The following is intended for readers 18+
I have worked as a counselor for more than 25 years. For 11 of those years I have worked as an Addiction Therapist. I teach on the Psychology of Addiction, but my experience is not only from my day job or my academic role.
I have had bouts of addiction to food and I have been diagnosed with clinical depression. Growing up, my father was an alcoholic. The impact of a childhood lived with a parent who is addicted to a substance can have long lasting echoes.
Addiction is personal for me. I care a great deal about people who suffer from addiction and long for freedom. What I would like to share with you is some of the lessons I have learned as a therapist who specializes in addiction and recovery.
1. You Are Worthy of Recovery
The first step in recovery is acknowledging you are worth the effort and care it will take to become healthy. I call this “Step Zero.” This is the step where you believe you are worthy of recovery.
2. You Are Not ‘Dysfunctional’
I dislike the term, “dysfunctional,” because people use it to explain so many behaviors to the point where we begin to think it is a diagnosis. The term is too general to be of any real help.
The definition of dysfunctional is: “Not operating normally or properly; Unable to deal adequately with normal social relations.” We all fit the definition of “dysfunctional.”
So what if you are dysfunctional? That makes you normal. Instead admit you have your bad days and work to make them less impactful on your life and your health.
3. You Don’t Have to Put Up with Suffering, But You Should Feel Uncomfortable
If you are reading this, you are thinking about making a change in your behavior or in how you approach drinking, your drug use or other compulsive behaviors. You are worthy of recovery and you are worthy of happiness. You should not accept that your life needs to feel painful or that you are a victim. Know that you can heal from the victim mentality.
You don’t have to suffer, but you should feel uncomfortable. Some anxiety is normal and even healthy. Discomfort is not terminal.
You are trying to stretch yourself and become more healthy, so at times it will feel uncomfortable and unsettling. But you can do it. See the next point for a few ideas of what you can do if your discomfort feels more intense.
4. Focusing On the Present Moment Can Change Your Brain
You may use meditation, focusing on your breath, silent contemplation or prayer to help you focus on the moment.
One way to ground yourself is by sitting or standing up straight and tall and taking some deep, slow breaths. Close your eyes if you are comfortable. Then stretch gently and deeply. Feel the pull in your muscles. Hold it for a count of 10-15 seconds. Then do what is called the 5-4-3 exercise: Notice 5 things you can see; Notice 4 things you can hear; and then notice 3 body sensations or feelings.
You can also try a muscle tension exercise. There are different versions of this exercise, but the one I practice goes like this: (Remember to breathe throughout the entire exercise) Stand or lay down. Firmly flex and hold all of your muscles at the same time. Flex until you begin to shake and it becomes difficult to hold.
For most people this will be flexing for a count of 20-35. It will take work and practice to fully feel a flex in your muscles.
You may need to repeat these exercises several times per day, whenever you feel yourself becoming hooked by your feelings or triggers.
5. You Are Not Powerless Over Your Addiction
You have at least four choices you can make in any circumstance (I credit Russ Harris, PhD for the idea behind the four choices he calls The Resilience Formula):
- You can leave — Sometimes leaving is the best choice you can make. You may be thinking about leaving a relationship, a job, a location or a friendship. Sometimes an ending can be a new beginning. Often, leaving may help, but it might not fix your problems.
- You can stay and give in — You can decide to stay put and do nothing else. Give in, become more unhealthy, don’t do anything to improve yourself. Some people decide this is their best choice.
- You can stay and accept — This is different than giving in. Acceptance is powerful. It is the recognition that there are some things that cannot change, including disability, illness, age or other physical limitations. Know that your diagnosis does not define you. You have other strengths, interests and pursuits you can invest your energy in.
- You can stay and change what you can, all the while trying to live by your values. — Most times, change is slow and you will need to take small steps to improve yourself. But you can do it. It begins with thinking about and feeling very deeply what your values are.
Here are some ways you can do that:
- Values are about being and goals are about doing. For example, you want to be a better father (value), so you spend time with your kids (goal). You want to be creative (value), so you do artwork (goal). You want to be compassionate (value), so you spend time volunteering (goal). Bringing your values to life will help you to have more motivation in your recovery.
