Mottos

This week’s safe coping strategy:

Find rules to live by. Remember a phrase that works for you (e.g. “Stay real.”).

I have a few personal “mottos” that I live by. I find it helpful to repeat them to myself whenever I’m feeling sad, angry, sorry for myself or negative. It helps lift me up out of that negative space. A big part of successful sobriety is staying positive and hopeful.

If it’s not ok, it’s not the end. Basically, I take this to mean that you will get through any tough situation. It can be easy to think that “it will always be this bad” or “I will always feel this way” when the truth is that things will eventually get better, and you will feel better. If you’re able to, take matters into your own hands and make things better. If you can’t, then just wait it out. It will pass.

When shit happens, turn it into fertilizer. This is a play on the old “when life hands you lemons…” idea. When bad or negative things happen, you can learn from them rather than just get angry and throw you hands up at life. Every experience is an opportunity to learn and grow, even the crappy stuff. I even consider my addiction a learning and growing experience. I’ve learned so much about myself, my world, my friends and family and addiction itself throughout this experience. And without it, there are things I’d never have learned or tried. Keep on trudging through the shit and you’ll come out the other end a happier, more learned individual.

You can do this. This is an important one. It’s good to always think positively about every situation you encounter. You need to remind yourself that you’re smart enough, strong enough and completely capable of navigating whatever life throws your way. I also tell myself One way or another, you will get through this. Eventually it will be over, and you will have survived, no matter what the actual outcome. You might suffer a little, but it will come to an end. And you can endure it. And you will be ok.

This day is a gift. Whenever I find myself having “one of those days,” I remind myself that having a crappy day is better than having no day at all. When you opened your eyes that morning, you were among the lucky people allowed to still be alive. Any of us can be taken from this world at any time, we don’t know what will happen. So I remind myself that I’m lucky to be here, and then I am motivated to make something of the day, no matter how bad things seem.

What are some of your mottos or sayings that help you through a tough situation? What do you tell yourself to help keep you sober?

Keep Your Eyes Open

I’m late this week with the safe coping strategy. Sometimes life is so darn busy! But, I didn’t want to put it off until next week.

I wanted to talk a little this week about getting comfortable with sobriety. It’s good to start feeling comfortable in your own skin again, and to feel confident in your sobriety. It’s definitely a positive thing to be happy again and moving on with your life. But, it’s very important not to get too comfortable and too confident, or you risk falling back into old patterns.

Never forget that you are still, and will always be, in recovery. And no matter how many days you get under your belt, the risk of slipping still exists. I’ve heard too many a tale of a person with years of sobriety falling off the wagon. You need to stay focused, and always be on top of your condition.

A coping strategy I feel relates to this is:

Prioritize healing. Make healing your most urgent and important goal, above all else.

This is one of those times it’s helpful to think of your addiction as a disease. It’s something that you will carry with you for the rest of your life, and you need to keep up with the treatment.

When we find ourselves getting too comfortable with any situation in life, it’s easy to get complacent. Like, if you lose the amount of weight you sought to lose, you feel comfortable going to the gym less often, and pretty soon you’re not going at all. Or, you get rewarded for doing a good job at work, so you feel comfortable slacking off a little bit, and your work actually begins to suffer.

Recovering from an addiction is like this too. If you start to get a little too confident in yourself, you might stop going to meetings. Or you might stop taking your anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication. Or you might even start to think you can use again, because you’ve got it under control.

But these are dangerous things to do, at any stage in your recovery. As difficult as it is, you need to keep the fact that you are an addict in the forefront of your mind. Always be doing something that benefits your recovery. Keep going to those meetings, keep taking necessary medications, keep reminding yourself what your life could become if you ever start to use again.

And if you find yourself feeling down because you’ll never be “normal” again, remind yourself that you never really were. Your addiction took you to places that were certainly not “normal”. And though you didn’t know it at the time, you were always an addict. Now that you’re aware of it and have taken steps to correct it, keep up the good work and keep yourself safe, happy and healthy. Don’t let yourself become complacent. Your life is worth more than that.

