Emotions and Addiction Recovery – Early Recovery

How do feelings affect the addict in the early stages of recovery?

This second installment on the role of emotions in the recovery process will focus on the first 30-90 days of sobriety.   The truth is, most addicts return to drugs and drinking when sobriety becomes too stressful for them.   Therefore, teach them to deal with their feelings in a healthy manner greatly improves their chances of achieving long-term sobriety.

A.   The physiological impact on emotions.

The first few days without drugs and alcohol are characterized by disjointed thinking and emotional upheaval.   Newly sober people tend to be very anxious and uptight.   This is due, in a large part , to the fact that alcohol and drug use have caused their bodies to be depleted of many important neurochemicals, like endorphines, that contribute to a normal state of well-being.   Crack and cocaine users especially, experience anxiety, abnormal fears and difficulty sleeping.   They can be short tempered and they have short attention spans.

It is helpful for new residential program residents to know that these are mostly physical symptoms. They need to know that, as they remain drug-free, their bodies will get back into balance and their emotional states will surely improve.   Physical exercise, good diet, and participation in support groups are all important aspects of this process.

A word of caution: Be careful not to pile too much work and responsibility on newly recovering addicts during this time of physical and emotional readjustment.   While the actual mind-altering substances are discharged from the body in 72 hours, it takes the brain at least 30 days to begin to function in a relatively normal fashion.   Besides the emotional struggles during this time, addicts also experience fatigue and loss of coordination.   Too much, too fast, can be discouraging and even place them in physical danger.

B.   Returning emotions – a sure sign of progress!

As addicts remain free of mind-altering chemicals for a longer period of time, they begin to feel feelings again.   This is an important sign of progress.   It is also the signal that they are moving into a dangerous time, since many of these new feelings are not pleasant ones.   Pain and anger that has been pushed down for years may rise to the surface.   As their minds clear, newly sober people often experience real grief as they begin to connect with the losses of their lives – especially the relationships that have been damaged because of their addiction.       Many feel extremely depressed, lonely, and afraid.     As a result, they are greatly tempted to use in drugs or alcohol to drown out their emotions.

C.   Having an environment where emotions are OK

Recovery program staff members need to work hard to maintain an environment where people can begin experiencing feelings and where they can express them freely.   In these early days of sobriety, it is absolutely essential for addicts to surround themselves with supportive people.   They need people who are non-judgmental listeners.   They need to be reassured by learning that the eruption of emotions described above is a normal part of the process of recovery.

There is genuine therapeutic value in the free, verbal expression of feelings.   Yet, for people who have lived on the streets, this is no simple task.   When you are homeless, you cannot afford to appear vulnerable.   Rescue mission staff members who have learned the art of real listening assist newly sober addicts to share what is going inside of themselves It is one of the greatest gifts that they can give to program participants.   But, this will not happen by accident.   Such experiences must be a planned aspect of a recovery program.

D. Learning emotional self-care

Living life “from the neck up” is a very sad survival-oriented way of life.   In a very real way, to be emotionally disconnected is to be disconnected from ones own self.   Emotional freedom is essential for developing meaningful relationships with others.   Learning emotional self care is necessary for long-term sobriety.   Fortunately, there are some counseling strategies that can be used to teach this skill to recovering addicts We will deal with this topic in our next installment in this series.


Emotions and Addiction Recovery – Grief

A.        Addicts are both victims and victimizers. Anyone who is addicted to drugs and alcohol leaves behind them a trail of destruction. This could include everything from harm done to loved ones – both physically and emotionally – as well as violence and criminal activity of all sorts in which many become involved. On the other hand, we need to recognize that the majority of addicts have, themselves, grown up in painful, dysfunctional families. In homes where one or both of the adults are out of control because of addiction or other life-consuming problem, they were subjected to a daily diet of physical and emotional trauma.

Effective rescue mission recovery programs recognize the importance of helping addicts to repent of their sin and become responsible the wrong they have done. Steps 4 & 5 used with Steps 8 & 9 are practical guides for helping recovery addicts to gain a clear conscience and to take the extra step of restoring broken relationships and acknowledging to other the hurt they have caused them. This is dealing with the “victimizer.”

We must also be careful to also deal with the “victim.” Some Christian workers have tended to shy away from this, though, for fear of sending the message that we are excusing the destructive behavior of the addict. But, if we do not deal with this aspect of recovery, our program participants will have great difficulties in coming into genuine emotional freedom.

B.        The Impact of Childhood Messages.   The single most common message experienced in dysfunctional families is, “you’re not allowed to feel.” When someone is told that their feelings are no good, they hear, “I’m no good.” As we’ve mentioned in earlier installments of this series, the only way to survive in such an environment survival is to “shut down” emotionally. The truth is, emotions cannot be split off in one area without affecting the total emotional life. If I make it so I am not able to experience pain; I am not going to experience joy, either. If I can’t be sad, I can’t be happy. If I am out of touch with my own feelings; I can’t ever connect with yours, either. I am living life from the neck up, you might say. Is it any wonder these people become addicted to alcohol and drugs? There is no more effective way to manage one’s emotions than mind-altering chemicals. So, whatever happened emotionally in childhood is made all the worse by pouring chemicals on top of all the shame, hurt, and resentment.

C.          Emotional Re-connection: Recovery’s Gift.   One of the greatest gifts that God gives people when they begin down the tough road of recovery is the ability, the freedom, and the permission to feel again. In recovery, we learn that everyone has emotions, that feeling are neither “good or “bad”, and that feelings are not to be feared or rejected. Instead of being disconnected from them, in recovery we learn to be aware of them, to connect with them, and to experience them. Instead of feeling numb most of the time, recovery means experiencing – both intellectually and emotionally – the joy and peace and that are an essential part of this Christian life.

