The Challenges of the First Year Sober
If you have relied on alcohol or drugs for any length of time to escape from reality or to relieve bad feelings, learning to live sober can be very challenging. The intense symptoms of withdrawal are only the beginning. Although you may wish you could just get through detox and then live happily ever after, it’s really not that simple. There are many lessons to be learned along the way to a productive, sober life.
In early sobriety, the symptoms of withdrawal can be overwhelming and powerful. During this time you are consumed with the misery of your physical discomfort. Yet once those symptoms pass, you may be faced with a different kind of misery. At times it seems like you’re riding an emotional rollercoaster, or you may be suddenly overpowered by feelings you have successfully avoided for many years. There is nothing pleasant about feeling these feelings. You have been in the habit of running from your emotions, and you may think that you’re never going to be able to stand the intensity of these feelings.
Many alcoholics and addicts who are new to recovery find that the challenges of the first year sober make the thought of living without alcohol or drugs seem like an impossible dream. Problems faced in the first year include depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and issues relating to family members. These are problems that can’t be addressed or corrected instantly. Working on learning how to live sober takes time.
At the end of physically detoxing from alcohol or drugs, many alcoholics or addicts experience another phenomenon called protracted alcohol withdrawal syndrome, or PAWS. Withdrawal symptoms aren’t completely gone. They’re still there, just a bit subtler. This phenomenon is experienced by many in recovery regardless of their drug of choice. During this phase, cravings can set in when you least expect it.
Compulsions Will Pass
Choosing to pick up a drink or a drug isn’t really a choice during this time. It’s more of an impulsive reaction. At this stage, you may not have learned that it’s possible to think through the craving. The compulsion to use will pass if you let it. You just might not believe it yet. You won’t be able to resist if you don’t make sobriety a priority in your life.
Without support, old habits will quickly resume. Using alcohol and drugs has been a habit, so you’ll compulsively reach for alcohol or substances whenever life gets too uncomfortable because that’s what you’ve been doing for a very long time. Substance abuse has been the only coping mechanism you’ve had whenever you get nervous or sad or angry. At this point, you lack the mental defense required to resist overpowering cravings, unless you ask for help. If you give in to the impulses, you will just keep on doing what you’ve always done. You’ll be off and running again.
Getting Past the First-Year Trials
You don’t have to give in to the compulsion to pick up. People who have successfully put together long-term sobriety will tell you to hang in there because better days are coming. Things will get better if you follow the suggestions of people who have managed to stay clean and sober in spite of having similar cravings and compulsions early in their own sobriety.
It’s possible to stay away from a drink or a drug one day at a time. Keep going to more meetings. Talk to people. Let people know that you are struggling. Write about your feelings. Pay attention to your triggers.
Some people have done actual damage to their neurological systems. Years of drinking and drugging can have an effect on your ability to experience pleasure or motivation. You may be prone to depression and anxiety, and you haven’t yet learned how to cope with life on life’s terms. Difficulty sleeping may intensify your emotions.
Coping skills are something you can learn. Developing healthy habits such as making positive changes to your eating and sleeping routines can be surprisingly helpful as you navigate life sober for the first time. Exercise is another healthy habit that helps your body recover from the damage you’ve done.
Don’t give up before the miracle.