By: Marilyn L. Davis
When Our Body and Mind Rebels Against Us
Our bodies and minds got used to being high. When we take away those substances, either our body or mind or both can react and can start craving the substance.
As far back as 1988, when I got into recovery, we’ve understood this side-effect of our years of use. Stephen T. Tiffany, Ph.D., presents a vivid picture of what happens to us during a craving.
“Imagine that you are an alcoholic trying to quit drinking. You have not had a drink in a month, but during the past several days, you have thought about alcohol constantly. These thoughts occupy your mind, making it nearly impossible to concentrate on anything else. Everything around you seems to invoke memories of how pleasant and satisfying drinking can be. You have wrestled with the idea of having a drink, but you have decided to wait at least a little longer.
Today, however, after leaving work, you find yourself somewhat mindlessly driving by your favorite bar. You cannot help but notice the front door of the bar propped open, seeming to beckon you inside. You pull over to the curb, park your car, and find yourself standing at the door. As you look through the doorway, it is all so familiar: The bar stools, the television flickering in the corner, and even the smell of stale cigarette smoke is comfortable and inviting. Your heart races and your hands sweat, you realize that this is craving at its worst. You are drawn inexorably into the bar. There is no way you can fight it any longer; you must have a drink.”
Where Did That Come From?
When we decide to give up our substances, it’s a huge change. Most of us used regardless of whatever feelings we were having, what day it was, or what was going on in our lives. In other words, daily.
We’d become addicted, and addicts use, regardless of how many people are asking us to quit, how much we may want to stop, or even when we are in legal trouble. So, to give up the substances is, in the beginning, the most significant change of all.
But we are fragile in early recovery.
We’re overwhelmed with numbed feelings that resurface; we’re giving up old friends, having to look at ourselves in a new way, and probably, trying to repair damaged relationships. In other words, we’re making a lot of positive changes, but under these is, for most of us, a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
People don’t talk about them because they falsely believe they are doing something wrong. Instead of beating ourselves up, we need to understand that it’s a natural byproduct or side-effect of years of use.
Is There a Pattern to my Cravings?
I started seeing patterns for the cravings. If I were stressed, bored, alone with my thoughts, or not feeling either physically or emotionally well, I’d get hit with a desire to use. While I certainly didn’t like the cravings, they didn’t indicate that I wasn’t doing all I could do for my recovery.
I think that when I understood that my cravings didn’t make me a bad person, or slack in my recovery efforts, I quit beating myself up. I also didn’t use.
Romancing or Finding a Reason Not to Use?
Sometimes, I would consciously think about using. If I deliberately thought about using and the relief it would provide, I’d have to extend the thoughts to the real outcome, which wasn’t relief, but putting myself back into a vicious cycle of use, withdrawal, more use, more pain to the family, and further damage to myself.
Those predictable outcomes helped me tolerate the cravings, but it wasn’t comfortable, either.
Then I realized that like everything else in recovery, I probably didn’t have to tackle this problem on my own, whether I’d found a solution or not. I could ask others what they did.
Help with Cravings from Others
When I asked for help, I got it. I kept what I called, “My Suggestion Notebook” in my early recovery. Coming off Xanax and alcohol, my short-term memory was shot. It was embarrassing when people at my noon meeting would ask me what I’d done that day, and all I could remember was standing in front of a copier, hours before.
Logically, I knew I’d done other things, but I just could not remember. I’d hear great advice in this meeting, and then when I got back to work after the meeting, I might or might not be able to remember it.
What helped me was to write down the excellent advice when I got to my car before I returned to work. Given my history of heroin, cocaine, alcohol, opiates, and Xanax use, my employer required me to attend meetings at noon and 8 PM to make sure I had the support I needed.
Therefore, my Suggestion Notebooks quickly filled up with great advice.
I’m probably a pack-rat with some things, but in a move, I opened a box, and there were my Suggestion Notebooks.