D.        Grief, one of the first feelings to return to emotional health.   A sure sign that a person is beginning the process of genuine recovery is the return of the emotional life. They begin feeling again, and much of what they feel is pain and grief. With a clear mind they begin to experience reality, often for the first time in years. And, the reality they find themselves in is usually terrible. By the time they reach out for help, most addicts have lost all that is dear to them – family, career, and self-respect. After drowning their feelings with drugs and/or alcohol for so long, they can experience feelings very intensely. The feelings of grief and loss can be profound. They may find themselves grieving the death of a loved one or some other loss that occurred years ago. In these cases, their grieving process has been cut short through use of mood altering chemical (which includes alcohol).Adult children of alcoholics and others who have experienced abuse in their lives usually feel totally ripped off. They may sense for the first time the deep loss of not having a family where they felt safe and loved. Many grieve a childhood where they were never able to be kids because of the adult responsibilities that were trust upon them by parents who were out of control.

The key to working through all of this is to avoid using alcohol or drugs to turn them off their feelings again. This is a common cause of relapse for those in recovery programs. Instead, the recovering person needs to “feel the feelings” with a clear mind in order to work through them – and eventually leave them behind.

E.          Some final thoughts.   A necessary part of reconnecting with their emotional selves is to begin to grieve what they’ve made of their lives, how they’ve destroyed the relationships. And this is one of the greatest gifts that we will ever bring to our program participants, so we need — but it is not going to happen on its own. It has got to be actively programmed into our activities. And that is when they need to know we are going to be committed to them as they work through this process. Time must be set aside to give them the opportunity to talk freely about what they are experiencing. There is a tremendous therapeutic value in verbalizing feelings instead of stuffing what is going on within them.In order to keep moving forward in recovery, program participants must feel supported in the process of reconnecting with their difficult feelings, including grief. It is the responsibility of the program staff members to create an environment where participants sense that they can safely and freely express the struggles they are experiencing.

Education & Employment Readiness Programs

When I worked with the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions  as Director of Education, I gave seminars at the Education and Employment Track Annual Conference.   My topic was best practices regarding how educational and job readiness efforts relate to counseling and recovery program efforts.   Here are some of the thoughts I shared with those attending:

A.       Vocational Success is a God-given Need — After God created Adam and Eve, He told them, “Be fruitful…”   (Genesis 8:17)   He wants all of us to work in order to earn a living and also to discover and develop our unique gifts and abilities.   With the second point in mind, mission recovery programs should use testing and other methods to help clients discover their unique interests and abilities.   For some, college or vocational training may need to be the next step in preparing them for a fulfilling career.

B.       A Team Approach is Vital — Staff workers who deal with education and employment readiness must be viewed as integral members of the recovery program team.   They need to be included in all staff meetings where clients are discussed.   Additionally, they must be kept up-to-date on issues relating to the counseling process and allowed to share their observations on the clients with other program staff members.   Much can be learned about program participants while they are involved in educational and vocational training efforts.

C.       “Pulling Your Own Weight” — The Apostle Paul wrote, “”If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”   (2 Thessalonians 3:10)   In recovery counseling, we know that really helping people means assisting them to become responsible for their own lives.   While some addicts may seem happy to let others take care of them, this always impacts self-esteem — especially for those who find sobriety.   Prolonged unemployment or being stuck in an unfulfilling job can create enough stress that relapse becomes a real possibility.   Conversely, the rewards of succeeding in the work life can be a major source of motivation to keep moving forward in a life of recovery.

D.       Timing is Everything! — Introducing the various elements of an education and training program in the proper sequence is essential.   For instance, having clients begin looking for work before they have become stabilized in recovery can be a real problem.   Instead of focusing their efforts on working on their own internal issues, they will begin to look outward and derail the process of growing toward recovery.   Here is the best sequence:

1.       Literacy — Every rescue mission recovery program must evaluate the reading level of their program participants.   Someone once said that reading is the foundation of all learning.   If we want them to learn from our classes, clients must be able to read.   Along with severely limiting job possibilities, illiteracy causes major damage to self worth.   Literacy work can be done by the mission’s staff or by using resource people in the community.   A great online resource for help in this area is ProLiteracy – https://www.proliteracy.org/

2.       High School Completion — A high school diploma is necessary for most any job.   So, many rescue missions now maintain their own computer based learning centers that focus on literacy and high school completion.   Even if your mission does not have such a resource, assisting recovery program clients to obtain their GED (General Education Diploma) still ought to be a planned part of their stay.   This effort can begin very early in the program, possibly even becoming a condition for graduation.   The key is finding appropriate resources in the community to facilitate this.

3.       Employment Readiness & Job Search — While I encourage programs to wait until a participant nears graduation before actually beginning to look for work, employment readiness can begin almost right away.   This can involved classes about the scriptural perspective of work, as well as learning other skills and attitudes that will assist them when they eventually begin the process of seeking employment or further education.

4.      Monitoring Job Success –   Transitional living arrangements are the ideal situation, allowing program staff members to monitor and encourage program graduates once they graduate and enter the world of work or obtaining further education.   Holding them accountable, communicating with employers, and providing additional assistance and encouragement to theses clients will help to ensure their success.

E.       Don’t Forget About Restitution — Where rescue missions use the Twelve Steps in their recovery programs, clients are taken through the “8th & 9th Step Process.”   This involves identifying those whom they had harmed through their addition and making a definite effort at making amends to them.   This process can involve much encouragement and even coaching so that they can clean up the relational messes of their lives.   Inevitably in the process of working these steps, some people will be identified to whom financial restitution is due.   To experience real freedom of conscience, our clients must understand that it is God’s will for them to make restitution.