How I Rejected Diet Culture for Good

Addiction ravages your whole body, not just your mind. Yet most programs of recovery often only treat the mental and emotional impact of substance use disorder, leaving physiological recovery sorely lacking. This gap in healing can make us vulnerable to coping with the physical changes that occur with recovery. 

Physical recovery — much like mental healing — is complex. It can take years to achieve peace with our bodies. During that process, we often uncover a disordered relationship with not only our bodies but also with food. 

I don’t deny that the first few months of recovery helped me to feel somewhat better emotionally. And in some respects, that is the priority: to get our mental well-being managed first so that we have a basis for sustainable recovery. However, omitting physical recovery can create an unstable foundation as we may turn to unhelpful coping strategies — like disordered eating and fad diets — to cope with the physiological changes that occur during recovery. 

When I entered recovery, my heavy, bloated body weighed over 300 pounds — which is heavier than I’d ever been — and it ached with pain. I was severely depressed, struggling with mood swings, and feeling emotionally broken. 

During those first two years of recovery, I experienced a significant increase in appetite, with an insatiable desire for high-energy foods like cakes, bread, cookies, pasta, and cheese. I would spend time at AA meetings obsessing over what I was going to buy on the way home for my evening binge in front of the TV. Physically, I didn’t experience much recovery other than my liver regenerating as my liver function tests returned to normal. I still felt exhausted all the time and had no energy to do anything other than go to work and come home to bed. Going to meetings was a drag, and I’d much rather have been laying on the sofa or in bed. I was utterly miserable.

I would spend time at AA meetings obsessing over what I was going to buy on the way home for my evening binge in front of the TV. Physically, I didn’t experience much recovery other than my liver regenerating as my liver function tests returned to normal.

I felt torn: on the one hand I was making great progress with substance use disorder recovery by staying sober, but I felt like I was on a self-destructive path using food as a weapon against my body. Lacking sufficient information about what was happening to me physiologically, I turned to restrictive diets that promised — but rarely delivered — quick results: the Atkins diet, Weight Watchers, paleo, sugar-free, the Wheat Belly Diet, and Slimming World. I thought that I just needed to omit troubling food groups, weigh every ounce of food, or even join another 12-step fellowship where I had to tell someone what I was going to eat every day. 

I quickly discovered that those diets weren’t solutions: they were an addiction in themselves, and they weren’t sustainable — I was destined to fail because, as studies show, diets don’t work.  What I was actually dealing with was a deficiency within my brain chemistry, in particular, a lack of feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin. This caused depression, and I was using food to self-medicate and make myself feel better – just like I did with alcohol.

I quickly discovered that those diets weren’t solutions: they were an addiction in themselves, and they weren’t sustainable — I was destined to fail because, as studies show, diets don’t work.

Once I had that realization, I was halfway toward healing my body. Instead of diets, I needed to focus on boosting my mood. I did this by improving my gut health through probiotics and eating less processed foods and more plant foods — over 90 percent of serotonin is created in the gut — and with exercise and medication. That boosted my mood considerably and I had fewer cravings for the foods that I had been binging on. What’s interesting is that when I now crave those foods, I see it as a warning sign that my mood is off. 

I’d like to say that healing my relationship with food and my body was as simple as focusing on improving my mood, but it wasn’t. As you’ll have discovered by now, recovery isn’t simple — it’s complex. It requires a lot of uncovering, increasing awareness, reprogramming, and practice. 

What I needed to focus on next was my psychological relationship to food and how I had equated my worth to my size. This has taken years to heal, but it doesn’t have to once you realize that diet culture makes us think our size determines our worth. My hope is that once more people are aware of diet culture and how harmful it can be, particularly to people in recovery, we can fast-forward our healing process by rejecting that culture. 

First, let’s look at what diet culture is. Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN, is an intuitive eating coach and anti-diet dietician, and she defines diet culture as: “A system of beliefs that: 

  • Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin ‘ideal.’
  • Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.
  • Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.
  • Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of ‘health,’ which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.”

What is interesting about diet culture in relation to recovery is that diet culture tells us to ignore our hunger cues, tells us that our external appearance is linked to our worth, and constantly encourages us to shrink ourselves — this is the antithesis of recovery. Recovery isn’t about our external appearance. It is about turning inward. It is about realizing that our worth is internal and our value is based on who we are as a human and how we value ourselves, not what other people think of us or how we are judged by external standards. It is also about getting in touch with our body and our innate needs.

What I needed to focus on next was my psychological relationship to food and how I had equated my worth to my size. This has taken years to heal, but it doesn’t have to once you realize that diet culture makes us think our size determines our worth.

A person in recovery engaging in diet culture is potentially creating a further divide within themselves by ignoring their needs and undoing all of the healing worth about self-esteem and self-worth.  

How do we reject diet culture? We start by ignoring external messages that tell us how or what to eat and we start listening to our bodies. It looks a lot like practicing the principles of intuitive eating, like eating when hungry, experiencing fullness and enjoyment with food, not labeling food as good or bad and instead looking at it as emotionally neutral, not using exercise as a means of punishment for eating or to earn what we really want to eat, and respecting your body. 

“Giving up the pursuit of weight loss is challenging, and even harder the more weight stigma you’ve experienced in your life and the longer you’ve been dieting,” says Harrison. But that is truly the solution here if we want to integrate our recovery into our relationships with our bodies. Rejecting diet culture is another way we can free ourselves in our recovery. 

 

Online Recovery Meetings

When we are thinking of recovery meetings, we often conjure up an image of a church basement, a circle of chairs, pots of strong black coffee, and welcoming faces. But that image doesn’t necessarily depict the vast array of recovery resources that are available today.

In recent years we’ve seen a far-reaching expansion of recovery pathways and supports, all geared toward making recovery more accessible. Whether you want to attend a meeting in person, get support from online communities, or attend meetings virtually, there is an option to suit your needs. We see this in the huge expansion of recovery pathways, but also in making recovery virtual and a whole lot more convenient.

This is particularly helpful for those who work odd hours, are less able-bodied, or who simply prefer the convenience of not needing to leave the house for a meeting. It makes recovery more accessible. Virtual meetings are also available globally.

I remember when I first got sober, in 2012 in the northwest of England. The only recovery options were inpatient rehab or in-person Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. And the treatment centers sent people to AA anyway. The point is, my options were limited. This pathway was incredibly helpful at the time: I had access to a ready-made community of sober people and a support network that provided people to talk to at any time of day. Meetings were available several times a day, every day of the week. There was a tried and tested program of recovery, and years of wisdom available.

Over time, however, I needed less rigidity and fewer rules for my recovery, but I had no other options apart from connecting with people online. I found connections on Twitter (through the hashtag #recoveryposse), on Facebook, and through online support groups, and I started reading a range of recovery blogs. I felt like my whole world had opened up. The expansive network of online support for people in recovery surprised me.