You’re Allowed to Feel Good

I spend a lot of time talking on here about negative emotions: sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety, guilt, shame… These are emotions that a person in recovery, especially early recovery, spends a lot of time with. But, don’t forget that you’re allowed to feel good too!

My last post was about crying, and how healing and cathartic it can be. Well, the same is true for smiling and laughter. If you feel a smile creeping onto your face, or a laugh bubbling up from inside, let it shine! Let it out!

Studies have actually shown that you can improve a bad mood simply by making yourself smile. And double if you can make yourself laugh.

It’s also been show that laughter has healing properties. Laughing helps boost your immune system, lowers your stress hormones, relaxes your muscles and can help reduce pain. It has even been shown to help heal heart disease and cancer!

In addition to physical benefits, it just boosts your mood. Puts you in a better place, so you can tackle your day and handle the problems life throws at you. Everything is smoother with a positive attitude. It’s hard to feel depressed and anxious when you’re smiling and laughing.

If you find yourself in a down mood, expressing negative emotions or lashing out at loved ones, find a way to make yourself smile and laugh. Go to one of your favorite places. Eat at a favorite restaurant. Go see a funny movie. Get together for coffee with a fun friend. Play with your pet, if you have one. Go visit the small children in your life. Just get out and do something fun like hiking, shopping, miniature golf, bowling, anything to get you in a positive mood and get a smile on that face.

Your mood will improve, your relationships will benefit, and you will feel better physically. Use one of nature’s best medications to help you heal on your journey to recovery.

Let Yourself Feel Again

For this week’s safe coping strategy, I chose a simple one:

Cry. Let yourself cry, it will not last forever.

By “simple”, I don’t mean that it’s easy to cry. For some people, it can be very difficult. What I mean is that it’s a short and simple strategy, the idea behind it is very simple, and we can all cry with some practice.

First you need to let go of the idea that you aren’t supposed to cry. And that you aren’t supposed to cry in front of other people. You are allowed to cry, and you are supposed to cry. It’s your body’s way of releasing tension and negative feelings. As for other people, don’t worry about what they think. They do not have to walk in your shoes.

Crying is a physical response to very difficult feelings. For many addicts, we are actually feeling our feelings again for the first time after a long time of numbing ourselves to them. Crying will seem to happen all the time in early recovery. It is a way of getting the bad out to make room for the good.

If you find yourself tearing up, anywhere, anytime, for any reason, if you are in a safe space, just let it out. Let it all out. Cry until you don’t feel like crying anymore.

After a good cry, you will feel a sense of relief. Studies have shown that tears shed for emotional reasons (as opposed to eye irritation) contain more protein, and are actually helping you heal. We are also releasing the stress hormones from our emotions as we cry. That is why a “good cry” can feel so cathartic–there’s actual beneficial stuff going on with your body and brain when you cry.

Crying it out won’t solve all of your problems, and it won’t make problems disappear. But, it can help your brain to think about the issues in new ways, and serves as a natural stress reliever for your body.

Sometimes it can feel silly to cry, based on our location, or who we are with, or what is triggering the tears. But, it is advised that you just let it out when you feel it coming. Expunge the bad, and let in the good. Crying plays a big role in early recovery, and you should embrace it rather than try to be “tough.”

The Future Belongs to You

“I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” –Carl Jung

I read this quote last night from a book I’m reading, and I just loved it. It’s very similar to a safe coping strategy post that I have already done, and it is an idea that gets repeated continually in any rehab program or set of recovery meetings you attend. I heard a version of it at nearly every counseling session, every rehab group meeting, every AA and SMART meeting. It’s the cornerstone of getting and staying sober.

This particular version of the idea sticks with me for two main reasons. The first being that I can change the idea that I am a product of what has happened to me. In my therapy sessions we talk a lot about what my childhood was like. What it was like to grow up in a strictly religious home. What it was like to be one of the poorer kids. What it was like not growing up near any extended family. What it was like to see alcohol drank in my home. How my parents’ divorce affected me. How my awkward teen years affected me. And then they get into all the stuff that happened in college. And all the recent trauma I’ve been through.

