Staying in recovery from substance use disorder can be difficult. But it’s important to pursue—it could be a matter of life or death.
“Relapse could mean lost income, a destroyed relationship or even a deadly overdose,” says Dan Velez, MSW, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical supervisor at UNC Substance Treatment and Recovery (STAR).
Although temptations can be strong, Velez shares some tips to find success in recovery.
1. Commit to the process.
Recovery is a health-oriented process of change in which people strive to reach their full potential without the use of substances. And it requires commitment.
“It’s a forever process that has lots of ups and downs,” Velez says. “And often, the beginning is the hardest part. Many find that stopping a substance takes away the mask, and now the reality of whatever was being numbed—such as job loss, legal issues, relationship trouble, health problems—sets in.”
If you find yourself backsliding into old habits, don’t count yourself out.
“So many people feel that if they had a slip-up, they could no longer say they were in recovery,” Velez says. “But the definition has shifted recently to include relapse as part of the recovery process. Even if you slipped three times this year, if you are still working toward sobriety, you are in recovery.”
2. Define what recovery means for you.
There’s no one way to recover. The process will look different for everyone, but you have to define what your process will be, Velez says.
Depending on the level of need, some people find that simply attending peer recovery meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous sessions, is enough. Others combine meetings with therapy from a licensed professional. There are also formal outpatient programs, such as the UNC STAR program that works with people to create a tailored treatment plan, and intensive outpatient and residential treatment programs for some people with severe substance use disorders.
“Whatever path or program you choose, you have to work hard at it,” Velez says.
Your doctor or a local substance use treatment provider can help you find the right path for you.
3. Identify your triggers and warning signs.
To stay in recovery, you have to know what situations or feelings make you more likely to start using again.
“We want to know what causes someone to go down a dark path so we can intervene,” Velez says. “Going to a peer recovery meeting or working with a professional therapist or substance use treatment provider can help you recognize the warning signs and create a relapse prevention plan.”
Once you’ve identified your triggers, share them with your loved ones and friends so they can be on the lookout. It’s also helpful to avoid the people, places and things that you’ve previously associated with substance use so you don’t find yourself in a vulnerable situation.
4. Make a plan to manage urges.
If you’re in recovery, you’ll need a plan to manage urges. It’s common for people in recovery to experiment with moderation—trying to see if they could handle just a little of a substance. Velez advises avoiding this completely.
“We see a lot of people attempt moderation, and while this is occasionally successful, more often there are disastrous results, especially in people with severe substance use disorder,” Velez says.
He recommends trying the five-minute rule.
“When you feel the urge to use, distract yourself for five minutes and see if the urge is still there,” Velez says. “If it is, don’t just think about the immediate impact of using. Consider the long-term fallout of what could happen next week, month or year.”
When struggling with urges, you could also call a friend or a support person to help talk you through it.
Additionally, there are several medications that are effective at suppressing urges, such as buprenorphine and naltrexone for opioid use disorders and naltrexone and acamprosate for alcohol use disorder. Your doctor can help you determine which medication might be right for you.
5. Build a support system of other people in recovery.
It’s important for you to connect with other people who share similar experiences. This requires attending meetings and intentionally finding others in recovery.
“There’s so much loneliness, isolation, guilt and shame that tend to come up in the later stages of recovery,” Velez says. “Peer support is a good antidote for that and helps you feel less alone on a tough journey.”
It’s also important to be honest about your journey with close friends and loved ones and to lean on them for support when you need it.
6. Find healthy hobbies.
Stopping a substance—what once took up a lot of time—often leaves a void in your life. It would be a misstep to think that you could continue recovery without filling those gaps, Velez says. Make sure you are filling them with healthy activities.
“We encourage people in recovery to find new hobbies, sports, social circles and adventures,” Velez says. “Don’t be afraid to become ‘addicted’ to those things, as they’ll keep you away from riskier things.”
7. Don’t believe the myths and misconceptions about recovery.
There are many untruths about recovery. Often in movies or on TV, it’s portrayed as a dragging lifestyle of simply going to meetings all the time. Many people in recovery fully embrace life, however, hosting enjoyable substance-free events such as sports watch parties and cookouts.
“In reality,” Velez says, “the people I know in long-term recovery are some of the most positive, fun-loving people I’ve ever met.”
If you have questions or concerns about alcohol or substance use, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.