The urge to self-medicate is a habit shared by almost everyone who suffers from addiction. It is an urge which drives us to quiet uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, to ease physical discomfort, to sidestep emotional trauma, and to just feel… better. Unfortunately for many, this urge to self-medicate is often followed by the use of alcohol, drugs, and harmful compulsive behaviors. Resorting to substances to quiet an uneasy spirit works at first, but addiction is a progressive disease. Many self-medicating habits start small, but soon progress and grow out of control, requiring bigger, stronger, more intense “doses” in order to simply feel normal.
In recovery, we learn to fight off the habits associated with self-medicating, and learn to live life without dependence on mind-altering substances and harmful behaviors. It feels almost impossible at first. I spent the early part of my sobriety feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. I was nervous, easily agitated, physically uncomfortable, and suffering from seemingly unmanageable sleeping patterns. I was restless, irritable, and discontent . The old thoughts and feelings I’d avoided through drug abuse and bad habits came flooding back, and I had to learn how to deal with them without resorting to old addictive tendencies.
Luckily, I had a program of recovery and an experienced support system to guide me through these early days of recovery. With time and work in my recovery, I slowly learned to manage these negative thoughts and feelings, and eventually developed healthy self-care routines that helped me feel better, faster. I learned to identify the thoughts and feelings that troubled me, and found healthier alternatives to my ways of self-medicating with alcohol and drugs.
Be patient with yourself
We often find people in early recovery wanting to abruptly stop all “bad habits” all at once in a superficial attempt to purify their mind, body, and soul. But if you’re still learning to live without the mind-altering substances you’ve been dependent on for years, now is not the time to quit smoking, stop drinking coffee, cut out sugar, and go vegan. This type of black and white thinking is harmful to recovery. By equivocating alcohol and drugs with caffeine, nicotine, sugar, and junk foods, we are creating a mindset in which any small infraction constitutes a relapse, creating the perfect environment for low self esteem and a bad case of “the effits” which can easily lead to continuing use of alcohol and drugs.
Striving for perfection is setting yourself up for failure. Instead of quitting every bad habit you can think of all at once, focus on the habits causing the most harm and deal with those first. Once those habits are under control, focus on breaking one additional bad habit at a time. Take it slow, be patient with yourself, and always remember, first things first. The primary goal of recovery is to learn to live without alcohol and drugs. Work on your sobriety first, and instead of trying to be perfect, simply strive to get a little bit better, one day at a time.
Replace bad habits with healthier habits
Recovery doesn’t happen overnight, and sobriety doesn’t feel good until we start to take on habits that help us feel good without alcohol, drugs, and harmful behaviors. In active addiction I spent each day feeling physically awful until I was able to drink or drug my way into feeling good. My eating habits were terrible. In fact, I rarely put anything in my body that was arguably good for me. I ate only when starving, usually fast food or deep fried bar food, and I mostly drank water in between cocktails or to help cure a particularly bad hangover.
Aside from going to recovery meetings and working a program, the first new habit that made a significant difference in how I felt on a daily basis was practicing healthier eating and drinking habits. I started off simple. I carried a big plastic water bottle with me everywhere I went and drank from it whenever the thought crossed my mind. I started eating healthier foods - not to be mistaken with healthy foods necessarily, but I started eating salads and sandwiches and soups instead of cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, and french fries. I try to eat three meals a day (although admittedly eating in the morning still isn’t my favorite thing to do). This simple switch healthier habits made a tremendous difference for me, and mastering this simple step towards self-care gave me the foundation to continue on with other healthy habits.
Meditate, sweat, stretch, repeat
The next stop on my journey of recovery was to practice better physical and mental habits like exercising, meditating, and yoga. Let me say this up front: I hate working out. I’m not into gym culture, and it’s really hard for me to get motivated to get up from a comfortable seat and go work out. So in the beginning, I took it slow. Just an extra couple blocks of walking each day, or trying to walk at a faster pace than usual. Initially the goal was to just break a good sweat at least once a day. Eventually I tried running but it wasn’t for me. That’s when I joined a gym and started trying the different exercises I saw other people doing. Some of them weren’t as awful as I’d anticipated, and some I even enjoyed a little.
But as much as I didn’t enjoy exercising itself very much, I did enjoy the results. Sure, I lost a little bit of weight and started feeling stronger and more confident, but for me, the best side effect of just a little bit of exercise each day was that it made me feel better, inside and out. I felt less stressed out, less angry, less uncomfortable. And amazingly, even though I was exercising more, on a daily basis I felt more energetic.
Non-addictive alternatives for persistent problems
Since before I ever took my first drink or first drug, I’ve struggled with sleep, stress, and anxiety. Once I found substances that helped me feel better, I immediately began self-medicating and thus began my journey through addiction. In active addiction, I started every day feeling awful. I was always tired, anxious, hungover, or some combination of the three. Each day ended with sleep coming either by accident (from passing out), or sometimes not at all. I suffered from random bouts of insomnia, anxiety attacks, and depressions that would leave me feeling an even stronger urge to somehow find the right combination of substances to keep me awake and alert during the day, yet somehow able to sleep a full 8 or 10 hours at night. Suffice to say, I wasn’t very successful in my quest.
In recovery, my sleep habits normalized somewhat once I started working out and eating healthy, but my anxiety, depression, and trouble sleeping didn’t just disappear when I stopped using drugs. But instead of turning back to my old habits of self-medicating with addictive and habit forming substances, I asked for help. I went to see a doctor, who sent my to a psychiatrist, who helped me form a treatment plan that includes therapy, exercise, vitamin supplements, and non-habit forming medications. To keep things honest, I told my doctor and my psychiatrist that I have a history of addiction, and when a new medication is offered, I make sure to ask if it’s addictive or habit forming, and most importantly, I take all my medications as prescribed by my doctor.
It turns out these professional physicians know a thing or two about medicines and prescription drugs, and when I follow their directions, things tend to work out better. Medication is not a bad thing, it’s self-medicating that I need to avoid. After all, I’ve proven time and time again that when I write my own treatment plan, I’m the one who ends up in treatment. So from now on I’ll let the doctors do the prescribing.
Give yourself a chance to heal
Not all recovery and self-care plans look the same. What works for me may not work for you, so it’s important to keep track of what makes you feel good, without comparing your self-care plan with others. Some people absolutely love working out for their recovery, some people prefer to make art or learn new skills. Some people devote themselves to rigorous plans of healthy eating, whole foods, vitamins, cleanses, and detoxes, while others focus on just eating healthier. Some people don’t take any medications or prescriptions at all, and others take a doctor-prescribed course of mental health drugs in order to maintain a healthy chemical balance. We’re all out here looking for what works for us as individuals to help keep us sober one day at a time.
It doesn’t matter what you do to start living a healthier lifestyle, it just matter that you do something. You don’t have to change everything, but you do have to change some things. Like they say, if nothing changes, nothing changes. If you’re not sure where to start, talk to other people in your recovery groups, your sponsor, recovery coach, case manager, or do some research online. Try things that sound like they’ll work for you. When you find something healthy that makes you feel good, keep doing it. If you give something an honest try and it’s just not for you, try something else. Eventually, you’ll find those healthy self-care habits that work for you. It does get better, you just have to stay sober, keep trying, and keep practicing healthy self-care habits.
-- Bryan S. for Life Assurance Recovery, 2019