I used to blame so much of that stuff on how I “turned out”. And to a certain degree those things DO mold us and shape us and send us down certain paths that lead us to where we are today. But to a much lesser degree than I thought. And people who went through much more difficult situations than I did find a way to move past it, to thrive even. Letting go of blaming others for your troubles is a big lesson, and one that needs to be learned to know you can heal from your addiction and you can go on to live a positive life.

And those things you think have caused your problem are not you. They are a part of you that you carry with you wherever you go, but they aren’t you. They aren’t a sum of what you are. They are only a piece of what you’ve become.

The second reason I like this quote so much is the idea that the future is so wide open. I fear the future more than anything. It’s a good portion of the reason I am on an anti-anxiety medication. There is so much unknown in the future, and I just do not do well with unknowns, in any situation. It’s like that feeling when you see someone squeezing a balloon. You’re afraid it could pop. It might, it might not. And if it does, you won’t know when to expect that loud startling noise. It could happen any second. That is a really good metaphor for how I see the future. There’s always a balloon being squeezed somewhere, and it could pop in my face at any time.

I’ve learned through a lot of therapy how to better manage my anxiety. I’d love to tell you those days are behind me, but they’re not. Although those moments of panic that I have about it are happening far less these days.

And I try now to see the future as Carl Jung describes it. It’s what I choose to become. And I can choose to become anything. I can try new things, and maybe I’ll enjoy them. Maybe I won’t, but that’s ok, I just try something else. The future is mine, it belongs to me. It doesn’t belong to my past and it doesn’t belong to my addiction and it mostly doesn’t even belong to any other person. It’s mine to do with as I please.

In the darkest days of addiction, it’s very easy to think that your future belongs to addiction. I can never get away from this. I can never get out. It has complete control of me. This is what I will be forever.

Once you break free from that thinking, give up your alcohol or drugs and let your mind clear up a bit, you can see that your addiction is not in charge, and it never was. It has extreme control over your subconscious thinking, there’s no denying that. But it is not in control of you, only you are in control of you.

Whoever you become in the future is the result of the choices you made, and the paths you took. There will be bumps in the road, but do not let them define you. They happen externally to you. Respond to them, deal with them, move on and make it to that amazing person you will be in the future.

Getting Help

In light of my recent relapse, I have chosen this safe coping strategy for the week:

When in doubt, do what’s hardest. The most difficult path is invariably the right one.

It was definitely a difficult choice to return to my rehab house. Not only is it disrupting my husband’s life again, not only is it confusing for my children, not only did I have to uproot myself from a number of commitments, but above all else, it was so difficult and frustrating to have to admit defeat and failure and return to a place I swore I’d never need to.

But, a skill I’m still trying to master is to take help when I need it, and from whom I need it. At this time in my life, I need serious help, and the counselors here are professionals trained to help people like me. I must remember that what’s happening to me is not entirely my fault, and not entirely in my control. So, I am getting help and support and learning to build a new life on the foundation I have left.

This is also a coping strategy I will need to use when I do return home again. Things in my life have really shifted this time around, and it will be a long, hard road to get back to where I want to be. I will have to do the hardest thing in most situations to get ahead.

I’ll add a bonus coping strategy for this Monday, since my situation has become more serious. It is (I think not coincidentally) the very first one on the list of safe coping strategies:

Ask for help. Reach out to someone safe.

That’s what I did when I decided to come here. I was no longer safe at home. Maybe I never really was. I knew that I’d be safe here, and that they’d know what to do with me. My husband and kids and friends and family have no idea what to do with or think of me right now. But here, they do.

I needed help. Badly. I finally owned up to it and did what, for some reason, is the hardest thing for me sometimes: I asked for help. It’s difficult to be here. It’s killing me to be away from my children and husband. And I feel very ashamed to have to give up my daily duties to other people, that I was no longer able to fulfill them. But, I know that at some point in my life, I can look back on this time positively, and know that I made the right choice.

Deep down right now, I already know I made the right choice.

