Life is hard.
PTSD is hard.
Staying sober is hard.
When you have PTSD, and an addiction history, and your life suddenly weaponizes against you, staying sober becomes a monumental feat.
Right now, my life is a landmine of triggers. I lost someone I considered a good friend, who I cared about and was unbelievably hurt to learn didn’t care so much about me. If you have been following my blog at all, you know that losing these long-time friends is a deep fear of mine. Then, I had to attend a Family Court Services interview in which I was asked to disclose the intimate details of my worst abuses to a stranger; I haven’t even disclosed a lot of this stuff to my therapist yet. And, that was only the first half of the interview. I have to go back next week. In a couple of days, I have to actually see my abuser. I’ll be in the safety of a court room with my big, BBJ trained husband by my side, but still…I have PTSD. It’s not cool.
Needless to say, it’s been a tough couple weeks.
Once upon a time, I would be high out of my mind right now and approaching an overdose.
But I’m not. I’m sober. And not by chance. I have worked really, really hard to have a clear head right now. So today I am going to share with you some of the tricks I have used to keep myself from relapsing despite being assaulted by triggers for two weeks straight.
I should tell you guys that I do not adopt the 12-step mentality, which commands that once you’ve had a problem with a substance, you can never get intoxicated again. I do smoke weed (I live in a state where it’s legal) and drink alcohol occasionally. I am able to control myself, and I do my best not to use these things in a self-medicating context as that is a dangerous action which could lead me back into an addiction. I’m not smoking or drinking now, for example. But I just thought I should tell you, for the purposes of full disclosure, that every once in a while I’ll kick back and have a couple tokes or drinks after the kiddos have gone to bed.
That being said, these tools can help you stay sober in whatever form of sobriety you choose. They can help you stay 100% abstinent from all mind-altering chemicals (okay that’s a lie; oxygen is a mind-altering chemical and I can’t help you with that…but you know what I mean) or they can just help you avoid the substances that cause you problems. I respect whatever form of sobriety you have chosen for yourself. Recovery is hard. Judgment does not help (hear that Anonymous folks??)
Without further ado…
The Trauma-Mama Guide To Staying Sober Even When You’re Triggered
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1. Stay Busy
Have you heard that one before? Well, hear it again! Staying busy is so important for sobriety. Ever seen the movie “Trainspotting?” You know, where Ewan McGregor makes heroin addiction look sexy (ugh)? Well, there’s a part where he’s talking about relapse. And it’s not the pain of the withdrawals that make him relapse…it’s the boredom.
Boredom is arguably the biggest contributor to relapse. If you want to stay sober, don’t get bored. When you’re triggered, you’re especially susceptible. You have the perfect cocktail of anxiety, depression, and boredom. Your drug of choice is going to start looking real purrrty. And she’s going to be really hard to resist.
Don’t put yourself in that position. Hopefully you have been sober long enough to have fostered some new habits and hobbies. Use those tools. For me it’s writing and, since January, blogging. For you it could be baking, or jogging, or hell! Just watching Netflix. It’s Netflix for me too actually..you can (and should) have more than one. The more healthy ways to keep your mind occupied, the better. I’m not talking the “normie” version of healthy either. By healthy I mean, not damaging to your life. If you need to settle down with your X-Box for a few days and stuff yourself with donuts to keep from shooting heroin, as long as it’s a short term activity, go for it.
2. Show Gratitude To The People Who Care About You
This has been a big struggle of mine. I have been called ungrateful for years by a large number of people. I was offended by that accusation. I felt it was unfair. Then I realized that it was true.
Well, not exactly, but I could see why others thought it. I do feel gratitude; deep, sentimental gratitude toward the people who help me. Gratitude that sometimes makes my ribs feel like they are going to burst and brings tears to my eyes in the private quiet of deep night. But it is really, really hard for me to express that gratitude. One of the crueler trends of The Ex’s abuse was that he would often beat me after I did something nice or expressed love or gratitude to him. It was so consistent that I developed deep-seated cherophobia and became terrified to show anyone affection or gratitude.
