Life after addiction: maintaining sobriety for the long haul

Living with addiction is a continuous and uphill battle.

Its challenges extend to almost every aspect of a person’s life, taking a toll that is not only physical, but also psychological.

“When you have an individual that struggles with addiction, you look at a situation in which mentally, spiritually, emotionally, financially, socially and culturally there’s going to be a negative impact on their life,” said Todd Ware, addictions counsellor with Homewood Clinics.

The primary drivers of drugs and alcohol, can lead to unmanageability in every area of a person’s life. This can include: an inability to have social connections; fractured relationships in the family; a struggle to achieve career goals and aspirations; and achieving post-secondary education or other kinds of training. Addiction can also cause a significant reduction in extracurricular activities or the pursuit of things they enjoy.

Not only is there the constant risk of overdose, chronic disease, car accidents and police involvement, but you also have the challenges that come with treatment.

Transitioning into an addiction-free life can come with a minefield of obstacles and, while frightening, the good news is they often can be overcome. You have a lot of options nowadays, you can receive treatment at free alcohol rehab, even you don’t have a lot of money.

Ware said the greatest challenge to an individual during treatment is changing deeply ingrained coping mechanisms.

“First and foremost, you’re often asking somebody to modify behaviour that they have been accustomed to for a long time. As unhealthy as the behaviour may be associated with the addiction, you’re asking somebody to give up something that they’ve practiced for what could be a couple of years or could be 15 (or more) years of their life. So that can often lead to a lot of fear for an individual.”

Tom Foster, clinical social worker, therapist and interim director with the Vancouver Homewood clinics, believes one of the challenges is “finding the right solution that works for the individual.” Everyone is different and what works for some might not work for others.

The hard-fought battle with addiction doesn’t end after treatment. Getting help is just the beginning in the long but hopefully rewarding process of recovery. It takes courage, time and support to maintain sobriety long term.

Ware said one of the greatest challenges in terms of aftercare from the treatment process, especially in an abstinence-based lifestyle, is the reintegration of the person back into his or her usual environment.

“When you leave that treatment program, if you’re going back into the same environment or a family context in which other people are substance users, if you’re in a relationship where the individual is not willing to look at their own drug and alcohol use or you’re going back into a work environment that wasn’t healthy for you to begin with, those are a lot of the things that are quite difficult for somebody that struggles with an addiction to deal with.”

According to Foster, another challenge is “dealing with emotional dysregulation without the use of a substance or behaviour,” which can lead to feelings of emptiness and detachment.

There are a number of points individuals should keep in mind once treatment has ended and the transition into addiction-free life begins. Foster said that they can expect to hone in on “emotional self-regulation and building healthy relationships, as well as diversifying interests and activities to displace the time that was spent using.” This shifted focus can help them get their lives back on track.

Those coming through treatment can also expect to feel gaps, since going into a treatment program is meant to modify life after treatment in an aftercare process with support that will result in success.

“You’re looking at a situation where you’re saying you can’t participate in the lives of people that are actively using alcohol and drugs, which leads to a huge void in one’s life when it comes to a social context,” said Ware.

“The way we fill that void often, with somebody in aftercare, is making sure that they have a support system in place, that they have counsellors and therapists that often can be provided through a place like Homewood Heath or another service, or that they’re a member of a 12-step program or another abstinence-based community network that they can lean on and have strategies to be able to deal with life on life’s terms post-treatment.”

When it comes to maintaining sobriety, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ method. The recovery process is unique to each individual. “Find what works for you . . . there is no cookie cutter approach,” said Foster.

Adjustments must be made as well. “The primary job for an individual leaving treatment should be recovery,” said Ware. “They are practising the tools and replicating the coaching supplied in treatment now in the real world and they’re learning that by trial and error. But they have to do that with the support of a community. Homewood Health is good at that, connecting people.”

Ware also stresses the importance of an open-door policy when it comes to asking for help, something Homewood Health specializes in. “If you’re struggling with cravings or you have a relapse, you can reach out to try and get yourself back on track.”

Family and loved ones also play an important role in the recovery process by providing that support system that those finishing treatment or aiming to maintain sobriety need to lean on.

Though it’s often very difficult at times for people to clearly understand addiction, one thing that Ware believes is that its incredibly important for family members to be connected to resources and psychoeducational information about addiction, looking at what addiction is, what relapse looks like and what being a support means.

“Often what we try to do is support families in understanding that when you have an individual that struggles with an addiction, you are not responsible for their addiction — you’re responsible to be loving and supportive and allow them to be in the natural consequences of their addiction,” said Ware.

Foster agreed, suggesting that “setting clear boundaries, self-care and detachment from the problem and not the person” are ways that families can sustain their own mental health during the process of recovery.

However, if they ask for help, there are ways in which you can support their recovering, such as taking part in a counselling or therapy process or participating in one of a variety of different support programs or family education systems. “Psychoeducational information about mental health and addiction is a great support for families to increase their knowledge base,” said Ware. An abundance of this information is available on the Homewood Health website.