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 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.
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.”
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.
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.”