“Thinking back to the person I was in early recovery, I would have loved to be able to access these resources so readily.

While I was able to take advantage of online forums, Facebook groups, and interactions on Twitter, my meeting options were still limited, both online and in-person. Moving to the US, however, brought more options into my life. I attended a range of new meetings in person and online. My recovery today is predominantly online through the connections I’ve made, as well as through in-person therapy.

This is really convenient because as a business owner I am often working unpredictable hours, and I often don’t have the energy to work a really long day and then drive to a meeting. I can access recovery from my sofa! While we all vary in recovery needs and supports, this works really well for me.

Thinking back to the person I was in early recovery, I would have loved to be able to access these resources so readily. I often spent evenings dragging myself to a meeting when I was completely exhausted. I could’ve reserved that energy by attending an online meeting in my pajamas instead.

That’s why I’ve pulled together a guide of some of the most popular online recovery resources that you can access from the comfort of your own home. Whether that’s something you choose to do regularly, or if you can’t make your regular home group, these meetings don’t require regular attendance or service commitments.

SMART Recovery Online

SMART Recovery (which stands for Self-management and Recovery Training) is a nationwide organization offering free mutual-aid format support for people who struggle with all types of addictive behaviors. They offer an online version of their in-person support, called SROL (SMART Recovery Online). SROL offers meetings, message boards, chat, and an online library. You can access an online community 24 hours a day, seven days per week. You can visit the community here.

SMART’s Message Board is an extensive resource for online members where  you can find the SMART Recovery tools, relevant articles and essays, news, and more. Think of it as social media for people in recovery. There are message boards for people in recovery from various disorders and addictive behaviors — including drugs, eating disorders, and self-harm — as well as support for family and friends, and help around certain life situations like parenting, or grief.

There is also a chat room that is available globally, 24 hours a day. This function is available once you sign up for SROL.

SROL meetings are available several times a day. Check out their online meeting schedule for more information.

The online library contains all of SMART Recovery’s program worksheets, tools, and homework, as well as a SMART Recovery podcast, YouTube videos, and a SMART Recovery blog.

In The Rooms

In The Rooms is perhaps one of the largest social networks and meeting platforms dedicated to online recovery resources. You can find community and meetings, social boards, resources about substance use disorders, all available online. They offer over 130 live online meetings every week, including:

12-Step Groups

Based around the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-step groups are available for just about every substance that you might have a problem with, from marijuana to food or and sex and love addiction. 12-step groups also offer support to friends and family of those with substance use disorders. These groups are called Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Alateen, and Adult Children of Alcoholics. The 12-step program is spiritual in nature and offers a step-by-step guide to overcome addiction. You work through the steps with a sponsor. Meetings available via In The Rooms include:

Note: We’ve linked to each fellowship’s website. To access online meetings via In The Rooms, you’ll need to sign up.

Other recovery meetings

In The Rooms is also a hub for a range of non–12-step meetings, including:

To access In The Rooms, you need to sign up.

Recovery Dharma

A splinter group formed from Refuge Recovery, Recovery Dharma is based on Buddhist principles. Similar to other mutual-aid meetings, there is a program of recovery that you work through with a mentor. There are a range of online meetings available via the Buddhist Recovery Network.

LifeRing Secular Recovery

Similar to SROL, LifeRing Secular Recovery also offers a chat room, text-based meetings, forums, YouTube videos, and online meetings. They also offer email support groups. Visit their online meeting schedule for more information.

Al-Anon Online Meetings

As mentioned, Al-Anon is a 12-step fellowship for friends, family, and loved ones of those with substance use disorders and any other behavior that they are seeking help from a 12-step group. Al-Anon also has a 12-step program that is worked with the help of a sponsor. There are a range of meetings available across different platforms, including Skype, Facebook Messenger, email, WhatsApp, Zoom, and their own free conference application. Visit Al-Anon Family Groups for more information.

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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, Recovery.org, Ravishly, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE.

Cell Phone Addiction: Is it Worse Than You’d Thought?

96 percent of Americans own a cell phone, with 81 percent owning a smartphone — that’s a 35 percent increase since 2011.

As a nation, we are becoming more reliant on cell phones as our primary means of online communication, with smartphone users more likely to access the internet on their phone than another type of device. But at what cost? Have we really considered how our cell phone use could be impacting our brain and behavior?

On average, a person checks their phone between 50 and 300 times a day and spends approximately two hours and 51 minutes using the device. Studies show giving up a smartphone for a day resulted in increased feelings of anxiety and can cause psychological withdrawal symptoms. Worse still, there has been a link between mental health issues and increased screen activities (more than five hours a day).

My daily screen time is in excess of five hours, and that doesn’t include my time at my computer each day. In my defense — and with a heavy amount of denial — I use my cell phone to connect with the world. I communicate with the recovery community in online groups, I promote my business and podcast on my pages and groups, I also read and research using my phone.

“While excessive cell phone use isn’t yet classified as an addiction or behavioral disorder, it has been studied over the past few years and it has some striking similarities to other types of addiction, like substance use disorder.

As a writer who publishes articles predominantly online, it’s safe to say that technology underpins my business. It is the lifeblood that pays my bills. And if others didn’t use their phones and electronic devices in increasing amounts as a primary source of the internet, I’d have to look for other work.

I could argue that my cell phone and device use has had a profoundly positive impact on my life: it facilitated my career change and relocation to the US, and also helped me transition out of AA to an online community. But it isn’t without negative consequences. I have repetitive strain injury in my wrists and carpal tunnel syndrome, and it is affecting my brain and behavior — sometimes contributing to episodes of depression — even though I don’t like to admit it. And I’m not alone. A study published in 2018 found a positive correlation between smartphone addiction and depression. The authors described that correlation as “alarming,” and advised more  reasonable usage of smartphones, especially among younger adults.

“A study published in 2018 found a positive correlation between smartphone addiction and depression. The authors described that correlation as “alarming,” and advised more reasonable usage of smartphones, especially among younger adults.

And yet, I keep picking up my phone. It’s like my brain reaches for my phone before I realize that it’s happened. The process is automatic — it’s now a reflex. And I panic when I can’t find my phone. I wake up by checking my email, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other messaging apps. I flick between each app throughout the day, and before I know it I’ve reached a screen time figure above the national average. It takes a concerted effort to leave my phone alone when I wake up and do something more nurturing.

It leads me to question whether something that has changed my life has now become a hindrance. And am I spending more time on my phone when I could be interacting with people in real life? Is my recurring depression a symptom of my phone use and my job?

I’d like to say that I’m unusual in my cell phone behavior, but that isn’t the case. More and more Americans are using cell phones problematically, in a way that could be defined as addictive.

