Meetings

My counselor asked me to write about meetings and how helpful I have found them to be, for people who may be thinking of attending 12-step or other meetings, and are wondering what they are like. This week’s safe coping strategy:

Go to a meeting. Feet first; just get there and let the rest happen.

I think what the wording here is trying to say is just go. Even if you’re doubting the process and are nervous and aren’t sure if it’s for you, just try it at least once.

I went to my first AA meeting about a year ago, when I was first attempting to get sober, on my own. My husband urged me to join AA, and found meetings near us that were convenient for me to attend. He drove me to my first meeting, and waited outside for me while I was there. I was so nervous, I was visibly shaking and I felt dizzy. I didn’t know what to expect. My hugest fear was that I’d be forced to speak. And I didn’t know what kind of crowd awaited me.

When I walked in, I was only the third person to arrive. The secretary was there, setting up, and there was also an older gentleman there, dressed nicely, wearing a fedora. When he saw me, he said to me in an East Coast Italian accent, “Well, you don’t look like a drunk.” It made me laugh, and he introduced himself, and I felt a little more at ease.

When the meeting started, we all went around the room and said the line you know from TV and movies, “Hello, my name is … and I’m an alcoholic.” Other than that, I was not expected to speak at all. And I didn’t, not for my first two or three meetings.

It got easier, and I always found the meetings helpful. The topics of discussion were always relevant to me and there was a sort of kinship, being in a room full of people that are in the same boat as you–just trying to recover and feel better.

I went to meetings off and on for the next few months. After attending rehab and other recovery meetings, I have found that while AA is incredibly supportive and helpful, it’s not my favorite group. Mainly, they say in their literature that the only requirement for membership is “a desire to stop drinking.” We all have the desire, but not necessarily the action. I have been to many a meeting where an attendee is obviously under the influence of something. And I myself went to some meetings having had a drink before I went. This seemed counterproductive, to allow this to happen.

I have gone to what are called SMART recovery meetings. SMART stands for Self Management and Recovery Training. They help with the recovery from anything, from prescription drugs to behavioral addictions, such as gambling and sex. There, they do not allow you to attend if they can tell you’ve been using. People are not allowed to wear attire that advertises drugs or alcohol. And they do exercises, similar to the worksheets I did in rehab. This kind of environment was much better for my recovery and I found a higher level of success.

There are far fewer SMART meetings to attend than AA meetings, which is one of the downsides. And one of the reasons I keep going to AA, even though it’s not my “favorite.” AA is still useful, and much more readily available. It’s a good starting off point, if you are in early recovery.

Your first meeting will be scary. You will be nervous. But rest assured you won’t have to talk any more than you want to. And the people will be friendly. And you will belong. It will make you feel good to have attended a meeting, and that you have made progress in your recovery. And they call them meetings. So, if someone asks you where you’re going or why you’re busy, you just say, “I have a meeting.” Who can argue with or judge that?

I urge you to find a meeting close to you, and go. Even if just the once. It’s a great tool to have in your arsenal, and it will make you feel good. I know this, because even when I truly did not want to go, and I dragged my feet all the way in, I always left feeling good about the experience.

I once broke down and cried listening to another AA member share at a meeting I attended while in rehab. His story touched me to the bone, and I just couldn’t help but let it out. Afterward, several people approached me to find out if I was ok. They were truly concerned by my reaction and wanted to help in any way they could.

Meetings are the most supportive thing you can do for yourself. It will open you up to a whole community of people in recovery. People who have been where you are. People who are where you were before, that you can help with your experience. It’s amazing what human interaction can do for your sanity and your recovery.

Trinkets and Treasures

This week’s safe coping strategy:

Inspire yourself. Carry something positive.

I carry around two things from my time in rehab that are symbols of my sobriety.

The first is my 30-day AA chip. It is red and made of some lightweight metal. It is nothing overly special. But it reminds me of a time when I only had 30 days under my belt, and how scary and empowering that felt, all at the same time. It also reminds me of my relapse, and how I gave the chip to my husband and told him to give it back to me when I “earned it.” And I did. And now I have 160 days and it’s amazing to look back and see the progress I’ve made.