I’m probably not alone in this. Cherophobia is a pretty common symptom of PTSD. People who have a history of trauma are going to have difficulty expressing and sometimes even feeling gratitude. It’s just part of the territory.
Difficult doesn’t always mean bad, however. It is worth working through this particular difficulty to express gratitude to those who are helping us through tough times. Last Sunday I started The S/O Challenge, which I highly recommend to anyone in a committed, non-abusive relationship. In it, I challenged myself to write out ten reasons why I love my husband. If that doesn’t apply to you, modify it. Write out ten reasons why you love whomever it is your life that you love. It could be your best friend. It could be a sibling, a cousin, a co-worker. It could even be your pet. It could be a combination; maybe you have more than one support. Whoever sincerely helps you get by during dark times, write them this list. Then share it with them. You can post it online like I did, or if you’d rather be more private, e-mail it to them or read it to them aloud. Expressing gratitude will make them feel good, which will make you feel good, and all those happy brain chemicals are going to help you stay sober.
Writing this list will also help you to remember that you are not alone, and that there is at least one person who cares deeply for you. New science is revealing that addiction is a social disorder; reminding yourself, as concretely as possible, that you are not alone will be a huge deterrent to relapse.
3. Treat Yourself
I wish I could attribute this to the blogger who first introduced me to this idea, but unfortunately I read it years ago, when I was not sober, as I was taking my first stumbling steps toward recovery. The instructions were for addicts in their first couple weeks of sobriety, and they directed us to use the money we would have spent on drugs instead buying something nice for ourselves.
I could go on a tangent about what’s wrong with telling addicts to use the money we would have spent on drugs in another way…but I’ll save that for another time.
I’m going to put a spin on the idea that doesn’t have to involve money. Just do something nice for yourself. Pamper yourself. If you can afford to take yourself to a spa or buy yourself that flattering dress you’ve been eyeing, do it. But if funds are tight, you can cook yourself a tasty meal instead of going out. You can give yourself a makeover with the tools you have available. If you have just a little bit of money, you can do what I do and head over to your local Goodwill on Monday…Mondays are $1.79 day for whatever color tag is on sale that week! You’d be amazed at how many awesome things I have scored for $1.79 on Mondays at Goodwill…from a whole collection of cute new clothes, to a train table for my kiddos, to a beautiful decorative light which I was able to re-sell for $50! That’s my way of treating myself.
If thrifting isn’t your thing, do whatever makes you feel good. You know what you like! Seriously, treat yourself. In one way or another, do something nice for yourself. You are having a hard time. Giving yourself a reason to smile is the smartest thing you can do if you are committed to staying sober.
4. Remind Yourself That It’s Okay
I am starting to become a big believer in the power of list making. Words are tools, and tools have power. Use that power to your advantage. Help groove your brain into healthy thinking by physically writing down a list reminding yourself that your life is okay. I originally got the idea from this blog post, which is totally not related to sobriety or recovery, but the concept definitely can be tweaked to help us.
Your life may not be great right now. It may even suck. A lot. Still, I guarantee, there are things that are okay. This isn’t quite a gratitude list. When you’re feeling super triggered, accessing your feelings of gratitude is pretty hard, and I’ve already had you do that once, about the person or people who care for you. I’m not going to make you do it again. This time, write down what’s just okay. You may want to fix these things in the future, but right now you can live with them. Right now, they’re okay.
A short example from my life:
It’s okay that my husband and I have not been spending a lot of time together.
It’s okay that we still owe $250 to the electric company, because we paid enough to keep our lights on.
It’s okay that we are not getting food stamps right now due to an error.
It’s okay that my therapist is on vacation during this triggering time.
It’s okay that I don’t have cable and have missed the entire past season of The Walking Dead.
It’s okay that my blog isn’t growing as quickly as I would like.
It’s okay that I’m struggling.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It’s a list of things that I could have easily framed in negative terms…”it sucks that my husband and I have not been spending a lot of time together…” but instead I am choosing to frame them more neutrally. It’s okay. It will pass. It can be fixed. It’s okay.
Write your list and share it in the comments if you feel so inclined! I’d love to see what you come up with.
5. Practice Mindfulness
This isn’t the first time I have recommended a mindfulness practice, and it won’t be the last.
When people hear mindfulness, they often think of sitting meditation. I have nothing inherently against sitting meditation. I just can’t do it, and neither can a lot of trauma patients. It has too much trigger potential, and if you’re already triggered, I wouldn’t even recommend giving it a try until you’re feeling better.
But there are other ways to be mindful, and mindfulness is a great way to ground yourself in your body and your reality in a non-threatening way. This type of grounding is really important to sobriety. Being an addict is terrible. Taking drugs, if you really think about it, is insane. You’re literally poisoning yourself. In order to relapse, you have to disconnect from both your intellect and your survival instincts. Mindfulness helps you connect with those faculties, which in turn helps you make the good decision not to use.
Some of my favorite mindfulness techniques are yoga, walking meditation, and mindful cooking.You can see that these are all forms of moving meditation. While sitting meditation requires a level of stillness which can be uncomfortable for trauma survivors, moving meditation provides for a much more concrete focal point than just breathing. This diminishes the possibility that your mindfulness practice will turn into a flashback. Mindful cooking is an especially safe one, in my opinion, because there are so many sensory anchors involved.
6. Go On A Trip
I’m not talking a huge random vacation, which can be both expensive and stressful. Go on a day trip somewhere. It can even just be a long bus or train ride to a random suburb you have never visited before. Or, if you have the means, go down to the nearest city or adjacent state, or maybe a cool state park. Try to avoid somewhere super seedy, because drugs are everywhere and if you take a trip to a slum, that could trigger, rather than prevent, a relapse.
Breaking routine is a great way to prevent the doldrums; those nasty little henchmen of addiction. Plus, it will literally take you away from your connects. Sometimes, when you are feeling especially triggered, you just need to physically remove yourself from the people and places where you know you can score.
Try to keep it low-key and stress-free. A state park or somewhere that’s a train ride away are ideal.
7. Tell People That You’re Struggling
If you’re like me, you have an easier time telling a lot of people about your problems in an impersonal way than telling just one or two people intimately. Some people get annoyed by Facebook posts about your struggles, but to hell with them! This is about you. If blogging about your struggles or posting on Facebook is what helps you, do it. People who care will respond, and the ones who get annoyed by it will scroll past and move on with their lives.
If telling a close friend is easier for you, then go that route. Just make sure you tell at least one caring person that you are struggling with your sobriety. It’s best if you are able to word it that clearly, but if you’re not comfortable telling people the exact nature of your struggle, say something like “I am having a really hard time right now I need some extra support.” Here, I’ll help you:
Remember earlier when I mentioned that addiction is a social disorder? It’s true. Addiction arises, partially, out of an unmet desire for connection. If you are able to meet that need for connection through social interaction, you have a lower chance of trying to also meet it with drugs. Support is important. Asking for help when you need it is a valuable skill and there is no better time to cultivate it.
8. Find Healthier Ways To Escape
Substance abuse is a form of escapism. I think we can all agree on that, right? Let’s be honest: Escapism is important. We all do it. Human existence is heavy, and stressful, and dull, and sometimes traumatic. Yes, there are great things about existence too, but you can’t deny that sometimes it’s truly a drag. So, we escape.
Problems arise when we escape too often, or in unhealthy ways. I have done more than my fair share of unhealthy, obsessive escapism. When I’m going through a particularly triggering time, I want to escape more than ever. While popping a benzo or two with a rum chaser (or two) sounds fantastic, it comes with some nasty side effects. Like acting a fool. Or endangering my kids. Or blacking out without even knowing I’m blacking out. Or dying.
It’s good to figure out ways that will help you escape when you need to, but which won’t endanger your health or family. For me, those things are watching Netflix, and reading speculative fiction. For my new blogger buddy Sheila O’Donnell, who also has PTSD, it’s laying on comfy blankets and listening to music. Comfy blankets are important to me too, by the way.
