This article was first published on March 8th on The Fix: 10 Ways to Stay Sober When Everything’s Falling Apart.
We are re-posting it here today for two reasons: first, it is an excellent article and second, it is an inspiration for us as we continue to work on The Practical Book: Tools We Find Helpful in Recovery.
Self-care is critically important, especially in early recovery. Here are some methods to stay balanced, for 12 steppers and non-12 steppers alike.
By Katie MacBride
My 2016 had a rocky start. It was all relatively manageable stuff – tremors, instead of earthquakes – but for a recovering alcoholic, the smallest of shakes can sometimes feel off the Richter scale. I came down with a nasty, two-week flu, which left me feeling behind on work. That led to me feeling grumpy and stressed about my financial situation, which led me to being grumpy with my family and friends, and soon, I was looking at everything with anxious and hopeless eyes.
Fortunately, this isn’t uncharted territory for me and I have some tools to help pull me out of a downward spiral.
1. Be happy for others
“I have been sober for 90 days and I’ve loved every minute of it!” Do not punch the person who said this in the face. Perhaps you had this feeling and lost it—perhaps you never did. As much as you or I might resent the grinning resident of that pink cloud, try to see them for what they truly represent: possibility. We are all recovering from the same insidious disease – condition, ailment, whatever you want to call it – it’s amazing any of us, at the bare minimum, made it out alive. When anyone suffering from this addiction manages to wrest something like happiness out of the detritus, it’s cause for celebration, and even gratitude. It’s a reminder of the kind of life that’s out there for us – sometimes it happens at 90 days, sometimes it takes a little longer, but those irritating Pollyannas are a symbol of hope for us all.
2. Get outside and get moving
I’m terrible at taking my own advice on this, but I would be a much happier person if I did. In study after study, science has proven the effects of exercise on mood. I’m pretty sure even climate change deniers admit that 30 minutes of exercise a day can transform one’s outlook on life (denying climate change also probably improves one’s outlook on life but those who do so are in for a rude awakening down the road). Perhaps Elle Woods said it best in Legally Blonde, ”Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t kill their husbands.” Having a dog really helps in this endeavor, and is probably the only reason I ever breathe fresh air. Plus, it’s extremely hard to be depressed when you are being kiss-attacked by a puppy.
While the 12 steps might not work for everyone, there are a few adages that are irrefutably sound. One of these is HALT. When you’re feeling crappy, ask yourself if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and/or Tired. Whether you’re having a bad day or struggling with clinical depression, learning to HALT and take stock of the situation is one of the fundamentals of self-care. When things are really rough, I usually find that I haven’t HALTed in ages. I’m Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired, and by the time I’ve dealt with all that, I’m Hungry again. HALTing won’t solve all your problems, but it will make you as well-equipped as possible to deal with those problems.
I love lists. Lists of things you can do something about, lists of things you can’t, lists of things you can do about the things you can’t do anything about – and so on. I’m a firm believer in writing to relieve anxiety, but it can also be a direct way to tackle problems. This will be familiar to those who have gone through the 12 steps, but it can be practiced in a distinctly non 12-step way.
In Feeling Good, David Burns outlines a way to examine and write through negative emotions. The tools he outlines are common in cognitive behavioral therapy and offer a framework for examining what is often seemingly impossible to objectively analyze: our own thoughts and feelings. There are a variety of worksheets and other tools to help with this on the Internet but, even though Feeling Good is an older book, it’s one I like a lot. You can find a summary of the cognitive distortions and how to work through them on paper here.
Although it’s specified for depression, it’s appropriate for anyone who feels like their emotions are a roller coaster and they are just hanging on for the ride.