I also carry a small, smooth, light green rock. Towards the end of my first stay in rehab, a counselor put a pile of pretty little stones on the table, in all colors, shapes and sizes. She told us to choose one to represent our time there, and to carry it with us wherever we went. And that’s what I do. Every time I see it, I’m reminded of all the times I smiled in rehab, and all the positive things we did there. I’m reminded of the bonding I did with the other woman who stayed there at the time. We remain friends.

I carry both with me in my wallet, and see them nearly every day. And each time I see them, I am filled with positive thoughts and feelings, about me, my choice to attend rehab, my recovery, my future.

Choose something for yourself, something small you can carry with you to remind you of your recovery. Why you’re doing it, who you’re doing it for. It can be anything as long as it means something to you. A poem, a ticket stub, a pebble, a ring or necklace, a button.

Sometimes it takes something physical and visceral to remind us of what’s important. Something we can reach out and touch, rather than the abstract “recovery” or “sobriety”, or our feelings. This little trinket will serve this purpose for you. And it will also help you stay positive and focused. Positivity is extremely important in recovery, so why not take all the help you can get?

Do you already have a special memento you carry? Or do you have one in mind you’d like to use?

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.

This Roller Coaster Ride

I take issue when someone tells me, “each day will be easier than the one before it.” Because, it’s simply not true. In terms of recovery alone, yes, each day it will be a little bit easier to be sober than it was the day before it. But in general, the statement isn’t true.

Some days are going to be awesome. Sunny, happy, flowers blooming, everything going your way, a smile on your face from ear to ear.

But some days are going to suck. It will seem as if every little thing is going wrong. You’ll feel down. You’ll maybe be angry or sad.

Life also has natural ups and downs. And we can’t stop life from happening, just because we’re in recovery. Huge life-altering events are still possible.

We need to teach ourselves how to handle the bad days and the big upsets without turning to our old way of dealing with things: using.

Today’s coping strategy is this:

Solve the problem. Don’t take it personally when things go wrong–just try to find a solution.

I used to take everything personally. All big upsets, little upsets, other people’s upsets that really didn’t even involve me. I took it upon myself to feel way too deeply about it. And I’d send myself into a tailspin of depression, anxiety, and of course, drinking.

I’ve learned through hundreds of hours of counseling and therapy, and lots of recovery training that this isn’t the right way to react to life, and that using won’t help the problem either. These days, I’m much better at facing a problem when it knocks on my door, and reacting to it calmly.

I fix the problems I can fix, I seek help for those I cannot. And, as hard as it is, I just deal with the problems that cannot be solved. That doesn’t mean I never get sad or angry anymore, or that I don’t overreact when I’m having a bad day. I’m still human, all of that still happens.

But, I was using alcohol as a means to dull the pain of everyday life, and pain of past traumas, and it was only making everything worse. If I was to survive, I had to find another way. I needed to learn to let life run over me like a river, and just go with the flow, if I was ever going to get by. I needed to figure out how to handle life without drinking. A bad day does not mean that recovery isn’t working or that I’m destined to be sad all the time. It just means I’m having a bad day, and need to deal with it. Simple as that.

It was really hard at first. To imagine navigating any part of my life without the “help” of alcohol felt impossible. But, the longer I stayed sober, the more clearheaded I became. And the more I was able to realize that the alcohol was never helping me. It was only hindering me, even making things worse. And over time I came to realize that life was made to be dealt with. Coped with. Survived. It was not made for me to roll over and pull the covers over my head.

And once you learn how to get through life’s ups and downs without using, then you start to get brave enough to take on new tasks. To challenge yourself. I am enrolled in an online school on track to earn a new degree. I also took on a part time job after my second stay in rehab. I’ve been a stay-at-home mother for 7 years. The idea of a job, any job, made my heart pound in my chest. But, I felt strong enough to accept the challenge, and now I could not be happier.

In recovery, learn to cope with problems rather than dwelling on them or trying to ignore them by using. It’s an important coping skill to know how to handle life as it’s handed to you. Things won’t always happen the way you want them to, and life will throw some real curve balls at you, but you have to learn to live your life in spite of that. And live happy and strong.

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.”

Getting Treatment

As cliche as it sounds to me sometimes, I’ve come to realize my addiction is a disease. A disease I carry with me for the rest of my life. A disease for which there is no cure. And it should be handled like any other disease: with care and treatment to improve your quality of life as you live with the disease.

Today I have chosen the safe coping strategy:

Attend treatment. AA, self-help, therapy, medications, groups–anything that keeps you going.

