It’s a privilege to be able to continue on the path of recovery in sickness and in health, through misfortune and advancement, and down the ever-shifting and flitty landscape of feelings. Though it may feel like physical sickness and setbacks like losing a job or relationship are a knock-back to your recovery, they can be a boon, just as experiencing addiction recovery in and of itself is (forgive the cliche) a blessing in disguise. Getting sober from alcohol and drugs ultimately gave me tools and resources to handle life in ways I couldn’t before, but when I was in the trenches of my substance use disorder, there’s no way I could have known that. Hindsight is 20/20 and the lessons we can take away from our painful experiences may not be revealed to us until way later, but read on to see how you might start spotting them now.
Gathering Perspective on Loss
It’s important to double-down on your support network in trying times (especially as your recovery and mental health may be in jeopardy) because this can help you gather perspective on your situation. Experiencing loss, grief, trauma, and heartbreak can be devastating experiences, but you will come out stronger in your recovery on the other side. Sometimes a major painful life event can connect us to others in our recovery network who, too, have experienced something similar, and who might not otherwise have been available to us. In turn, you can help a newcomer who might be experiencing the very same thing. One of my favorite poets, Kaveh Akbar (who is also in recovery from alcohol and drugs--and very open about it) writes, “Art is where what we survive survives.” Similarly, our recovery footprint and relationships are where what we’ve learned from our past with substance use disorder can blossom.
Physical Sickness in Sobriety
Seasonal Ailments and Solitude
Two bouts of colds this year shackled me to my room and taught me the beauty of slowing down, resting up, and taking it easy, especially for someone who is always on-the-go and places rest and relaxation on the backburner. During the first cold, I felt a bit lost regarding self-care and had to look up remedies. While I tried my best, I prolonged my sick time by indulging in a lot of fear, caffeine, sugar and stress. However, when I felt a second cold coming on, I gave myself permission to take a break from work, indulge in long naps and baths, drink copious amounts of fresh tea with ginger, lemon, chamomile, star anise, and focus on recovering with affirmative thoughts, like “My immune system heals quickly and painlessly.” I was able to nip the cold by the next day since I knew what didn’t work.
Chronic Physical Pain and Limitations
If you experience any chronic physical condition, I understand how challenging it can be to manage pain in addition to the daily emotional, mental, and spiritual upkeep of recovery. In July of 2018, a doctor swiftly diagnosed me with the autoimmune condition rheumatoid arthritis (RA) after I experienced a sudden onset of stiffness and swollenness in my joints that started with my knees and spread to my fingers, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. It was baffling and maddening but makes sense in hindsight: I was in a stressful, uncertain period of my life where I was enduring an office job that was not a good fit, I had just moved suddenly, and I was working through trauma in therapy and recovery groups. Rheumatoid arthritis typically strikes between the ages of 40-60, so it was odd to be plagued with this condition at 27. It felt like a nightmare as I waded through the initial stages of grief and waking up with intense morning stiffness--no longer able to sit, stand, or lie down without considerable planning.
However, I refused to take any medication and instead, focused on large lifestyle adjustments and taking risks, however grim the motivation was (I thought that the pain would only go downhill). I quit that job and decided to travel for nearly two months with the RA. Though in pain, I was calmer, happier, and had to truly trust that I was being taken care of no matter what. I continued working on my sobriety with recovery meetings abroad in Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Berlin. Inexplicably, all the joint pain disappeared over that time and I was able to resume normal activities upon returning to NYC with a new mindset about all my recoveries. While my story may seem like a rare one of remission, it showed me first-hand the healing ability of the body when I was no longer stressed out, feeling stuck, and willing to take a leap. I was also able to cultivate a pure gratitude for the simple, physical actions I had once taken for granted.
Tools - Movement Medicine
Whether you’re experiencing short-term sickness or a long-term illness, finding some sort of loving movement practice -- or “moving meditation” -- to uncrumple your body can feel amazing and incredibly beneficial. In sickness, our bodies often fold inward and need help with being opened back up again. Find what feels good in your body. Stick to a comfortable pace, back off when needed, and find a way to adjust rather than quit completely. Some gentle practices include yoga, tai chi, qigong, or pilates. If you’re someone who needs an active practice, give yourself permission to go easy and take up a softer practice. The instructor in a recent meditative dance class I took reminded us that the longer we hold a pose, the more information we receive from our body and minds, which I have found to be true for me.
Adversities can positively inform your recovery in ways you might not have imagined, so try not to jump to doom-and-gloom thinking. While it’s important to honor every feeling that comes up, know that perspective holds great weight and may not come until after a difficult period. There are breakthroughs to be had and setbacks can turn into an amazing discovery process that will ultimately enrich your sobriety.