What is cell phone addiction?

While excessive cell phone use isn’t yet classified as an addiction or behavioral disorder, it has been studied over the past few years and it has some striking similarities to other types of addiction, like substance use disorder.

Dr. David Greenfield of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine designed a questionnaire that focuses on your cell phone habits, like spending more time online than in person, using your phone more than you’d like, panicking if you leave your phone somewhere, sleeping next to your phone, and using it while performing other concentration-heavy activities like driving. A score of 5 or more indicates problematic use. A score of 8 or more recommends that you see a psychologist who specializes in addictive behaviors.

Greenfield describes cell phones as “the world’s smallest slot machine.” You don’t know what you’re going to find, but it could elicit a reward. “When you do check it and there’s something pleasurable, there’s a small elevation of dopamine in the limbic system of your brain. And that elevation causes pleasure. You’re not aware of that pleasure, but that pleasure motivates you,” he says.

Whether we’re seeking a reward through our phones, sex, or substances, they all result in a release of dopamine and create a reward circuit that the brain remembers. This explains the reflexive action of checking your phone so frequently: we’re seeking pleasure.

““Instagram has created code that deliberately holds back on showing users ‘likes’ so that it can deliver a bunch of them in a sudden rush at the most effective moment possible — meaning the moment at which seeing new likes will discourage you from closing the app.”

— Catherine Price, How to Break Up With Your Phone

What’s interesting about people in recovery is that we have a significant reduction of dopamine receptors from drug and alcohol use, and this condition continues long after we stop using, making us more likely to find less pleasure in day-to-day life and more prone to seeking rewards. A low number of dopamine receptors is also linked to lower activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which impairs a person’s ability to think critically and exercise restraint.

Additionally, cell phones and social media apps are designed to get the user to check their phone frequently — that is why they have push notifications making a noise or vibration to alert us. And, once we’re in it, the app has been cleverly designed to keep us on our phone by controlling our brain chemistry. Greenfield explains, “When you get a notification, you get a little buzz, ding, or a bell that tells you there’s a reward waiting. The elevation of dopamine from anticipated reward is twice as high as the actual reward itself. The intermittent reinforcements from our internet-based technologies are potentially habit-forming and addictive.”

Health journalist Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up With Your Phone, explains how apps manipulate our brain chemistry and behavior. “Instagram has created code that deliberately holds back on showing users ‘likes’ so that it can deliver a bunch of them in a sudden rush at the most effective moment possible — meaning the moment at which seeing new likes will discourage you from closing the app.” And cookies store our browsing data so that social media sites can display ads we’re more likely to click on and start shopping.

It’s pretty terrifying when you consider the fact that a device that is supposed to support you is actually altering your brain and behavior and its ultimate effect is isolation and less human interaction. What’s the solution?

How to practice mindfulness with your cell phone

We know that the brain is plastic, meaning it has the ability to rewire itself. We can change habits and behaviors over time. Now, I’m not suggesting something as drastic as breaking up with your phone, but I am saying that we could all benefit from being a little more mindful of our phone usage.

Here are a few tips to help you ease the grip of highly addictive apps, which in turn will free up your time and possibly give you a little time back!

  • Turn off your phone 90 minutes before bedtime, ensuring you do not affect your body’s natural sleep cycle and causing insomnia.

  • Do not sleep with your phone. The presence of your phone increases the stress hormone cortisol.

  • Mute notifications on the screen and the app badge, reducing the surge in reward hormones.

  • Gray out your screen, making it less appealing to pick up.

  • Use the bedtime function, which automatically puts the phone in “do not disturb” mode overnight, muting calls and text messages.

  • Don’t respond to emails outside of working hours. If you do, you create the expectation that you’re always available, and you’re more likely to want to respond.

  • Don’t take your phone out of your bag or pocket when eating. Better still, leave it in another room or in the car in a place that isn’t visible.

  • Use the driving mode when in the car and try to keep it out of arm’s reach.

  • Think of alternative ways for you and your family to have fun without technology.

  • Consider adding limits to how much time you want to spend on your phone. You can keep notes, and some phones allow you to set these limits and kick you out of the app when you exceed the limit.

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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, Recovery.org, Ravishly, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE.

Why We Should Pick Intentions in 2020

““In the universe, there is an immeasurable, indescribable force which shamans call intent, and absolutely everything that exists in the entire cosmos is attached to intent by a connecting link.”

— Carlos Castaneda

As January 1st rolls around each year, I can’t help but feel a sense of possibility about the year ahead. It’s an opportunity to dream big, plan — I love lists — and think about life changes I want to make. What’s different in recent years is that I’ve stopped making new year’s resolutions and instead focus on intentions. Like many others, I find intentions are more impactful.

The difference between resolutions and intentions

For years, I used to make long lists of predictable new year’s resolutions: lose weight, go to the gym 5 times a week, get a new job. This list of outwardly focused goals would last for around two months until I lost interest or got sick of beating myself up for not achieving them. I didn’t understand how to create change until I understood the flaws in resolutions.

Typically, resolutions focus on a goal that is designed to fix a problem, or a decision not to do something, like stopping eating candy. The problem with resolutions is that they are too big, they omit specific steps you’ll take to achieve them, there is rarely a process of tracking or accountability, and they lack objectivity. Plus, if you fail to achieve going to the gym four times a week you’re more likely to feel like a failure and drop the resolution — this is why you see a surge of people join and attend the gym in January, returning to normal around the end of February.

Whereas intentions are smaller goals with intended actions. Wayne Dyer, in his book The Power of Intention: Learning to Co-create Your World Your Way, defines intention as “a strong purpose or aim, accompanied by a determination to produce the desired result.”

Examples of intentions might be: 

  • I intend to lead a healthier lifestyle this year, by eating more mindfully, and moving my body more

  • I intend to honor my needs this year by discerning the right decisions for me. That might mean by saying no to anything that does feel right and saying yes to things that feel nurturing and expansive

Intentions might appear subtly different to resolutions but the key difference is the force which accompanies the intention. Embodying an intention leads to nurturing and cultivating the intended goal. This force is what makes intentions more powerful. “You get what you intend to create by being in harmony with the power of intention, which is responsible for all of creation,” says Dyer.

How do people in recovery approach change in the new year?

I asked a few people in recovery whether they set intentions or resolutions, and why. “Intentions are about planting seeds and not forcing outcomes to me,” says Jamie. “Although an intention and a resolve (sankalpa) basically mean the same thing in yoga.”

“I set intentions,” says Laura. “Resolutions are more about the end result. Our intentions are what get us there.”

““I set Intentions. Resolutions are more about the end result. Our intentions are what get us there.”