We’re all different and respond differently to cravings, directions, and suggestions. Our recovery paths might not be the same, but that doesn’t matter, either. Cravings will happen to all of us, and in our early recovery, there’s the danger of a relapse. So, regardless of which path you’re on, see if these suggestions don’t help.
1. Cravings Only Last So Long
Whether it’s 90 seconds, or 15 minutes, continuing the thoughts, romanticizing the return to use, or doing something to lessen the obsession all make the time difference. There is no typical time frame for how long a craving will last because usually, you had given into it when it occurred. Studies at the National Institute on Alcohol and Drugs estimates that most cravings last about 90 minutes.
What I realized was that I never had a craving in my addiction that I didn’t give into, so I had no idea how long they would or could last. Feeling bad, use. Feeling good, use. Not happy, use. Angry, use.
In my recovery, I learned that if I didn’t relapse, the feelings passed, the craving subsided, the day got okay, or I could feel a measure of pride when I didn’t give in.
The time between cravings increased, and the time spent in the mental tug of war about using or not using decreased. Even when they were strong, I learned to delay giving in to the craving, and it eventually passed.
2. Triggers Fuel the Cravings: Avoid the Triggers
My clubhouse is the HALT House. That stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, four things to avoid in our recovery, so daily, I had a reminder of the internal triggers.
- My eating habits changed – I started eating.
- If I was angry, I looked for the fear beneath it and then talked with the individual or prayed.
- When I was lonely, I doubled my meetings or went for coffee with others. I wasn’t ready nor interested in a relationship in my early recovery, but friendships were important.
- If I was tired, I rested and didn’t criticize myself for needing a nap. If babies sleep to grow, I figured it would benefit my recovery, too.
HALT, also reinforced my decisions to delay giving in to a craving.
3. Move the Body, Stop Abusing It
In my active addiction, I drove across the college campus for staff meetings. I’m embarrassed to tell you that it was less than a quarter-mile. I’d make up excuses why I was driving instead of walking. In my recovery, I’d walk, and add an additional five minutes to give me a moment to watch a flowering shrub blossom or see the birds gathered on top of the statues, or sit on a bench and just breathe fresh air.
Then I started walking in the evenings after work and before my 8 PM meeting. I’d walk along the shore of the lake and watch a sunset, or stop and let the lapping of the water soothe my jangled nerves.
After about four weeks of this, I walked the two miles to the clubhouse since it was a Saturday and daylight. I was offered rides but declined them because I was starting to feel better when I moved my body.
I also used these walks and sitting on a bench at school as a kind of quiet, meditative time. Watching the tulips fight to flower in the spring became the metaphor for the changes I was experiencing.
As it began to bud, so was I. It was over it’s dormant, dead period, and ready to bloom.
Sound hokey? That’s okay; it worked for me.
4. Remember the Reality
My cravings only got worse if I fueled it with romancing how nice it would be to get high. It was at these times that I had to remember, reflect, and realize that repeating the same mistakes, getting the same adverse outcomes, and possibly overdose were all possible results of a relapse.
I’d ask myself if that was really what I wanted, or did I want to find a safe alternative to relapse.
Home alone, pre-cell phones meant that I couldn’t always call someone, I wasn’t hungry, all of the shows on TV seemed to be about hooking up and using, so I’d read a book, take a shower, take a bubble bath, sometimes with a book, and all of those lessened the desire to use.
What Works for You, Works for You!
But triggers, thoughts, feelings, and activities can and do prompt them even when we have time. Just know that they do lessen the longer you’re in recovery, so do whatever it takes to remain in recovery.
Please feel free to add your thoughts and suggestions to this list. It’s not inclusive, and your solutions will only help someone else in their recovery, and that’s the intent of From Addict 2 Advocate.
Writing and recovery heal the heart.
Want to help others find recovery? Found some solutions for cravings? Have some helpful suggestions for someone early in recovery?
Marilyn L. Davis is the author of Finding North: A Journey from Addict to Advocate, available on Amazon.