Most of the time, addiction just kind of happens before we even begin to realize what’s happening to us. Unfortunately, recovery doesn’t happen the same way. Real, long-lasting recovery takes work, hard word, and determination, and meticulous planning. It takes practice, and support, and purpose. Addiction may not be a choice, but recovery is. Staying sober is intentional and difficult and so rewarding. But for many of us, recovery is elusive. We find ourselves perhaps quite easily making the decision to seek recovery, and then we find ourselves absolutely lost when it comes to actively seeking it. So here I’ve compiled a list of tips for staying sober and achieving lasting recovery.
1. People, Places, and Things (oh my!)
This is one of the first things you’ll hear in any meeting, and in any discussion of recovery and sobriety. You have to change your environment, the people you associate with in active addiction, and the things that you do. This is a total overhaul of your entire life–that’s the only way this thing works. Staying in the same situations and doing the same things you did when you were using or drinking is not conducive to a healthy
environment of recovery. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m just saying that I’ve known a lot of addicts over the years (cough cough) who have refused to let go of that one person, that one place, that one thing, thinking that (1) they couldn’t bear to lose him/her/it and they couldn’t do it without him/her/it, and (2) that keeping just that one person/place/thing couldn’t possibly harm their recovery, but losing him/her/it might.
Almost without fail these addicts have always relapsed,at one point or another, and they don’t know where they went wrong because they just can’t or won’t accept that hanging onto the past has kept them stuck there or forced them right back.
Whether we like it or not, these things become triggers for us, reminding us of our life when using. And the addict brain has a tricky way of making us remember the good feelings associated with our using, and not so much of the bad ones (which is funny, because any other type of memory we’re more likely to remember the bad instead of the good. Addiction is tricky). And we have to remember that these people, places, and things created or enabled an environment in which it was acceptable for us to use. Allowing them to remain in our lives won’t help us–I promise.
2. Do it all, and keep what works
There are literally dozens–honestly probably more–methods of recovery available. There’s NA, AA, Celebrate Recovery, Smart Recovery, Life Ring, SOS; there’s individual therapy and group therapy, sober month challenges, “Sober October”; there are books and podcasts and documentaries and blogs–all designed to help you stay sober. It can be a bit much, and you may not know where to start. That’s OKAY!
My advice: do it all!
Everyone thinks that their path is the only path. And that’s probably true, for them. Each of us has our own individual path to recovery, and it’s absolutely imperative that we each find what works for us and what doesn’t.
You’ll probably notice pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t. But nobody else can tell you what will or won’t help you. You have to decide for yourself. Take suggestions, absolutely. Do it all. If it doesn’t work, kick it and move on. If it does, make it a part of your recovery routine and keep doing it until it stops working.
3. Find a hobby
I started using when I was 12. I didn’t have many friends and I was stuck in that awkward age between riding my bike around the neighborhood playing games with my friends and going to the mall by myself or to parties. Truth be told, I didn’t like anything, and I didn’t have anything that I enjoyed doing.
One of the most important things to me when I first got sober was to find something that I enjoyed doing, something to occupy my body and my brain. Do puzzles, start a collection, take up a craft, read, write, knit–do whatever makes your heart sing (or, really just sing!)
And if you don’t have anything you enjoy doing, like I didn’t, then just try it all until you find something that sticks.I tried reading, exercising, knitting, painting, making friends, getting a job, making friends, rainbow loom (remember those?!), teaching classes at Michaels–I tried it all. Having a job helps me stay connected to people in a way that I need (regardless of whether or not I want it). But it wasn’t until recently when I started making keychains and other gifts (especially those for recovery) that I really found my calling. My heart sang. And it’s helped immensely. Honestly if I never made a sale again, I would still continue to make them as often as I could, for any occasion I could dream up.
Find your calling, and do it until your urge to use is gone–and then do it some more.
4. Cut Ties
People, places and things. It all needs to change, yes? But this change needs to be permanent. You’ve stopped hanging out with you buddy with the good connects, but maybe you still talk to him from time to time. You were friends before you started using and there’s more to your friendship than drugs or drink, right?
But what about on your worst day? Your dog died, your boyfriend or girlfriend dumped you, your family still won’t take your calls, you’re working so hard to get ahead and you feel like you’re still standing right where you started–except now you have nothing to numb the pain, so you feel it all.
Chances are, your buddy will be more than happy to suggest a trip down memory lane to clear your head. And even if you’re strong enough in your weakest moment to say no–you don’t need the stress of having to face that decision when there’s such a simple way to avoid it altogether.
