Emotional Health Issues in Sobriety

Emotional Health Issues in Sobriety

I Feel so Good I can do it All!

It can be common for those in early sobriety to decide that not only are they going to stay off the alcohol and drugs, but they are also going to tackle every single unhealthy habit/behavior there is. Why not take advantage of all that extra energy and momentum and use it to fix life altogether? Lose the cigarettes! Join the gym and shed those extra pounds! Forget about the junk food – it’s only healthy food from now on!

This is a common theme for those in early recovery. Once treatment is complete and the haze clears, it’s become all too clear what’s been remiss, so the urge to jump in and tackle it all is intense. Maybe it’s been so long since you’ve felt like doing anything that making up for lost time seems of utmost importance. And while these issues are important to address, it’s also unrealistic to believe that you can tackle years (sometimes decades!) of self-neglect and bad habits. Worse, trying to assess your own physical and mental health issues without the help of a professional – preferably one versed in addiction issues, – can be sabotaging your recovery at best, and be dangerous at worst! Many an addict has found himself wondering what happened when it all blows up and he begins to use again!

While it is good to strive to make improvements in one’s life, it may be prudent to approach all these issues in a slower, more balanced manner. The truth is that in very early sobriety emotions run high in different directions. The addict may have an immediate urge to remedy the mess he made of himself and do the right thing at last! Then he may suffer days of intense remorse while looking at what he’s done with his life and feel completely overwhelmed! Not only is he experiencing life with the heightened awareness a clear head affords, his emotions will ping in different directions as his brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) readjust to the lack of chemical stimulation. These changes are often subtle enough that they go unnoticed, so they are ignored and the doing, doing, doing continues…


I Feel so Awful – I Felt Better When I was Using!

On the flip side of wanting to tackle everything at once comes the days of despondency when you feel so depressed you don’t even want to get out of bed, let alone go to work. “What’s the use” seems to prevail when it used to be “I’ll get to it tomorrow.” You look at the mountain of problems created by isolating into your addiction because tomorrow is now here and you’ve been putting off way more then you thought. You don’t even know where to begin…

On top of that, seemingly out of the blue the anxiety rises to the point of panic. Your heart is racing; you feel like you’re perched atop a cliff and are teetering. This is worse then when you forgot your lines in front of everyone at the school play! There’s no logical reason to feel like this and you can’t snap yourself out of it. You know that Valium or Xanax or any chemical relief is off limits and you want to jump out of your skin!

Then there’s all the dreams! Waking up flushed after a relapse in your dream can start your day on an anxious note. Did you drink that drink or did you spit out the accidental sip you took? It doesn’t really matter. The emotional residual is real even if the relapse isn’t. Then you find yourself stiff and sore when you first slip out of bed, something else new to deal with! You thought you never got sick because you didn’t believe in it, when the real truth is that you just drank or used and none of those symptoms broke through your mind-numbing high! Anything you did feel was chalked up to hangovers or withdrawal symptoms. Now, not only do you feel all that discomfort, you have to figure out what to do with the symptoms. Is it something new or is it something you’ve ignored for a long time? What’s physical and what’s emotional? Even if using dreams are few, your sleep has been fitful. Some nights you lay there wondering if you’ll ever fall asleep and some days you wonder if you’ll ever get the energy to complete a project. Then you’re told to seek out recovery support in your spare time while you wonder what the heck spare time is!

Ferreting Out What’s Up

If you try and look at the whole mess at once it’s no wonder it all seems overwhelming! Because this may be all new – even for those who have experienced recovery before, since the disease progression and life circumstances change – you may feel at a loss when it comes to sorting out what you are experiencing. Are these symptoms real? Is this physical or emotional? Will things ever seem normal again?

The vague but true answer is that it’s all part of the emotional package that comes with new sobriety, whether it’s the first foray into recovery or not. You may have thought that once you were detoxed and the last remnants of your substance of choice has left your body, it would be smooth sailing into a life of feeling good about yourself and what you’re doing. The assumption that your addiction was all that was wrong with you both physically and emotionally is surprisingly inaccurate. In line with the disease concept is the awareness that addiction is a function of both mind and body. If cravings feel like something emotional (I feel so nervous, so out of sorts before I have that first drink… I can’t get the energy to do anything without a little “boost” to get going), yet are really propelled by a physical need, it may all seem too complicated.


