Our relationships and health, our environment, work and finances – these are key areas in most people’s life, which often have the greatest influence on personal wellbeing. They can be a great source of pleasure, excitement and satisfaction – but when they go wrong, it’s common to experience stress, anger, sadness, pain or fear. For addicts in recovery, we take a look in this blog at how to deal with big or significant life events. What should we do in recovery when ‘life happens’?
There are many ways in which our most important relationships change over the course of our life. There are births and deaths in the family. You might start a new relationship or split up from a long-term partner. Perhaps you’ve decided to get married or divorced – or to get back together again after separation. Maybe you’ve fallen out with your best friend or discovered your wife has been unfaithful.
Often life events like these can bring very mixed emotions. Going through a divorce can cause sadness and anger but also a renewed sense of hope about making a fresh start. Losing an elderly parent can bring grief, as well as relief that our loved one is no longer suffering. With the birth of a child, there is often tremendous love and joy – but there can also be fear and feelings of being overwhelmed, caring for a new baby 24 hours a day.
Shifts in our key relationships can also have a big impact on our resources – including our time, money and energy. Starting a new relationship can involve spending more money than usual on clothes, gifts and dates. A divorce process often involves a lawyer – and it certainly requires spending weeks, months or even years finding a settlement upon which both parties agree. Both single parents and couples can struggle to find time for themselves after having a baby, alongside caring for their child and paying the household bills.
Firstly, heightened emotions or pain in our key relationships can trigger thoughts of returning to active addiction. Using drugs or alcohol or returning to an addictive process, however, will never solve or improve the situation. Even positive life events, such as getting married or having a baby, can trigger thoughts of the addiction, as a way to calm down or cope with pressure. Whatever the situation, talking to someone as soon as possible about your addictive thoughts and cravings is vital – ideally someone with a good understanding of the nature of addiction.
Secondly, shifts in relationships are a normal part of life – they are a feature of everyone’s life and not necessarily a sign of doing something wrong. Many relationships are seasonal – after a certain amount of time together, you outgrow your partner or you move in a completely different direction to your school friends. Practising acceptance of this is vital to peace of mind and emotional sobriety in addiction recovery. Learning when to let go of a relationship is a skill that develops the longer you’re in recovery – because it becomes very clear in sobriety that holding on to a damaged or dysfunctional relationship can do much more harm to yourself and others.
Thirdly, there are many changes in relationships that are completely beyond our control – deaths in the family, for example, or a friend refusing to answer your calls with no explanation. It’s beneficial in recovery from addiction to identify the situations that are out of your hands – and allow them to be as they are. Being okay with not knowing why something has happened or when it might be resolved – if ever – is a crucial aspect of emotional sobriety, which can help to sustain wellbeing in addiction recovery.
Fourthly, it can be helpful to look closely at relationship challenges, to see if there’s anything that you can do to change your feelings or behaviour towards it. Take the example of getting married. Let’s say you’re a month away from your big day and it feels like there are still a hundred jobs to do. You’re feeling stressed and angry because you don’t feel supported by your partner. You think about having a glass of wine to ease the pressure. Taking some time to talk things over with a friend in recovery, to identify what you can do differently can really help. Is it really essential to book a chocolate fountain or a photo booth or another entertainer? Are there jobs you can delegate to your friends and family? Can you have a chat with your partner about specific tasks they can take on?
There’s also the problem of emotional avoidance or anorexia in relationships – this is where people become so frightened of relationships that they attempt to steer clear of them altogether. In addiction recovery, isolation from friends and family, shutting down opportunities to form intimate relationships, overworking to avoid social occasions – these situations need just as much thought and care. What can really help is talking to a professional therapist or seeking residential treatment, to overcome the barriers you’re facing with intimacy and trust.
Many addicts in recovery describe physical or mental ill health as one of the most difficult things they experience. From the aches and tiredness of a winter cold, through to painful migraines, backache or debilitating depression – common health complaints can have a big impact on maintaining addiction recovery. Being stuck in bed for days with flu will mean you can’t attend your recovery support groups, for example. Putting your back out might mean you need to take strong painkillers and you’re not sure if that’s okay. Migraines can induce feelings of anxiety and depression because you feel vulnerable when you’re having an attack.