Remove these people from your life completely. Delete them from your phone, your Facebook, all social media; delete your text and call history so you can’t scour your phone to find their numbers in your most desperate times when those cravings hit.
Don’t talk to them anymore. Period. They were a part of your past, and now you’re living in the present and looking toward the future. Don’t give yourself an ‘out’. And don’t cause yourself anymore trouble. Just burn those bridges and move on.
5. FIND YOUR PEOPLE!
So now you’ve gotten rid of what–and who (who? whom? whatever. whomever) no longer serves you and you’re all alone.
Except you’re not. There is a huge recovery community all around you, whether you know it or not. Search AA and NA meetings. Find a therapy group. Locate a Celebrate Recovery or Smart Recovery meeting.
And it’s not just about recovery.
You can totally have friends who aren’t in recovery as long as they respect your recovery and your boundaries.
Go to church, or take a class at a local school or craft shop. Go to a ren fair, a local concert, the library, a museum. Find people who are interested in the same things as you who won’t jeopardize your recovery and who will help you and encourage you to live your most authentic life.
And if you can’t find any of these people nearby, seek them out on the internet. Join a forum or a Facebook group that you connect with and ask if there’s anyone in your area. Even if there isn’t, online friends can sometimes make the best friends. They’re cheering you on from a distance and there’s zero % chance that they can get you drugs or pressure you into drinking, even if they were inclined to do so (and just a side note: anyone who is willing and able to get you drugs or invite you for a drink knowing that you’re in recovery isn’t really a friend even if they have the best intentions. Educate them on the reality of your disease and move on without them).
6. See a Doctor & Treat Underlying Conditions
I feel like “doctor” and “medication” are dirty words in the rooms and within the greater recovery community as a whole. And I get it. Many of us began our addictions with medications prescribed by a doctor, and others of us have relapsed as a result of them. In general, doctors of western medicine are bad news to the recovery community in no small way, as a rule.
But–seeing a trusted doctor, receiving an accurate diagnosis, and taking safe, effective medications as prescribed can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Many of us begin using as a way of treating a mental or physical illness, be it known or unknown to us. Others actually develop these illnesses as a direct result of our using.
My soapbox speech on MAT
Additionally, it’s important to note that medication-assisted-treatment (MAT) such as suboxone, naltrexone, and methadone, have a very valuable place in some individuals’ recovery.
Listen–I would never tell an addict that he or she should use methadone or suboxone right off the bat before trying anything else. But if you’ve exhausted all of your options or if you’re on the brink of death the way many of us are toward the end of our using, it’s at least worth considering. I also would never tell an addict in recovery that his or her recovery is less valid or less valuable than anyone else’s because they’re using any medication, even and especially an opioid replacement. We’re all just doing the best we can with what we have and what we know, and it is our job to help others in recovery, never to tear them down.
A side note about doctors:
I’ll be the first to say that I don’t trust doctors and I don’t trust therapists. The majority of them don’t know what they’re doing, are in it for the wrong reasons, and at best won’t help at all–at worst will make things worse. That’s just a statistical fact.
This is why doctors get reviewed. Research all of your professionals–especially your doctors and especially your therapists. Which brings me to my next tip.
7. See a Therapist
This is mostly an extension of the previous tip. I am a huge advocate for therapy and I believe that every person could benefit from therapy, just like I believe that every person could benefit from the 12 steps. That isn’t to say that all therapy will benefit all people, but that the right therapy is beneficial to all people.
There are so many different styles and methods of therapy that I guarantee there is a style and method that can help every individual.
Group therapy helps me the most, but I also see an individual therapist. She practices solution-based therapy which can be irritating, but helpful. I’ve also been a patient of positive therapy, cognitive-behavioral, EMDR, talk therapy, and others that I couldn’t even identify or name if I tried.
So therapy also kind of ties in with the do it all tip. If you don’t know what style works best for you–do them all. See what works and stick with it. Or take your therapist’s lead and ask him or her what they think will benefit you the most, then try that.
Even if you know it all
I’ve been to enough therapists and I’ve taken enough psychology courses that I know pretty much all there is to know about therapy. I’ve analyzed my thinking and behaviors as well as those of my closest family and friends since before I even knew what therapy or psychologists were. It’s always interested me and I’ve always enjoyed it.
