What is the best possible way to deal with cravings for drugs or alcohol when you are in recovery?
I personally wrestled with this question a lot in my early recovery and therefore I tried a number of different suggestions.
To be honest I can not point to one single thing that helped me above all others, because I was trying to take so many different suggestions at once.
For example, maybe will suggest that you “call your sponsor immediately if you feel like you want to drink or use drugs.”
Not a bad suggestion, and I have certainly done that in early recovery. But I would not say that it is the only way to deal with cravings, or even the best way necessarily.
That is an example of a single tool, of which you might use several different ones.
So perhaps more important is that we need to explore these various tools and find out which ones work best for us in our own unique situation.
There are a number of things that you might do on your recovery journey. There are certainly many different methods for staying clean and sober, and it is up to each individual to find what works for them.
But to start with, we have to ask the most basic question after you have reached the point of surrender, and that is:
Should you go to inpatient rehab?
I am a strong believer in the power of professional treatment.
Now granted, the statistics are not so great. Meaning that going to rehab is far from being a “cure” like we all hope it will be. It is nowhere near a full cure. But it is still the best solution that we have in most cases, and if you want to remain sober in the long run and learn to overcome your cravings, then going to rehab is a good way to build a foundation.
For one thing, you are completely protected when you are in rehab from cravings and triggers. You are in a controlled environment. The chances for relapse are at zero. So at least you can learn a bit about yourself, get a feel for how your cravings might hit you, and start to learn how to process them and deal with them.
This is an important point, because if you are not in rehab at the time, guess what is going to happen? Nine times out of a ten the average alcoholic is just going to relapse immediately. The temptation is too great when you are on the outside, and have instant access to your drug of choice.
Second of all, while you are in treatment it is very likely that people will talk to you about cravings and triggers. Someone will give a lecture. A counselor or therapist may help you identify your possible triggers and what might lead to cravings. So this is obviously going to be helpful for when you go back out into the real world and have to face reality.
Third of all there is peer support in treatment, and you get strength from your peers in recovery. Not only that but it is likely that you will be introduced to 12 step meetings or some other form of group therapy (not that they are the same thing, mind you) and so therefore you can use this as another tool, another resource for overcoming future cravings.
Is it impossible for someone to stay sober if they never go to rehab? No, but this is besides the point in my opinion. Inpatient treatment is a powerful resource and we are making a mistake if we dismiss it out of hand. Every alcoholic who has access to inpatient treatment should, in my opinion, take advantage of it. It may not be a cure but it is still the best solution we have.
Is it enough to have lots of support from your peers in recovery? Probably not
Some people believe that if they just stick to the social support that they get in recovery that they will be strong enough to overcome any cravings. They believe that if they show up to an AA meeting every day that they will be protected from relapse, simply due to the social connections.
The real truth about recovery is that it takes more work than that. Just making social connections in 12 step groups is not enough to sustain sobriety. Nor is it enough to really help you overcome cravings.
Even the big book of AA points out that every alcoholic, at some point, will face a situation in their life when it comes down to just the alcohol and the individual, no one will be around to help them, and they will have to face the power of that first drink all by themselves (or, just the alcoholic and their higher power against a glass of alcohol).
And so in light of that passage from the Big Book of AA, would we really declare that the social connections that we make in recovery are powerful enough to overcome any cravings we might have?
The book seems to be saying “no, it is not enough.” It takes more than social connections to keep us sober. It takes more than just making new friends at the local AA meetings.
So then, what more is required? What is the full secret to sobriety?
In my experience, your success in recovery is based more on personal growth. The social connections that you make with your peers in recovery may be a part of that, but those connections alone are not what keeps you sober by themselves.
Also, keep in mind that in early AA the emphasis on social connections was far less, and the meat of the program was in actually working the steps and implementing them into your life. It was not about showing up to AA meetings every single day and talking about how your day went. In the beginning they had very few meetings, they were not as widespread yet. So people actually had to work the steps, take action, and pursue some real growth. This is not the same thing as just showing up to AA meetings every day and venting about your problems. Big difference!
