I guess no one ever said “I am afraid of getting sober.” Many of us have said “no way” or “I can’t” but to articulate “I am afraid” is a bit more difficult. It takes some introspection.
Fear of the unknown is normal. And for sure, going through sobriety for someone who has been drinking, drugging or acting out for the past few decades, it is the fear of this change that is driving their inability to grasp sobriety.
Consider entering a treatment center. Even if you’ve been in and out of treatment centers for years, you are not sure you will get along with the new therapists, and you dread having a roommate. Then just as you get settled in and get used to the rhythm of the place, your 30, 60 or 90 days are up and you have to leave. Fear comes crashing down again and you become filled with anxiety. What will happen when you leave this place? The only place where you could stay safe and sober.You’ve gone through detox and sat through hours of lectures, therapy and group discussions, probed your deepest fears and reasons for using, learned and practiced coping techniques, and created a plan for your recovery. It certainly wasn’t easy, but you should feel a great deal of self-accomplishment. Your reward is to go out into the real world and return home to your family, to begin to live a clean and sober lifestyle. Easier said than done. Fear is lurking behind every corner. How will I do this? How can I cope?
Fear actually draws us in, rather than repelling us. Fear makes us alert to danger; it helps guide our decision-making process. But too much fear can be paralyzing in life, and in addiction recovery. Fear can be a precursor to relapse. Here are some of the fears common among people in recovery, along with suggestions for facing them:
#1 – I am afraid of dealing with life sober Getting sober means you replace your primary coping mechanism – drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping, eating or acting out – with new, unfamiliar ones. This change-process can be uncomfortable, particularly for someone who is afraid of feeling their feelings and not used to dealing with those feelings sober. Will it be hard? Yes. Will it be worth it? Yes. Will sobriety be boring? A little, but it will grow on you. Is sobriety sustainable? Yes, if you don’t wallow in your feelings of fear. Staying stuck in fear generally means staying stuck in addiction.
What to Do: Nelson Mandela said, “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Rather than running from it, feel the fear and then take one step forward, anyway – just like in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, during Indy’s search for the Holy Grail, when he reaches a dead end, a precipitous drop into a deep, deep chasm with nothing between him and the Holy Grail, some fifty feet beyond him. He was filled with fear, but he took a step forward and magically a bridge appeared. So be like Indiana, take that step. Use the promises of recovery: go to a meeting or a support group where other people in recovery share their success stories, meet with a therapist or spiritual advisor, and then, phone a friend. Once you try some of these tools to support your recovery, you may find that sobriety is not as scary as you once thought.
#2 – I can’t do it, I’m a failure. Recovery presents challenges, whether you have one day or ten years of sobriety. There are times when you’ll doubt yourself. There will be days when you are outside of your comfort zone. And to be honest, you will not practice recovery perfectly. There will be times when you will slip, or relapse. At this point, you can either conclude that you don’t deserve the gift of recovery and return to your addiction. Or you can say “I have what it takes, and I never want to go back there again.”
What to Do: Many addicts are perfectionists who have difficulty accepting that making mistakes is a human characteristic and risks learning opportunities. True, about half of recovering addicts relapse at some point. But some people don’t relapse. If you do relapse, it is a learning experience you will never forget. The biggest lesson is — you haven’t failed at all. Others have succeeded in spite of fear, and so can you. According to the Partnership at Drugfree.org, more than 23 million people in the U.S. are in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol problems. That is twice as many National Rifle Association members, and two thirds the membership of AARP (American Association of Retired People)!
#3 – What is self-sabotage? The fear of success. If I keep relapsing, why am I doing it? Most people don’t consciously see their self-sabotage, but they have a deeply held belief that they don’t deserve good things. Whether those good things are a great job, a good relationship with their family, or money in the bank. So believing they are not worthy, they never really put forth their best effort. Sometimes self-sabotage presents itself as feeling doomed from the start, sometimes it is self-doubt and most of the time it is the addict’s fear of not doing something perfectly that sabotages their sobriety.