My current therapist hasn’t taught me one single thing about myself that I didn’t already know. In fact, there have been a couple of things that I’ve taught her over the course of the last year that she wasn’t familiar with or that she couldn’t name. But, she’s been extremely helpful for me. She’s helped me learn how to focus on what I can control rather than what I can’t, she’s helped me sort through my emotions and identify them or their cause; she’s talked through countless issues with me and identified the problems that could be fixed and offered solutions to fix them–and usually, they work.
8. Create a New Life
We can’t expect to stop using for any good length of time if our life of recovery looks just the same as our life in active addiction with the absence of drugs. We can stop visiting the old haunts, dump all of our using buddies and quit our addictive behaviors all day, but if we aren’t working a solid, consistent program of recovery, these things are bound to find their ways back to us sooner or later.
Creating a new life is more than just leaving old habits behind. It’s about establishing new, healthy habits and routines focused on recovery. It’s about going to meetings, meeting new people, working the steps (if that’s what works for you), and doing things every day that make us better people.
You don’t recover from an addiction by stopping using. You recover by creating a new life where it is easier to not use.
9. Take things one step at a time
“One day at a time” isn’t just a catchy recovery slogan, it’s a way of life. When I think about staying sober for the rest of my life, or even for the rest of the year, the thought is overwhelming.
The truth is, I don’t know if I’ll stay sober forever. I don’t think about tomorrow. I focus on what’s right in front of me, today and in this moment.
Sometimes even one day at a time is too much to think about. Especially in early recovery and when those cravings come on strong, we have to take things one hour, one minute, or one second at a time.
“I can do anything for 5 seconds!”
I often think of the Netflix show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. She says, “you can do anything for five seconds at a time! ♪ Just take it five seconds at a time ♪” When those five seconds are over, reevaluate and start the clock again.
Distraction is key
During these tough times, it isn’t sufficient just to wait it out, we have to take action. Find something to distract yourself when the cravings hit so that by the time those five seconds or five minutes pass, the craving is gone.
Read, write, dance, call a friend, create something. Do whatever it takes to occupy your mind with something else.
10. Get Honest
Secrets keep us sick, and one of the hallmark symptoms of active addiction is compulsive lying.
We don’t just lie about using. We lie about the stupidest things. What we bought at the store, what time we woke up, what we did all day, what we ate for dinner, who we’re talking to, where we bought our shoes. Our lies just never stop and many of us forget how to tell the truth.
In active addiction, my lying got so bad that I actually believed them myself. That’s how I lied so successfully. I started to believe some wild things that were entirely untrue.
The best course of action in combating this pathological lying is to practice radical honesty. Tell the truth about EVERYTHING. I told my husband every thought I had, every time I had a craving, every thing I did until I learned how to be honest again.
Even the smallest lies can trip us up and snowball into relapse. We tell one lie and get away with it and start to wonder what else we can get away with. The best policy is total and complete honesty, always.
11. If you can’t do it for yourself…
There’s a dangerous myth floating around that you can’t get sober, stay sober, or successfully practice recovery if you aren’t doing it for yourself. And it’s true, to an extent.
The idea is that if I get sober for my mom, for instance, and then something happens and we get into a terrible argument–what do I have left to stay sober for? I’m bound to end up relapsing. Makes sense enough.
But the truth is that few of us really want to get sober and stay sober. Many of us are forced into recovery one way or another, either because we’ve hit rock bottom and have nowhere else to turn, or our family and friends threaten to leave us, or we end up in jail and on probation. Chances are most of us were coerced in some way and we begin our journey out of necessity instead of desire.
The trick here is that if we’re doing it right, we’ll eventually learn to want it.
We’ll see how much better our lives are without drugs, and we’ll see that recovery is something we can achieve long-term, and we’ll see that it’s become something that we want to continue.
I didn’t want to get sober. I was forced into it and I had little choice in the matter. For roughly six months I stayed sober for my kids, my parents, my husband, and out of fear of going back to jail–and then something clicked. I found something I’d never felt before. I wanted to stay sober.
If you can’t do it for yourself just yet–that’s okay. If you have to do it for someone else, just do it! Do all of the things. You may just find that over time you stop doing it for everyone else and start doing it for yourself.
12. Get healthy!
Clean eating and exercise are vital to our physical and mental health. They can also play a crucial role in our recovery.
I’ve known people who have completely replaced their addictive behaviors with healthy behaviors–running, bike riding, working out, yoga, cooking, meal prep, etc.
When we eat better and take better care of our bodies, we start to feel better about ourselves and we slowly stop wanting to self destruct. We no longer want to poison ourselves with the most toxic chemicals we can find. We learn to love ourselves enough to stay sober.