For addicts in recovery, when common health problems like these strike, it’s important to remember the basics of self-care. Staying hydrated and well-nourished, resting and sleeping well, taking the appropriate amount of exercise (or not exerting yourself at all), talking on the phone to friends and peers in recovery – these things can be part of your self-care plan, as you get back to full health.
Then there are life-threatening health conditions – such as cancer, heart disease, stroke or terminal illnesses. These diseases often require a radical change in outlook, lifestyle and commitments, which can be extremely unsettling for anyone. For people in recovery from addiction, getting a frightening diagnosis can trigger thoughts of returning to the addiction, as a way of coping with the bad news.
It can be very helpful to make sure all medical professionals involved in your care are fully aware of your history of addiction. This is particularly important when healthcare professionals are establishing treatment plans. Where medications are prescribed as part of your treatment (including opioids or benzodiazepines), it’s really important not to self-medicate, by changing the dosage without consulting a health professional first. Counselling sessions can be useful too, as a way of coming to terms with the illness and making the necessary adjustments to your life.
Do you feel safe where you live? Do you know your neighbours – or really wish you didn’t? Do you have a stable home or are you homeless? Do you like your community and enjoy the local facilities? Are you moving house to a new area? Does the weather get on your nerves or the litter in the streets? Does the noisy dog next door drive you up the wall? Do you long to live near the sea or green space? Is your work place welcoming and comfortable? Is it time for a holiday?
These are all concerns in life to do with your environment. Where you live and spend your time – and crucially, how you feel about these things – can be major contributing factors to your sense of personal wellbeing and fulfilment.
In long-term addiction recovery, these kinds of life events will come up again and again. So it’s important to ask yourself on a regular basis, where can a gripe about your environment become a goal; where can a crisis become a new opportunity. Taking action to change environmental factors we don’t like can be a very empowering experience in recovery from addiction, as you experience how much choice and control you really have in many situations. Where change isn’t possible – your neighbour will always slam the door late at night, for example, despite your requests for her to stop – it’s about weighing up whether the problem is big enough for you to move elsewhere (or invest in some decent ear plugs instead).
Have you just been promoted? Congratulations! Are you feeling excited or nervous – or a bit of both – about your new role? Perhaps you’ve been made redundant and are worried about how long your money will last? Maybe you’re in debt and struggle to pay the bills each month? Perhaps you always seem to spend more than you earn.
When addiction begins early on in life and continues into adulthood, people can sometimes miss out on developing useful life skills, including some very practical solutions to common challenges with work and money.
With work challenges and career development, professional mentors can really help – and you don’t always have to pay for their service either. Approaching a senior colleague at your place of work, for example, or in your circles outside of work, can begin the process of establishing a mentoring relationship.
For problems with money and debt, there are a range of voluntary organisations and private businesses, which can help with creating realistic monthly spending plans and tracking your expenses. Sometimes spending itself can become an addiction – a compulsive feeling that you have to have something straight away – a new jacket, a TV, a holiday. Learning to save regularly towards the things you want, even a small amount of money, can begin to build healthier habits in addiction recovery. Cutting up the credit cards too – especially if you struggle to meet repayments or find you reach your credit limit quickly. Talking to creditors and offering them repayments based on what you can afford is much better than avoiding their letters and calls.
Every time you face and deal with a significant life event in addiction recovery, without returning to drugs or alcohol or a process addiction, your confidence and self-esteem will grow. The faulty belief that an addictive substance or behaviour helps you to cope with strong feelings or unknown circumstances will recede a bit further. New ideas and strategies will form, which you’ll remember the next time you’re in a similar situation. Your experience also becomes really useful to other people in addiction recovery, who may call upon you for help. In these ways, clean and sober living becomes enjoyable and deeply fulfilling – when you learn through experience how many assets you have in recovery.