It is tough to start over, that much is true. For those in recovery, especially early recovery, starting over tends to take on the magnitude of the nearly impossible. There are just so many different areas of life that need changing, so much to do, and so much to learn before anything can be done. How can someone make sense of all this? How can a reasonable and realistic course be charted, particularly when the past seems ever-present and constantly seeks to rob you of whatever small gains you may make? While there is no question that painful memories of the past can wreak havoc in recovery from alcohol or drugs (or compulsive gambling, sexual behavior, workaholism and so on). Every person who is new to recovery has some of this unwelcome baggage that is carried with them into sobriety. The question is, how can the past be left behind so that moving forward can begin? Perhaps even more pertinent to some is what to do when moving forward means leaving the past behind? What if you really don’t want to ditch everything from the past? What happens when you live with someone who is part of your addictive past? What then? At the outset, let’s be clear that there are no universally right answers. Each person needs to figure out the best approach to making a new life in recovery. Whether this involves compromise or complete cutting off from the past is a purely individual choice. It is also important to remember that choices can be changed. They are not forever, nor are they inviolate. With new information, new goals, new friends, hope and courage, all things are possible. Here, then, are some thoughts on leaving the past behind and moving forward to new beginnings.
Painful Severance – It May Not Be Forever
If feeling the pain of separation from lifelong friends or even loved ones and family members is not something that you’re eager to take on, consider the fact that such a separation may not be forever. This should ease the pain a bit and allow you to further explore what life may be like without such influences that may prove destructive to your recovery. Some of your old friends will undoubtedly be the people you used to hang out drinking and partying with. Some may be co-workers or your best friend from college or high school. You may have grown up with the person and can’t envision your life without him or her. But when continuing the association threatens to sabotage your sobriety, you really have only one choice and that is to put some distance between you. Granted, this won’t be easy. Your friend will not understand, more than likely. You may hear all kinds of lamentations, pleas for you to reconsider, that the carousing and drinking and using will take a backseat to your friendship. Do not be swayed by these protestations. They are not genuine. Worse yet, you have absolutely no control over what might happen should things go haywire and you are right there in the presence of temptation. This is not to say that you want to give into triggers, just that you may not be able to resist. It’s best to steer clear of any association from your past that brings to mind anything you did while in the grip of your addiction. Maybe that dear friend will one day come to the decision to go into treatment and get clean and sober. Maybe, but it will have to be of his or her own volition. This isn’t something that you can force another person to do, any more than others could force rehab on you. While you might have been coerced or compelled to get clean for your job or because of a family ultimatum, for example, the decision to stick with it and work the program wholeheartedly was yours alone. So, while there is an outside possibility that people from your past who continue to use will eventually go into treatment, you cannot sit around and wait for that day to come. Your job now is to work on your recovery, day in and day out, without fail.
Suppose It’s Your Spouse
If you are married to someone who continues to abuse alcohol or drugs, or has a process addiction, this can be a rather difficult situation. On the one hand, you know that you need a supportive home environment and that the people closest to you generally form the backbone of such support, when you live with an alcoholic or an addict who continues to use, you will need to rely upon other forms of support in order to maintain your sobriety. Again, you cannot compel your spouse or partner to get clean and sober. That’s likely to backfire, anyway. Your main focus has to be on working your own recovery program, going to 12-step meetings, obtaining a sponsor, beginning work on the Twelve Steps, taking care of yourself, finding new activities you enjoy, and beginning to craft goals for your future. It is possible that over time, your spouse will see the changes in you and come to the decision that recovery is a viable option. At that time, it will be your turn to be fully supportive and encouraging of your spouse’s recovery efforts. All the changes that you’ve already gone through you will very likely witness first-hand in your spouse’s recovery journey. It may be tough for you to handle. But it may also bring the two of you closer together. There is also the possibility that your relationship will fracture to the point of breaking. If your spouse continues to use and the temptation for you to join in becomes overwhelming, you may have no choice but to force a separation. Physically removing yourself from the toxic environment, even if it is only for a while, may be the only sane answer to you being able to maintain your sobriety. Naturally, this is an extremely personal and painful decision, not one that you’d make lightly. Get counseling to ensure that you’re making the right decision. Perhaps a coordinated family effort may convince your spouse that rehab is a better alternative. This could come in the form of an intervention, conducted by a professional interventionist. Whatever happens, remember that you are not responsible for your spouse’s addiction. You are also not to blame if he or she refuses treatment. You may love and care for your spouse dearly, but still not be able to remain in the same house with them. Life will go on. Things will get better. Only time will tell how things will turn out. But you cannot jeopardize your recovery – even for the sake of love.
Not a Betrayal – an Affirmation of Life
One of the emotions that well up when you think about walking away from the past is the powerful feeling of betrayal. Whether it is a spouse or a family member, a close friend, someone you grew up with or work every day next to, when you have to part ways in order to preserve your sobriety, it often feels like you are betraying someone you’ve cared a great deal about. The person may even call you out on your action, lashing out with anger and telling you that you betrayed your friendship or love. This retort will sting, undoubtedly, but that does not make it true. What you have done by going through treatment to overcome your addiction took a great deal of courage and determination. Your newfound sobriety is a precious gift; yet you remain fragile and vulnerable in these early days of recovery. It will take more courage for you to walk away from the past, but it is something that you absolutely have to be willing to do. Think of this not as betrayal but as an affirmation of life – your life. This is your new beginning. It cannot be manacled to the past. You need to break free so that you can make your way in this new life that you have freely chosen. Recovery is about possibility, of change, of embarking on exciting journeys of discovery. Embrace this opportunity. Don’t run from it to relive the past.