Lists have a magical way of helping us set goals, focus on them, and work to achieve them. Something about seeing a list right in front of us can motivate us to try harder, work more, and do the right thing.
There are all kinds of lists. Gratitude lists, to do lists, lists of reasons to stay clean and sober, pros and cons lists, lists, lists, lists.
If you sign up for my newsletter you’ll receive a free copy of my recovery workbook, created by me specifically formulated to help with recovery. The workbook contains a gratitude list, a list of reasons to stay sober, a pros and cons list for using/staying clean, a list of verses from scripture that can inspire and motivate us in our recovery, and a list of affirmations that can help us learn to forgive and love ourselves. I’m a huge fan of lists.
Another tool you’ll find in the recovery workbook is an instruction guide/example and a blank outline for truth journaling. The idea here is to challenge our thoughts. Write them out on paper, about 5 sentences, number them (another list! muahaha), and then one-by-one challenge our self-destructive thought patterns by finding the truth. This helps to reframe and retrain our thinking.
But truth journaling is just one method of journaling. There’s diary keeping, list making (there we go again!), stream of consciousness, Bible journaling. Writing out our thoughts can help us organize and process them in a healthy way, so we aren’t stewing and leaking negativity into our lives.
15. Stay Busy
There’s a saying that goes “idle hands are a devil’s playground”, or something like that. Either way, it holds true for addicts. We need to stay busy, especially in early recovery, because the second our minds start to wander is when those thoughts start squirming their way in.
Make a bucket list of all the things you’d like to try, and start checking them off! Or, just call up a trusted friend and ask if they’d like to do something. Go see a movie, take a walk, find a hobby. Any one of these activities and so many more are great for keeping our brains and our bodies occupied, but they only last for so long. @_sweetpeace_ on Instagram says, “It was overwhelming and I hated it all at first. But now there is NOTHING I won’t try once! … I do about 80% solo. But I think that’d beneficial in getting to know yourself without having to worry about fitting in other people’s needs.”
Fill your days with positive experiences and you may find that life is much more fulfilling when you aren’t constantly worried about your next fix.
16. Honor those thoughts
When those thoughts do start to seep in, it’s important not to pretend they aren’t there. If we do that, we open ourselves up to allowing them to take root in the back of our minds, and that’s when they start to grow like weeds. Obsession starts in before we know it, and then it’s nearly impossible to shake.
We can’t pretend like we no longer have an addiction. When those thoughts come, we have to accept them for what they are.
This doesn’t mean giving into them!
Don’t ignore these thoughts entirely, but don’t entertain them either. Romanticizing these thoughts is the worst thing you could possibly do. When the feeling strikes, you may have the urge to engage it and start remembering what it would feel like, or you may have thoughts like “how would I even get it?” These will lead you straight down the road to relapse.
Recognize them and accept them, and then move on. Perhaps you have a list of reasons why you no longer engage in those addictive behaviors. Go over them if you need to, or start working on one. As soon as the thought comes, say “NO.” Then tell yourself “In this moment I have a desire to use, but I won’t because I know it won’t make anything better, and giving into the obsession will only make it grow.”
Then, move on with your day. Do this as often as you need to.
17. Distraction is KEY!
This is different than staying busy in that it directly and specifically applies to the times when cravings and thoughts of using or drinking start in. The first step is to stop the thought. The second step is to acknowledge, accept, and challenge it. The third step is to move on. But moving on from these thoughts can be easier said than done.
It helps to have a list of things to do in these moments. Games you like to play, chores you like to do, people you like to call, books you like to read, etc. There are apps that have games and activities compiled explicitly for the purpose of distracting one from addictive compulsions.
It’s important not to move into distraction without first challenging the thought, because then we run the risk of pretending like it doesn’t exist (and we’ve discussed why that’s a bad idea). But once you’ve accepted the thought and made the decision to move past it, you’ll want to distract yourself as quickly as possible to avoid entertaining the thought and romanticizing the idea.
18. Do something you’ve been avoiding
Addicts are master procrastinators. We won’t do anything until we’ve gotten our fix–and once we’ve gotten our fix, it’s usually time to start planning for the next one. Chores pile up around us and we’re usually completely oblivious to them.
Now that you’re sober and looking for ways to stay busy, it’s a perfect time to dust off that old to-do list and start getting $#!@ done!
And not to mention, the feeling of crossing those items off the list just feels so good and can provide a much needed boost in confidence! @the_southview on Instagram says “I got real focused on painting all my bathrooms and cabinets (and sorting out all the stuff in the cabinets). Something I had been putting off for years…It resulted in a beautiful room for self care. Exhausting work but so rewarding.”
