An anonymous reader writes in and asks: “Which do you think is more important for recovery: developing good coping skills, or making lifestyle changes?”
That is a tough question to answer, because my brain wants to shout “Both! They are both important!” But perhaps we can learn something new about recovery if we genuinely tackle the question as it was asked.
A chicken or the egg kind of question
Looking back at my own recovery, it is difficult to tell which came first: improved coping skills, or the lifestyle changes needed to avoid drugs and alcohol. And perhaps one led to the other.
In my specific situation, I entered into long term treatment, which proved to be extremely helpful as far as helping me stay clean and sober. I honestly don’t know how I could have managed to change my lifestyle so drastically without doing this. I lived in a very structured, recovery-oriented environment for 20 months. There was a lot of support there, and I basically made a clean break from all of my old drinking buddies. This was huge. I credit this move into long-term treatment as being one of the keys to my success.
Living in long term treatment represents a huge lifestyle change for most people. It sounds like a drastic move because it is drastic. That’s the whole point: attack your addiction with overwhelming force if you want to succeed against it.
Coping skills and relapse prevention still played a part
So the lifestyle change was huge for me, but at the same time, I was learning quite a bit in long term treatment, as well as interacting with a therapist on a regular basis.
Specifically, I can remember thinking when I only had a week or two sober, “How am I going to deal with stuff without getting high? How am I going to cope with life?”
Those answers eventually do come, of course, and the coping skills and relapse prevention strategies unfold before us as we continue to stay clean and sober.
I watched a lot of people relapse in early recovery, some of who seemed to be “working a perfect program.” But obviously, those people who relapsed needed something more, they needed to find something different that actually worked for them. Sometimes the only way to get there is to grind it out for a while and try different things and see what works for you. There were some times in early recovery where I stayed sober through gritted teeth…..perhaps everyone has those times in the beginning.
When I look at all of the coping skills that I learned in early recovery, I have to say that they came about as a result of the lifestyle changes, not the other way around.
I did not learn a new coping skill and then use that skill to change my lifestyle. Instead, I made drastic changes in my lifestyle, and then the coping mechanisms were born out of those changes.
What this means for you
My advice? Focus on the big, sweeping lifestyle changes. This is where the action is at in recovery.
When you do so, you are changing the entire structure of your life. For example:
* Replace going out to the bar or the club every night with an AA meeting.
* Instead of chasing drugs and alcohol every day, getting clean and moving into long term treatment.
* Going from dealing drugs, to getting clean and becoming heavily involved in the Narcotics Anonymous fellowship.
These are structural, lifestyle changes. If you can pull them off, then coping skills will naturally follow along with these changes as you work through them.
Change the lifestyle, and the rest will fall into place.