Treatment is not a one size fits all sort of deal. What works for one addict will not work for another, and vice versa. You have to try out different forms of treatment to see which ones work for you, and which ones just don’t seem to be helping. Eventually you will find the magical combination that will get you through the tough days.

For me, the three most important pieces to my treatment plan are counseling/therapy, self-help and medications.

My counseling and therapy are very important. I have a hard time opening up to people, but not opening up for so many years about my anxiety and depression is really what landed me in this boat, so I’ve learned to harness the power of counseling to benefit my recovery. I used to feel foolish just sitting there and talking about myself to someone else, but I’ve learned how important it is. How good it can feel to just get things off my chest. And often, the person on the other end has enlightening advice, or I come to an amazing discovery on my own, just by talking it out.

Self-help has also been really helpful. As I said, I’m an introvert and an independent person. I like doing things on my own, for myself, whenever possible. And thankfully, we live in an age where there is information around every corner. I read self-help books, I find articles and discussion groups online. I host this blog, which on most days feels more like a glorified journal. I journal on paper. I meditate, I exercise, I go out and treat myself once in a while. There’s more to self-help than just reading the books, although there are so many good books out there to motivate you. But it’s just about self-care. This approach won’t work for everyone. Some people thrive on the interaction with other people, and for those kinds of people, the groups like AA and SMART are there for you, and will greatly benefit your recovery. Even way back when I was attending AA meetings and still actively drinking, those meetings still helped, believe it or not. Just knowing you’re not alone, and that sobriety is possible, is a very powerful thing.

And my medications have been the final piece of the puzzle. I rejected the idea of taking an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety pills and Antabuse, but these three drugs have changed my life in ways I previously could never have imagined. The anti-depressant has lifted my mood to the point where I no longer feel like sobriety is impossible. I wake up with hope in my heart, rather than the dread I lived with for so many years. The anti-anxiety medication has helped me with my panic attacks and swirling negative thoughts and the urge to run and hide. I’m not completely free from these feelings, but it’s a matter of feeling them once a week vs. 10 times a day. A complete transformation.

The Antabuse has freed my mind completely from the desire to drink. Not only am I much too afraid of the drug’s reaction to drink even one sip of alcohol, but it has even made drinking, and the smell and appearance of alcohol, seem undesirable. Sometimes I interact with people who have been drinking, and I smell it on their breath and I get a very queasy feeling. And I have memories of myself drinking, which I had a lot of with this past Independence Day holiday, and I am both disgusted and confounded that I’d ever have done that. That’s also a drug that doesn’t work for everyone, my psychiatrist has grisly stories of people who take it and continue to drink, despite the violent reaction. But, for me, it’s a total game-changer.

I can’t forget to mention the one thing that has helped me above all else: my stay in rehab. This is sort of the Granddaddy of all treatment options, and might seem like a drastic approach for some people. I pushed off the idea for months, and tried to do it all on my own, but through a series of events was eventually convinced that it was what I needed. 30 days away from my husband and children, and away from my home and friends, and all my familiarities, was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. But, it was the only thing that got through to me enough to make me really want to make a change. It’s not too drastic of an approach if it helps you. Nothing that helps you, even just a tiny bit, is too drastic or a waste of time. If someone in your life has suggested a rehab program, and you are serious about your sobriety, you may want to give it some extra thought.

Help is out there. And it’s not very hard to find. Take it, and believe me when I say you won’t regret a second of it. Get out there and get yourself some treatment, in whatever form(s) work for you.

No Pain, No Gain

It’s important to remember that change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s often a long, difficult process. But, in the case of sobriety, fully worth it in the end. When we’re working to live life without a substance that we had become dependent upon, much of what we’re doing can feel unnatural and uncomfortable. I chose this as the safe coping strategy for the week:

Expect growth to feel uncomfortable. If it feels awkward or difficult, you’re doing it right.

Remember when you first became sober, and how the idea of going an entire day without using seemed impossible and unbearable? But, you did it, and then you did it again and again until you achieved several weeks or months without using.

At first, it felt strange and forced, and you may even have felt a little odd and out of place in your everyday life. But, that didn’t mean the change was a bad thing. You knew in your heart it was a very good change, so you stuck it out.