— Laura

For Kelly, she learned from her experiences of setting intentions and resolutions and now set specific goals. “I used to do resolutions, then changed to intentions and now I set goals and create action steps to make it happen,” she says. “I’ll review the goals and action steps monthly to see how it is all shaking out and make changes and additions as I see fit. I take stock of the ending year the weekend after the Christmas holiday, then set goals for myself for the coming year. I love transforming into a new year.”

Another popular way people approach change for the year ahead is by selecting a word of the year. You may have seen Artist Tammi Salas refer to this practice. She has chosen words like balance, moderation, dare, grace, and acceptance over the past few years. I especially like the art that accompanies her words.

I love the simplicity of this idea and have adopted the word practice for around five years now. I also enjoy the invitation to get creative and paint or draw my word.

This year my word was intention. My job as a writer involves thinking for a large part of my day, and I commonly live in a space that feels somewhat detached from my body and environment. I lose time, forget to eat, and work through tiredness.

“In an attempt to create more work-life balance, take better care of myself and protect my energy levels, I chose to be more intentional about how I spend my time and how I make decisions.

Another unhelpful habit that I’ve become aware of is spending too much time with people who are high energy and emotionally intense which is really draining to me. I needed to create some boundaries around my energy levels and people’s demands of me.

In an attempt to create more work-life balance, take better care of myself and protect my energy levels, I chose to be more intentional about how I spend my time and how I make decisions. I now take more regular breaks throughout the day to check in with my body, asking how I feel and what I need, and try to honor those needs. I’m also more mindful of how I feel in certain environments and with certain people and make adjustments based on those observations.

I also like to take the opportunity at the end of each year to reflect on my accomplishments. Too often the focus of recovery is on character defects and where we have misstepped. The practice of reviewing accomplishments instead builds self-esteem and takes the focus off the mindset we are broken and defective. It also allows us to realize how much we do and how far we’ve progressed in our recovery. Some of my accomplishments this year include:

  • Writing nearly 200 articles

  • Producing a popular podcast

  • Buying a house and relocating to a new area

  • Achieving several contracts with new clients

  • Raising my profile as a writer in well-known publications

  • Learning some DIY skills

  • Refining my ability to discern

  • Becoming a better communicator

  • Achieving more healing from trauma

  • Maintaining my seventh year in recovery

One way to bring intention setting together is to dedicate time to it. That might be to go away for the day, or visit your favorite coffee shop, to focus entirely on writing an intention or selecting a word, and reviewing your year ahead. This year I headed to a beach house with my best friend and we painted and drew our intentions, and took long walks on the beach. It was the best way to get clear on what we wanted to achieve.

In 2020, I’m excited about the prospect of starting graduate school, making improvements to my house and garden, learning more about growing vegetables, and finding a part-time job to support me through school. I know school is going to be my focus so everything I do will be in support of that.

Whether you choose a word, intention, or specific goal, I invite you to get curious about the year ahead.

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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, Recovery.org, Ravishly, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE.

Financial Sobriety

Recovery is so much more than getting sober. Stopping drinking and using — a huge task itself — is simply the gateway to a lifetime of work in recovery.

Once we stop self-destructive behaviors with drugs, we uncover how much our substance use disorders have affected all aspects of our lives: we are often left with a lack of coping strategies, unresolved traumas, co-occurring disorders, dysfunctional relationships, and financial challenges.

Financial sobriety is probably one of the harder elements of recovery to attain. For those of you who don’t know what it means, financial sobriety is a phrase that refers to gaining some control and manageability around our finances. Recovery coach Linda Parmar, who specializes in supporting women in their financial recovery, describes financial sobriety as  “healing your relationship with money. It is being accountable and mindful of where your money is coming from and going to. Financial sobriety is a state of acceptance of where you are financially, where you want to be and how you are going to get there.”

“Financial sobriety is probably one of the harder elements of recovery to attain. For those of you who don’t know what it means, financial sobriety is a phrase that refers to gaining some control and manageability around our finances

Financial recovery is something most of us dread because we feel an immense amount of shame, we have negative thought processes to unpack, and we have new skills to learn. And it can take years to get on top of debt. It’s no wonder so many of us want to avoid financial sobriety.

People in recovery can accumulate thousands of dollars of debt during our acute phase of our substance use disorder. When I got sober I was around $30,000 in debt. Though that seems like a lot, but this figure is actually less than the average amount of debt most Americans in my age group face, which varies from $38,000 to $67,000. If you attended inpatient treatment, you could also be facing debts of around $20,000. You could also be facing legal fees from criminal charges associated with drug use, too.

“Financial recovery is something most of us dread because we feel an immense amount of shame, we have negative thought processes to unpack, and we have new skills to learn.

Let’s face it, it’s hard to work and abide by the law as addiction ravages your life. Toward the end of my addiction, I could barely focus on anything and would simply work as a means to use. I was terrible at managing money because I was only ever focused on how to buy my next fix. I sold my possessions in pawn shops, racked up thousands of dollars of debt on credit cards, took out risky payday loans, used up overdrafts at the bank, and still borrowed money from friends, coworkers, and family — all to fund my addiction.

I’m not sure if it’s possible to be financially responsible while self-destructing. To make matters worse, I was shamed, ridiculed, and financially cut off by the people who loved me the most because they thought that restricting money would cut off the supply of drugs and alcohol, and mistakenly — but with the best of intentions — thought that might lead to me seeking help for my addiction. Tough love simply led to riskier behaviors to get my next fix — it didn’t lead to recovery. I struck up risky relationships and did a whole host of things I would never have done in my right mind just to keep up my supply. Recovery happened when I’d had enough of feeling like I wanted to die.

Sobriety is just the tip of the iceberg in recovery, though. Once we emerge from the fog of addiction, it’s harder to ignore other circumstances and behaviors that have harmed us, like our financial situation. With sober eyes, I finally started to take a look at my financial situation — starting by opening the mountain of bills I’d been ignoring.

One of the reasons Parmar helps others is because she relates to the experience, too. “When I got sober I was in complete denial of my financial situation and continued to spend too much money,” she says. “When my world came crashing down. I took steps to start to heal my relationship with money. It was another layer of my onion that I peeled back in sobriety. I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew I needed to support women in recovery and their money. I quickly realized that most women in recovery are having my experience.”

““When I got sober I was in complete denial of my financial situation and continued to spend too much money,” she says. “When my world came crashing down. I took steps to start to heal my relationship with money. It was another layer of my onion that I peeled back in sobriety. I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew I needed to support women in recovery and their money. I quickly realized that most women in recovery are having my experience.”

— Linda Parmer

Parmar explains the financial difficulties people in recovery face with their finances. “Common challenges are not having enough money, a past that is too hard to face, negative patterns and behaviors, low self worth, shame, guilt and deprivation mentality.”

