by Laura C. Todd, Substance Abuse Counselor on 6/15/16.
Vacation season is officially upon us. In the quest for complete wellness, we are encouraged to embrace the idea of structure and routine, as missing a regular meeting or finding ourselves bored on a Sunday afternoon could lead to decisions that threaten our future. As the cold, grey skies of winter have faded – we are met with another summer that, for many, means absolute freedom; a welcomed, well-earned escape from everyday life.
But for those that are trying their hardest to cope with their cravings for the substances that had devastated their lives – the summer months can present a time of stress and inner turmoil. Those in recovery may find themselves romanticizing their memories of a previous lifestyle, when they were anything but sober on the hottest days of the year. Those who fear a fall-back into addictive behavior patterns may sense the unstructured time; finding themselves at an event or planning a vacation that stands in contrast to everything that had been working for them. Personal triggers to addiction may pop-up everywhere, as family get-togethers, friendly BBQs, and plans for week-long vacations go into full-swing. Despite the fear of what this season may bring, the sunshine months can be good for your health. Before you mistakenly throw your goals into a backyard bonfire, there are many strategies (and many helpful resources) you can utilize that will help you keep that carefree (not careless) summer-vibe aligned with your recovery, your lifestyle, and your future:
- Begin or continue a healthy routine: Summer can bring our rebellious desires to the surface. If you resist the urge to run-off for the day without making plans, or decline a friend’s lead to play hookie from work, you decrease your chances of entering more uncertain situations. On days where you have no family obligations or special events, stick to what is working for you. Stepping outside of your structured schedule might be okay in the long run, but there is risk in doing so. This article offers tips about how to create a routine that works for you.
- Write it down: Especially in early recovery, a person who makes note of the time they will spend on daily tasks can see if there are periods in the day when they have nothing planned. Even if you write, “take a nap,” “read my new book” or “watch my shows,” allowing yourself to live each day without falling into idle boredom means you are coping with what could be a huge trigger in the way of recovery. You may purchase a planner or a calendar, or plan a creative activity for making one on your own. Many websites offer free, printable calendars for public use.
- Plan fun activities: If you make a list of activities you are interested in, you’ll be able to prepare yourself if troubling boredom should arise. If there’s a specific place you’ll be visiting, you might check out what the area has to offer as far as fun things to do, interesting venues, and points of interest. One day you might take a bike ride down the boardwalk. The next, you can visit a local museum. Going on healthy adventures is far more exhilarating than being trapped in the terrible cycle of addiction. There are many free activities in the Baltimore area.
- Consider your history: Memories are tricky and often attached to complex emotions. Would visiting the beach trigger personal memories of your days in active addiction? Consider a location you haven’t been to before. Honor the progress you’ve made thus far by assessing your comfort levels in settings where you had once regularly used. This includes avoiding frequented stores, restaurants, and areas in your hometown as well.
- Stay close: If the thought of flying right now causes you to feel uneasy, plan a trip closer to home. During takeoff or landing, this stress, for some, turns into panic – and in times of early-recovery anxiety, we might worry we’d say yes to a friendly stewardess whose job it is to offer alcoholic beverages to passengers. Now is likely not the time to be testing personal limits.
- Ask for notice: If you are anticipating that family and friends will be hosting summer get-togethers and celebrations, perhaps you may ask them to let you know in advance. A random Saturday BBQ might sound like fun, but without sticking to your plan, you might find yourself in a situation where you aren’t quite yet confident you’ll stay drug-free. Figure out how far ahead you’ll need, and let your loved ones know.
- Keep coming back: Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are held 24-hours a day, all over the world. There are online directories here and even an app that will help you find meetings no matter where you are located. If daily meetings are part of your recovery, do not stop attending during your vacation. You’ll feel better knowing you’ve put your recovery first. There are also online twelve-step chat networks and recorded audio material to keep you connected wherever may be.
- Distance yourself: Does your family’s Fourth of July bash always include your 2nd cousin that pressures you to drink? Is there a person you once used with that might show up at your coworker’s dinner party? Decide if you genuinely feel ready to be in their presence; be honest with yourself. If you still plan to attend, surround yourself with others that are supportive of you, or ask to bring a friend that’s also in recovery.