- An article that may help you identify your values is “What Are Your Values” by Mindtools.
- Once you are aware of your top five values, you can picture living each value and feel deeply how it makes you think and feel. Feel the value of compassion in your body. How warm is it? Is it like energy? Or is it more like water flowing within you? Or like air moving around and inside of you?
- Then identify one small thing you can do today to live your value. It may be that you live out your value of compassion today by being compassionate to yourself or by compassionately listening to your partner or to your children.
6. There Are Many Paths to Recovery and a Healthy Life
You might need to focus on depression and alcohol use at the same time. Or maybe you need to focus exclusively on marijuana use for now. Or you might need to practice harm reduction for your food addiction while dealing with your childhood trauma.
There is not only one way to get clean or to become more healthy. Your strengths will help you to recover and your recovery should include your strengths.
Even if you have had a lengthy experience with addiction, you still have strengths. A good therapist will help you identify your strengths and show you how to use them to grow.
7. There Will Be Issues Related to Your Addiction
This is closely related to #6. You may have underlying mental health needs you will need to address at some point in your recovery. It is important that you take it one day at time and don’t take on more than you are ready for.
A helpful guideline is to begin with the area of your life that feels the most unstable. It may be alcohol or cocaine use. Or it may be depression. Start by deciding which is easier to work on.
If working on the lighter stuff doesn’t work as well as you would like, you may need to work on the harder stuff. This is where a good therapist can help. A therapist can help you to build coping skills that will help you tolerate discomfort in the support of your deeper values of recovery and living a healthy lifestyle.
8. Your Lifestyle Can Be Your Therapy As Well
For many people therapy includes talking. Therapy should also include other active areas of your life. When you get active, you engage different parts of your brain in the service of helping you make the changes you want to make.
For me writing is one of the most therapeutic things I do. I also practice regular exercise and I have spiritual practices.
You may be passionate about volunteering or spending time in nature. You may also adopt a vegan diet or other nutritional plan that gets you feeling more healthy. Recovery for you may include intentional time where you “fast” from social media and technology. This will allow you to regain your focus and take time to read, reflect, exercise or renew friendships.
- If you are interested in learning more about Therapeutic Lifestyle Factors, you can read this article by Dr. Roger Walsh.
9. You Don’t Need to Just Get By Any More (You Can Do More)
If you are only learning coping skills, this may be keeping you ill. Sometimes you need to feel the pain and the struggle. Letting it out is often the best decision you can make. Finding a good therapist can help you to know when you are ready to address the underlying pain or struggle.
It is wise to open up when you are ready. Being ready means that:
- You feel safe and you are confident that what you say will be held in confidence.
- You have the power to decide when to begin, when to stop and how fast you want to go.
- You have some helpful ideas about how to cope. You understand the importance of having some discomfort.
- You are not alone and you have someone you can talk to. Often this will be a trained therapist who offers individual therapy, group therapy or online therapy.
10. Focus on Your Triumphs, Not Only Your Mistakes
You might have what is called a “negativity bias.” Paying attention to negative news and negative behavior kept your ancestors alive, but it gives you and I ulcers, stress and heartache.
Learning to see your failures AND your future, your stumbles AND your strengths is growth. It will help you learn to love all of who you are.
There is one caution here: ignoring your mistakes and missteps can get you into serious difficulty. Hope is honest, hope is realistic and hope finds a way to improve a little bit every day.
11. Know That Denial is Powerful, But It Is Not Fatal
Denial is a little like a protective blanket. It is a normal human trait that can be helpful and can shield you from the devastating impacts of your circumstances until you are ready to face them. But if denial becomes a pattern of how you face all of your relationships, your responsibilities and your failures, then it will interfere with your development and recovery.
Take responsibility, one choice at a time. Begin by exercising one choice, one positive willful action to change your life. See failures as learning rather than confirmation you will never change.
There you have it, the 11 ways to support your recovery. You may be in need of a therapist. If so, Talkspace is an innovative approach to therapy that might be the key to supporting your recovery.