You might think that you can tackle this alone, but it isn’t always that easy. Parmar describes common signs that mean you might need help with managing money, “Money is constantly on your mind, you are using credit cards to make ends meet, it is affecting your relationships.”

I was lucky that I had some guidance, and I started by listing my debts, calling my creditors, and setting up a budget and payment plan. Had I not had help, though, I might have been in a different situation today. I’m not going to lie, it was really hard. I lived off of just $50 a week and that was for food, clothes, any social activities, coffee. But it did pay off. After five years I was debt free. I realize that’s not something that’s attainable for us all.

“One thing is for certain: ignoring debt will only cause challenges in the long run and that isn’t an option today.

I am acutely aware of my privilege in attaining financial sobriety: I received free healthcare at the time I was getting sober because I lived in the UK, I was easily able to get a job, and I didn’t have legal fees or criminal charges. That certainly isn’t the case for us all. And I can see how healthcare in the US is a major barrier to financial liquidity. That is something I can now relate to having moved to the US. As a self-employed person, I pay health insurance premiums and have incurred financial challenges having to pay out-of-pocket for expensive dental work.

Being self-employed with a variable income and out-of-pocket healthcare costs, I’ve had to go into debt to get the care I need. I often wonder if being debt-free is a goal I’ll attain while I am self-employed. So far it’s manageable, but I don’t know if that is the case in the future. That’s where my financial sobriety comes in: keeping track of where I am financially, budgeting, making adjustments without shame, and seeking out extra work.

One thing is for certain: ignoring debt will only cause challenges in the long run and that isn’t an option today.

If you are facing financial challenges, or just want to get to grips with your financial recovery, Parmar tells us her top five tips for people to start getting organized and focused with their money.

1. Track your income and expenses

2. Have a spending plan (a budget)

3. Cultivate gratitude surrounding your finances

4. Be mindful of spending: consider needs versus wants

5. Have goals, write them down, manifest them.”

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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, Recovery.org, Ravishly, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE.

Depression in Recovery

““When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test of each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize. The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell.””

— Pema Chodron

I’ve grappled with depression since childhood. It would manifest in feelings of hopelessness, low mood, lethargy, isolation, and a sense of despair. I didn’t want to do anything and family would complain that no one could please me. I was difficult to be around — even I didn’t want to be in my company.

Around age 12, I discovered that alcohol and drugs numbed the symptoms of depression and provided relief, albeit temporarily. I chased that escapism throughout my addiction in my teens to age 32, when I found sobriety.

My episodes of depression were frequent and prolonged. I was regularly off work for months at a time, and on one occasion I was treated by a psychiatrist for clinical depression. That’s a big deal in the UK. Typically we’re fobbed off by our general practitioners and placated with medication that doctors know little about. We’re rarely referred to a specialist. Therapy is either an out-of-pocket expense or you have to wait 6 to 12 months to see someone on the National Health Service. So I took my medication and personal leave for a couple of weeks. Once I’d rested, stopped drinking as much, and allowed the medication to take effect, I’d return to work.

I coasted along in this pattern for over a decade. The problem was that in the end, the medication and the alcohol didn’t work: the more I drank and used, the shorter the numbing effect and the greater the pain afterwards. My depression was worse than ever and I often contemplated ending my life. I reached a breaking point when I could no longer escape myself. It was then that I found recovery.

“Recovery has given me the tools to cope with the discomfort of depression more effectively, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still have an aversion to those difficult feelings. ”

While getting sober has helped dramatically improve and regulate my brain chemistry — where my mood is stable and I’m able to manage it with medication, exercise, healthy eating, and rest — I still suffer from bouts of depression. They’re less frequent and usually predictable. They tend to happen in fall and winter or when precipitated by a period of acute stress, like moving, dealing with a breakup, or buying my first home.

Most recently, however, there has been an overwhelming amount of change and strong emotion to deal with: I launched a podcast, I bought a home, and I experienced a number of expensive household emergencies back-to-back, leading to financial worry and instability. And I also faced grief as the anniversary of my brother’s death fell in September. This amount of stress led to a long period of exhaustion. Even though I tried my best to rest and recuperate, my brain chemistry had shifted enough to result in a period of depression. It hit me hard this year.

“According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 3.7 percent — 9.2 million — of adults in the U.S. experience co-occurring substance use disorder and mental illness. This translates as one in four people.

Recovery has given me the tools to cope with the discomfort of depression more effectively, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still have an aversion to those difficult feelings. That resistance is perhaps compounded by the harmful belief that recovery should be happy, joyous, and free — like it tells us in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. If it’s not, we’re left thinking that we’re doing something wrong. This simply isn’t true.

The reality is that substance use disorders today are very different from when the Big Book was written in 1939. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 3.7 percent — 9.2 million — of adults in the U.S. experience co-occurring substance use disorder and mental illness. This translates as one in four people.

And just like recovery, there is healing in knowing you are not alone in your suffering. It resets your expectations that life will be happy and joyful all the time. Knowing that takes the pressure off.

There is also healing in the process of falling apart. Pema Chodron says,

“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together again and they fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Over the years I’ve come to deal with depression I’ve realized that my work, like Pema suggests, isn’t in fighting depression or overcoming it, it’s in how I give myself permission and space for it to happen, like every other emotion. And that’s recovery for me: showing myself compassion to walk through this experience without using a substance or avoiding the pain. It’s also in knowing that depression is part of the human experience, as uncomfortable as it is.

I know that I can make it more comfortable by caring for myself and using certain tools and resources, including:

  • Attending weekly therapy

  • Walking my dog at the local trail or around the block each day

  • Cuddling my dog

  • Eating at least one nutritious meal a day

  • Bulk cooking where possible

  • Letting go of challenging goals and targets

  • Making a daily list of tasks but only assigning myself three at a time

  • Asking for help from my doctor, including trying new medication

  • Talking to friends and family and explaining my situation. I know that I can ask for help like regular phone calls, or support when needed. It also keeps them informed when I’m less responsive

  • Asking clients for an extension on a deadline when necessary

  • Taking days off when I need to, even if that is during the week

  • Showering every day

  • Sipping hot tea

  • Taking a long bath and reading a novel

  • Showing myself compassion for not being able to perform at my usual speed

  • Saying no

  • Telling myself it’s okay to do nothing

  • Getting a takeout if it makes my life easier

  • Going for a massage

  • Having acupuncture

  • Taking myself for a pedicure

  • Sitting in the sun for ten minutes

  • Taking vitamin D

  • Ensuring I keep up with my medications

  • Sleeping for 8 hours every day

  • Using a SAD lamp (at least 10,000 lux) for 30 minutes a day

  • Surrounding my office with plants

  • Wearing comfortable clothes

  • Drinking at least 6 glasses of water a day

Some of these are non-negotiables for me, like therapy and getting enough sleep and water each day. I do them no matter what — even on my really challenging days — because I know that they sustain me. Self-compassion is something I am striving for. It’s really hard to adjust to drastic shifts in your abilities when you know what you’re capable of and when you live in a world that demands so much of you to keep your head above water. But right now, I just have to do the next right thing. The rest will take care of itself.