Relapse

I have returned to rehab for a while, because I had a relapse. And it was a big one. A very bad one. Things have significantly changed for me personally and professionally as a result.

They say that relapse is very normal. And not to beat yourself up too much about it. But I just can’t help but think to myself that all of this could have been avoided if I just. didn’t. drink. So much of my time in rehab was spent on relapse prevention, that I feel foolish to be back here again.

I feel very hopeless at the moment. I really messed things up this time. I know hope is the key to successful recovery and sobriety, so I’m also very frustrated with life and with myself. I just want things to feel “normal” again.

My counselor here has me reading a book about anxiety in general (not associated with substance abuse), and it has me realizing just how bad my anxiety really is, and for how long it has been that way. I’ve always had anxiety, my entire life. And I learned different ways to cope with it.

But the past four years of my life have been incredibly difficult and painful, and I should have sought help much sooner than I did. I tucked all of my anger, sadness, grief, doubts, anxiety, stress and pain into a neat little pocket of denial. I felt like I could handle it all. I didn’t really have it that bad, I thought. I just ignored those feelings and trudged on. Eventually I used alcohol to cope with the fact that I couldn’t handle it all on my own, and I was overflowing with negative thoughts and feelings, about myself and the world.

I got to the point where I need to begin to release those feelings, but that’s where the real work comes in. Some of it came easily, other stuff is buried deep inside. I thought when I left rehab that I’d done the work, and everything would be fine. But in truth, I only felt fine because I was in rehab. I was away from the stress and pain of my everyday life, and had been given time to focus only on myself. Once I left, focusing on myself and overcoming the stress was all up to me, and I wasn’t ready to handle it.

My words of advice right now are to avoid relapsing as much as you are able. Beginning the recovery process was an enormous task for me. And it is so much harder this time around. It’s harder on me physically to go through the withdrawals. It’s harder on my relationships to have let everyone down again. It’s harder to climb out of the pit of guilt and shame. It’s harder to view the future in a positive light.

Keep on the path, and you will feel better eventually. People would often tell me, “Each day will be a little easier than the one before it.” But, that’s simply not how it goes at all. Some days are amazing and easy and bright and you feel full of potential. Other days are difficult, dark, tiring, endless and you feel like you accomplished nothing and nothing is worth the effort. But, you have to remind yourself that although those days come, they also go. And there are brighter days ahead, if you can stay strong and committed to your sobriety.

Establishing Structure

A day late! But not a dollar short. My post for this week about safe coping strategies is about:

Structure your day. A productive schedule keeps you on track and connected to the world.

I like the idea behind this one, but truthfully I need some work on it myself. It can be way too easy, especially for an addict, to check out, to not care about getting things done, to not feel the need to be productive.

But then the next day, I always regret all that lost time. And it also doesn’t do great things for your addiction to isolate yourself and let your mind wander. There’s that old adage about idle hands, I think the same holds true for an addict with an idle mind. And time to kill.

Setting a schedule and structuring your day might seem daunting at first, I know it was for me. In rehab, they gave me this grid. Every hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., every day of the week, had it’s own box. And I had to fill it up. All of it!

It was a great exercise though. It made me really understand where my blocks of free time were, the times that could get me into trouble. And that have gotten me into some trouble since I’ve been home. I’ve learned that whenever I don’t know what to do with myself, I find that schedule and I see what I’m supposed to be doing during that time.

The idea is not to overbook yourself, or have such a packed schedule that you don’t have time for everything. I found in the beginning that I lost sight of the fact that other things still needed to get done, like the occasional chore around the house, or the odd doctor’s appointment for one of my kids.

The idea is also not that you need to stick to the schedule like glue. One of my counselors in rehab said the phrase, “Nothing is set in stone.” probably 6,000 times while I was there. You don’t have to become one of those people that does the same thing at the same time every day.

But, you should have a plan. Don’t get too comfortable with the idea that things are good. Your addiction can roar at you anytime, anyplace. Even if you feel really aware of your triggers. Because I know that for me, some triggers are happening subconsciously. You need to know what you will do if (when) those triggers show up.