And even after having a few months under your belt, it will still feel a little difficult. The difficulty of living with a substance addiction is that there is no real cure for it. It will always be hard for us to resist using and to live a sober life. Though, over time, it will become easier and easier.

In life, it’s often the things that are most worth it that are the hardest to achieve. Getting good grades in school. Working hard to have a successful and fulfilling career. Having children, and raising those children to be good, productive citizens. Sobriety is no different. It’s something we need to achieve to be happy, successful, and to keep our lives intact.

Yes, the path to sobriety is rough and filled with obstacles. But, if you push yourself just a little bit each day to get over the feelings of doubt and fear, and forge through on your path. If it feels difficult, that’s a good thing. Because it’s supposed to be difficult. And that means you’re doing it right.

 

Examining Excuses

I was recently reminded of an exercise I have done in SMART meetings about excuses for using. The stuff we tell ourselves when we use that makes it feel ok or acceptable. I thought this safe coping strategy related a bit, so I have chosen it for this week:

Identify the belief. Shoulds, deprivation reasoning, etc.

The exercise is called Refutations. In the exercise, we choose one excuse we used to make, and we examine it. These excuses are usually pretty common to all addicts. Stuff like, “no one will know.” “It’ll just be one drink this time.” “This will be the last time.” “No one really cares.” “I’ve had a bad day and I deserve a reward.” “It will help me feel better.”

You take one of your own many excuses, and you examine it. You think about what you are really saying, and you then use logic and everything you’ve learned in your recovery to refute it.

One of my all-time favorites used to be “no one will know.” But the truth is, a lot of people knew. They just didn’t say anything. And I knew. A SMART group leader once told us, don’t forget that even if you really were fooling everyone around you, you know. And you count as someone. This is also a lesson in self-esteem. Not to mention having to carry around a dark secret all the time. It’s exhausting.

A fellow SMART meeting attendee also pointed out that the longer you do something like that, the more likely someone’s bound to notice. You may think you’ve become an expert at hiding your habit from those around you, but sooner or later you’ll slip up. You’ll get caught. And that’s a feeling even worse than the guilt and shame you already carry around.

I also used to love “I’ve had a bad day and I deserve a reward.” The thing is, in my mind, every day was a “bad” day or a “hard” day. Being a stay-at-home mother, being any kind of parent at all, is difficult. It keeps you insanely busy and it tries your patience and it can be overwhelming. I’d gotten myself caught up in a cycle of having a “bad” day and then “rewarding” myself with alcohol. As if abusing my body in that way and making myself useless physically and mentally was any kind of reward that anyone would want. It only made me feel worse, and furthered my addiction. And my days truthfully were really not that bad, obviously.

The point is, you need to find and isolate those excuses that you’re making, and really think them through before you give in to them. What are you telling yourself to make using seem acceptable, even useful or beneficial? Because you know in your right mind that it is not.

Also, think about the “shoulds” in your life, as it says. I should be staying sober. I should be getting my life together. I should find a hobby or a job. I should I should I should. You and I both know sitting at home and telling yourself you should do something doesn’t get it done. And though it may feel good to think these things and feel like you are being a good, positive force in your life, unless you go out and do all those shoulds, you don’t benefit from it at all. If you never get out there and change your life, you stay stagnant. You sit in the same spot, and risk falling into old patterns. If you’ve got something you keep telling yourself you should do, just get up and go do it.

I made this mistake the first time I left rehab. I had a list of things I was going to accomplish when I got back home. I was going to find work. I was going to get back to hobbies I had let slide because of my addiction. I was going to seek extra counseling. And I never did any of it. I had every intention of changing my life to further my new sober lifestyle, but I didn’t do it. I was stuck. And as predicted, I fell back into old patterns and eventually started drinking again.

When I came back the second time, I put my plans into action. I have a job now. And I have picked a few hobbies back up. I’m trying to be more useful to the people in my life. I’m reaching out for help when I need it. I’m using medication to manage my depression and anxiety. And I am having far more success than I ever thought I could.

The main idea here is to examine your thoughts and beliefs. Determine if they are positive or negative, and react accordingly. If you feel a strong craving or urge to use, and start making those old excuses, take a moment to stop and think about it. And if you’re not making changes to your new life in recovery, start making them as soon as possible. It makes the road much smoother, and boosts your confidence and self-esteem.