So using your peers in recovery is one way to deal with cravings, but it is certainly not the only way, and it may not even be that good of a solution.
Relapse prevention insurance is personal growth
What is a craving anyway? It is when the alcoholic suddenly finds themselves wanting a drink or a drug.
And why does a craving matter at all? Because if left unchecked it could turn into a full relapse. And we obviously don’t want that.
So what is the key to relapse prevention?
I mentioned before, my experience has taught me that relapse prevention is personal growth. The best way to fight against cravings and relapse is to take positive action on a regular basis. You can do this in two different areas of your life:
When we first get to recovery, we all have stuff in our minds, negative things in our past, and mental triggers that can lead us down the wrong path. We have fears, anger, shame, guilt, resentment, or self pity. Maybe you have one of these problems or maybe you have all of them. But all of us have at least some mental garbage going on when we first get clean and sober.
This is the internal stuff. So we have to make changes, we have to take action, and we have to “do the work.”
When do the work, what we are doing is to identify that negative stuff up in our minds and dealing with it. We are working through it.
The 12 steps of AA attempt to do this. If you work through the 12 steps with a sponsor then you are “doing the work” when it comes to the internal stuff.
But there is a whole other realm of personal changes that can be made.
That realm is the external. This is what they are referring to in AA meetings when they talk about “changing people, places, and things.”
So in addition to looking at all of that negative stuff on the inside, you also have to take a step back and look at your overall life and realize that you may have issues on the outside as well that you may have to deal with.
For example, in my early recovery I went back to work, changed a whole bunch of relationships in my life, went back to college, and moved into long term rehab. I also quit a job that was not good for me when I first got sober. These are all examples of external changes that I had to make. They were changes in the “people, places, and things” in my life that had to be rearranged in order to better support my recovery.
So it is not about doing one or the other. It is about doing both–both the internal and the external changes that need to be made.
And if you don’t know what changes need to be made in your life, then I would strongly suggest that you ask someone.
Find someone that you can trust (a sponsor, a therapist, or a counselor are all good choices) and then start taking advice from that person.
Keep taking their advice and keep putting their suggestions into action. If you can get out of your own way long enough to do this then I can assure you that you will be amazed at the results within just a few short months. Life gets better in a hurry when you are taking advice from someone with experience and wisdom. And quite honestly, it does not take a great deal of wisdom to fix an alcoholic or a drug addict. And I mean absolutely no disrespect when I say that, because I am a perfect example of someone who needed to take a whole lot of simple advice when I first got sober. I am so glad that I was able to get out of my own way for a while and listen to other people. This was one of the biggest keys to my sobriety.
Creating a long term strategy to prevent relapse
Have you ever heard about someone who had many years sober, and they still relapsed?
It happens. They usually refer to this as “complacency.” The person got too comfortable in their recovery, and they got lazy. So they stopped doing the things that they needed to do to remain sober, and the relapse just crept up on them.
The thing is, someone who has become complacent doesn’t really know it. And if you try to point it out, they probably would not be very receptive to this.
Complacency is the sort of problem that, if you can diagnose yourself with it, it is probably too late and you have already relapsed.
What is most likely is for the alcoholic to show up in detox at a treatment center and say “yes, it happened to me. I somehow became complacent, and before I knew it I was drinking again.”
You can only see it in retrospect. You can never predict it going forward.
So then, how are we to combat this? How are we to prevent it?
The key is to adopt a permanent strategy, one that is continuously protecting you from the threat of complacency.
What would such a strategy look like?
It would be a strategy based on personal growth.
Remember when I say that there are two kinds of changes that you can make in your life: External and internal?
The key is to look at those potential changes, and then organize them by which ones are more important.
The goal is to take care of yourself in recovery each and every day. Not just take care of yourself physically, but also socially, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually too.
