Staying Free of Alcohol and Drugs


BY KALI MUNRO, M.Ed., Psychotherapist
Originally published in Choices, July 1998

For many people, getting off alcohol and other drugs is not the hardest part of overcoming an addiction. Staying off, living alcohol and drug free is. There are many reasons for this, one of which is now you face the pain that you’ve been fleeing. This pain may have been caused by child abuse, abandonment, the loss of a loved one, or being lesbian or gay in a homophobic society. These aren’t easy issues to face at the best of times, but they can be that much harder when combined with the additional problem of recovering from alcohol and drugs.

Regardless of the reasons why you originally started to use alcohol or drugs, once a pattern of using has been established, you may not know any other way to deal with life, never mind how to deal with traumatic experiences. You may not feel you have any other coping strategies, such as problem-solving skills, self-care techniques, or other ways of dealing with issues that are buried underneath the drinking and drug haze.

When you stop using alcohol or drugs, particularly after a long history of substance abuse, you may be swamped with an avalanche of painful emotions. This can feel incredibly overwhelming for you, (and your loved ones) especially if you weren’t prepared for it, don’t know what is happening or what to do, or you assume that sobriety is always like this. No wonder so many people run back to the bottle or drugs, despite the best of intentions. If these things sound familiar to you, it’s a good idea to find support. Try to find ways to slow down the release of pent up emotions so that the pace feels more manageable, or not as overwhelming. For help with this, see the section on taking a break from your feelings in my article on Feelings.

Others slump into a deep depression after withdrawal. If the alcohol and drugs were propping you up, you may “crash” coming off. This can feel not only overwhelming, but discouraging, since you probably hoped that life would get better. Well, don’t give up. It will.

This is a time when you need information about the process, and to find and hold on to hope. It can help to hear about others whose lives have turned around and how they managed to do it. You’ll want to know what you can expect, and what you can look forward to, even if not right in the moment at least in the near future. Know that only a few of the possible benefits are increased self-respect, self-confidence and self-love, and that those things can open other doors for you.

While people recovering from alcohol or drugs don’t all respond to the same therapeutic approach, people are different after all, there are some approaches that often help. In the beginning, most people need a very practical and realistic approach to coping. This means finding practical ways to:

  • Identify and express your feelings.
  • Slow down and contain overwhelming emotions.
  • Plan how to set boundaries with people or situations that sabotage or undermine your recovery.
  • Draw on the positive support of others.
  • Ask for help when you most need it, that’s why friends are there.
  • Learn problem solving skills.
  • Learn how to take care of yourself by developing positive coping strategies.
  • Create a plan of action for crisis.

Honesty is an essential element of recovery, and you can encourage this by taking a realistic approach. Being realistic means looking at what you can do, not what sounds like a good idea. You can push yourself to do a little more, but don’t set yourself up to fail. The last thing you need is to create a plan or contract that is unrealistic, and leaves you telling lies or feeling ashamed that you couldn’t do it. Being realistic may mean that you begin by gradually reducing your alcohol or drug use, while working on some of your issues before quitting. Or, that you simply quit. Whatever works best for you is the route to go.

To stay alcohol or drug-free you might need to do longer term or deeper therapeutic work. This might mean dealing with emotional, physical, sexual or ritual abuse; being abandoned as a child; experiencing a significant loss, chronic illness or death; growing up in an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family; feeling confused or ashamed about your sexual identity, etc. For some people, this may also include facing their present living situation, such as an abusive or absent partner.

Facing these issues is not easy, and may require the professional help of a psychotherapist (individually or in a group). While some people remain alcohol and drug-free without doing this deeper work, others can’t. Many people find that deeper issues are intimately connected to why they abused alcohol or drugs in the first place. Looking at these issues can help relieve the need to depend on alcohol or drugs.

Just as with quitting alcohol and drugs, dealing with painful issues usually hurts before it gets better. At first, you may feel as though you’re getting worse, but the long term gains, such as feeling good about yourself, enjoying life more fully, and feeling more alive, free and happy are worth the hard work.

It’s tempting to say that there is only one way to get off alcohol and drugs. Some people want to believe that there is a definitive answer or solution that works for everyone. But life and people are rarely that simple. I’ve seen many people become alcohol and drug-free (and others who massively reduced their consumption) by a variety of ways. Ultimately, you should trust your intuition, deep inside of you. If it feels right, try it out. It could be the first step to a life free of addictions.

Copyright © KALI MUNRO. All rights reserved.