Psychologists sometimes refer to addiction as “a central organizing principle” in the addict’s life. That means that over the months and years, the addict devotes an increasing portion of his/her time, attention, energy, and resources to activities related to drug or alcohol use — procuring and protecting the supply, finding times/ places to use, hiding use from others, avoiding or minimizing the inevitable problems that result.
In recovery, most of those activities disappear, to be replaced by… what, exactly? By life itself, I suppose. But change that dramatic can be more than a little scary.
And it’s often accompanied by something we call recovery anxiety. You find yourself burdened with unfamiliar doubts and worries about the mechanics of living without alcohol and drugs. You wonder how you will ever adapt. Just thinking about this makes you anxious.
Some common questions:
Handling stress: How will I cope with stress without using alcohol or drugs? Will I crack under pressure? What will I do to relax? What about when I can’t sleep?
Social life: How will I relate to friends who still drink or use? Can I still go to restaurants where they serve liquor? What do I say if somebody offers me a drink or a joint? How do I tell someone I’m in recovery and not sound weird?
Making and keeping friends: Will people accept this “new me”? Will I have to completely cut off contact with some people? And how do I replace the old friends with new ones?
Managing cravings: What do I do when I have a vivid dream about drinking or using? When I can’t seem to stop thinking about it? What about a sudden unexpected desire to use that seems to come from nowhere?
Fun: What do I do for recreation? Leisure? Do I need a hobby, and if so, what? What if nothing makes me feel good anymore? What if I lost the ability to enjoy life without drugs or alcohol?
Family: Will they ever fully accept me? Will I make them uncomfortable? How will our relationships change? How do I restore their trust? How do I become a better parent? Will I be irritable and angry all the time?
Guilt or shame: How will I ever atone for the things I did or said (or neglected to do or say) when I was drinking or using drugs? Can I ever be forgiven? Can I ever forgive myself? Will I feel guilty forever? Does this mean I’m a bad person and can’t change?
Difficult emotions: What do when I do when I get depressed? Or when something bad happens and I’m overwhelmed with fear or sadness? What about my anger, or losing my temper? What do I do when my thinking gets all negative?
Risk of Relapse: What if I drink or use again? What do I do? Does it mean I’ve failed? Or that I’m a hopeless case? After all, I’ve made promises before. What do I do if I slip and then find myself with a craving for more?
Boredom: What do I do with all this free time? Should I try to keep so busy I have no time to think about alcohol or drugs? What if I run out of things to do?
Money & finance: How will I ever rebuild my career? Get a job? Start paying my debts? I don’t know where to start putting things back together.
Pain: What if I’m injured? Can I take pain medications? How can I live with pain without relying on drugs?
Health: I worry about the damage I’ve done. How do I find a doctor? What if I get sick? How do I stay clean and sober when I’m not feeling good? What meds are safe for me to take?
A Practical Method for Handling Recovery Anxiety
Here’s a suggested place to start:
- Make a list of the five areas (no more than 5) where you feel most anxious when you think about the demands of future recovery. Identify what specifically about these areas make you anxious.
- Discuss these anxieties with a counselor or sponsor. The goal is to get them out in the open rather than allow them to remain hidden from others.
- Ask others with more recovery how they handle these particular anxieties. Make a list of the suggestions you receive. Pay attention to ones that appeal to you.
- When you have selected at least ten suggestions, make a list of how you might use them to help you handle anxieties in future. Include who you might turn to for help or support when you’re feeling most anxious. How will you reach them? Hint: this works best if you’re relying on more than one person.
- If you’re in counseling, share your plan with your counselor. Ask for feedback and pay close attention to it.
Recovery anxiety is experienced by codependents, too, when we take our eyes off the other person. When a relationship ends, without recovery, we’re faced with the longing and emptiness that feeds our anxiety. Meditation and developing our own interests, hobbies, and friends, along with regular meetings are the antidote. For long term relief, ultimately, we must learn to meet our own needs and be with our emptiness without rushing to escape it.
Darlene Lancer, LMFT
Author of “Codependency for Dummies”