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Unexpected Setbacks

I left rehab with a clear plan in place. For the first few weeks, every day was scheduled, from when I woke up until I went to sleep. It was a fairly flexible schedule, but it kept me on track.

Then one day, while exercising, I pulled my hamstring. Exercise was an important part of my daily routine and I suddenly found myself sidelined. The realization that my reliable post-rehab routine had to change terrified me. And it wasn’t just exercise that I had to rule out. My regular walks in nature were also no longer possible.

Fortunately I had developed a good foundation in rehab and I had an excellent occupational therapist (OT) to turn to. We had already discussed the dangers of becoming too reliant on things working out exactly as planned. While my routine had worked for me thus far, that did not mean I needed it in order to stay sober.

These kinds of setbacks are inevitable in recovery. How do you prepare for them and manage them when they come?

Focus on today

“Just For Today” is a mantra repeated in the 12 Step Program, but it is relevant no matter what approach you use for recovery. One of the struggles recovering addicts face is the idea that they need to stay clean or sober for the rest of their lives. Especially at the beginning of recovery, relapse seems inevitable at some point in the coming years or decades, and the thought of lifetime sobriety is overwhelming.

When I left rehab, I was terrified I would relapse someday, which was why my plan meant so much to me. However, I had also learnt the importance of focusing on one day at a time. I knew, intellectually at least, that I would face setbacks, and I was prepared to confront them when they came.

This focus on the present helped me stay grounded when a setback could have knocked me off course. I knew I could adjust my routine and continue my recovery.

Find an alternative

Exercise was important to my recovery for a number of reasons. It gave time to connect with my body. It caused my body to release endorphins which kept me emotionally regulated. And it gave me a daily sense of overcoming a challenge.

However, exercise was not the only way to achieve these goals. I was lucky to have a number of hobbies to choose from – playing guitar required focus and physical skill and I worked on improving my technique.

It may seem like you need to continue with a certain routine in order to stay on track, but there are always alternatives. Find something which serves the same needs and give it time and importance.

Acknowledge and feel the emotions

Setbacks in recovery cause a number of difficult emotions that can include fear, despondency, shame, and disappointment. These are feelings we typically prefer to avoid. However, if we are to traverse this rocky ground successfully, it is necessary to acknowledge and feel the difficult emotions.

Accepting these feelings is important. It is not a bad thing to be scared of relapse, as long as you realize feelings are not facts. It is inevitable that you will sometimes feel shame and despondency. They’re normal human emotions, and letting yourself experience them is healthy.

Without the pressure of “overcoming” these emotions, you can see them for what they are – responses to a difficult situation. They do not need to be anything more than that, but if you try to avoid them or push them away, they can become far more frightening.

Adjust your goals

When you leave rehab, you should have a number of goals you are working towards which will help you stay on track. Remember that these goals are not set in stone. You set them according to the reality at the time, not because they were some ideal everyone should strive towards.

When you face a setback, it is important to adjust those goals to better reflect your new reality. I had aimed to be able to run a certain number of miles in a specific timeframe. It had seemed incredibly important. But it was simply a useful tool to measure my progress. Now I can’t even remember the specifics, not because I abandoned the goal but because it only mattered in its context.

In recovery, it is important to have goals as markers of your progress. However, do not become too attached to these goals. If you have to adjust them for some reason, do not see it as a failure. Rather, it marks your success at adapting when things do not go exactly as planned.

Recovery is not an exact science. Everyone’s process is different, and your own experience will change over time. While your routine may seem all important to your recovery, it is just a tool to keep yourself on track. Adapting is inevitable, and learning to do so is a necessary part of recovery.

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