5. Take a load off
Often, when I feel like I can’t keep everything together, it’s because I am trying to do too much, too fast, too often. Even though what I’m trying to do is more productive (work) than it was before I got sober (drinking), it’s still a struggle to realize that I am, sadly, human. While more self-indulgent than HALT, which ensures you’re meeting basic needs, taking a load off is giving yourself permission to stop trying to manage all the different aspects of your life and just… enjoy. Marathon old episodes of Parks and Rec, get your favorite takeout, rewatch The American President for the 89th time (It’s just me? Okay, then) or pick up a book. We are constantly surrounded by a million different forms of entertainment, but it can be hard to slow down long enough to actually enjoy any of it. An evening of guilty pleasure TV or a mystery novel isn’t going to throw your life off balance. In fact, it may be just the thing you need to tip your emotional scales back towards the center.
6. Get outside yourself by helping others
In 12-step meetings, when people talk about “helping others,” they are usually referring to helping other alcoholics who are struggling to get sober. While that’s incredibly valuable and rewarding, that’s not the only way to get outside yourself and be of service. Call a friend who is going through a rough time and check in on them. Or, if you’re like me and are a self-diagnosed Severely Awkward Human Being, try volunteering at an animal shelter. There is nothing in the world that brings joy into the saddest of hearts like being part of an animal’s recovery from trauma to health. I know it’s hard to imagine having time for something or someone else when you feel like you can barely keep your own life together, but it may be exactly what you need to get some perspective on your own woes.
7. Remember how much you’ve accomplished
Think back to what it was like before your recovery began. Maybe getting through the day without two bottles of vodka nearly killed you. Maybe you woke up in strange places with strange people and no recollection of ever leaving your house. Whatever it was like at the bottom of your addiction, being in recovery – even when it sucks – is better. Yes, you’ve got work problems, relationship problems, life problems – because you are alive again and living in the world. But all those problems are nothing compared to the zombie autopilot of active addiction. It may suck right now, but it could be so much worse. And when it gets better, which it will, your recovery will be intact and you can continue to build your world, free from the constraints of active addiction. Don’t kick over the whole Lego tower just because you’re missing one piece.
8. Phone a friend
Arguably the most important component to my recovery is the friends I have made who are also sober. Fortunately, these friends are as bananas as I am and remind me that I’m not alone.
9. Meditation Lite
I am bad at meditating. Which is to say, I don’t do it. Like exercise, it’s something I know would be good for me to practice but – especially when I’m already in a funk – the notion of sitting with my own thoughts is unappealing at best, and terrifying at worst. Part of the problem is the term itself: meditation. It makes me feel as though I’m supposed to be much more zen than I am, or probably ever will be. So I practice something I call “quiet time.” Because it sounds like something that kindergarteners are taught, it is more accessible for me. For a few minutes every morning, I leave my phone inside and watch my dog run up the hill in the back of my house. It’s not exercise (phew) because she’s the only one doing any running. But I try to direct all of my focus on her, to watch what she’s doing as she sniffs grass, barks at birds, even as she dashes behind a bush to poop. Just for those few minutes, I can turn off my brain and appreciate what’s happening in each moment. Then, she dashes back down the hill and real life picks up where it left off. When my day gets crazy, as it always does, I picture my fat little dog bouncing up that hill, thrilled by nothing more than some sourgrass and the chance to go to the bathroom, and I feel just a little bit more at peace.
10. Get thee to a therapist
Sometimes, we just need a professional to help us figure out how to deal with our crap. It’s one of the pitfalls of being human and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Even if it were, recovery is more important than pride. There’s nothing in the Rulebook of Humanity that says we have to figure out everything on our own. In my experience, trying to figure out everything on my own has led to somewhat disastrous consequences. So if you’re going to have someone help you work it all out, who better to do it than a trained professional? I know therapy is expensive, and lots of times insurance doesn’t cover it, but there are options available for lower income patients and many therapists will work with you on a sliding scale. Think about how much you were spending on your drug of choice. Isn’t it worth shelling out at least that much to stay sober?
Katie MacBride is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read her work at her website: Katie MacBride, where she writes about addiction, health, political, cultural, and social issues.