We have come a long way in our journey to overcoming addiction. We started with the critical first step of admitting and accepting the unfortunate reality that we have a problem. Then, after making all of the necessary preparations and creating a plan to give us the best chance at getting through the incredibly difficult detox process, it was time to begin the massive undertaking of cleansing our body of our drug of choice. Despite the excruciating pain, never-ending muscle tremors, and countless other awful withdrawal symptoms, we managed to successfully get through our detox in one piece. Having successfully survived this horrible process, we started trying to put our lives back together by making amends with our loved ones who were affected by our struggle with addiction. Now that we have gotten our lives back to normal in terms of our relationships and external world, it is time to work on our internal world, our thoughts and feelings. This is the final step in the process of overcoming addiction, and it is the topic of this fifth, and final, entry in my Roll Models Addiction Series.
Even after all of the time and energy you put in to get through withdrawal and complete the detox process, you will never truly be completely free of your addiction. Although you may no longer have the chemical addiction and cravings, the mental and emotional urges to use will always be there to some degree. The key to moving forward and living a successful life post detox is to learn to live a healthy life in recovery despite these urges. In order to accomplish this difficult feat, you have to learn to manage these mental triggers of your addiction and come up with other, healthier ways of dealing with them when they arise. If you do not take the time to get your internal world in order this way, you will be at much higher risk of relapsing into your old ways. However, by developing the mental tools to cope with the mental triggers of your addiction, you will be able to move on with your life and create whatever fulfilling future you can dream up without the shackles of addiction holding you back.
Most people who have addiction issues began using their drug of choice to avoid some type of pain (mental and/or emotional), to achieve some desired mental state (i.e. more relaxed, more energetic, more focused, etc.), or both. The key to avoiding relapse then is to develop skills and techniques that accomplish these same goals without substance abuse. By equipping yourself with the right tools, when you do reach a situation where you get the urge to use, you will have another way to handle it, satisfy your purely psychological craving, and avoid relapse. The specific techniques you use will be different for everyone, but they all will work towards this same end. You need to arm yourself with two types of mental tools to control your desire to use and avoid relapsing back in to your addiction. The first type are skills that are designed to prevent the urge to use before it happens by avoiding your triggers. The second type of mental tools are ways to deal with your cravings when they do inevitably occur. By developing both types of skills to handle your addiction, you will have no problem living a happy, successful life post detox.
The easiest way to avoid giving in to your cravings is to keep the urge to use from happening in the first place. This is not always possible, but with some careful planning and by developing the right mental tools, you can prevent a lot of situations where you would be tempted to use again. Since everyone’s triggers and such are different, the way you prepare to prevent your cravings will vary from person to person. To help illustrate this point then, I will share with you what has worked for me, and hopefully you can find similar ideas that will work for you. I started using narcotics to deal with my chronic pain, but over time I also started using them to help me relax and to help me sleep. Since I could use other types of painkillers to control my physical pain, what I needed to work on was preventing the mental triggers of my addiction.
My main mental trigger was not being able to get my mind to slow down so that I could relax or sleep. Being a student at a top 20 university like Notre Dame, your mind has to operate at a high level from the moment you get up until well into the evening when you either go to bed or out to socialize. While I had no problem getting my brain to function during the day, I did have the problem of getting it to then slow down so that I could relax and enjoy myself at night. Since I could not find a way to turn my mind off for a while on my own, I started using my painkillers to help me relax, because a common side effect of narcotics is a “mental haze.” By taking some of my painkillers I could get my brain to slow down, which allowed me to relax, sleep, and get some rest mentally. In order to avoid relapse, I needed to find other ways to get my mind to turn off at night, so that I could relax and would not get the urge to use. I came up with two skills that have been effective at accomplishing this. The first is meditation. By meditating every morning and practicing mindfulness throughout the day, I am much more in tune with my mind and body, which makes it much easier to control myself and relax when I want to. The other technique that I have used with success is finding ways to wear out my mind during the day, so that it is more fatigued and wants to rest by evening. Whether it be reading, writing, playing chess, or some other hobby, by finding activities that would exercise my brain, I found it much easier to get it to slow down by day’s end. Developing these skills (among others) has allowed me to avoid relapsing back into my addiction by preventing the situations where I would be tempted to use again.
No matter how much you prepare to avoid your psychological triggers and your urges to use your drug of choice, you cannot prevent them all. That is why it is so important to also develop the skills to manage your cravings when they unexpectedly occur. In my experience, these situations where the urge arises without warning are by far the most dangerous and difficult to deal with, because your knee-jerk reaction is to use, which means you are starting off already craving your drug. These surprise urges, at least in my experience, often occur when you are going about your day and something happens that totally ruins your plans. This sudden disruption to your day causes you to get angry, and as “emotional hijack” sets in, you get the urge to use to make yourself feel better. In order to not give in to your addiction, you have to learn new ways to stop your emotions from taking over without the use of drugs. Just as with trying to prevent my cravings to begin with, meditation has been a good tool for managing my urges when they pop up. When I feel like my emotions are taking over and find myself wanting to take an extra painkiller, I immediately stop what I am doing and do 10 deep breaths of mindfulness meditation. I have certain thoughts and images I meditate on depending on the situation, and by taking this little “time out” my craving is greatly reduced. Another effective tool for managing these sudden urges for me has been talking out my feelings. After settling myself down and alleviating my craving by meditating briefly, I will talk about whatever happened to trigger my craving and how to fix it. I will have a dialogue, sometimes with myself, about how to fix my situation. By getting my mind to focus on the problem at hand instead of my desire to use, I not only come up with a solution to my problem, but my craving also fizzles out as I am doing so. Once again, these are things that worked for me, but everyone will have different triggers, and that means that they will also likely have different tools and techniques that are most effective. The important thing is to find what does work for you, so that when you do get the urge to relapse you will be prepared to deal with it.
After everything you had to go through to get through your detox, you would think that not wanting to ever experience that hell again would be more than enough motivation to never relapse, but unfortunately this is not the case. Addiction is a lifelong disease, and even the horrors of withdrawal are not enough to keep it in check completely (it is a good start though). In order to live the future you have always dreamed about, you will have to prepare yourself to control your cravings for the rest of your life. By developing the skills to prevent and avoid your psychological triggers to use and cultivating techniques to manage your urges when they pop up unexpectedly, you will be able to live happily and healthily. It is critical to remember that there is no cure for addiction and to keep your guard up, because one moment of weakness can eliminate years of recovery.
We have covered a lot of heavy, intense information through this series on addiction. As hard as it was to put my own experience out there for everyone to read, if my words help even one person overcome their addiction and move on to live a happy, fulfilling life in recovery, it was worth it. This awful disease impacts nearly everyone in the country, and it is a problem that we need to fix. I hope that my story will help you better understand addiction, so that you are better prepared to cope with it when it effects you or someone in your life. Most of all, if you are struggling with addiction, please seek help. You have nothing to be ashamed of, and there are people out there who can help you. No one should have to deal with this disease alone. I am living, breathing proof that you can beat your addiction and live a successful, fulfilling life in recovery. And if I can do it, there is no reason you cannot do it too.