How Do We Self-Sabotage in Early Recovery?

Early recovery is a time of volatile emotions and big changes. Getting sober is more about learning the tools to deal with these emotions that it is about drugs and alcohol. For addicts, avoiding these feelings is second nature though. Why is it so important for addicts in early recovery to walk through these emotions, and what are some of the ways that they try to avoid them?

Substitute Addictions

A substitute addiction is the substitution of one addiction for another as is commonly seen in individuals in early recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Individuals often substitute one addiction for another in an attempt to compensate for the emotional and physical void often felt. The goal of the substitute addiction is to serve the same purpose as the original addiction. The emotional response one receives from the substitute addiction often feels similar to the emotional response they experienced from their original drug or alcohol addiction. Some of these emotional responses are positive – euphoria, temporary rush and comfort. On the flip side, some of the emotional responses are negative – fear, guilt and regret. Both the positive and negative emotional responses often leave the individual feeling a sense of familiarity and comfort. Some of the substitute addictions may appear to be positive, while others are unmistakably destructive. Regardless of whether or not a substitute addiction appears to be “healthier” than drugs or alcohol, real recovery doesn’t take place until someone gets to the root causes and conditions that led to their use and unhappiness. By avoiding these feelings, the individual doesn’t give themselves the chance to work through them and gain freedom from being held in their sway.

While there are many different types of substitute addictions, this article will address the five most commonly seen substitute addictions addicts develop in order to avoid their feelings in early recovery.

Romantic Relationships

During early recovery it is easy to deflect from looking at oneself by focusing on someone else. It is important that someone gets a chance to sort themselves out though. Early recovery from drug and alcohol addiction is a difficult and confusing time. During this vulnerable period of time, it is critical that the individual develop a relationship with their sponsor, create same gendered friendships in recovery, and establish a connection with a Higher Power of their understanding. Getting into a romantic relationship can allow someone to avoid establishing these other important relationships. Many addicts engage in romantic relationships in order to avoid the difficult emotions experienced in early recovery.

It is also not uncommon for a newly sober addict to have a long history of dysfunctional relationships. This frequently carries into sobriety. Establishing the foundation to ensure long-term sobriety requires willingness, honesty, patient and self-care. Getting into a romantic relationship during early recovery threatens that foundation. While relationships are often able to provide a great deal of happiness in early recovery, they can also cause a lot of emotional pain and distress. The turmoil caused by romantic relationships in early recovery is one of the leading contributing factors of relapse. It is highly recommended that individuals in recovery refrain from engaging in any romantic relationships until they have had the opportunity to get right with themselves. Conventional wisdom in AA says to wait a year. While this may seem like an arbitrary number, it is a helpful measurement of how long it usually takes someone to work through their steps and develop a foundation of some experience with living life in recovery.

Social Media and Technology

In society today, social media has an overwhelming presence. Social media is most commonly used as a means of communication, business promotion and for entertainment. Unfortunately, some individuals become addicted to social media and their usage begins to interfere with everyday life. Similar to drug or alcohol addiction, research has found that interactions on social media trigger a rise in dopamine levels. For individuals in early sobriety, developing a dependence on social media can be detrimental to their recovery. Social media addiction causes individuals to become less productive in daily life. Individuals who primarily communicate over social media often neglect face-to-face contact with friends and family. Heavy social media use often causes issues with self-esteem and confidence.

Similar to social media addiction, Internet and video game addiction can greatly impact an individual’s ability to function normally in everyday life. Internet addiction and video game addiction is characterized by compulsive use despite negative consequences. This form of addiction is especially prevalent in adolescents and young adults. Individuals who are addicted to the internet and video games communicate less with friends and family, are detached from the present, are often less productive in their daily life, exhibit poor academic performance and neglect regular responsibilities. Individuals in early recovery may use the Internet of video games as a temporary escape from everyday life. While minimal use rarely has negative consequences, frequent use has the ability to manifest into an unhealthy addiction.

In early recovery, social media can provide not only a welcome distraction from uncomfortable emotions, it can also provide a link to much of the negative relationships that defined an individual’s using. Removing the ability to fixate on social media for a while can go a long way towards encouraging someone to learn to sit with them self.

Food and Exercise

Overeating is a common substitute addiction for drug or alcohol addiction. Similar to drug addiction, individuals who have a food addiction are suffering from an impulse-control disorder. They experience food cravings and despite their best intentions often find themselves overeating or eating unhealthy foods. When individuals overeat eat unhealthy foods, such as candy and fast food, they experience euphoria and comfort due to the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Similar to drug or alcohol addiction, when an individual repeatedly engages in a behavior that releases dopamine in the brain’s reward system, the dopamine receptors begin to down-regulate. When there are fewer dopamine receptors, larger amounts of dopamine are required to experience the desired effect. This leads to the development of tolerance. The individual needs to eat larger amounts of junk food in order to feel satisfied. This greatly contributes to individuals overeating and developing food addiction. For individuals in early recovery, overeating can lead to individuals becoming secretive about their eating and contribute to feelings of shame and low-self esteem. These behaviors and emotions can be detrimental for an individual in early recovery. Overeating is a serious issue that can lead to emotional and physical health risks. There is a twelve-step program called Overeaters Anonymous (OA) that can help individuals overcome their food addiction.

Conversely, this can manifest itself in not eating. Either of these responses to uncomfortable emotions is unhealthy, and is a form of the addict using something to take the place of drugs and alcohol and catch a feeling.

Early recovery from drug or alcohol addiction is a time where developing a healthy lifestyle is strongly advised – including beginning to exercise. Exercise, in moderation, can be extremely beneficial from someone recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. Fitness can be taken to an extreme though. Exercise addiction is also commonly refereed to as an activity disorder. An activity disorder is characterized by concerns of being fat, body dissatisfaction, binge eating, extreme dieting and compulsive exercising. Individuals suffering from an activity disorder use exercise as a method of purging, similar to vomiting seen in individuals with bulimia nervosa. An activity disorder can appear as an isolated disorder or as a component of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. An exercise addiction is fueled by an overwhelming need for control. This can be especially detrimental for an individual in early recovery.

Even if the individual does not suffer from a diagnosable form of activity disorder, there can be an unhealthy preoccupation with working out or fitness at the expense of their spiritual and emotional health. This can stand in the way of someone doing the internal work necessary to stay sober.

Sit With It

Learning to sit with oneself and not turn to external sources of comfort is a crucial part of early recovery. Taking the time and having the patience to go through this process pays off in the long run. This can be hard to do, making good sponsorship and mentorship that much more important. It usually takes a knowledgeable and experienced guide to help walk someone new in recovery through the critical early stages. Do you have any experience fixing on outside things in the beginning of your recovery? Let us know in the comments section below!

Last Updated on February 21, 2024


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