- Politely decline: Parties where friends or family are openly using alcohol and/or drugs could be a very uncomfortable situation. Some people in long-term recovery can attend functions where others are drinking, but many with over 20 years sober still avoid them altogether. When you begin feeling as though you will miss out on a good time, stop and ask yourself what else you’d be missing in the long run, if going to the party caused you to slip. There are so many benefits to recovery that go far beyond the fear of missing out. Often, we let our choices be dictated by our eagerness to get back out there and be social. While connection to others is vital for recovery, it matters who we stay connected to in the process. If you have trouble saying “no” or declining an invitation, practice what you’d like to say for a few days before you make the call. If a phone call feels like too much pressure, it is okay in this situation to text or send an e-mail. In the end, you do not need to give anyone a reason for your absence – you are putting your health and your recovery first. The risk is not worth the invitation right now.
- Seriously, don’t go: Dysfunctional relationships are extremely triggering because they are often the source of our strongest negative emotions. Look back on the pattern of summer events in your life. If there is a situation that is known for toxic altercations between others, or there is a person invited that is often provoking, do not go. Experiencing or even witnessing verbal or physical abuse, or even an extremely uncomfortable dinner scene (where people are bringing up family secrets and old pain) may send you looking to escape your feelings in an unhealthy way. If your family is going through a time of feuds and discontent, ask yourself how upset you’d feel being there, and what the consequences might be. This might be a time in your life where you’d be better off planning something with your closest relatives on your own time.
- Leave early: Even at events where there is no alcohol or drugs present, larger social functions can provoke anxiety for some. If this is the case, let your host know in advance that you’ll need to leave early, and decide how long you’d like to stay – even if it’s just a few minutes. Attending to your emotional needs right now is more important than exposing yourself to difficult interactions for the sake of others.
- Offer a hand: Those in active addiction often use drugs and alcohol as a way to feel more at ease in social situations. If you’re at a sober event and still feeling uncomfortable with the prospect of socializing in a bigger crowd, offer to man the grill or help with decorations. At many family functions, the host is often so busy that often they aren’t able to sit down and enjoy themselves – which gives you the opportunity to lend a hand. This helps to keep your mind engaged on something other than the tension you may feel. Service to others has been found to offer healing from many struggles, including depression and substance abuse.
- Remember the moments: Giving yourself the creative duty of taking pictures allows you to stay observant and engage with others in a positive way. Snapping a photo helps you to find a new perspective on your surroundings and capture moments you’d like to revisit down the road. There are plenty of sunny days that will be worth remembering. Summer vacations are a great time to explore your creativity, and mindfulness experts say photography can be good for your mental health.
- Call the hotel: Many vacation destinations are designed to have us sitting in the lap of luxury, indulging in whatever we please. In some destinations, this means that hotels come pre-stocked with a “mini bar” – a small refrigerator full of liquor and beer. Call concierge or guest services before your arrival and make it clear that if the hotel provides this for its patrons, your fridge will need to be emptied before you’re given your keys. If need be, let them know that you are not interested in happy hour or any type of complimentary beverages. When you get there, ask the front desk if a worker has cleared out your fridge.
- Stay dry: When traveling, it can be hard to avoid bars and restaurants that serve alcohol when you and your family need dinner on the go. Places like bars and nightclubs are often where active users of all substances meet and convene. Luckily, there are plenty of family-friendly vacation spots that are known as “dry towns” – places that ban the sale and/or use of alcohol. Ocean City, New Jersey, and other parts of Cape May, offer a beautiful seashore with boardwalks, miles of beaches, and not a bar or liquor store in sight. Nationwide, there are over 200 “dry” counties where you can feel safe and at ease during your vacation. Traveling to Colorado, however, where marijuana is legal, might not be the best option. Avoiding destinations that are well known for party scenes means you can enjoy your vacation even more.