Some suggest that during that first crucial year of sobriety it’s best to not make any major life changes. The reasons for that are clear to those who have been there and are looking back; not so clear to one testing the waters with a clear head for the first time in years. Those changes include:

  • Relationships – if you’re not in one, go it alone for a while. Take the time to work on yourself.
  • Divorce – you may have wanted one for a while, but wait it out. Things may change.
  • Changing jobs or Careers – best to think this one through a bit better. Avoid impulse decisions.
  • Changing your Residence – you may miss what’s familiar more than you know.
  • Making a Major Purchase – don’t reward yourself with that new convertible just yet!
  • Starting or Quitting School – do you know what you want, or are you hurrying to get on with life?
  • Starting a Family – your spouse may want to do what your addiction has prevented thus far.
  • Major Home Renovations – Expensive, stressful and time consuming.

While your intentions may be worthy, your resolve may falter. An addict has been living in a non-reality shaped by an all-consuming obsession to acquire and ingest his substance (or in the case of process addictions, his obsessive, rewarding behavior) to the exclusion of all else. His world grows smaller and smaller and his perceptions grow more skewed in the process. His mind has twisted reality to fit his need. Isolation almost always overcomes an addict as his disease progresses. Isolation eliminates the need to become objective about what he’s doing to himself and others. Comparing his life to others’ would mean upsetting the routine and looking at the truth – something no addict wants to do. Rationalization is honed to an art so that he may continue to believe he is hurting no one but himself. The mental gymnastics an addict’s mind entertains would probable stun or baffle a normal thinker.

Now that the addiction no longer holds the addict’s judgment and rationale hostage, the illusions gain a new place of prominence. Sometimes it’s grandiosity. Sometimes it’s a demoralizing sense of self-loathing. There are issues to be dealt with immediately, such as practicing better hygiene and eating on a regular basis that don’t present much of a problem. It’s the secondary things that pose the most challenge, especially the things that require thoughtful planning. The first obstacle with that is you are no longer driven by the focal point of your life (your addiction), but you have not yet learned who you are beneath all the dysfunction. The second obstacle is the extreme mood changes that accompany early sobriety – driven by physical changes, personality and environmental factors. On Monday, when you’re sure you are the absolute best person to fill that position at the construction company, the world seems right. By Wednesday, you’re sure you didn’t get the position because the owner is a crook, and it doesn’t matter where you apply, no one will ever hire you. Robbing a bank seems the only answer and you can’t do that, so what ‘s the use…

When you’re the one going through these swings, you probably can’t tell. After all, you’ve spent years avoiding the obvious and escaping the hard work of cleaning up your act. Denial is the norm and old habits take time to change. Without immediate gratification, navigating choices and prioritizing prove challenging. In some cases, without a support group to help corral your thoughts, you may find yourself doing the irrational – your house is in shambles but for some reason you feel the need to label the contents of your dresser drawers. You have only been sober for three months, but you’re sure you should be the one to start a support group for at-risk teens – who needs a degree!? You don’t know how to control your temper, but you think you are ready to pursue that high-stress career you’ve always known was right for you. This is part of that all-consuming need to do something to get some hurry-up results. Unfortunately these ill-thought-out endeavors can actually be self-sabotaging and create even more anxiety then you started with!

Take it Slow – When in doubt Pause

So an early lesson may be learning how to pause and think things through. “I don’ t know how to act – I know how to re-act” is a novel reminder that you may not want to rely on your first instinct. Acting on impulse may be romanticized in movies and fantasies, but learning to think first eliminates the need to clean up the consequences of hasty action. Immediate gratification should no longer be the driving force as you learn to weigh consequences and notice how your actions affect those around you. There may well be things requiring immediate action, but remember one can’t tackle that mountain of issues in a day using a spade.

It takes chipping away, one thing at a time, as you began to gain a foothold in stability. While hiding from others was the norm in your addiction, in recovery, an early but necessary change is learning to ask for help. It is not a sign of weakness or incompetence, but rather a healthy way to gauge your behavior and gain insight. It is impossible for a child to learn to read by staring at words on paper. He has to have help to approach the task in a logical sequence. First it’s learning the alphabet and it’s sounds. Then it’s learning phonics, pronunciation and grammar. It’s a slow go at first, but the child has a teacher and text to guide him. Reason being is that he can’t teach himself something he doesn’t know. Such is the case with those new in recovery.

Emotional maturity is the goal here. An addict escapes from discomfort, so he hasn’t learned to handle things in a mature way by walking through them. This creates a deficit in the emotional maturing that is part of life. In essence, he’s playing catch-up for all those years spent in oblivion. Without a healthy example or mentor, how will he learn the right and logical way to handle his issues? It’s common for the addict to resist this process, but the sooner he throws in the towel and admits he has much to learn, the battle is half won. The distorted thinking of an addict does not serve well in the process of seeking balance and calm. Chaos was the norm before. Losing the extreme highs and devastating lows happens with guidance over time. If an addict can’t learn to find balance and some semblance of well-being, he likely will retreat to his comfort level, found sadly, in his addiction.

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