So you need to look at your whole life (both internal and external) and then think about what changes you can make to take better care of yourself.
And you need to look for problem areas, things that you might be neglecting. For example, if you are not getting good sleep, or if you have a toxic relationship in your life.
And you might not be able to see these sort of problems on your own. You might need a peer in recovery to help you see it. You might need to get help. You might have to ask for advice. You might have to ask for feedback from a counselor, a therapist, or a sponsor.
And you might have to keep doing this, over and over again. You might even make a habit of it–of asking other people to tell you what they think your problem is, or what you might do differently.
If you really live this way, and honestly seek feedback and advice from other people, your life will start to change drastically. You will be amazed at the progress that you are making if you put this sort of feedback into action.
Generally, people don’t like to do this. They don’t like to ask others what is wrong with themselves. They don’t like to invite criticism. But just think of how much better your life will be if you start to fix these sort of issues, one at a time.
This is how you build a powerful foundation in recovery. This is how you create a blank slate on which happiness can then blossom.
Some people get sober and they want to start chasing after the good stuff. They want rewards. They want the blessings. They want to focus on the positive.
This is a little bit unrealistic at first. You will get there, in time. But in early recovery you have another task first. You have to clean up the negative stuff first. You have to do the work. You have to look inside and identify all of that negativity–all of the guilt, shame, anger, fear, self pity, and so on. You have to identify all of that stuff and then do the work to eliminate it and overcome it.
Then you have to do the same thing with your external world. With your relationships and your day job and your friends that you hang around with and so on. You have to look at your external life and clean up the garbage in the same way that you do it with your fear and guilt and shame. This, too, is “doing the work.”
And this is how you build a foundation for happiness in recovery. You focus on all of the bad stuff and you eliminate it. And this allows the happiness to shine through. If you try to chase after the happiness directly during your first month of sobriety you are going to be disappointed. You may even relapse as a result.
Instead, do the work. Do the hard work. Look closely at yourself, get honest, and figure out what really needs to change in order to get rid of the negative stuff.
Just look at the 12 steps for a moment. They have you inventory yourself and find all the negative stuff and then eliminate it. This is housekeeping. This is how you build a foundation. You have to get rid of the bad stuff in order to make way for a better life in recovery.
And the bottom line is that if you don’t eliminate all of the negativity in your life then you will always be trapped by it. It will always drag you down. Maybe something good will happen or you will have some good luck for a while, but if you still have those negative issues inside then they will always come back to bring you down again.
So you have to deal with it. You have to do the work. There is no way to avoid this.
If you want to eliminate cravings in your future recovery then you need to do the work and lay this foundation first. And it takes hard work.
Eliminate your cravings by changing your life and your life situation
So the best way to deal with cravings is to eliminate them through personal growth.
Adopt a strategy of personal growth. If you want to know how to implement such a strategy, then find someone you trust who can guide you with suggestions, and simply start asking them for feedback. Ask them what needs to change. Or work through the steps with someone. Or go see a therapist or counselor and start asking for help and guidance. Or do all of these things. They all lead to the same sort of work, the same sort of soul searching.
Let me give you one last example. When I was in early recovery I realized that I had a problem with self pity. I clung to drama that was going on around me and I used it as fuel to feel sorry for myself. And the whole point of this was to justify my drinking or drug use.
Well now that I was in recovery, this self pity was not helping me any more.
So I had to realize that. I had to discover that. And it took a few weeks. I sat around feeling sorry for myself until one day I realized “Hey…the only thing that can ever come out of self pity is to use it as an excuse to get drunk. And I don’t want to do that!”
So I had to figure out how to eliminate self pity.
Which I eventually did, through some mental reprogramming and practicing gratitude on a daily basis.
But the point here is that I had to identify it first. I did not even realize that I did this when I first got sober. I did not even know that it was a problem at first.
So if you can’t identify all of those internal problems that you might have, you need to find someone else who can help you with it.
And then you can start doing the work too, and overcoming your cravings.