What to Do: We are all afraid of the unknown, the future. We can’t control the future, we don’t know what it is or what lies ahead of us, and so we are scared. Instead of fretting over what might be, practice being mindful of the present. Feel the fear and do it anyway. The 19th Century poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Knowing that, if you fall down, get up. Breathe through the feelings of self-sabotage, fear, or that you are a failure, and move forward – and then notice how the fear begins to dissipate.
#4 – They never liked me, they are talking about me behind my back – The fear of rejection. Are you worried that you have been abandoned by your family, your spouse or your kids? Are you judged by others? Some people refuse to admit that they have a drug problem because of this fear of rejection. They don’t reach out to others for support, because it will make them “look bad.” Yet without taking the step of admitting you’re an addict, there can be no recovery.
What to Do: Go to a meeting and share.Fear of rejection can be overcome by pushing yourself to work a recovery program even when you don’t want to. How many people in the rooms say the reason they feared entering 12-step rooms was the fear of seeing someone they knew. Research shows that by simply describing your feelings at stressful times makes you less afraid and less anxious. The simple act of putting your fears into words taps into the parts of the brain responsible for logic and emotional regulation, decreasing fear and anxiety. Getting current is the tool that is used in many 12-step rooms – it is the tool for sharing your feelings and decreasing anxiety.
#5 – I enjoy drinking! Fear of losing your identity. I love tailgate parties, I think so deeply when I am stoned, I had some of my best experiences when I was high. That was then, this is now. After months or years of being fixated on drugs and alcohol, who are you if you aren’t loaded? Do you really like not knowing where you parked your car? Or who you slept with last night? Or how you will pay your rent? What are your hopes, desires and values? Are your dreams coming true? These are some of the most difficult questions in recovery. Will you lose your identity as a cool dude? The answers may change over time.
What to Do: In recovery, you have a unique opportunity to redefine yourself. Spend some time thinking back to who you were before you started using drugs, and revisit old interests. Once the fog lifts, new ideas come into your head, cool ideas that do not include drinking. Are you thinking about trying out a new sport, like rock climbing or a scholarly pursuit, such as finishing your Bachelor’s degree? Eventually these ideas will form a new identity, a sober you. Each step will not only help you maintain your sobriety, but also move you closer to the ultimate goal of figuring out who you are – a cool, sober dude.
#6 – I am not happy when I’m not drinking, I fear the perpetual misery of not drinking. What if I do the hard work of recovery and I am still miserable? Many times in recovery we hear the slogan, “Learning to live life on life’s terms.” After years of drugs flooding the brain with Dopamine some people find it difficult to find pleasure in normal activities. Others find it hard to attend a party without a drink in their hand. Life will keep coming at you, bills to pay, a girlfriend will leave you, or you stick your foot in your mouth at a business meeting. Your option will be to not drink over it. Some get clean and sober only to find that they still feel angry, anxious or depressed. Don’t be overly distressed about feeling blue during the first few weeks of recovery. But if the condition lasts considerably longer, or if you find that your feelings of sadness continue for months, get in touch with your doctor. 75% of people with addictions also have a co-occurring mental illness, such as anxiety or depression. For years, perhaps the drugs or alcohol you were using were a form of self-medication?
What to Do: Some of the damage inflicted by prolonged drug use will be repaired the longer you stay sober. Long-term substance use can also damage internal organs and the brain. See a general practitioner and tell them about your addiction. Request a series of lab tests to ensure you are healthy. Read up on vitamin-replacement therapy, consider taking some vitamins such as magnesium, fish oil, vitamin C and zinc. See a psychiatrist for a behavioral health assessment. Visit a dentist, the ravages of drug use on your teeth’s enamel can be fixed. Just as important as stopping the use of all mood-altering substances is actively engaging in a program of wellness and self-care. Invest in yourself and your life in recovery will be truly joyful.
So maybe you can relate to these six fears of getting sober. Maybe you can share this with a friend who keeps relapsing. Maybe you can integrate these fears into the working mechanics of your sober life. Fear doesn’t stop when you get sober. It morphs into something somewhat similar, just without the substance involved. So you’ll be able to conquer those fears too. Because you have done it already, you have conquered your fears and remained sober..