19. Give yourself grace
These tips are filled with all the things we could, and probably should be doing on a regular basis just to maintain a healthy lifestyle. But it isn’t always feasible, at least not all the time. Sometimes just waking up in the morning and making it through another day is all we can do. And that’s OKAY!
On your toughest days, be easy with yourself. Do some self care. We can’t do it all all the time. Give yourself a day of rest.
Don’t push yourself so hard that you break. Find your limits and boundaries and exercise caution when approaching them. Doing too much can just as easily push us to relapse.
20. Forgive yourself (and others)
Forgiveness is a huge part of recovery not only from addiction but from mental illness and trauma as well as simply living a healthy, happy life.
We’ve all done things in active addiction that we wish we could take back. Unfortunately, we can’t. We can’t change the things we’ve done, but we can work on doing better, righting our wrongs, and living in such a way that we’re able to make up for our mistakes with our actions and good deeds.
Make amends when possible, when you’re ready. And just as importantly, forgive others. Holding onto grudges and resentments will only keep us sick and cause us more harm in the long run
Holding onto a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick.
No matter who has hurt us or why or how badly, holding that resentment won’t affect them in the slightest, but will absolutely cause us more harm.
We have to let go of the past and live in the present. Forgive–don’t forget–but forgive, yourself and others, and move on, free of poisonous resentments.
21. Plan ahead
Sometimes we can’t avoid situations that make us want to use or drink, or remind us of the times when we did. But if we’re lucky, we can anticipate these events and plan ahead for them to avoid the headache of cravings and compulsions.
Maybe you’re going out with your friends and you know you’ll be driving through the area where you used to score. Driving through the neighborhood where I primarily bought drugs is still difficult for me.
I try first to find alternate routes. If I’m driving or I’m close with the person who is, I can take another road or suggest a quicker or “more scenic” route that will bypass the old ‘hood.
If ultimately you still have to take drive through the dreaded past, put on a good playlist or strike up a conversation to keep your mind occupied. Chances are, you can drive on through without even realizing it if you’re engaged in other thoughts!
Or maybe you need to go grocery shopping, you’ve had a stressful week; normally you would pick up a bottle of wine or a case of beer (or two, or three…) to unwind and now you’re worried about passing that aisle. Alcohol is everywhere and it’s nearly impossible to avoid completely (I have huge respect for alcoholics because I don’t know that I’d be able to handle being surrounded by my DOC constantly even on regular everyday outings and errands).
You can plan ahead for this by trying to find stores that don’t sell alcohol, or by ordering groceries for pickup or delivery. If you have to go to the store, don’t go alone. Bring a friend who you can trust to keep you accountable. And ultimately, when you inevitably pass that aisle, don’t give it a glance or a second thought.
Prepare yourself mentally for these kinds of situations by telling yourself you’re committed to not drinking or using. Avoid them when possible, and when you can’t, just remind yourself of why you’re choosing a better way of life. Mind over matter, baby!
22. Don’t use (or drink) no matter what!
It’s a simple suggestion that can be easier said than done, but it’s important to remember. Even on your very worst days, when the worst cravings hit, the only thing you have to do is choose not to pick up.
Just make it through that moment, and the next, until it’s behind you. You’ll feel better, eventually. Regardless of how long it takes or how impossible it feels, I promise that it won’t always feel that way. Freedom and happiness are right around the corner–as long as you don’t pick up.
Every choice matters
When you commit to changing your way of life and quitting your addictive and self-destructive habits, every choice matters, and everything is a choice. We have to retrain our minds to not think about using or drinking–or at least to not give in. It doesn’t happen over night. It takes diligent effort and practice.
The most important things to remember are that once you break the toxic cycle of addiction, you don’t ever have to engage in those behaviors again. You have a choice now. And, that you’re not alone. There are millions of people just like you. You are unique, but your problems and habits and addictions are not. There is always someone who understands where you’ve been and where you are now. Reach out.
If you do end up using or drinking, get back up, dust yourself off, and try again. Every time you use or drink you’re risking your life. That’s a fact. But as long as there’s a beat in your heart and breath in your lungs, there’s hope. I promise you that if I can do it, you can do it too. And we’re in this together. Don’t ever stop trying. Don’t ever give up.
If you have a tip you’d like to share, leave it in the comments! It may just be added to the list so it can help others who are struggling to stay sober.