If you’re struggling, I hope you find some solace in the knowledge that you’re not alone in experiencing depression. You aren’t doing anything wrong. I hope you find whatever you can that soothes your discomfort and that it passes, until next time.

Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, Recovery.org, Ravishly, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE.

How to Cope with Difficult Families Over the Holidays.

The holiday season can be challenging, especially if you’re new to recovery.

Our routine becomes disrupted as we cram lots of social events into an increasingly busy schedule, and we can struggle to navigate challenging family dynamics without numbing agents. By the end of the holiday, you may be feeling exhausted, triggered, or upset about a family disagreement.

I’ve spent the past seven and a half years of my recovery learning how to navigate relationships — with family, friends, and romantic partners. I’ve found familial relationships are by far the hardest during any time of the year, but they are particularly challenging during the holidays.

We’ve known our families for a lifetime and love them dearly. We care about their feelings and often listen to their opinions and advice without question. But just because our relationships are rooted in love doesn’t mean they aren’t wrought with dysfunction. There is a reason they call addiction a family disease — it affects the whole family unit. Even though some members may not suffer from substance use behaviors they may suffer from codependency and other dysfunctional behaviors. That’s why recovery needs a family approach, too.

I have spent many years in therapy trying to understand family and relational dysfunction. I’ve unpicked my relationship history and learned how to set strong boundaries so that I put my needs and my safety before others. Putting others’ needs before my own is simply self-abandonment — a hallmark of early recovery.

Some of the ways we abandon ourselves in relationships are:

  • Allowing our boundaries to be crossed with no consequence

  • Putting others’ needs before ours

  • Feeling responsible for everyone having a good time

  • Acting on our desire to people-please, in fear of letting others down

  • Not speaking up out of fear of rejection or admonishment

  • Taking responsibility for others bad behavior

  • Compromising our needs to fulfill others

  • Saying yes instead of saying no

The downside of putting others first is that we don’t grow. We ultimately hurt ourselves, rather than heal ourselves. In its most basic form, recovery is about healing and repairing our self-worth. When we set boundaries, we’re also telling ourselves that we are worthy enough to put our needs and our safety first. And the practice of putting ourselves first improves self-esteem, confidence, and self-respect. From a place of worthiness and respect, we’re less likely to accept people’s bad behavior and get embroiled in dysfunction. But it does still happen from time to time — we are human, after all.

Therapist and boundaries expert Nedra Glover Tawaab goes a step further and explains:

  • “Boundaries are a safeguard to over-extending yourself.

  • Boundaries are a self-care practice.

  • Boundaries define roles in relationships.

  • Boundaries communicate acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in relationships

  • Boundaries are perimeters for knowing what to expect in relationships.

  • Boundaries are a way that we ask people to show up by upholding our needs.”

How to set boundaries

I’m not going to lie to you — setting boundaries is hard at first. But, my word, it’s freeing once you start. Soon you’ll wonder why you hadn’t started earlier! The key is being brave and asking for what you need. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Preparation. What is the value, tolerance level, role, or need that you’d like to have upheld? Some of mine include: not talking about my body image, weight, food choices, or health with my family. Others are around communication style, unsolicited advice, and people trying to fix me. I only attend events that I really want to go to, and do so for a defined duration. I also have no qualms about canceling on the day of the event if I don’t feel up to it. I have to really consider if have the emotional and physical capacity to give my energy to an event. If I don’t, then I politely decline. If you’re ever in doubt, don’t go.

  2. Call ahead to set the boundary. Tell your family your boundary before you see them. Calmly explain that it’s important to you that you have quality time together, but you know certain topics (be specific) can cause a heated discussion so you’d rather not discuss them during your trip. Your boundary could be that if someone has too much to drink you’ll leave, or if you feel that your family is shaming you for looking a certain way.

  3. Set a consequence. When you are setting your boundary, explain that if they start to talk about the topic, you’ll gently remind them of your wishes. But if they continue, explain what you will do next. “If my boundary isn’t respected, then I’ll leave.”

  4. Follow through. It’s crucial that you stick to your boundary. Otherwise, you won’t be taken seriously in future.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as those few steps. Other times you’ll have to navigate difficult people. Don’t forget that addiction is a family disease. There have been times that I have set boundaries and the other person has been abusive or thrown a tantrum, taking the boundary as some kind of personal affront and criticism. I’ve been reminded of all the things they’ve done for me when I was struggling, that they care for me, and that they should be able to discuss anything that’s on their mind — as if my misfortune has stored some unearned credit for them to treat me as they wish. I’ve also experienced sulking and passive aggressiveness.

There’s a common saying for people who react to boundaries: the only person who objects to your boundary is the one who benefited from you not having it in the first place.

Once you look behind the other person’s tone and language, you can see that they’re confused and that they feel threatened. As uncomfortable as it can be in those situations, it’s important to remember that you are changing for the better and the other person needs time to catch up. I’m not suggesting that you relinquish your boundary or put up with abusive or emotionally draining people, but I am saying to try to show compassion where possible. But if you feel physica
lly or emotionally threatened, leave immediately.

Remind yourself when dealing with difficult people that your needs come first. It is not selfish or ungrateful to value yourself and ask for your needs to be met. Staying strong in this situation is key. It’s a real turning point in recovery when we uphold our values and put our needs first. Sometimes that means losing a relationship. Ultimately, if a person wants to stay in your life and values you, they’ll respect your boundaries.

Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, Recovery.org, Ravishly, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE.

Common Fears About Getting Sober and How To Face Them

Fear is the biggest barrier to change, even if that change is for the better and will improve our lives.

There is no doubt that getting sober is a daunting prospect — it’s terrifying. Anyone in recovery will tell you that we all had fears about life in recovery: How will I survive without leaning on drugs or alcohol to cope? And, will people still want to hang out with me now I’m sober?

However, many of us realized there was no perfect timing for when to quit. Life had become painful enough to see those fears for what they were: barriers to the life that we deserve. More often than not, it was the fear of change, or of the unknown, that was far worse than the reality of taking a step toward sobriety.

While life in recovery can be challenging, it is infinitely better than staying stuck in the alternative.

Common fears about recovery

Most fears that we faced were about our relationships and how they’d change, how we’d cope, fear of failure, and the fear of change itself.

Relational fears

Some of the most common fears we faced in approaching recovery were relational: how others would relate to us and our decision to find recovery:

  • Will people still want to be my friend and hang out with me if I’m sober?

  • Will my partner leave me?

