Becoming free from substance use for the first time is a scary concept for most people with addiction. After all, you’ll no longer have access to the false protection of the drug that seemed to buffer you from the outside world and its anxieties. So you arrive in meetings, or your other support groups, vulnerable, scared and sometimes feeling as if you’re missing the very skin you were born with, and all that’s left is frayed nerves.
You are a new baby in the world all over again. This is potentially a good thing, because only in this state might you be able to learn new ways of living and coping with the reality, but it is also the kind of state that leaves you more open to prey. And that’s something all of us in recovery must be aware of. We are in no way victims, but we have been scarred and maimed by our addiction, and by life, to the point where the invisible wounds need constant care and attention. This is why we have to be very careful about who we let back into our lives. I’m not saying to be mistrustful and fearful of people, but I’m suggesting using judgement and care when caring for your new, sober self. Imagine yourself to be like a baby indeed—who you trust to take care of this baby will decide on how well she will thrive. A good, knowledgeable counselor, a sober person with good reputation (ask around!), a family member who’s sensitive to your plight, are all the kinds of human beings you could trust. Take your baby-self as if you were interviewing for a nanny and see who makes you feel safe.
Trust your gut if your gut is saying “NO.” There are many people in recovery who, despite being clean from drugs and alcohol, have very little actual recovery. Recovery is not just getting clean—it means changing your life entirely to the point where you no longer operate as if in combat. There are sober people who still treat life as if it was something to wrestle and conquer and who don’t understand how to help others despite their best intentions. I know of many people with years of clean time who are not exactly the soundest, and who might take advantage of someone new and in need of guidance. Whether they do it purposely—such when “sober” members of 12-step programs prey sexually on new members—or with a misguided sense of charity, they are not cut out to help and should be avoided.
How do you protect yourself? Ask around. Don’t worry about hurting the “helper’s” feelings or angering them—it is your life that’s at stake, so the highest precautions should be taken. You will encounter people who will spew the most intelligent, profound insights, but who will demonstrate none of their knowledge in how they conduct themselves (This is not unique to recovery, as this can be experienced just about anywhere). It doesn’t take long for the real nature of a charlatan to come out. Stick to the people you trust initially (like the counselor or a family member who brought you to your meeting) and worry about making lots of friends later. Make friends by all means, but make them carefully. Remember that the people you encounter in recovery come in with a lot of traumas and problems of their own, and not all of them have had a chance to truly get better no matter how many years they haven’t taken a drink. For example, some recovery people don’t believe that there’s anything wrong outside of their drinking and they ignore glaring mental-health issues, hoping that they might be able to pray away their turmoil. Some people don’t believe in medication and might advise you too to go off your own in the name of Higher Power (listen to your doctor, as he or she, unlike Bob from your 12-step group, went to medical school to learn about human psyche). And some people will see you as a romantic potential and try to help you by showering you with affection that is completely inappropriate (relationships in recovery are tough and they do happen, but beware of the early-days infatuations as our unregulated emotions really do run wild in the beginning).
Connections and community are what make sobriety worthwhile and possible, so don’t isolate either – that’s not what I’m suggesting. But take great care in how you build your community. Remember that some of those people are for life and that you will need to lean on them in the times of trouble. Make sure you’ve got the good ones to lean on.
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