For you it could be painting, or playing video games. This is kind of similar to #1 (staying busy, remember?) but it’s more specific. Staying busy can be anything. It can be shopping for groceries, or playing with your kids. This one specifically directs you to put distance between yourself and reality. You can’t do it constantly. You can’t do it while you’re in any kind of active caregiver position. But you can do it occasionally, after the kids have gone to bed or whatever responsibilities you have throughout the day are put to rest. Allow yourself to escape into the reality of a good book, or song, or whatever, just for a little while.
9. Work Out
Did that one make you cringe a little? I feel ya. I used to hate fitness. I did not do it. Not one little bit. I was always the most inflexible kid in my class and I did not care. Actually I was secretly super embarrassed, because I felt like my inflexibility was innate and unfixable, but I acted like I didn’t care, and that’s what counts, right?
Okay no, but that was years ago. When my husband and I first embarked on a serious recovery journey together, he introduced me to fitness. I became addicted. Which is actually quite a common phenomenon within the chemical/trauma recovery community, so maybe you already do it!
Drop two kids into the mix and I’ve had to tone it down..a lot. I don’t go to the gym anymore. I own jogging shoes but almost never run. I don’t have the funds for a yoga membership, but I do make a point of engaging in at least twenty minutes of some kind of fitness every day.
It makes a big difference. Really. Those yummy endorphins give me a sweet little rush, and my overall mood throughout the day improves. Fitness is not a magical fix-all. I still experience anxiety; I’m still vulnerable to triggers, but they are lessened. It helps. If all you can do is stretch in your living room, do it. If all you can do is walk briskly around your block a few times in the morning, do that. When you are able to do something more strenuous, try to push yourself. I recommend keeping a daily fitness routine all the time, but it is especially important to be vigilant when you’re going through triggering times. Fit in at least 10-20 minutes of fitness every day.
10. Write Poetry
If the fitness one didn’t make you cringe, this one did. AmIright?
Look, it doesn’t say “write poetry and then send it off to be published” or “go read at an open mic.” It just says write poetry.
In an article I wrote for SICmama, I discussed the reasons why we should teach our kids to write poetry, and they included the fact that poetry grants unique insight into confusing emotions. Well, this is true for adults too. When we go through trauma, we experience a tumult of emotions. Our bodies and minds have difficulty processing all of the emotions, because the experiences which instigated them are so far outside of the scope of normal human experience. As a result, our ability to process emotions can become damaged. One of the side-effects of PTSD is a shortened access to the emotional spectrum. I experience anger and anxiety vividly, but not a whole lot of other emotions. That’s pretty common.
It’s not that trauma victims don’t experience those other emotions. We do. We just have such trouble processing them that we aren’t always able to feel what we feel. I know that won’t make much sense to the un-traumatized people reading this, but I bet it makes a whole lot of sense to those readers who have PTSD.
Triggers exacerbate whatever symptoms we normally experience. Emotional blunting becomes emotional numbing (besides anger or anxiety or whatever emotion isn’t blunted) during a PTSD episode. That sucks, and drugs could help…but they have terrible side-effects, like chemical dependency. And homelessness. And death. I don’t want to go back down that road, and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you don’t either. Writing poetry will allow you to open up and access some of those emotions that you want and need to feel, without getting high.
Don’t worry about whether your poetry is good or whatever. It’s just for you. The act of engaging with your emotions deeply enough to verbalize them, and turn them into metaphors/similes/etc will help you access them, which will in turn, remove some of the appeal of drugs. Don’t write about anything that will further trigger you. Writing about your current experience of being triggered is a great topic to choose. Or you could write about a happy memory and help yourself access some positive emotions.
And here we are!
Those, Readers, are the ten tools I have been using during these trigger-heavy couple weeks to keep myself from relapsing into substance abuse. I still feel depressed and over-anxious. I still spent a good portion of yesterday oversleeping (a rare luxury which I was afforded because my mother-in-law is visiting). I’m still triggered. But I honestly don’t have the strong drug cravings that I did during past parallels. I can’t predict the future, but as I am writing this, I feel pretty safe in my sobriety.
I hope these ten tools will help you too. But also remember, these are things you can do from home. They aren’t intended to replace professional therapeutic support. That’s important too!
If you found these tips helpful, or if you have anything to add, please let me know in the comments.
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Thanks for reading <3