  • How will my family deal with my decision?

  • Will my old drinking buddies shame me by reminding me what I used to do when drinking?

  • What will others think of me if they learn that I have a drinking problem?

Here is the truth: Any relationship worth having will support your decision for a better life. Once your loved one — whether that’s a romantic partner, friend, or family member — understands that your relationship with drugs and alcohol had started to cause you harm, they will support you. Anyone who silences you, or minimizes the problem, is not truly respecting your desire to get help and create a better life for yourself. You should never have to justify your reasons for caring for yourself.

The other major relational fear is how we will relate to ourselves as a person in recovery. Many of us questioned who we would be without alcohol, and how we would relate in the world. What is our purpose now that we no longer focus on getting high or drunk? The thing is: you don’t have to know right now. All you need to know is that you just need to take the next step toward recovery. It’s true what they say — more will be revealed. I can tell you this, though: life in recovery makes you wonder why you waited so long to get sober.

“Life will happen. People you love will die, you will move, you may experience the end of a relationship, and you may even lose your job. Drinking or using drugs doesn’t make the pain of any of this go away.”

Another common fear is how we will experience life once we’re sober: Will we be able to have fun? Or will it be boring? Will I be boring? we ask ourselves. In short, the answer is that you can have fun — so much fun — and no, life in recovery is not boring. The truth is, once you remove numbing agents from your life, you can actually experience joy! You can still go to parties and concerts, and you still get to dance. The bonus is that you’ll remember it and won’t feel like death the next day! Also, I’m not sure about you, but at the end of my addiction, there was nothing fun about sitting on my own in my apartment and drinking all weekend until I was physically sick and depressed — that was boring!

Coping fears

Many of us feared how we would deal with setbacks without drugs and alcohol: What if something terrible happens — how will I cope? The thing about stress is that it is still going to be there whether we drink or not. And by drinking and taking drugs, we’re not actually dealing with stress, we’re only numbing ourselves. Living in recovery gives us the tools to be able to cope and actively manage stress.

Life will happen. People you love will die, you will move, you may experience the end of a relationship, and you may even lose your job. Drinking or using drugs doesn’t make the pain of any of this go away — at best you may numb your feelings, but they’re still there when you sober up. Grief and loss are painful, but using doesn’t help it just prolongs the agony.

I lost my brother, I moved to another country, I left AA, I bought a house, and I started a new career as a writer working for myself — all incredibly stressful events and circumstances. But I coped and I feel infinitely stronger for doing it on my own without drugs and alcohol to inhibit my progress.

Fear of change

The idea of starting recovery feels huge initially, especially if you drank and/or used drugs everyday. We may even have fears about how we will start along the path to sobriety:

  • Will I have to go to AA? 

  • Do I have to stop drinking forever?

  • I’m not sure it’s the right time to stop.

I relate to all of those fears. I think my most paralyzing fear was that I felt I couldn’t stop. I started using at 12 years old, and drank every day by the time I reached recovery that stuck at aged 32. I tried many times too. It took five years of attempts to find recovery. I hated the idea of having to go to AA. I didn’t see myself as having that much of a problem, and that I didn’t fit the stereotype of a person who went to AA. The time that I spent denying the severity of my alcohol use disorder only made it progress: I drank more, caused more damage — to my relationships and my mental and physical health — and ultimately took longer to achieve the life I always wanted.

While I did initially use AA to get sober, once I did a little research, I saw that there were many pathways of recovery. Today I use a patchwork of therapy, social support, holistic and naturopathic care, exercise, and mindfulness for recovery. Here’s the thing: your pathway recovery can be anything you want it to be. No one way is the right way and if the thought of going to AA turns you off recovery, find a way that feels more suited to you. However, you should know that recovery isn’t easy and any pathway that works will, at times, feel uncomfortable. But it’s a whole lot less uncomfortable than the painful and unrelenting reality of addiction.

Fear of failure

Fear of recovery not working and that you will return to use is real. In fact, for many of us returning to use is a reality of recovery. By its very nature, substance use disorder is referred to as a relapsing condition. It took five years for it to stick with me. I would much rather fail and keep trying than stay stuck on a one-way path to destruction. And worrying about what others may think if you return to use is outside of your control. You focus on you and the people who are supposed to be in your life will support you along the way.

One thing I’ve learned in my seven and a half years in recovery is that we all have fear, and we all overcome those fears, instead choosing recovery. What I know from this side of the fence is that life in recovery gives us everything that we had looking for at the bottom of a bottle.

Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, Recovery.org, Ravishly, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE.

Resources for the Families of Those Suffering with Addiction

Unfortunately, substance use disorder doesn’t affect just one type of person — it impacts people in all walks of life, and most of them have families.

It is a serious national public health problem affecting approximately 45 million families. Individually, 21 million people have a substance use disorder and 17 million have alcohol use disorder, and it has devastating consequences.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a staggering 64,000 people died from drug overdoses each year, and 88,000 died from alcohol-related causes.

Addiction is a family disease because it affects the whole family: it wreaks havoc in the household environment and in familial/romantic relationships. A family home that should be loving and nurturing can become stressful and confusing, where positive values are replaced with distrust, frustration, and resentment. It also places children at risk of developing issues with substance use, as well as mental and physical problems in their teens and later life.

We call addiction a disease because it is progressive and only continues to worsen over time if left untreated. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Over 23 million Americans live in long-term recovery and have successfully resolved a drug or alcohol problem. This does, however, require the family to seek recovery together.

How we can support loved ones with substance use disorder

We can support loved ones struggling with addiction — wherever they are in their recovery journey — in a number of ways:

  • Intervention. If the person refuses to seek help but is causing significant disruption within the family, and you fear for their safety and that of you and the family it might be helpful to arrange an intervention.

  • Understanding SUD. Learn about substance use disorder to better understand that it is a medical condition. If a person with SUD feels punished or shamed for their behavior it can push them away, even if you are trying to help.

  • Being supportive of recovery. Support a loved one’s decision to seek formal treatment, whether that is best achieved through a mutual-aid meeting or inpatient rehabilitation.

  • Make time for recovery. Be available to speak to family members when they are in treatment, by setting aside time for them and showing your support.

  • Seek your own recovery. Whether you realize it or not, you will also need help to recover while your loved one is seeking treatment. You may need help to create and enforce healthy boundaries, learn how to make your care a priority and how to put yourself first, and understand the role addiction plays in a relationship. That may be through professional therapeutic support, or through a mutual-aid program.

  • Work together as a family to support long-term recovery. This involves managing expectations, attending family therapy, sharing household tasks, allowing time for continued recovery activities, trying to do things together as a family like taking walks and eating a meal together, and trying to implement healthy routines like regular sleeping patterns and healthy eating.