Living a structured life is key for people in recovery. The structure should be different than it was before, and it should be specific, and you should follow a schedule the best you can. This will help you avoid falling back into old patterns, which will lead to a relapse.

Structure helps you move forward, and make the kinds of changes you need to make in order to get, and stay, recovered.

 

 

Setting Boundaries

Today I’d like to introduce the first of what I hope will be a regular post on Mondays: a series of “safe coping strategies.” These coping strategies were introduced to me in my rehab program as part of a curriculum that my counselors worked from, entitled Seeking Safety, which was written by Lisa M. Najavits, PhD.

Seeking Safety actually offers a very long list of coping strategies, 200 to be exact. I had a difficult time finding them all listed together online, but click here to see a PDF I found. Some of them are things we can do mentally, others are things we do physically, some overlap with one another. But, the main idea behind all of them is to choose a way to survive a difficult life moment or event in a safe and positive way, rather than using an unhealthy coping strategy. Which in my case was drinking. But it can be any number of things such as overeating, cutting, using drugs, committing vandalism, etc.

So, each Monday, I’d like to introduce a Safe Coping Strategy that I have chosen from the list, and explain what it means to me. Not all of these coping skills will apply to you and your situation, and not all of them will necessarily help or be the coping strategy that you go with during hard times. But, I hope that as we go, I will discuss at least one that you can relate to.

Today I’d like to start with:

Set a boundary. Say “no” to protect yourself.

Recently I had to use this coping strategy, but previously I had not seen it as one I would ever really need. It’s a good one for someone like me though, and I’m glad I recognized that I needed it.

I can’t get into too much detail or I might compromise my anonymity. But, what I can tell you is that I had committed to a group of people to help them with a special fundraising event. I made the commitment to help them prior to my stay in rehab, prior to recognizing and admitting that I had a problem. The event was scheduled for three weeks after I arrived home from rehab.

Historically, this event is quite the party. Those who attend are there for a night of letting their hair down. There’s always alcohol, typically in excess. People get drunk. Really drunk.

In all likelihood, I would have been fine at the event. I’d only been home for a few weeks, I was still holding very strong to my promise not to drink. I had no desire to drink, I didn’t feel “left out” by not being able to attend the event as a drinker, as I had in the past. I just did not care. I did, however, wonder what it might be like to watch everyone else drink heavily. How it might feel not to be a part of that.

My own drinking had in the past been a way for me to fit in and belong with a group. I feel like this is a common theme amongst alcoholics. I hear that story so often in meetings and groups. So, while I did not desire to drink, and I did not think I would feel pressured to drink, and I knew I could turn down drink offers, I was wondering if I would feel sad or left out or nostalgic. And it was too soon for me to have those feelings. I needed more time.

So, I had to back out of my duties at the event. I had committed to the event, and I was required to be there and contribute. I had to find a way out of it. In one plan, my husband would take over my duties at the event, and I’d spend the evening at home with our children. But then he had sustained a semi-serious injury which caused him to be unable to attend the event as well.

I told the organizers I could help before and after, just not during the event. And I offered to do anything and everything to fulfill all duties and obligations, and avoid attending the event. I knew I was putting the organizers in a difficult spot, which I typically have a very hard time dealing with. But, I knew for my own safety, I could not be there that night.

In the end, I used my husband’s injury as my main excuse, even though it really had no bearing on the situation. The event organizers said they understood, but still kept asking me to attend part of the event, half of the event, to still attend in some capacity. I needed to firmly set my boundary, but I didn’t know how. So, I contacted the main director of the event, one of the few souls on the planet who knew I had spent my February in rehab, and not just on a personal vacation. I told her the situation, she agreed it was too soon for me, and she got me out of it.

I hate letting people down. I loathe being a burden. And I have the hardest time in the world reaching out to people and asking for their help (which is actually the first safe coping strategy on the list). But, I had to do all three. The one thing that made it tolerable for me was knowing that I did it all in the name of my own health and safety.

