Let’s Get Real: How To Handle the Tough Stuff in Recovery Without Using

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Let’s Get Real: How To Handle the Tough Stuff in Recovery Without Using

By Tessa Torgeson 08/31/18

Of course, people had good reason to think that I couldn't handle upsetting news. Every time a hardship, breakup, or something unsettling happened, I wound up in the psych ward, detox, ER, or a bloody, tear-filled mess.

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Finally, he admitted to our mutual friend that he had a girlfriend but was afraid to tell me because I was “constantly on the verge of suicide” and he was worried about relapse.

When I was drinking, I was the girl who took pulls of rail vodka right from the bottle. I took it straight, no chaser. Others looked at me with a mixture of surprise and disgust. Girls were supposed to mix their vodka with fruit juice or soda. Girls weren’t supposed to out-drink the men or keep straight razors in their wallet for chopping up fat lines. Fellow drunks patted me on the back. I was one of them. I embraced my heavy drinking as a point of pride, wore it like a badge of honor.

But the point of this isn’t to share my war stories or act like I was the most bad ass alcoholic or junkie to ever haunt the planet. Rather, I want to share how I still prefer to apply the “straight, no chaser” motto to other areas of my life. I prefer when loved ones are straightforward, blunt, and honest with me about tough stuff and hardship rather than trying to gloss over the truth or protect me from pain. Even though I have been in recovery for years, some of my loved ones have continued to worry that I will relapse upon hearing bad or heartbreaking news, as though I was some sort of wounded dove with the word “fragile” stamped on my forehead.

Of course, they had good reason to think that I couldn’t handle upsetting news. Every time a hardship, breakup, or something unsettling in my life happened, I wound up in the psych ward, detox, ER, or a bloody, tear-filled mess. I categorized people as either “normies” or “addicts and crazies” because it was easier than embracing the messy complexity of human beings. In my mind I was broken. Normal people went to the gym, spa, or the mall when they were troubled. But those options didn’t work quickly enough to soothe my mercurial temperament and smooth my edges. I labeled myself as a crazy addict, so I went straight to the liquor store or to the organic grocery store (ironically this was where my dealers were, standing outside with signs reading: "needs money, anything helps").

If you’re someone who struggles with addiction, you understand this self-destructive pattern. It’s hard to deal with “life on life’s terms,” as they say in the program. When stressful life events happen, we often turn to our familiar coping mechanisms. In fact, the National Institute of Drug Abuse found that up to 60 percent of people relapse within their first year of recovery. 

There is a constellation of reasons that people relapse. Studies have found that being exposed to stresses that originally caused someone to excessively drink or use drugs is a major trigger for relapse. Another study found that patients with alcohol and opioid dependence were most likely to relapse when they had a family history of substance use and high number of relapses, used maladaptive coping strategies, and also had “undesirable life events.”

I can relate as I had my share of undesirable life events this past year. Even though I’ve been clean for a few years, I still felt a massive urge to use after hearing about the death of my god-daughter and, on a less serious note, a heartbreaking romantic let-down.

These events were handled very differently. The morning after my god-daughter died, my mom called and told me the tragic news. She wanted to make sure I heard it from her directly rather than passively finding out about the death on social media. Although this was devastating news, I appreciated that she was direct and real with me.

What really triggered my cravings was ambiguity and a romantic disappointment. Although we broke up a few years ago after I relapsed, I still consider my ex one of my best friends. We text every single day and I even stayed with him for five days when I was visiting Portland in December. He let me sleep in his bed while he slept on the couch. Wrapping myself in his blankets, I was comforted by his familiar smell of Camel cigarettes and Old Spice. Although the visit was platonic, there were moments when I felt a possible rekindling of our romantic relationship.

He paid for all my meals, opened doors to restaurants, and even took me to the Oregon Museum of Mental Health in Salem where I researched an essay. Okay, maybe going to a museum of mental health isn’t exactly a hot date, but the fact that he was willing to take me felt positive. He also talked about taking a road trip together in his new BMW coupe, laughing at how when we had been together he drove a Buick and we barely made ends meet. I reminded myself that my intention for this visit was to make amends in person for spinning him in my addictive chaotic orbit and leaving him in the wreckage of our relationship. Yet I still got my hopes up that we would get back together and I wrote him a long letter proclaiming my feelings for him.

He never responded. He faded away from me, and his texts became infrequent and vague. He said that he was busy and stressed with work. Finally, he admitted to our mutual friend that he had a girlfriend but was afraid to tell me because I was “constantly on the verge of suicide” and he was worried about relapse.

I was crushed, but at the same time I sort of understood his perspective. He knew the story of my old self. I had shown him in the past that I couldn’t handle such rejection or disappointment.

So how do we deal with the tough stuff in recovery? Amanda Decker, a Licensed Addiction Counselor (LAC) and Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in Fargo, North Dakota, explained: “There will be growing pains throughout the ebb and flow of recovery. It’s hard knowing how to deal with life without drugs or alcohol but it’s helpful to remember that perspective shifts over time. It also helps to develop hobbies and interests. When people in recovery can embrace these things, drugs and alcohol become white noise in the background.”

Decker suggested developing a “pre-emptive” relapse prevention plan by thinking about how to handle life stressors without alcohol or drugs. If we are in the position of telling difficult or uncomfortable news to a family member or friend who is in recovery, Decker advises: “As an addiction counselor, I’ve had to tell my group about a fellow group member who has overdosed. The first thing I did was to be direct and be present with my group members who were struggling in that moment. There will be a lot of grief and sadness that we have to learn to cope with.”

The truth is that hardship, tragedy, and disappointment are parts of life that we have to learn how to come to terms with in recovery. We have to start embracing and seeing the shades of wellness and addiction rather than labeling things “normal” or “crazy.” It’s hard to tell a different story about ourselves, it’s even harder to break the story that others have about us. But I have faith in myself and I have faith in you, my fellow humans in recovery. For we are resilient, brave survivors, not fragile wounded doves.

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Tessa Torgeson is a collector of bad habits aka addictions, polka-dot stuff, and general awkwardness in Minnesota. Embracing alternative recovery, she is currently writing a memoir about addiction and recovery from a non-traditional, harm reduction perspective. If you want to hop on the feelings train, follow her on twitter @tessa_tito and read more of her writing at www.tessatorgeson.com.

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