Life after rehab is a wondrous adventure.
I cried a little on the drive up the long, fence-lined path leading away from the rehabilitation facility I called home for the previous 31 days. I was filled with a warring collection of these weird new things my counselor identified as emotions – foreign little buggers I had grown accustomed to pacifying with copious amounts of cheap vodka and expensive pills. I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment and clarity at having completed my program and I was looking forward to sleeping in my own bed and reuniting with my family, going back to work with a clear head, and continuing my love affair with online shopping.
At the very same time, I was plagued by a sense of sadness and doom. I wanted to stay shrouded in the cocoon of safety I felt in rehab. After I stopped worrying about who would answer my business emails, how long it would be before my kids talked to me again, and whether the dogs were getting enough table scraps in my absence, I melted into the experience and allowed myself to focus on being an active participant in the daily routine of recovery. So, when it was time to go, I felt apprehensive, like a kid desperately clinging to her wubbie on the first day of preschool. I had adapted to a schedule that had only me at the center of it and was gripped with fear that everything I worked so hard for might evaporate the minute I walked through my front door.
It was strange crossing the threshold back into my regular surroundings. I walked around like a foreign exchange student taking everything in as if it was the first time I was seeing it through my new lenses of sobriety. “Oh look, here’s my couch (where I called out sick from life and nursed my hangovers). And here’s a drawer full of gum (that I chewed incessantly when I was drinking). And here’s my closet (no doubt loaded with long-forgotten landmines of hidden empty vodka bottles).” I ran my hand over things like they were museum artifacts, and then I just stood there with no idea what to do, how to be this new me in my old house.
The same person will drink again.
The point was drilled home while I was in rehab that “the same person will drink (or use) again.” Let that one sink in for a minute. I watched people walk around talking about how they couldn’t wait to “get back to” things – their buddies, their job that they weren’t even sure they had anymore, their routine, their same ‘ol-same ‘ol. The entire point of rehab is to create some new habits and grow some new neural pathways – to rewire your life so that you’re not the exact same person who walked through the gates all scared, angry, strung out, jittery, confused, and fixing to bolt through the first unlocked door. That person needed to use because she had no other viable coping mechanisms. But this new person, all stocked up on recovery tools and full of hope has a real chance of long-term, sustained sobriety if I continue to remember that phrase.
I had to do things differently if I wanted to succeed. The first thing I did after I stopped wandering around the house like a Survivor contestant was call the local AA contact whose name I was given at rehab. I detest talking on the phone, so this was on par with other unthinkable activities like sticking my arm in a woodchipper or giving my grandfather a pedicure. I was shy and awkward, but she was warm and kind and a treasure trove of local meeting information, so I agreed to meet her at 7am the following day. This 7am meeting takes place 7 days a week, and in short order it became my home group. Major change number one accomplished – who was this person eagerly agreeing to be coherent and showered before the sun even started casting shadows?
So many new challenges followed. Don’t even get me started on cooking! I love to cook. In fact, I love everything kitchen-related (OK, except emptying the dishwasher), but figuring out how to do it all without a stemmed glass in my hand was mind-boggling. I faced the conundrum of what to do with my free time until I went back to work, how to relate to well-meaning friends who don’t understand addiction, how to fall asleep unaided, how to attend (or politely decline) social gatherings, where to find the time for recovery work, how to rebuild a relationship with my husband and kids, how to have sober sex, and how to deal with this ever present raw, itchy feeling of being overexposed.
I paid attention at meetings and listened to my sponsor, and slowly but surely, I just began to unfold. Over time, the old, destructive habits were slowly replaced by healthier ways of interacting with the world around me. I wasn’t always successful. I experimented with some things that felt like trying on a wet bathing suit that’s 2 sizes too small, but I just kept stacking the blocks, building a shelter from the things that would take me out. And then one day I realized I was breathing again. Nice, deep, life-affirming breaths.
What to do now?
Give yourself the opportunity to change things up. Start with the obvious stuff like people, places, and things that conjure images or feelings of drinking or using. For the foreseeable future you simply don’t belong in a bar, even if that’s where your dear Aunt Mildred insists on having her 90th birthday party. Sure, one day maybe, but for now, pretend there’s crime scene tape stretched tight across the doorway. If you used to use in your car, or in the 3rd stall from the left at work, consider getting the car detailed, or using a different bathroom. And if you’ve got that one friend who’s blowing up your Twitter feed with 140-character descriptions of what a blast she’s having drinking from a vodka luge, think about going on a social media hiatus for a minute or unfollowing her.
If your vehicle is anything like mine and steers itself to the liquor store that’s conveniently located between your home and office, pull up the maps app on your phone and chose an alternate route. Think twice about booking that vacation to the all-inclusive resort in the exotic locale you’ve always dreamed of visiting. There are plenty of unexplored travel destinations on this big fat earth where they don’t encourage you to sit on a bar swing and do tequila shots at 10am. If cooking is your trigger, get some take out for a while, or check out one the many pre-packaged meal delivery services available at the click of a mouse that don’t require any creativity or deglazing with a half cup of white wine.
Engage in activities that stimulate your brain and body and take you so far from your next drink or drug that the act of procuring them simply doesn’t fit into your schedule. Get to meetings early, stay late, and ask someone to grab coffee or a meal in a location that doesn’t activate the urge to get obliterated. Ask someone about service opportunities in one of your 12-step meetings. Figure out when your witching hour is – the time(s) of day that by habit you used to switch to party autopilot—and do something different. Go for a walk, take a class, bake cookies, call your gramma, dress your cat in a tutu, or binge watch 7 hours of The Bachelor if you feel like it, but don’t romance the past. In hindsight, there was nothing fun or relaxing or Instagram-worthy about figuring out by process of elimination that dinner was burnt and inedible because you spent 3 hours perfecting a half-naked selfie that you accidentally sent to your boss’s wife while you were in a blackout last night, amirite?
The gift of a full and exciting life after rehab is yours for the asking by anticipating your triggers, remaining vigilant, and taking proactive, precautionary measures to remain sober.