In early recovery, it’s easy to be focused on all the progress you are making, or even to feel euphoric about the positive changes happening in your life. You have finally given up drugs and alcohol and are beginning to gain more self-confidence. Maybe you’re working on fixing those strained relationships with loved ones. And, for the first time in a long time, things are starting to come together.
But occasionally, those intrusive thoughts might creep in, and you might find yourself missing your addiction. And with that, comes guilt, shame, and perhaps even anger.
Why Are You Thinking About Past Substance Abuse?
Even if everything is going smoothly, troubling thoughts about your past addiction may still pop up. While it can be scary to face them head-on, it’s important that you acknowledge your thoughts rather than suppress them. If not, you put yourself at a higher risk of relapse. Below are some possible reasons why you miss your addiction.
Triggers may cause flashbacks, overpowering memories that feel like they are happening to you all over again. There are external triggers that can look like running into an old acquaintance who you used to party with. This encounter could stir up old memories and make you romanticize the past. Another external trigger may be a place, such as a bar or a park you used substances at with your friends. Although you can’t avoid all encounters with people or places, you can try limiting your social circle to close friends or switching up your daily routine.
Internal triggers are more easily manageable and are best summed up by the acronym H.A.L.T. When you’re too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, you are more at risk of experiencing general unhappiness and a lack of emotional control. While feeling down on yourself, it can be very easy to slip back into negative thought patterns and convince yourself that life was better with drugs in it. Many of these internal triggers can be avoided with everyday mindfulness and a gentle self-care routine.
Acknowledging the full reality of your addiction—the good and the bad—can be deeply healing. Doing so can help you cope with the conflicting emotions you may experience during early recovery. Constantly suppressing emotions or thoughts can make you take a step backward in your progress. After all, a major part of being in sobriety is addressing the emotional issues that lead to drug or alcohol use in the first place.
Furthermore, balancing life in recovery with work, relationships, and daily responsibilities can become overwhelming. Sometimes, without even realizing it, staying committed to your recovery program may be pushed off repeatedly for weeks, even months. You might stop attending AA meetings or reaching out to your support system. You might stop coping with your stress and negative emotions in healthy ways and begin ignoring your feelings. This is when it becomes easy for you to get drawn into thinking about missing your addiction and puts you at risk for relapse.
Romanticizing the Past
The temptation to fondly recall memories of drinking or using, and how good it felt, is compelling. If this thinking goes unchecked, you may find yourself fantasizing about your drug and alcohol use. You might tell yourself, “Since I’m healthier and doing better now. . . maybe this time it won’t be a problem.” Maybe you have a memory of a house party you threw with all your closest friends. As you think about that night, you might only focus on the fun parts and gloss over the fact that you got into an embarrassing fight with your partner. In the context of addiction, whenever you start thinking of something positive associated with your past substance use, there’s likely something negative that happened right behind it.
Intense cravings are expected in the early days of recovery, so it’s almost shocking when these issues occur after longer periods of sustained sobriety. Nostalgia for substances is more common than people realize and is a part of the chronic nature of addiction. It’s impossible to manage what thoughts creep into your mind, but you can manage how you react to them to keep them from occurring less and less.
Try focusing on a holistic picture of recovery, including practicing self-compassion and engaging in things that help to nourish your mind, body, and spirit. Healing from the damage rendered by addiction requires that you focus on what makes you feel happy, healthy, and connected to the world around you. Ask yourself, what is contributing to your belief that times were better back then? Perhaps you’ve gotten away from doing the things that were helping you feel happy in your recovery, or maybe you’re still discovering who you are and what your passion is in life.
How Do You Refocus Your Priorities?
Even with the most meticulous planning, you will face unexpected detours in life. During these moments, it is important to recognize the warning signs of a potential relapse and implement a good relapse prevention plan. Here’s how:
Utilize Healthy Coping Skills
Having effective coping skills is important in recovery. Stress management techniques, like physical fitness, journaling your emotions, and deep breathing exercises are a few things you can do to feel better about getting through the day. When faced with stress, you can also prioritize time-sensitive tasks first and break down larger tasks into more manageable chunks. Finding a hobby that you can enjoy can ease boredom, spark joy, and help you build connections with people that share your interests. This leads into practicing self-care which can look like spending time in nature, learning to play an instrument, or meal prepping for the coming week. All these tactics can help keep your mind off your cravings and focus on the positives in life.
Connect with Sober Supports
Having people around you who support your sobriety efforts has been hailed as the “antidote” to addiction. It can even help prevent the type of nostalgia that leads to relapse. A support system usually includes your sponsor, people at 12-step meetings, support groups, friends, family, and coaches—basically, people who are invested in your success, know about your recovery efforts, and uphold your commitment to staying sober. A good network should include people in recovery to remind you that you’re not alone, as well as provide an example of what you are trying to achieve in your own life.
Be Honest About Your Feelings
Practice rigorous honesty about your thoughts and feelings. Again, talk to people in your support system or people you can trust. Asking for help is a major barrier for many in recovery. This cannot be stressed enough. No one can help you if they don’t know that there is a problem. Remind yourself of the people that love you and want to see you succeed, seeking out their help as much as needed until you stop missing your addiction.
Romanticizing past drug use can be a warning sign that you are forgetting to practice gratitude for the things you have accomplished so far—making amends with family members, receiving good grades in school, applying to jobs, or getting in shape. Even the fact that you are no longer facing the consequences of your previous addiction is something to celebrate. If you have difficulty identifying things that you’re grateful for in life, perhaps try balancing the nostalgia with your troubling past. Remind yourself of just how bad things were prior to quitting drugs or alcohol. Keep reminding yourself as often as needed until your perspective changes.
Seek Out Professional Help if Needed
Many people suffering from addiction also suffer from co-occurring disorders, which can play a major role in relapses. Seeking out the help of a trained professional can aid in managing anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders. Professional help can also teach you how to deal with life stressors and drug cravings. If you want to get better and stay better, addressing these issues is crucial for your ongoing recovery and well-being.
Having thoughts about your past substance use is normal and a big part of recovery. Only when you begin to fixate on those thoughts does it become a concern. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean you are failing at recovery or destined to relapse. With awareness and the right coping skills, you can learn how to better handle these situations and set yourself up for success.