Design an Aftercare Plan in Just 5 Steps

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Design an Aftercare Plan in Just 5 Steps

By Paul Fuhr 09/14/17

After getting out of treatment you have to spend actual time thinking about what life will look like without someone scheduling it for you.

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shocked man at mall
Life after treatment is confusing and full of temptations so plan ahead with these helpful tips!

Right after treatment, life is a lot like being alone in a shopping mall on Black Friday. It’s overwhelming, disorienting and more than a little terrifying. And if you don’t have a list or strategy ahead of time, forget about it. There’s little chance for survival. (Trust me: a herd of shoppers once pushed me into the food court when I took two seconds too long waffling between Fossil and Express.) When it comes to addiction recovery, you can’t afford to wander around aimlessly or simply guess where you’re going next. Sobriety doesn’t work like that. Treatment gives you the pencils and draft paper, sure, but when you’re out on your own, that’s when the real work of drawing a plan begins. You have to spend actual time thinking about what life will look like without someone scheduling it for you.

I remember those very first days following treatment—the high-wire adrenaline of living without a safety net—and knowing every decision I made was vitally important to my future. But I didn’t have a plan and, two weeks later, I relapsed. I’d assumed that I’d just know what to do—that I could simply feel my way through sobriety. Nope. I felt my way straight to the gas-station beer cave. I wasn’t smart enough to know that I wasn’t smarter than my addiction. I was so used to living without a plan—not even the sketch of one—that I figured I’d just somehow stumble into sobriety. After leaving treatment the second time, I decided to give it more than three seconds’ worth of thought. One thing I knew about myself is that I’m not good at over-planning anything. Give me too many steps and I’ll have eggs and flour all over the countertop. In order to succeed, I have to keep it simple. My strategy for aftercare success boiled down to five steps:

  1. DON’T KEEP EVERYONE AT ARM’S LENGTH (WELL…MOST EVERYONE). I didn’t want to go to an AA meeting and I certainly didn’t want a sponsor. After all, I wasn’t one of Those People. Get the names and numbers of complete strangers? No way in hell. I also didn’t need a counselor in all the same ways I didn’t need to cut ties with my old drinking buddies. Now, I can’t imagine having years of sober time without the support of close friends, family and members of the fellowship. I practically force my number on newcomers. The single most important thing I did was surround myself with people who cared about my sobriety. For the first time in forever, I had people in my corner. And after years of neglecting myself, I forgot how good it felt to be someone worth cheering for.

  2. LOVE THYSELF: This is the absolute last thing I wanted to do. (I still can’t even bring myself to put it at #1.) I drank to avoid obligations and responsibilities, so diet and exercise were never going to be priorities. Still, I know what’s good for me in all the same ways I know the difference between right and wrong. It’s just harder to do the right thing. When I was drinking, I chose to never do the right thing. Now, taking care of my emotional and physical well-being is something I make time for. And yet, I know my limits. I don’t set lofty goals of a half-marathon after years of binge drinking. Especially in early sobriety, I wasn’t going to set myself up to fail. I’d failed enough already. I started slow and small. I thought of things I could do right away: a walk around the neighborhood, taking the stairs at work, parking on the opposite end of a lot. Eventually, all those little steps began adding up to miles on my road to recovery.

  3. SWEAT THE DETAILS: I spent a long time thinking about all the stresses, triggers, temptations, and behaviors that landed me in treatment. Every little detail. It was almost too much to think about. I mean, everything was an excuse for me to drink. (Birthday party! Picnic! Holiday! Because it’s Monday!) But once I was really open and honest with myself, I listed everything that could torpedo my chances at staying sober. Right off the top of my head, I had about 23 people, places and things I had to be aware of. The more I understood about what made me tick, the better prepared I was to get on with my sobriety. Life was still a minefield, sure, but at least I had a map of where all the bombs were buried.

  4. GO WEIRD: Recovery doesn’t need to stop and start with AA meetings and exercise. After all, in early sobriety, things can be both frightening and fun. These days, there are countless opportunities to try something a little bit “out there” to kick your recovery to the next level. It used to be that yoga and acupuncture were left-field options for recovery. Now, even cryotherapy and sensory-deprivation tanks are so 2014. If you’re an aspiring Gary Kasparov (and who isn’t?), chess therapy is becoming popular in treating addiction. “Emotional tapping techniques” combine acupressure and talk therapy to help people beat their addictions and get past traumas. There’s also “wake-induced lucid dreaming,” which yanks you out of a deep sleep to promote recovery. And if none of those ideas have enough Matrix in them for you, don’t fear: virtual reality treatment is on the rise, so you can strap on a VR helmet and plunge headlong into all the worries, anxieties and behaviors that drove you to drink and drug.

  5. PUT IT ON PAPER: In less than five minutes, I brain-dumped everything about my recovery onto a sheet of paper. Everything. Every single one of my fears, challenges, strategies, and specific plans. I wrote down the names, addresses and times of meetings near my house. I listed the diet and exercise goals that I could actually stick to. (Farewell, Doritos Cool Ranch chips! I’ll always love you.) I even scribbled out all the nightmare scenarios in life that could cause a relapse. Surprisingly, it didn’t overwhelm me. Just staring at everything on one piece of paper made it all seem manageable. It was cluttered, sure, but it was confined to one page. Just one. It helped me see everywhere I wanted to go as much as it showed me everywhere I didn’t want to go. There’s no greater relief than seeing a single page of paper after believing you have an entire book of problems to sort through.

Truth be told, the details of an aftercare plan should be as different and unique as you are. But if you stick to these five basic steps, you’ll have a solid foundation for your sobriety. (I should also mention that I wrote down everything by hand, like a maniac. Maybe it’s just me, but the added hand-cramping made me feel a greater sense of accomplishment.) Keep it simple and be honest with yourself. Any plan is better than no plan at all. If anything is guaranteed after treatment, it’s this: without an aftercare plan, you’ll end up dazed, empty-handed, and circling the parking lot on Black Friday, wondering how you ended up there in the first place.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.

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