2nd & most vital step, you'll ideally need a therapist, counselor, caseworker or sobriety coach to truly benefit.  If you can't afford that at the moment, that's okay.  But make it a priority as soon as you're able.  This is the long-term aspect that will ultimately determine whether you're able to not only stay clean but be successful in other ways, so you want to do it right.  To do that you'll need to gain healthy coping skills while changing your thought patterns & learning to set healthy boundaries with people.  Nobody can magically develop these skills all alone.  (Let me just take a minute to plug my therapist:  she's trained in CBT & is a miracle worker.  And she works at a sliding-scale state funded clinic where I pay $0 to attend & get my meds.  I've tried every psych med on the market practically & can honestly say that working with a good therapist is more effective than any single one of them.  With her help I've tackled situations I never thought possible before).  If you don't mesh with your first therapist, try another.  And another.

You can find a million & one reasons to avoid therapy but once you start you'll wonder why you waited so long.  With the advent of telemedicine & other forms of technology, it's never been more convenient to talk to a professional.  GO. 

Help Yourself.  If you can't get to a clinic right away you can always check out a self-help book on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or watch a TED Talk on addiction in the meantime (for instance).  However, the most vital thing is being able to vent your feelings, fears & darkest thoughts somewhere confidential like a journal.  Many harsh emotions & memories will come up during the detox/quitting process...let the journal serve as your sounding board.  These feelings must have an outlet.  Practice taking deep, calming breaths when you're feeling tense & take a physical time-out if necessary.  If you're anything like me you're scoffing at these "simple" fixes but they can really help slow down your parasympathetic nervous system when you're feeling frustrated or scared.  It's not a complete solution but it's a small step that helps. 

Whatever your path to sobriety, whether it's through a substitution program like methadone/Suboxone, a 12-step program, going it alone or a fancy retreat like Lindsay Lohan would attend, all addicts face the same stumbling blocks.  Loneliness, boredom, anger, depression, social anxiety & negative self-talk/traumatic memories are common triggers to relapse.  Which is often a part of recovery, by the way.  Just as someone who's dieting will sometimes slip up & take in too much, so will an addict on their path to sobriety.  Don't use it as an excuse to give up.  You've come so far & deserve to see this through.  You already know what the other path leads to.

Imagining a New Life

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Any questions?

So what does life even look like without drugs as a constant companion?  There was a time in your life before you ever tried a substance, even if it was way back in childhood.  Try to recall it.  If that time was unpleasant it doesn't have to be that way now.  You can carve out a whole new path with healthy lifestyle choices & good habits.  The thing about childhood is we have no control over much of anything; as adults, we have the ability to kick toxic people out of our lives, to spend our free time as we wish, befriend anyone we want & so forth.  Freedom of choice is an awesome gift AND a huge responsibility.  It can be used or abused. 

I divide life up into 4 major categories:  1.) Emotional Health 2.) Hobbies, 3.) Physical Health/Work & 4.) Social Life.  Giving each of these attention as needed guarantees a healthy balance.  Be careful who you allow into your social circle, where you go & what you do.  Learn to manage your finances wisely.  Take care of your mental & physical health by getting regular checkups & getting enough healthy food, sleep & exercise.  Figure out what you're passionate about & go after it with your whole being.  A healthy life is all about balancing work & relaxation/recreation...solitude & socializing.  Self-care & helping others.  Remember that you're working for the delayed reward of continued health & happiness rather than the instant rush of a drug high.  That part can be challenging at first.  If you find yourself really craving that adrenaline rush in your life, you might enjoy a hobby like hang gliding, rafting, martial arts or surfing.

The possibilities for a happy, successful sober life really are endless.  If you can imagine it, you can create it.  Success is defined by YOU, by the way.  If acquiring a lot of wealth & all its trappings makes you feel fulfilled, go for it.  If you'd be happier living a minimalist life of traveling & service to others, that's awesome too.  There are no wrong answers.   The important thing is to make sure not to let anyone else define success for you.  If you don't truly want the thing you're working for, you're not as likely to succeed or feel fulfilled when you do.  Neither your parents, friends nor partner can make this decision for you.     

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