I’ve known Alison since I was five years old. Her family were our next-door neighbors, and all my life I looked up to her as my older sister. She is a bright and intelligent woman who had a graduate degree when she was only twenty-two and had started her own company at age twenty-four.
Although I love and respect her, we have very different worldviews. Her life philosophy is that you don’t necessarily need to know a lot about a problem in order to solve it.
For example, I used to work in a clinic, and several days a week, my lunch would magically disappear from the communal fridge. Apparently, no one else in the clinic had this problem. It was irritating and confusing. I kept running different scenarios in my head about what could be happening and was obsessed with solving this mystery.
During those months, I complained over and over to Alison about these incidents, ruminating over why someone would steal another person’s lunch at the workplace. Each time I talked to Alison, she had only one recommendation: “Get a small fridge and put it in your office.” She did not think it was important to solve who was doing it and why. In her opinion, what was important was to find a solution.
Initially, I was disappointed by her response. I thought she was telling me she was tired of hearing me talk about it. I waited a few months, but eventually I took her advice and got a fridge. The issue was immediately resolved and my life became much easier. One lesson I have learned from Alison is that it is more important to find a solution to a problem than to identify the contributing reasons for the problem.
Sometimes in life, we invest our time in exploring the roots of a problem when it may be more effective to focus our energies on getting ourselves out of it. When you fall into a deep hole, it is practical to focus on getting out, because even if you learn why you fell down, that might not help you out.
The same principle applies to overcoming alcoholism. I work with many individuals in my counseling practice in Torrance who identify uncovering the origin of their problem as a goal, even as they are in the midst of a deep struggle with their alcohol dependency and its consequences.
Based on my professional experiences in the field of addiction, achieving sobriety needs to be the first priority, since various areas of the brain are compromised by alcoholism, and you will not be able to maximize your chance to heal your pathological relationship with alcohol if your brain cannot function properly.
The video below highlights the impact of drinking on the structure of the brain:
My goal is to support you to regain as much brain functioning as possible, prior to targeting other areas impacted by your addiction. One of the most important steps on your journey to recovery is planning ahead for challenges after you stop drinking. Below you will find few of the important steps that you need to take in order to give yourself the best chance of becoming clean and sober.
Remove All Temptations
It is essential to remove all alcoholic beverages from your house if you are serious about your recovery. I have witnessed too many times that owning even one bottle of wine can sabotage my clients’ hard work and lead to relapses.
I was working with a highly committed sixty-something businessman in my counseling practice. His liver transplant team referred him for psychotherapy. His physician told him that unless he got clean and sober, he would not be a candidate for the transplant. Given the degree to which his liver was compromised, his life depended on getting the transplant.
He completed all treatment recommendations and got rid of all the wine from his wine cellar, which had had collected from all around the world. The only item he kept was a bottle of wine he purchased during his honeymoon trip in Tuscany forty-five years ago. He was adamant that this bottle had so much sentimental value for him that he would not open it under any circumstances.
For first three months of treatment, he was active, and he managed to stay strong during the detox process, given that he was experiencing multiple physical complications. He was clean and sober for six months, which was the longest time he had been sober for the past forty years.
One night, working on his computer, he accidentally opened his wife’s email. Through her emails, he learned about her continuing infidelity with another man, going on for the past seven years. He confronted his wife and she told him that she was planning to leave him since they no longer had anything in common.
Feeling paralyzed by anger and crushed by sadness in the middle of the night, he attempted to contact people from his support group but was not able to get ahold of anyone. In his moment of desperation, he opened that bottle of wine, since he didn’t have anything else at home, and drinking it triggered a nine-month binge. The last I heard from him, he had lost his job and was living with his son.
Identify Your Recovery Partners
Alcoholism is a deadly disease and you need a great deal of support in order to defeat it. You might feel strong now, but life happens and sooner and later something may trigger your cravings. One protective factor keeping many of my clients from relapse is having a strong support system.
It is helpful to identify three individuals that you can count on during the early stages of recovery. Contact them and ask them if they are willing to support you over the next few weeks. Establish a daily check-in routine with them in which you call or text them at a specific time during the day. That way they can keep you accountable and check in with you if you don’t call them one day.
It is hard to contact people when your craving is strong and you are about to relapse if you haven’t talked to them for a while. It will be much easier if you have already established a routine with them and they are aware of your situation.
Write Down Your Plans for the Next Day
Not planning your day ahead of time is a major mistake that many clients make during the early stages of recovery. By writing down your plan, you create a structure for your day, which helps you to be vigilant about what may possibly lead to relapse. In a spare moment, people sometimes unconsciously put themselves in a position that jeopardizes their recovery.
Additionally, boredom is an emotion that triggers craving in many of my clients. Writing down your plan the night before will give you an opportunity to think about the activities you can do ahead of time. Make sure you include at least one pleasurable activity in your list.
Consult with a Physician
For many individuals who have drunk heavily for several years, detoxing can be a dangerous and in some cases deadly process. Talk to your physician about your plan to stop drinking ahead of time and ask his advice for how to medically manage this process.
In addition to assessing the safety of the detox process, your physician can give you non-addictive medication to reduce your physical pain and discomfort. Make sure you are taking your medications as prescribed. Many times people in recovery ignore their other physical illnesses. As a result, those illnesses get worse and can possibly lead to relapses.
Often, individuals become addicted to alcohol and other substances because these are among few tools that they have to manage their overwhelming emotions. It is crucial that as you get sober, you continue working to develop additional resources.
During the early stages of recovery, it is helpful to commit one hour each day to engaging in a recovery-oriented activity that increases your knowledge of recovery. There are a variety of activities that people find helpful. Below you will find a few that I always recommend to my clients:
- Attending one recovery-oriented meeting each day, such as: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Life Ring, Smart Recovery, and Women for Sobriety. These meetings are usually free and are fairly accessible to all.
- Read recovery-oriented literature.
- Listen to recovery-oriented radio programs, podcasts, and CDs.
Eat Regular Meals
I have heard several times from my clients who decide to become sober that they want to make changes in all aspects of their life, including their food intake. Oftentimes, this translates to very restrictive diets. Unfortunately, this is a common path to relapse.
Overcoming alcoholism is a challenging task and hunger is a main trigger for people. When I was working at a clinic, we used to get several phone calls in the early morning from our clients who were experiencing very intense cravings. One of my supervisors used to ask people to eat breakfast and then call her back. It was interesting to witness how many of them reported that their cravings significantly decreased after they finished breakfast.
During early stages of recovery, try to keep your blood sugar balanced by eating three meals and two snacks. Eating balanced meals will help you to think clearly and make better decisions.
Research shows that exercise helps to improve your mood and reduce physical cravings. It is important to set a specific and realistic goal for your exercise routine. Remember the goal at this point is not to lose weight or get fit, it is purely to help you regulate your mood and hormones. Choose something that you can do every day and enjoy doing. I often recommend a twenty-minute walk once a day, unless you are someone who already exercises on regular basis.
In order to maximize your chance of becoming sober and achieving long-term sobriety, you need to incorporate all of the above elements in your daily life. These are cornerstones of sobriety, and by choosing some of them and ignoring the rest you increase your chance of relapse.
Dr. Nazanin Moali, PhD is a clinical psychologist and addiction specialist who is practicing in Los Angeles, California. Dr. Moali offers evidence-based treatment that supports clients creating the changes that they want and developing effective coping strategies in order to overcome various addictions. She owns the Oasis2Care practice in Torrance. She lives with her family in Rancho Palos Verdes.