Dealing with Overwhelming Urges to Drink or Take Drugs in Recovery

Dealing with Overwhelming Urges to Drink or Take Drugs in Recovery


Everyone who is trying to recover from drug addiction or alcoholism is, at some point, going to have to deal with nearly overwhelming urges or triggers to drink or take drugs.

This is not said to be pessimistic; it is simply a fact of recovery. If you remain clean and sober for the long run then eventually life is going to give you some ups and some downs. There will be challenges at some point. Again, I am not trying to be negative, only realistic. Everyone goes through good times and bad times. It is the natural and the cycle of life itself. You will be tested.

When you are tested, because your main solution in the past was to self medicate, the tendency to reach for your drug of choice is going to be present. And because life is random and chaotic, there may even be a time when it is convenient for you to access your drug of choice, right at the precise moment when things are going badly for you. Unfair, right? But that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen eventually.

Therefore you need to get some plans in place so that you can deal with triggers and urges. The things that you used in early recovery may or may not work in long term sobriety.

What do I mean by that?

In early recovery you are likely plugged into a social support network, such as daily AA or NA meetings. But after 10 plus years of recovery you may not be hitting an AA meeting every single day any longer. So what can you do in short term recovery, and what must you do differently in long term sobriety, in order to avoid the temptation to relapse?

I believe that in short term recovery the best course of action is exactly what the rehabs and therapists are telling you: Go to inpatient treatment, follow up with lots of 12 step meetings, get a sponsor and work through the steps, and basically immerse yourself fully in addiction recovery. Dedicate your entire life to the purpose of getting and staying clean and sober. Make lots of connections with your peers in recovery and surround yourself with positive people.

That works well for early recovery because you need to distract yourself from the temptation of relapse. It also works well because you really need a way to dive into social support head first. Meaning that if you feel like an outsider at an AA meeting and you have 4 days sober then you don’t have much of a chance at that point until something changes. Going to rehab is good for this problem because you will likely be going to AA and NA meetings every single day while you are there, and it will be much easier to transition to daily meetings once you leave rehab. Some of the same people may even be attending with you, and you can get your peers to tag along who you met in rehab, and so on. In other words, going to a 28 day program is like a huge ice breaker in terms of getting involved in social support for your recovery.

While social support seems to be critical for early recovery, I believe that the importance for that wanes over time as you remain clean and sober. In other words, a recovering alcoholic who has ten years sober should not suddenly be in danger of relapse if they miss one of their daily AA meetings, right? That doesn’t make sense. If they are really this vulnerable and their recovery is that fragile then they are not doing something right–meaning that they are not actually working a real program of recovery based on personal growth.

Because you see, after you get past the 28 day rehab and you are plugged into the daily AA meetings, you still have to do some work on yourself, and make some positive changes in your life. These changes go beyond putting down the drugs and alcohol. It is more than that. You need to examine your life and figure out all the different ways that you make yourself miserable, or hold yourself back, or screw yourself up, and then you need to take steps to fix those issues–one at a time. And as you begin to repair your life and fix all of these problems, you become stronger and stronger in your recovery.

Relapse prevention in early recovery is all about having access to that social support system–do you have phone numbers from people at the AA meeting? Do you call your sponsor every single day? Are you doing 90 meetings in 90 days? And so on. If you want to make it to one year sober then you need to be plugged in to that social support system. It will save your life.

In long term recovery this is no longer the emphasis. Relapse prevention in long term recovery is about personal growth. When you go to an AA meeting and there is a person there with 12 years sober and they say “the solution is in the steps,” what they really mean is that you cannot just go to 1 AA meeting every single day for the rest of your life and experience the kind of success that he has. Instead, you have to do the work. You have to fix yourself and fix your life and fix all of your character defects.

Now if you go to a rehab center and there are people in AA meetings who have 60 days sober, they are likely to say “the solution is to keep coming back! I go to AA meetings every day!” That is their experience of recovery and it is currently working for them. They go to meetings every day and it is keeping them clean and sober and it is working for them at the present time. Will it work for them forever?

Yes and no. Yes in that they can keep going to AA forever and enjoy the support that they get there. But no in the sense that if that is all they do then they will eventually relapse. You have to go beyond just sitting in meetings every day and actually fix your character defects.

Now in terms of overcoming urges and triggers, this is why you need to do more than just attend meetings every day–there will be situations in your future in which an AA meeting will not save you from relapse. In other words, you are eventually going to be in a situation in which the temptation is right there, and the only thing that is going to be between you and that next drink is your higher power. It talks about this in the Big Book of AA. And you have either done the work to make yourself strong enough to resist, or you have not done the work.

My biggest trigger so far came when I was emotionally distraught to the point that I felt like I was in danger of doing just about anything. At the time I was not really “plugged in” to AA meetings, so I went for a really long jog. The exercise saved my life that day. I ran and I ran and then I ran some more, all in one continuous motion. When I finally stopped running I was so thoroughly exhausted that the emotions felt distant and petty to me. I was able to use something that was really personal growth (getting in shape and exercising) to directly help me to overcome my biggest trigger.

You cannot necessarily predict what that will be, or how it will work. Which is why you must pursue healthy living and personal growth in your recovery as a means of relapse prevention. Just having a list of phone numbers and a home group in AA does not cut it in the long run. You have to dive into personal growth in order to truly protect yourself from the threat of relapse.