There are times when one can be too focused on their own well-being, to the detriment of everyone else’s. Which is what I think I’m really afraid of when I never reach out for help and never say no to people. But, this was not one of those times at all. I was reminded by several loved ones that this group could handle the event without me. What if I had still been away? What if I had never returned? What if my husband’s injury had been as severe as I had let on? What if I’d had my own injury or illness to contend with? The truth of the matter is that the event would still have happened. It did not hinge on my being there, as I was letting myself believe. Sure, they were disappointed in me, maybe even angry. But, they aren’t privy to the entire situation. And they don’t have to live my life, only I have to do that.

In the end, it all completely worked out. Everyone softened when the director had stepped in on my behalf. And although I still felt a little guilty “milking” my connection to the director and my husband’s situation, in the end it was what was right. It was what I needed to do to protect myself.

When you’re in recovery, you need to worry about your future and your health and your sanity, above all else. It sounds selfish, but often those who have a problem tend to put themselves last, which is how they end up in their situation. I certainly had not put my health and happiness first in my life. Not ever, that I could remember. The old me would have done that event. The old me would have said yes to anything, to avoid feeling like a disappointment or a burden to anyone. The old me would have tolerated the emotional anguish and dealt with in later in an unhealthy way.

It was one of my first real tests in the “real world” after rehab. To be able to say no when something made me feel uncomfortable. To be able to judge what was best for me and only me. To be able to pull out a safe coping strategy and really use it, rather than fall back to my old, unhealthy strategies.

Now the event has come and gone, without complication. And I’m so much happier for having set a boundary.

Living For Today

The concept of “living in the now”, “living in the present” or “living for today” was a constant theme in my early AA meetings, in my rehab program and in life in general. I kept hearing this phrase come at me, like a broken record. I wanted to live for today, it seemed so simple, and people who I thought had really grasped it seemed so serene.

But, try as I might, it was still a foreign concept for me. I’m terrible with regret. Well, not regret exactly, but I look back at certain moments from my past and think about what I could have done differently. Even though that’s totally useless. I do it all the time anyway.

I also do what they refer to in AA as “future tripping.” Where I get so caught up in what’s going to happen tomorrow, a week from now, a year from now, five years from now, that I totally forget to enjoy the moment I’m in.

So, I tried and I tried and I tried to live for today. To be present. To enjoy every moment. But because of my anxiety and worrying, I couldn’t. And then I was anxious and worried about that.

I still have a lot of trouble with this, but I did read something recently that helped me understand the whole thing a lot better, and gave me something to repeat to myself when I find that I can’t concentrate on the moment at hand.

I have an app on my phone from Hazelden that provides me with daily little snippets of advice and encouragement for addicts like me. A few weeks ago, it started with a quote.

“Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.”

                                                                                                          –Francis Bacon

The paragraphs following reminded me that, “This day is all we really have to work with.” Again, something I had heard time and again, and mostly understood as a concept. But it was the quote that helped me figure out how to put it into practice. How to start being the kind of person that truly lives for today.

At the end of the meditation, the action item was, “May my supper be my contentment. I’ll breakfast on hope again tomorrow.” It was like a lightbulb went off in my head. Start the day off thinking of your hopes and goals for the day, and end the day content with what you had accomplished.

I was caught up in a cycle of starting my day worried about what would happen in the distant future, and ending my day irritated with myself for all the things I hadn’t accomplished. How can a person ever hope to live in the present if they are constantly bombarding themselves with worries about the past and the future?

And the idea of having hope at the beginning of the day is such an amazing concept to me. Today is the only thing we really have. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow may never come. It’s just today. And in the morning when you first open your eyes, and you realize you’ve been allowed another day here on Earth, that’s when you should have your hopes. When the day is new and fresh and wide open.

But the other part of this equation is key too. The idea that when your day draws to a close, that you will feel contentment. Accomplishment. Serenity. Don’t focus on what you did not do. Or what you are worried about needing to do the next day. Instead think of all that was accomplished on that day. Because we all accomplish at least one thing every day, chances are you accomplished a great number of things. And no accomplishment is too small to be proud of.

Living for today can be easier than you thought, and will certainly benefit your sobriety, healing and recovery.