IS SOBRIETY ENOUGH? Three recovery challenges – and how you can survive them all…


Effective communication for relapse prevention

Sometimes the advice those in recovery think they hear is what not to do! All those don’ts: Don’t hang out with the same old crowd. Don’t go to the same old places. Don’t let your family talk you back into the old patterns. And definitely don’t use another addiction to substitute for whatever you are addicted to, but not using now!

And if you’re not hearing the “don’ts,” then you might be advised about the tasks you must do: Take a class, read good books, meditate, go to 12-step meetings, find new friends, pay attention to the triggers, learn to say “no,” be honest, and probably a long list of other “musts!”

All those “don’ts” and “musts” are excellent advice! But many of my clients tell me it’s the “how” that is the greatest challenge. How to say the right words, so your old friends will understand and your new friends will like you anyway. How to get your family to be supportive, without a fight and hard feelings. How to reconnect with the good-for-you folks you’ve alienated in the past. And, in general, how to get your emotional needs met when you’re not able to take refuge in a substance.

Below are some challenges you might be facing – and some suggestions for the “how-to-do-it” next steps.

1) THE ADVICE you might be hearing: Find some new friends – those people who don’t trigger your urge to use or drink. Easy advice to give, but not so easy to follow! Especially when you’re feeling a bit lonely and really missing those familiar friendly relationships.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Just be friendly – to those you know and those you’ve just met. At the start of 5th grade, I remember a little girl coming up to me and asking, “will you be my friend?” And we became inseparable for the rest of the school year. Not so easy when you’re an adult.

In your new sober world, start observing the terrain. Are there some folks you run into frequently and might like to know better? Which acquaintances have some interests in common with yours? Make a list of those who have friend potential. Start with a suggestion to meet for coffee, a walk, a movie, any activity you sense you’ll both enjoy. Adult friendships tend to develop slowly and mostly through proximity… at work, where you live, in a class…. wherever you spend lots of time together.

CAUTIONS: Assume that most of these folks will become friendly acquaintances. A few will end up as casual friends – you socialize once in a while. And, if you’re lucky, one or two might become closer friends. It’s the process that’s important – every small, positive interaction can be enjoyable and can remind you that you can do it!

New people in your life may not know/understand that you can’t drink and might not want to party. Be prepared to say “thanks, but no.” Those who insist might not be your friends! And it’s ok to just say, “I don’t drink.” It’s also ok for you to take your time deciding who you can trust enough to hear your story. And you can also decide when not to tell your story. It’s up to you!

2) THE ADVICE you might be hearing: Stay away from your old friends. Well… good idea. But what happens when they are your family, your neighbors, your colleagues at work, friends of your family, etc.? Totally avoiding trigger people isn’t always very practical.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Your old friends probably already know you’ve been missing in action…  Brainstorm in advance some non-confrontational words to use about why you won’t be spending time with them. If you’re going to meetings, you might find some words of wisdom there.

Saying “I’ve decided I can’t/don’t want to do this anymore” is really all you need. Being truthful: “I miss you all, but I need to focus on taking care of myself” is a great (and honest) message. And then be politely friendly, while turning down offers to socialize. “Thanks for asking, but I really can’t join you,” covers lots of situations.

CAUTIONS:  Some people may seem offended that you no longer want to be with them. However, if you’ve been clear and honest, without attacking or scolding, you can’t help how they feel. You also can’t help it if they choose to express anger at you. Their behavior can be a reminder to you that this is who you don’t want to be and that you’ve moved on to nurture the better parts of you!

No  matter how worried you are about your old friends’ behavior (now seen through sober eyes!), avoid accusing or attacking. While you might want to offer support, this is not a time to recruit! You can’t save them, nor can you talk them into having the same vision you now have.

3) THE ADVICE you might be hearing: Know your triggers, and use your skills to cope in healthy ways. So many triggers, so many old habits to change! Yet you’ve come this far, so take the time to savor your progress and know that you can continue to grow.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: As I’m sure you’ve already figured out, those pesky triggers are everywhere!  And by now, you’ve most likely learned lots of strategies for noticing and avoiding or managing those potential land mines. Sometimes, you may feel as though you’re walking through a video game, with obstacles about to pop up at the most inconvenient moments!

While all the strategies you’ve learned can seem overwhelming at times, they usually boil down to a few basics:

Slow down! Physically and mentally – and regularly. Before you hit those rough spots, when you notice that your thoughts or body are speeding again.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare! Anticipating the hurdles ahead and rehearsing your reactions can make all the difference!

Think, Review, Plan! Think about what just happened (or didn’t happen!) – and your part in the result. Review and give thanks for the successes and for the lessons learned when you trip up. Plan in detail for the next pop-up trigger. And through this all, be sure to keep close contact with those folks who understand: sponsors, meetings, your support network (that you should have by now).

CAUTIONS:  None of these is easy. There is no magic wand. Be prepared for your imperfections! Your family and friends may not understand your new, slow-stepping, cautious approach to life. They probably really want to be supportive and encouraging…. if only they knew how. And if only they could get around some of their own challenges with your sobriety!

You’re working really hard on maintaining sobriety, developing and perhaps repairing relationships.  It would be lovely if others understood that you really need to distance yourself from some people, places or whatever else you experience as a trigger. And how nice it would be if they really “got it!” And accepted your self care (that’s what trigger management really is) as a good thing.

Changing the story you tell yourself, might be just what is needed to cope with those who don’t understand. The voice in your head may say, “They don’t want to help!” You can change that message, that story to reflect another reality: “They want the best for me. And I’ll need to educate them about what that ‘best’ is – and how they can help.” Sound too simplistic? Try it out – you might just be surprised that this can work!

On your own is tough when you’re in the process of a major life change. If your current support system isn’t enough, if you need some additional help navigating life’s challenges, reconnecting with family and friends, managing your stress and anger, while maintaining sobriety, I invite you to give me a call at 310 475-1759, and let’s talk about how I can help.