Let Go of Fear
Fear is an incredibly self-destructive emotion that is the reason for many a relapse. When you succumb to fear, you tend not to think rationally about your choices. As a result, the temptation to give in and resort to old ways to alleviate pain and numb consciousness often takes hold. You need to fight this sometimes overwhelming emotion of fear. Do not allow the icy tentacles of fear to grip your heart and make you believe that the only way to disperse the fear is to return to your addictive ways. It isn’t. There are better ways to let go of fear. First, acknowledge what it is that you are feeling. Give it a name. Call it what it is: fear. If you can isolate the source of the fear, that’s the next step to learning how to let go of it. What is the worst fear you have? Is it relapse, losing someone you love, getting fired, not making enough money, being a failure, living life miserably? You have to identify the root cause of the fear in order to deflate its power over you. This is not easy, but it isn’t as difficult as it might sound. It always helps to be able to talk over your fears with someone you trust, such as your 12-step sponsor, your loved ones or family members, a close friend, a therapist or a member of the clergy. Discussing fears in a workgroup setting or listening to accounts of others in the rooms of recovery may also prove helpful in overcoming common fears. Fear of always making the same mistakes will hold you back from attempting something new that you want to achieve. You simply have to let go of fear – which has its origins in your addictive past and possibly even back as far as your childhood. Only then will you be able to fully embrace the multitude of opportunities that will be yours to partake in, in your recovery.
When you’re consumed with anxiety and worry about your wicked, wicked ways (isn’t that how it often feels?), it’s time to engage your forgiveness gene. Think there is no such thing? There may not be, but that certainly doesn’t mean that you cannot find it in yourself to forgive you for whatever you may have thought, said or done in your past that has brought harm and pain to you and to others. In fact, the only way to move forward in recovery and to leave the past behind is to completely and fully forgive yourself. It starts by saying the words, whether silently, to yourself, or by writing them down on paper, or actually voicing them aloud when you are alone in your room. Silent or aloud, it doesn’t matter which. The point is that you say it. That’s the first part. The next part is to make it a daily practice. This is called an affirmation, to give you the power to forgive yourself and to open up your mind and heart to new possibilities. This is creating a pathway for you to escape the prison of the past and to make countless new discoveries in your new life in recovery. You might wonder how many times it will take before you really begin to believe that you have forgiven yourself? The answer is that it is likely to arrive sooner than you think. The toughest part is taking the first step: acknowledge the wrong that you have done and forgive yourself for it. Making amends for past transgressions will come later, but first you have to forgive yourself.
Cultivate New Friends
Nothing eases the pain of letting go of the past and old friends like the making of new friends, engaging in new activities, and learning how to live a happy life in sobriety. Since you never know who might become a friend, the wise approach may be to behave as though every person you meet might one day be more than just a casual acquaintance. This doesn’t mean that you have to act other than your conscience dictates. After all, some people may not be good candidates for friendship, but might be better as casual acquaintances. Use discretion, but be courteous, polite, open and willing to engage in conversation – if the opportunity permits. Even saying hello to a newcomer in the rooms of recovery is something that you can easily do. You may not feel like it, not at first, but give it time and a little practice and you’ll soon figure out that it doesn’t hurt you to be a little more outgoing and friendly. As you make your way in recovery, progressing through the Twelve Steps and maybe taking on some challenges or venturing into a new area of interest, you will undoubtedly meet many new people. To the extent that you have common interests and likes, keep in mind that these may be just the right choices for friendship – as long as the feeling is mutual. The best part about cultivating new friends is that they will fill the void left by leaving your past behind. No longer looking in the rearview mirror, your vision is clear to move forward in recovery.
While not necessarily in order, another way to leave the past behind and move forward in recovery is to carefully and thoughtfully begin to make plans. What is it that you want for your new life in sobriety? What can you see yourself doing that you couldn’t do before, or never allowed yourself to consider before? Now is the time to dust off those dreams, or create new ones, even better. There isn’t anything that should be off the table, not if you are genuinely interested in working toward the goal and will do what it takes to further your interest. Of course, it needs to be in line with your recovery efforts. But life goals aren’t split off from being in recovery. You are living and you are in recovery. It is all of the same. Just keep in mind that goals are constantly evolving. What you believe to be your ultimate goal today will look quite a bit different in the months and years ahead. It doesn’t mean that you have to discard your goals, just that once you achieve them, you need to replace them with new ones. Those that are no longer deemed worthwhile or viable should similarly be replaced with ones that you believe fit better with your vision of what you want for yourself in recovery. Bottom line: When you enter recovery, one of the most important things that you will do is to move forward. This means leaving the past behind, where it belongs. Live each day to the best that you can, doing the most that you can with each moment. Do not obsess over the past or worry about the future. Live in the present and make every moment count. This is, after all, your new beginning.