Compassion

It’s hard to believe this is already my tenth Safe Coping Strategy post. These began as a challenge from my counselor, as I expressed some difficulty getting this blog off the ground. She suggested I do a regular post, each week, on the same day, on the same theme. The Safe Coping Strategies have been a great topic, and choosing one each week to write about forces me to review the whole list each week. It’s been good for me.

This week, I chose:

Compassion. Listen to yourself with respect and care.

In recovery, there’s a lot of making up for lost time to do. There’s a lot of apologizing for past behaviors to do. And there’s a lot of stuff to regret.

This is all normal and natural, but you have to stop once in a while and give yourself a break. Reward yourself for positive choices and steps in the right direction, no matter how big or small. Do something compassionate for yourself, even if that’s just buying a sweet treat at the bakery.

Recovery is all about healing. But more than just the physical healing you’re doing. It also involves emotional and mental healing. You’ve been through the ringer. Your emotions have been so high and so low, sometimes in the same five minutes. Not to mention, you’re actually learning how to deal with feelings all over again. While you used, you were able to ignore and deflect feelings, put them off for another day. But now, you have to feel it all. And sometimes that’s hard.

So listen to yourself, recognize your emotional needs. Talk to someone when you need to, take some alone time when you’d rather do that. Do something that elevates your mood. More importantly, do something that makes you feel good about yourself.

Healthy self-esteem is key to a successful recovery. The belief not only that you’re capable of being sober, but that you deserve to be sober. You deserve that kind of life, and all the amazing things that go along with it.

So, while you’re working on making your amends and earning back trust, don’t forget to stop once in a while and pat yourself on the back. Do something nice for yourself. Have compassion for yourself; you’re going through something very difficult, and you should be treated compassionately.

Distract Yourself

The Safe Coping Strategy I have chosen to share with you this week is:

Practice delay. If you feel you cannot prevent a self-destructive act, delay it as long as possible.

As I mentioned in one of my first posts, the “one day at a time” mentality most people recommend for recovery can sometimes be confusing or overwhelming early in recovery. I chose a couple of different ways of accomplishing the same thing.

For one, I follow “The 24 Hour Plan”. It’s basically the same thing as saying one day at a time, but somehow the explanation resonated with me much more. I may have had a drink yesterday, but yesterday is gone and I can’t do anything about it. I may even drink tomorrow, no one really knows what will happen tomorrow, nor why. But today. Today is here, and I have control over it. So if I only commit to not drinking today, it takes some of the pressure off. I’m not going to have a drink today. The rest is up to actions and stimuli and unforeseen events, and a tomorrow that none of us can really plan for.

The other thing I have tried is that I just take the next five minutes. I can handle five minutes. They’ll be gone in no time. As the coping strategy says, you can delay the thoughts of your self-destructive thoughts from becoming actions. I want a drink, but I’ll wait 5 minutes. I’ll wait a half hour. I’ll wait until tomorrow. And when that time comes, you tell yourself, I’ll wait 5 more minutes. One more day.

Eventually, the craving, the urge and the desire will subside, maybe even go away completely. And maybe go away completely for a long time.

If it was a life event or stressful moment that triggered the urge, while you’re waiting out your delayed actions, use the time to tackle the issue in a positive, productive manner. Help out a loved one who is in a tough place. Have a talk with your boss that did something to irritate you. Take a moment for yourself to get out and be alone and just breathe. If a situation is stressful, excuse yourself from it completely if you’re able. For serious life events, seek counseling or confide in a close friend. Allow yourself to recover or grieve. The event may have caused you to want to use, but if you can delay the use, approach your life problem with a positive attitude and the desire to solve the problem, you may just find at the end of the day, you don’t have that desire anymore.

Once in our recovery, we find our triggers and urges and cravings and desires tend to only be momentary. What in the past our addicted brains had tricked us into thinking we needed to use just to get by, our new conscious brain knows the urges will pass, the feelings will ebb, and we can be proud of ourselves for not using when we wanted to, and remaining on our path to sobriety. At the end of the day, the sense of accomplishment you will feel for having another sober date under your belt by far surpass any momentary high you would have had by giving in to the addiction.

You will have weak moments where you have been triggered and you feel like reaching for your drug of choice. But, practice this safe coping strategy. Delay it as long as possible. Talk yourself down, talk yourself out of it, and the feeling will pass.