In early sobriety we celebrate the milestones since we last had a drink or used drugs: 30 days, 60 days, and so on. However, when those milestones stack up and people are no longer tempted to use in the day-to-day, many realize that maintaining their emotional sobriety is as big of a challenge as abstaining from drugs or alcohol.
“When our clients come to [treatment]they think that using alcohol and drugs are their main problem, when in reality using was their solution to their actual problem: not being able to live life on life’s terms and not being able to identify and process their emotions,” says Kari White, a counselor at in Riverside, California.
While drugs and alcohol can be avoided, it’s easier to slip up on emotional sobriety. Everyone experiences ups and downs in life, and dealing with big challenges can make maintaining emotional sobriety difficult.
“I know for me personally I struggled with emotional sobriety while I was going through cancer treatment,” says White, who went through treatment at MFI in 2014. “I tried hard to stay busy at work helping others so I would not have to face the feelings of anger, fear, depression, and uncertainty. I quickly realized that not facing my emotions not only jeopardized my recovery but hindered my growth as a counselor.”
“We teach our clients that recovery is more than staying off alcohol and drugs. It is changing many aspects of their lives,” White says. “It starts with fixing relationships…how they treat others and themselves. It is teaching them how to identify and express their emotions in a healthy manner. It is guiding them to a higher power that can help change their lives. Recovery is building them up.”
In addition, clients learn that they can be their own worst enemy if they have no love for themselves.
“Many of our clients come in so beat up, not physically but emotionally. And the aggressor is themselves,” White says.
To get sober, clients must do the hard work of learning to love themselves. They need to interrupt self-sabotaging patterns and learn to cope with challenges in life without using drugs or alcohol. Even after a person completes treatment, maintaining emotional health is critical.
White uses an analogy to help clients understand the importance of emotional sobriety.
“Captains of ships use mooring lines to keep their boat at a dock. We in recovery have to do the same to maintain long-term recovery,” she explains. “We must maintain many mooring lines: relationship with a higher power, connection within the 12-step fellowship, sponsorship, service within the fellowship, communication and emotional sobriety.”
To maintain emotional sobriety long-term, it’s important to check in with other people who are in recovery.
“Checking in with a sponsor or a support group is a must and should be done daily throughout recovery,” White says. “The program teaches us we never have to do this alone.”
People who are following the 12 steps are taught to take a daily inventory. As part of this, they should ask themselves how they are handling their emotions, White says.
“We can no longer suppress our emotions and expect to maintain our recovery. We have to process our emotions as they arise,” she said. This is true whether you have been sober for a year or a decade.
If emotional sobriety starts to slip, people might experience being a “dry drunk.” Although they haven’t relapsed, they are starting to engage in the same actions and attitudes that they had when they were using. Often, this raises the risk of relapsing with drugs or alcohol.
“Long-term sobriety is based on our emotional sobriety,” White says.
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