What Should a Recovering Alcoholic Avoid?
Recovering from an alcohol use disorder is a difficult process. Individuals should set realistic goals for themselves but should also develop a series of guidelines to structure their recovery. Here are five things that a recovering alcoholic should avoid.
The number one issue that should be avoided by every individual in recovery from an alcohol use disorder is complacency in one’s recovery program. Individuals in recovery learn a number of coping strategies, relapse prevention strategies, and basic tenets and rules to follow in order to reduce the risk of relapsing. Over time, individuals may begin to experience a sense of complacency. Issues with complacency often manifest themselves in the following ways:
- Decreased involvement in one’s program: A sure sign of complacency is an individual who stops attending support group meetings or treatment sessions. A large number of individuals in recovery from alcohol use disorders will maintain that the recovery process is a lifetime commitment, and individuals should attend some form of support for recovery on an ongoing basis. An individual who begins to stray from their schedule of attendance at 12-Step meetings, other support groups, or even therapy sessions, is risking relapse.
- Romanticizing the past: Another side of complacency in treatment is when an individual begins to romanticize about their past use of alcohol. Romanticizing former substance abuse is often subtle and consists of only thinking about the positives associated with the substance use. While it is natural for individuals to engage in reminiscing, those in recovery from an alcohol use disorder should also reminisce about all of the negative aspects associated with their past use of alcohol. This can balance out the equation and avoid a potential relapse.
- Just having one: Related to the romanticizing of past substance abuse is the instance where individuals begin to think that just having an occasional drink will not do any harm. Again, this is probably a natural occurrence for many individuals in recovery. Any relapse begins with “just one drink.” Avoid concentrating on the positive aspects of having just one drink and review the negative aspects of drinking. This type of complacency also includes consuming drinks that are allegedly “nonalcoholic” (none of them ever are fully alcohol-free), eating foods prepared with alcohol (most individuals in recovery should attempt to avoid this), and ingesting alcoholic substances in medicines and over-the-counter treatments flu and cold remedies. For the most part, individuals in recovery should avoid using these products and stick to alcohol-free products.
- Not changing: Being in recovery inherently requires a number of important changes. Individuals who are complacent in their recovery program often continue to go to the same places where they used alcohol in the past, associate with many of the same individuals who were “drinking buddies” only, and engage in other habits or activities that were associated with their past alcohol use. For the most part, individuals in recovery should avoid doing this. Instead, it is important to make new friends, find new places to frequent, and new activities that are consistent with one’s recovery program.
- Slacking on other treatments: Avoid being complacent with other medical treatment recommendations as well. Individuals who have co-occurring disorders, such as depression or anxiety disorders, who stop taking their medication or stop attending therapy sessions are placing themselves at risk for relapse back into alcohol abuse.
2. Risky Situations
Related to complacency is the tendency for individuals in recovery from alcohol use disorders to still engage or not recognize situations that are risky for them. This often involves identifying one’s own personal triggers – situations that may foster the desire to use again or promote a full-blown relapse – and developing strategies to cope with these situations or avoid them entirely. A long-standing acronym for general risky situations used by a number of 12-Step groups, therapists, and treatment programs is the HALT acronym:
Recognizing that these four conditions represent common conditions of risk for individuals in recovery is the first step in understanding one’s triggers. Individuals should identify their specific triggers associated to these general conditions and other conditions that are specific to them personally.
A very specific trigger not adequately described above is the experience of stress. Individuals will often relapse as a result of experiencing stressful conditions, and individuals in recovery should learn very focused approaches to coping with stress, such as visualization, relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, etc.
An additional trigger for many individuals is often boredom. Individuals in recovery should make sure they spend their time engaging in a number of activities to avoid boredom; however, they should also maintain balance. Attempting to entirely fill one’s time with activities may result in the experience of stress and pressure that can lead to relapse. Move toward overall balance.
It is important to remember that no one is perfect and no individual’s program of recovery is without setbacks. Slips and bumps in the road don’t represent total failures, and sometimes, these slips include relapse. These setbacks let the individual learn more about themselves, strengthen their recovery program, and work toward a successful program of recovery in the future.
Recovery is a process, and everyone will experience the recovery process differently. While any person in recovery should not take lapses and relapses lightly, they should also understand that even major organizations, such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse, report that relapses represent relatively normal manifestations of the recovery process from alcohol and drugs. Having cravings, thinking about past use, and having difficulties in one’s program are not representative of failure; rather, they represent normal experiences that the majority of individuals have in their recovery program. Avoid making a catastrophe out of these experiences and instead use them to strengthen your program, strengthen your support group, seek advice from others, and move forward.
On the other hand, avoid excusing lapses, relapses, and other violations of one’s recovery program. If an individual is experiencing numerous issues with relapse or other violations of their treatment plan, they should reevaluate their approach to treatment and discuss this with their therapists, sponsors, and other individuals they trust in order to fine-tune their program of recovery.
Individuals in recovery often engage in the same routines over and over again. This can lead to one’s recovery program getting stale and can increase one’s vulnerability to becoming complacent, to triggers, and to potential relapse. It is a good idea to try and engage in as many diverse activities as possible and to step out of the box from time to time. This may involve going on a retreat, getting involved in volunteer work, developing an exercise program, going back to school, etc. The important thing is to make sure that the recovery program does not become stale and routine but periodically induces new experiences to keep it relatively fresh.
Related to the above, it is important for individuals in recovery from alcohol use disorders to avoid becoming close-minded to criticism, suggestions for improvement, and experimenting with new approaches to their recovery. This does not mean one needs to accept everything one hears or needs to take every suggestion that is offered. Certainly, individuals can reject any form of criticism or any proposition that is not consistent with what they have been taught in therapy. However, it is important to maintain an attitude of open-mindedness and acceptance about a number of things that one cannot control. One is only responsible for their own behavior and cannot be held responsible or accountable for the behavior of others. Periodically survey actions, attitudes, and beliefs in order to make sure that proper levels of objectivity are maintained in recovery.