Healing from Addiction—the Challenges and the Victories

Healing from addiction is a multi-layered process, and it is an ongoing process for quite some time. Some even say we will always be in recovery if we have had an active addiction. The beauty of recovery is that it occurs in stages and in each stage, you will feel better in some ways, accomplishing a great deal. You don’t have to ‘white knuckle’ it like so many fear for long periods.

Since addiction is a whole person/whole life illness, eventually affecting all of your endeavors, your health on all levels, and every realm of life you are involved in, recovery is also a whole person/whole life process. Both the illness and recovery from it progress, building on what has happened before. You can count on your recovery efforts building one upon the other if you stick to it.

Of course, life happens, and none of us are exempt from its crises or its episodic pain, but having a good recovery plan that is thorough and well used is a significant touchstone for you during the ups and downs of ordinary life. It is important to complete withdrawal and detox, work with trained professionals to deal with mental and emotional components of addiction, learn coping strategies, and put together a detailed plan of action.

Your Recovery Plan Needs to be Thorough

A good relapse prevention plan is essential if you are to protect the investment of time, energy and money you make in addiction treatment. In fact, at the nitty-gritty of it, preventing relapse is your ultimate goal after detox.

A thorough relapse prevention plan will somewhat obsessively plot things out for you. It will have a daily and weekly outline of things to accomplish, but it will also troubleshoot ahead as much as possible. What potholes might pop up on your journey? What possible bad scenarios do you anticipate would put you in crisis? Even if you think something is possible but unlikely, add it. For example, what if you encounter that old using buddy and he or she has your substance of addiction on them and offers you some? What if you are at a family event and that particularly upsetting dynamic in your family happens again? What if you have a personal tragedy? What if you need addictive medications in a medical emergency?

While these sorts of things are very unpleasant to think about, considering them during a peaceful time is something you’ll be grateful for later if they do occur. Planning strategies for a crisis when we are calm gives us something to hold onto in crisis. When a crisis hits, even a minor one, our brains switch to alarm mode. We’re overwhelmed with fight or flight impulses and can’t access higher brain functions like reasoning and problem-solving as well as usual. If you have planned for such a crisis time, you are more prepared. Even if you can’t remember your plan, you can retrieve your written copy ASAP and find calm, reasonable guidance in it.

Healing from Addiction–Addressing the Trauma of the Illness

Addiction is a traumatic illness–not only for the person who is ill but also for his or her loved ones. At times too, even the community or strangers can be traumatically impacted by someone’s addictive illness. Accidents and deaths caused by drivers under the influence are unfortunately examples of that. So is the impact of chronic high stress in the lives of those living with an addicted loved one.

Trauma is caused by an overwhelming single or a prolonged and overwhelming condition. A traumatic reaction occurs when our psychological ability to cope is overwhelmed. Also, trauma can overwhelm our resources to cope in terms of financial loss and homelessness, for instance. Whatever the event(s), we are at least temporarily overpowered by the shock and the enormity of them. In active addiction, which can go on for even decades, there may be countless such events, not only for the addicted person, but for others who are close, and even people randomly encountered if conditions become dangerous enough.

Among the potentially traumatic events in active addiction are such things as;

Physical injury 

Mental illness

Suicidality

Aggression

Victimization by violence

Infectious disease

Sexual assault

Financial ruin

Lost primary relationships

Lost custody of children

Incarceration

Loss of career

Homelessness

Traumatic reactions can range from what is called ‘sub-clinical’, or fleeting and occasional symptoms, to full Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. This means one can have mild to moderate lingering or episodic symptoms such as distressful memories, anxiety, and fear, and/or nightmares related to traumatic events, or one can be seriously impaired daily from a host of trauma symptoms. All such symptoms are treatable with the right help and significant relief can be found. There are people specially trained in the treatment of trauma and with coping techniques, counseling, and sometimes non-addictive medications, symptoms can be resolved.

Healing from Addiction in Your Relationships

One’s relationships inevitably suffer during active addiction. Loved ones cannot bear the confusion, chaos, and pain of being close to the illness over a prolonged period, and have inevitable reactions. They may emotionally withdraw to protect themselves or even actually leave the relationship in order to do so. When we are actively addicted, we cannot be a responsible partner, son or daughter, parent or sibling. Others can’t count on us for daily support or help in times of need. They can’t even count on us for consistent affection or even full attention in a conversation.

Consequently, when we finally tackle healing from addiction, it is common to find ourselves having damaged multiple relationships. We may reach out and find little or no response from the others who are important to us. It can be a frightening and lonely experience, as well as a ‘sobering’ one. Through the pain of damaged relationships, we can see the devastating impact of an addictive illness. This is the time we need other people–professionals trained to walk us through this, and recovery supports that understand these things. We can find professional support in treatment settings, and even in other community resources such as faith communities. We can find great recovery support in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous (AA or NA).

Additionally, in our treatment, significant others who are willing can join us in family counseling, as well as in counseling and education services specifically meant for them. These efforts greatly accelerate everyone’s healing from addiction and rebuild relationships. Unfortunately, some important people will not be willing to rebuild relationships and we have to honor their right to make these choices, as painful as that may be. Working with addiction professionals and supports that understand these issues is valuable during such work.

Healing from Addiction from the Inside Out

Of all the layers of healing from addiction that we go through in ongoing recovery, the most invisible to us is what happens in the brain and nervous system. We see reflections of those changes in our emotions, our physical health, our thoughts and in our behavior, but we don’t see the struggling brain chemistry or the neurological events that occur in healing so clearly.

Active addiction exposes the brain and nervous system to a series of intoxications. And, that is literal: each time we are intoxicated, toxins enter the system changing the brain and nervous system functioning. It is possible to have enough toxicity in one experience, or a few, to cause severe alterations, but generally, the longer and heavier the use of substances, the more risks of toxin-induced problems.

Even well after detox, the brain and nervous system need to heal. And, we can feel healthy long prior to that process completing. Some will have what is known as a protracted, or extended, withdrawal syndrome with noticeable symptoms such as insomnia or anxiety long after detox. This indicates the brain and nervous system are continuing to have problems and need longer to recuperate. Research into recovery from chronic cocaine use has shown that up to 18 months or so after withdrawal, there can be periods of withdrawal symptoms surfacing, for example.

If You or a Loved One Need Help

Beginning treatment and recovery can seem a daunting task, but it is helpful to focus on the short-term and what steps are necessary to take in front of you. The slogan ‘one day at a time’ offers us a lot of wisdom. Focusing on a long journey ahead is overwhelming, but getting done what you can more immediately toward your goal is manageable.

Fortunately too, along the way, there are countless milestones and rest stops where you can enjoy your adventure, and savor your accomplishments. You don’t have to continually wait to feel better one day in the distant future. Lots of things heal and do so at deepening levels in long-term recovery. Paying attention to gains of any measure will help you stay in touch with the healing process, and there will be many: in your mood, your sense of humor, your physical well-being, the return of interests, and the enjoyment of simple pleasures, to name just a few.

Yes, treatment and recovery are major life projects. However, they are an investment in yourself, your family, your future and your life. Very little that you will do will have the type of profound and far-reaching impact they will. Overcoming addiction is more than possible, and we are more fortunate today than ever to have the research and trained professionals using that knowledge to help us.

If you or a loved one you are helping is ready to tackle addiction and put its damage in the past, we can help you find the right help. Give us a call today for a free consultation. We will find treatment options that meet your needs.