Written By:Amber Hollingsworth,LPC
Making new habits means changing your playgrounds, playmates, and playthings when it comes to breaking an addiction. This is a popular recovery metaphor that has been around for years and is absolutely necessary! Think of these categories as places, people, and things respectively.
It is common for me to have individuals who are in the early stages of change and have every intention of staying sober but don’t fully understand the depth of the problem. They expect that they can just “willpower” themselves into sobriety, so they keep on doing the same old things with the same people at the same places.
Here is what lots of young people say to me early in recovery: “I am still going to go to the party, the prom, the wedding, etc… I am just going to tell my friends not to use in front of me.” This idea sounds good in theory (or at least plausible), but it destines the person for relapse because being in these situations will reactivate the addiction pathways in the brain, even if the person does not intend on using. When this happens, you will be triggered and have cravings, and this will then trigger negative thoughts such as, “Why does everyone else get to and I can’t?” Such a combination of a trigger and engaging in self-pity can snowball into a dangerous situation.
Even if they don’t relapse immediately, this mind state can last for days or weeks and ultimately can trigger a relapse long after the fact.
I ask people all about their using habits to help them identify their triggers. Here are just a few examples:
What time of day do you normally use?
Who do you use with?
What clothes do you wear when you use?
Where do you get it from?
What emotions trigger you to want to use?
What music do you associate with using/drinking?
Here’s what this could look like as a routine:
On your way home from work you stop off somewhere to pick up some beers.
You then proceed to start drinking as you drive home.
When home you change into your favorite comfortable, lucky basketball shorts.
Then you plop down on the couch to blow off steam, watch some sports, and keep on drinking.
Eventually, however…. EACH FACTOR IN THIS ROUTINE WILL BECOME A HARDWIRED ASSOCIATION IN THE BRAIN WITH ALCOHOL/SUBSTANCE USE.
In a case like this, the person should take a different route home or have someone pick them up from work. They should avoid their basketball shorts and definitely not be alone on the couch watching sports right after work.
You just can’t help it, your brain will go on autopilot when you engage in these old using patterns.
It’s very important in early recovery to develop brand new patterns. Oftentimes, people will go to meetings that take place during the time of day they would normally use during.
Playmates are your using friends and this can be one of the most difficult/painful areas to navigate while attempting to break an addiction. You might be tempted to think that you can immediately see or hang out with these using friends in early recovery, but your brain has formed associations with them and using as well. As soon as you look at their face or hear their voice, you’ll be triggered to use.
This isn’t easy to hear but the good news is, you don’t have to avoid these people forever (well, not necessarily, at least). You just have to be patient but honest with yourself.
Eventually, people can even occasionally be around social using/drinking again (in small quantities; click here for some helpful strategies), but in early recovery, it is very important to develop new patterns. This will allow the brain to build new pathways not associated with the substance.
Most people are very scared to admit they have a substance abuse problem, and there are many good reasons for this. One big reason is that they are scared to go to treatment. Fortunately today, we have lots of options to get into recovery.
Also, don’t forget to check out part 2 of this blog to find out how a loss of connection promotes addiction and how reconnecting is key to recovery!