  • Language matters. Be conscious of the language you use to describe substance use disorder. Refrain from using stigmatizing terms like “addict,” “alcoholic,” “clean,” and “relapse.” It’s best to use person-centered language. See below for a helpful guide

Information and resources

There are a lot of resources out there for families and partners of loved ones suffering with substance use disorders. It can be hard to differentiate between them, so we’ve categorized them into helpful sections:

Education & Information

Interventions

The most common interventions used by practitioners are ARISE and the Johnson model.

Online support groups

Facebook has a host of recovery support groups for families, including Voices to End Addiction & Inspire Recovery, FamilyRx, as well as online versions of mutual-aid meetings.

Helpful organizations

In-person support groups and information

Finding treatment

Mutual-aid support for the person suffering

If your loved one doesn’t go to treatment, or wants to supplement their therapy with a peer-based support group, they can go to any number of mutual-aid groups, including:

There are also religious and culturally specific groups that individuals can attend, including:

Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, Recovery.org, Ravishly, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE.

How To Deal With Medication Withdrawal

I recently encountered the rather unpleasant effects of withdrawal while coming off antidepressant medication.

The worst part of it was that my withdrawal from this medication was entirely unintentional — there was a switch in my medication without my knowledge! It took me a good two weeks to realize this was the problem. Thankfully, I have a strong support network and am pretty good at advocating for myself. That helped me to care for myself during this stressful and disorienting period. I also hadn’t quite realized just how common this is, especially for people in recovery!

Earlier this month I’d been feeling off for a few days, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong. I felt out of sorts — more so than usual. As the week progressed, I started to experience heart palpitations, difficulty sleeping, an upset stomach, changes in my appetite, diarrhea, dizziness, trouble concentrating, mood swings, anxiety, lethargy, difficulty moving, and depression. I put this down to my recent change in circumstances — moving to a new city — which I had found challenging to adjust to. But after a week I was getting concerned. My anxiety felt so out of control that it felt like my heart was in my throat, and I was seriously considering going to the ER to have an EKG done.

As I forced myself to sit on my meditation cushion one morning, after a horrendous night sleeping, it clicked. This felt like withdrawal from antidepressant medication. It felt like the time I withdrew from a really aggressive antidepressant when I had clinical depression. I felt horrendous. I was experiencing waves of what felt like small electrical surges throughout my nervous system, and I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. This is what I’m experiencing, I thought to myself.

This led to a cascade of realizations.

I checked with a friend who is a nurse and told her what I was experiencing. I explained that I had just had a new prescription filled, but that my doctor sent in a generic prescription for my medication to a new pharmacy — it didn’t even occur to me that the generic medication might change in formula between two different manufacturers. My friend confirmed my fears that not all medication — even if it is supposed to be the generic formula — is exactly the same.

I called my health insurance company, who also confirmed my fears: I’d been taking the same generic formula made by one specific manufacturer for the past 12 months, and my most recent prescription was filled with a different manufacturer. They explained that I am experiencing withdrawal effects and potentially having an adverse reaction to the ingredients within the new drug.

I called my pharmacy, and while they confirmed that was the case (with a generic prescription they can choose which manufacturer to use), they were initially really unhelpful. This is where my advocacy came in: I called back to speak to a more senior person and asked them to resolve the issue more quickly and more helpfully. It worked! That same day I had the correct medication, and I slowly began to feel like myself again.

Fortunately, I’m not alone in my experience of either the need for antidepressant medication or the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms — it’s more common than you might think, especially for people in recovery!

Depression medication

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 12.7 percent of Americans over the age of 12 have taken an antidepressant in the last month. Doctors prescribe this medication to help with a range of symptoms that people have been experiencing for several consecutive weeks, including anxiety, low mood, suicidal thoughts, and stress. Typically, a doctor prescribes the medication for around 6 to 12 months. The medication helps to change the way the brain uses certain neurochemicals to manage the symptoms of depression by balancing mood and how we deal with stress.

It is quite common for people in recovery to experience depression. Our brains can take months, even years, to readjust their chemistry after the damage from our substance use disorders. The experience of both conditions is clinically referred to as comorbidity.

Comorbidity in the recovery community is much higher than the general population. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately half of those who experience mental illness also experience substance use disorder, and over 60 percent of adolescents experience both. Most common are anxiety disorders, depression, and bipolar disorders.

The reasons that people with substance use disorders also have co-occurring disorders could be:

  • Genetics

  • Environmental factors, such as trauma or living in a household where there is drug and alcohol use, and stress

  • Self-medicating mental illness

Antidepressant discontinuation syndrome

The withdrawal effects from antidepressants is called antidepressant discontinuation syndrome, and it happens in about 20 percent of people who have been regularly taking antidepressants for at least a month and who either drastically reduce their dose or suddenly stop taking it. Symptoms occur within two to four days after stopping or drastically reducing the medication and can last for one to two weeks, but in some cases symptoms can last for a year. The symptoms include:

  • Flu-like symptoms: lethargy, fatigue, headache, achiness, sweating

  • Insomnia: vivid dreams and nightmares

  • Nausea and sometimes vomiting

  • Imbalance: dizziness, vertigo, light-headedness

  • Sensory disturbance: burning, tingling, electric-like or shock-like sensations

  • Hyperarousal: anxiety, irritability, agitation, aggression, mania, jerkiness

Caring for yourself during withdrawal from antidepressant medication

Perhaps the first thing to consider is how you reduce or discontinue your medication. While I acknowledge that there may be various factors that contribute to needing to stop medication abruptly — like a change in financial circumstances or a change in medical provider — if at all possible, it’s important to make any changes to your
medication under the guidance and supervision of a medical provider.

To avoid discontinuation syndrome, it is typically advised that patients taper off the medication slowly, over a period of several weeks. Some disagree that that is a slow enough taper, though. A recent study dismissed what have been the standard guidelines for years, instead encouraging people to take much longer — such as several months or years! Whichever you choose, be sure to check in with your medical provider and do what is right for your body.

Personally, I am already in the process of tapering. I agreed with my physician to reduce my medication six months ago and have since been on the lower dose. I hate to think how much more severe this recent experience would have been had I been on the higher dose!

During the past couple of weeks, I’ve worked really hard to care for myself while dealing with this experience. I did that in various ways, perhaps mostly by showing myself compassion. I knew that I won’t be able to work or socialize at my regular capacity, so I had to take it a day at a time, sometimes an hour at a time. If I needed a nap, I tried to honor that. Fortunately, I am self-employed and have very understanding clients who have allowed me to push back meetings and deadlines. I also was kind to my body by eating really nourishing food, drinking lots of water, and taking short walks in a park with my dog.

At times like this the age-old recovery saying “This too shall pass” was really helpful to remember.

Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, Recovery.org, Ravishly, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE.