Staying Sober When Life Loses All Sense of Normality
If you lived through any of the major hurricanes of August–September 2017, you probably had thoughts like “I never knew what stress was before this!” Sometimes, the stress is worst when you aren’t in immediate danger: every television station is showing vivid images of water overflowing familiar-looking neighborhoods, and it seems you have nothing to do—and can do nothing—except worry “will it stop raining before the floods reach us?”
“Helplessness syndrome” is hardly unique to hurricane-prone areas. You’re at risk if any of the following happen, or even seem somewhat likely to happen, to you:
- A wildfire, tornado, earthquake or other natural disaster
- A violent crime
- A major traffic accident
- The sudden death of a loved one
- Destruction of a home or personal property
- Serious illness
- Job loss with no prospects for replacement employment
In any such case, your life feels shaken to the point of complete instability. And even if you’ve already stayed sober through the highest-risk period for relapse, the urge to turn back to old chemical means of self-comfort may attack now with overwhelming force.
REMEMBER THE “SERENITY PRINCIPLES”
Again, the stress—and the cravings—may get worse after you’ve done everything possible to deal with the immediate situation. With full resolution (and assurance of what that will look like) still a long way off, you feel overwhelmed with uncertainty, helplessness and anger.
These can be reduced by taking seriously the words that open the famous Serenity Prayer: “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
- Accepting the things you cannot change means finding more useful things to occupy your attention than the slow healing of a broken bone or your low position on an insurance company’s priority roster.
- Of the things you can change, your own attitude—the purging of self-importance, self-pity and impatience—should top the priority list. And it does take courage to admit you can’t control everything—and that you aren’t as important as you think.
- Knowing the difference between “cans” and “cannots” requires a healthy level of humility combined with clear thinking. Take time to consider your options objectively, and remember: you have more power than you think, but not always in the areas you’d prefer.
UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE REALLY CRAVING
Being “serene” is hardest for a mind that’s already fighting a willpower-vs.-cravings civil war—“Taking a drink won’t do any good.” “But I need a drink.” “But it’ll just make things worse.” “But I can’t take this situation one more day!!” Rather than waste already lowered emotional energy trying to repel cravings head on, realize that “the drink” is only an imagined short cut to what you really want:
- Some sense of control in the situation
- Escape from the worries that come with the situation
- A return to the old familiar routine
Remember, there are non-chemical ways—self-affirmation, exercise, prayer or meditation, time off for rest—to gain anxiety relief and at least some control. As for wanting your old routine back—that may or may not come eventually, but in any case you will have changed to some degree by the time life re-stabilizes. By focusing on the right things, you can help ensure that change is for the better.
DON’T TRY TO GO IT ALONE
Of course, if a craving persists and intensifies, call your support network for immediate help. And make doubly sure to stay active with support meetings and therapy throughout this period. If the problem has disrupted any of these resources—say your AA group has suspended its meetings because of flood damage to its regular location—keep up with your closest support partners by phone, email or social network. If there’s another local chapter (or an online one), attend meetings there, even if it’s less convenient. And consider volunteering to help others affected by the larger situation—this does wonders for taking your mind off your own worries.
DON’T TAKE ON MORE STRESS THAN NECESSARY
Don’t, however, volunteer for everything in sight or for anything with a steep learning curve. Cut back overall responsibilities if you can. Get plenty of sleep and down time, and avoid getting into conversations with pessimistic souls who encourage “what if” thinking. (It might also be a good idea to quit watching the news for a while.) Conserving your emotional strength should be top priority.
As mentioned above, you may never get your “old normal” back—but remember, you’ve already built a “new [and better] normal” through addiction recovery. Use your favorite recovery principles to move on into the next stage of life.