- Plan meal destinations: On vacation, we want to escape our worries and avoid reminders of our demons – addiction can make this hard. Waitresses are trained to push alcohol sales to diners, which can make for a difficult experience when we are traveling with loved ones. No matter where you plan to visit this summer, knowing where you can go for lunch or dinner outings ahead of time will be helpful. Many businesses offer menu information online – and there are many restaurants that do not serve alcohol, even if you are in an area where there are bars and stores that do. For those that love to cook, vacation offers you the time and the freedom to shop and provide meals for your loved ones instead of eating out. There are also tons of festive non-alcoholic beverages you can make with fresh ingredients. Before you get on the road, hop online or call and make a list of eateries that are safe for your recovery. This way, when hunger strikes, you’ll be prepared.
- Take a sobercation: Believe it or not, there are lots of other people looking for a fun summer vacation that want recovery as much as you do. There are many travel agencies listed on Sobertravelers.org that plan group trips, music festivals, and 12-step conventions specifically for travelers in recovery from addiction. Sobervacations.com offers vacations in Mexico, Alaska, and more.
- Stay connected: In addition to calling your sponsor, counselor, or trusted friends, vacation offers the opportunity to meet new people and explore. Thanks to technology, there are a number of smartphone apps, like SoberGrid, that can link you to nearby people who are also in recovery – which means you might have the chance to make some new friends, whether on vacation or looking to plan a day at the pool. There’s a whole new world of apps out there that enable you to put wellness and recovery at your fingertips.
- Think it through: Relapse often begins before a person has a drink or drug in hand. If you start questioning your ability to “just have one,” or “try a little bit just this one time,” slow down and think your choices through all the way to their end. What will happen if you decide to use? How will you feel in that moment? 2 hours later? The day after? A week from now? When we recognize the consequences of seemingly-small choices, “just one” becomes the door to swift descent; we begin re-entering a space where drugs and alcohol are once again in control. Many people remain motivated in staying clean by knowing how disappointed they’d feel in themselves if a weaker moment were to get the best of them. Mistakes do happen, and relapse does not mean that recovery isn’t possible. However, acute cravings on average last for only a few minutes before fading away – learning vital recovery skills can help you triumph in these times.
- Give back: There are tons of local organizations and charities that would be grateful for your help. Check out VolunteerMatch.com and pick a cause that interests you. Giving back is something that people in recovery are really, really good at – and you’re likely to meet some nice people while you’re there, too. Volunteering helps broaden our interpersonal skills, increases our comfort in working with others, and aids in our openness to continue a healing path in our lives.
- Don’t get burned: Severe sunburns can be nothing short of agony, and in some cases, cause fever-like symptoms. Avoid having to slather your charred body with a handful of aloe vera every 2 hours by wearing a good SPF and spending some of the day under an umbrella. Most pools and beaches offer them either by rental or by complimentary service. Physical pain is a common trigger for those in recovery, often reminding some people of withdrawal.
- Have an emergency plan: We hope that a high-risk situation doesn’t arise. However, there may be an instant when your urge to use feels overwhelming. Having an emergency plan in place ahead of time can help you through these tough moments. Write down helpful contacts, places you can go, and things you can do to immediately get out of the situation. You can also use your phone to text 741-741 to the National Crisis Text Line, or utilize these other free help lines for added support.
- Reward yourself: Whether you are going on vacation or in the mood for a fun weekend, you should enjoy yourself. Plan a reward – perhaps a day at the spa, a new outfit, a favorite meal – that you can give to yourself as a treat. Your recovery milestones are worth celebrating. If nothing else, take in your surroundings and allow yourself to smile in the sunshine. No matter if you have one day or a thousand days in recovery, you deserve to feel proud of all your accomplishments.
- Be kind to you: Recovery is one day, sometimes even one moment at a time. While planning summer activities can feel daunting at first, remember that you are enriching your new lifestyle towards the positive change that you’ve always wanted. Those in recovery often miss the feeling of being able to “live in the moment,” however, living in happy moments that we plan for ourselves can be still be wholly satisfying, without feeding our addictive desire for immediate gratification. Allow yourself to enjoy the little things – they are often more profound than we realize. This is the summer where you can learn to live again – in happiness, in health, and in harmony with all you’ve been hoping for.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, we will be happy to assist you in learning more on how to begin a journey into long-lasting recovery. We want to help. Please give us a call at 443-725-4062.
post written by Laura C. Todd on 6/15/16