When a person is addicted to alcohol, the decision to seek treatment is a momentous one that requires hard work and commitment. But after the treatment phase ends, a new chapter begins that also requires work and commitment: the road to recovery.
"Addiction is an illness, and recovery is a choice a person makes to treat that illness.
It's defined as living a lifestyle in which sobriety is only one component, the others being termed 'personal health' and 'citizenship'--basically, the person turns away from drugs or alcohol to take care of themselves and become a productive member of the community," says Aung Thu, MD, medical director of chemical dependency at Mission Hospital, Laguna Beach. "It's really a holistic way of looking at the person who is building a life apart from substance abuse--caring for the whole person and all the mental, emotional and physical issues that can stem from alcohol dependence."
Addressing those issues is key to building a healthy life in recovery from addiction. April is Alcohol Awareness Month and Dr. Thu, an internal medicine and addiction medicine physician, makes the following suggestions to increase the chances of a successful post-treatment life in recovery.
1. Out with the old. "If a person undergoes inpatient treatment, it gives him a chance to dig deep and focus on getting better," Dr. Thu says. "But once treatment is complete, the patient is back out in the world, and if he falls into the old patterns and habits that fed the addiction, recovery will be a much tougher process." The things that signify drinking should be eliminated immediately--that can mean cutting off people who enable the addiction, getting rid of alcohol in the home if it's a temptation, or avoiding places that were associated with drinking, such as bars.
2. Get support. "It's so hard to make this journey alone," Dr. Thu says. "There are support groups, such as 12-step programs, that bring together people who are in various stages of addiction recovery to help each other. Family members can offer their love and empathy; they can also find a support group aimed at families to help them understand their role in the recovery process. Some people may feel more comfortable talking with a counselor trained in addiction issues. Whoever the confidantes are, the person in recovery must be able to share the truth of their struggles and concerns and get a listening ear in return."
3. Don't ignore mental health. "Prolonged, heavy drinking can affect the brain, and often there is a correlating mental disorder that comes with addiction," Dr. Thu says. "If someone is feeling depressed or anxious, or has a history of mental health issues, he absolutely should be in therapy for that as well. The doctor supervising treatment should be able to make referrals if the patient doesn't have someone in place already."
4. Accentuate the positive. "There may be moments when a person feels down, or recovery may seem daunting," Dr. Thu says. "Cognitive behavior therapy can help retrain those negative thoughts. They should be replaced with positive reflections--one way to do that is to keep a gratitude journal to record and remember the good things, so the person can come back to them when things look dark."
5. Build a social network. "A person will ideally have close friends or family members offering support, but friends who play a more social role are important as well," Dr. Thu says. "That's especially true if old acquaintances encouraged bad behavior. Find friends at church, at meet-up groups for fun activities, or through 12-step programs and plan events--it can be as simple as a game night at home or lunch and a movie. Studies show friendships are beneficial for mental, physical and emotional health."
6. Find a purpose. "For many people who struggle with addiction, drinking is a way to find pleasure they can't get elsewhere," Dr. Thu says. "But there can be deeper satisfaction and happiness found when someone is hearing a call and finding meaning in life. That can include volunteering or going back to school for a new career--whatever it is, the activity should capitalize on that person's strengths, which can lead to a deeper sense of personal fulfillment. And staying busy means there's less time to fall back into destructive patterns."
7. Take it easy. "It's important to find coping mechanisms that don't involve escaping into an alcohol-induced haze," Dr. Thu says. "Counseling can help a person develop tools and skills to use when times get tough. Those should include techniques such as meditation, which can help relieve stress and promote centering and balance."
8. Live a healthy life. "If a person eats well and exercises, he will feel better about himself," Dr. Thu says. "That strength can carry through into other areas of life, and recovery might not seem so overwhelming. People who have successfully navigated this journey feel a lot of joy, freedom and hope.”
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.