“Now that I’m clean and sober, do I really need to take that heart medication? Now that I’ve been in treatment, I don’t really think I’m bipolar; it was just the alcohol, and besides, we’re not supposed to take anything, right? I don’t need that stuff anymore; it just makes me feel depressed! I don’t really need to tell my new doctor that I’m in recovery for substance abuse – why do I need to? It’s so embarrassing!”
Taking Care of Neglected Physical Health Issues in Recovery
It’s so typical that once one has completed treatment and goes back to his world to do life, he is truly clueless as to how to begin taking care of himself. The nature of addiction itself usually leaves the addict a mess, physically as well as emotionally. He looks in the mirror and sees a scrawny version of himself looking back. Years of neglect have weathered his body and now it’s time to address those issues. Just as the phenomenon of craving engages both the mind and body concurrently, one’s physical health affects thought processes and emotions. When one is malnourished, for example, his thinking may narrow down to those thought processes which may lead to food on a subconscious level. Rationale may be distorted; emotions run high. He may be quick to anger or become mired in despondency. Wherever his mind rests, it’s pretty much a guarantee that it won’ t be on going to the gym or tackling that resume. It’s common for recovery support groups to remind newcomers to eat, sleep and exercise enough to stave off mood swings so common in early sobriety. But there are many other ways physical health issues can either support or sabotage one’s program of recovery.
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Should I anticipate Physical Health Issues in Recovery
For the duration of one’s addiction, that familiar numbing anesthetized any physical discomfort one might have had, leaving the addict with the mistaken illusion that he hasn’t harmed his body. Don’t be fooled, however; your body will submit it’s bill for all you’ve put it through! Once the initial joy of being free from your ball and chain wears off, you may feel all kinds of physical repercussions. Some of this is due to the fact that your body’s natural pain relief mechanisms have been shut down (all the artificial numbing substances you’ve been taking have flooded your brain, making it unnecessary to make it’s own chemicals), so normalizing those systems will take catch-up time to move into full production again. This means discomfort may actually be magnified for awhile! Add to that the fact that you’ve been ingesting toxins for years (alcohol itself is so hard on the body that it’s believed to be responsible for over 350 disease processes because it’s so irritating to the body’s tissues and organs!), and you might see how you’ve left your body compromised in multiple ways. Try not to be discouraged, though, many of these initial symptoms disappear within the first six months of abstinence. Those that don’t may need looking into by a professional.
Should I See a Doctor or Physical Health Issues in Recovery?
As mentioned above, some of the generalized symptoms just go with early recovery as your body re acclimates itself to life without your addictive substance. If after six months or so you’re not feeling better, you may need to be assessed by a physician. It may be the persistent heartburn you’ve ignored that now gives you so much trouble you can’t ignore it any more. Maybe the yellowing of your eyes is noticeable now that you can see straight. On the upside, maybe your diabetes symptoms are abating and the numbness in your toes is lessening. Pretending you’re invincible doesn’t fly anymore, so starting out with a thorough checkup makes sense.
If you’ve had the same physician for years, he may have some idea of what to expect. Just because your family acted like they bought your insistence that you didn’t use that much of whatever it was, your doctor probably knows different. He knows what liver damage looks like and doesn’t buy it when you say you’re not smoking because he can smell that last cigarette on your clothes. He’s probably been waiting for you to come clean at last so he has a chance to really help you. For this reason it’s important to be honest and let him know you are in recovery. That gives him the opportunity to asses if you’re really having a problem or if it’s late withdrawal symptoms. If you’re honest about what you were using, he has an idea of what to look for since different substances cause different types of damage. For example, if it was alcohol, he may want to check your liver, pancreas and gastrointestinal tract. If you were an intravenous drug user, he may want to test you for hepatitis and HIV. Cocaine users may need to have their nose and sinuses checked. If you smoked it, maybe your lungs are damaged. Some things, however, like high blood pressure and diabetes may actually improve after a period of abstinence.
Be Honest about Your Physical Health Issues in Recovery
Being honest with your doctor will also let him be judicious about what he prescribes if he has an understanding of addiction and it’s aftermath. If he isn’t, you may want to choose a doctor who is. Taking medications – even prescribed – may trigger you back into your addiction again. Plus, if you should happen to need an anesthetic for some reason -say having a tooth pulled, letting your dentist know you were an alcoholic or opiate addict will not leave him surprised at the amount of anesthetic it takes to numb you – usually more than is needed for a non-addict. It is crucial to reiterate that if your doctor is ignorant of substance abuse issues, you may try and share with him what you know. If he still isn’t sensitive to how that impacts your general health, you may want to find a physician who is. The same should especially hold true for your psychiatrist, if he is prescribing medication. If you need to find a new physician, do a little homework first. Ask if he is knowledgeable about addiction issues. Ask others in recovery if they know of a good doctor who is. Sometimes the local treatment center can help you find someone, even if you didn’t go through their program. Maybe your therapist knows someone. Look online. A little investigating before hand may save you much trouble down the road. Easiest isn’t always best. Find someone who can address all your issues.
How Can I Tell if it’s Serious Physical Health Issues in Recovery?
The pat answer is you may not be able to tell. Best to leave that to those who know. A rule of thumb is that if it is a small annoyance, it will usually disappear within the first six months. If it persists, get it checked out. Most who enter into recovery gain weight and begin to look healthier within the first month. You, on the other hand, are still gaunt and that persistent cough hasn’t eased up. Cancer and heart disease are non-discriminatory and the sooner you get diagnosed the better. If it’s not serious, best to have the peace of mind – there’s enough to deal with in early sobriety without worrying about one more thing! Once your body begins to normalize, have everything checked from the inside out. Best to know where your baseline health stands.
Smoking in Recovery
There are different takes on this issue. The one thing everyone agrees on is that smoking cigarettes is hazardous to your health and no one should do it – recovering or not! However, trying to change all your bad habits in the beginning is where differing opinions abound. Some say to give yourself a year to learn new coping skills and let your body normalize. Others say why not get rid of all the bad habits at once? How hard it is to toss the cigs depends on how long and how much you smoke. Talk with your doctor and family members, then make an informed decision as to when (not if) it’s time to quit.
Exercise and Diet in Recovery
Again, getting back to healthy living is an individualized process. Most come limping into recovery underweight and somewhat malnourished. Addiction is so consuming that feeding the craving almost always comes before feeding the body. But because mood swings and anxiety are part of withdrawal and early recovery, addressing these needs should begin as soon as possible. Both diet and exercise can give your body a way to combat those annoying early-on symptoms. Exercise can boost mood and brain chemicals while filling some of that extra time. A proper diet, low in sugar and fat, but high in vitamins found in fruits and vegetables can also help in that area. Some of the old-timers in AA believe that having extra sugar at first can help with cravings (alcohol leaves the body high in sugars), others disagree. Best to consult a nutritionist or someone you trust to be knowledgeable in that area. Many treatment centers include these issues in their curriculum, but if not, ask your doctor or educate yourself.
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