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How to Create a Recovery Routine

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My life in recovery, even in those first few weeks, was very different to life using substances. Before recovery, my life consisted of surviving the night before and waiting until I could drink again. That’s it. My whole life revolved around that cycle of drinking and getting over my hangovers. Recovery, however, was starkly different. Instead of centering alcohol, I finally centered myself. 

I recall my first sponsor suggesting that I journal. I found this strange. What was a grown woman supposed to write about? My life at that point felt fairly pointless and my thoughts felt meaningless. I guess this was the first real shift in my recovery. She told me that I didn’t need to write an essay; this wasn’t an academic exercise. Simply, this was an opportunity to tease out some of the overflowing thoughts swimming around my head. 

Journaling became the bedrock of my recovery routine, upon which I added other rituals and practices—something I still do today, nine years later. Before I expand on those routines and rituals, I thought I’d take a moment to explain what and how I journaled, because it has been such a profound gift to my recovery and my relationship with myself. 

How to journal as a recovery routine

In early recovery, or at any challenging time in recovery, writing or journaling can be particularly helpful. I know getting started is easier said than done. But once you get in the habit of answering specific questions, you may find yourself filling hundreds of journal entries before you know it. 

The first tip I was given for journaling was to make it into a ritual: do it first thing in the morning and at the end of the day. Bring a cup of tea and maybe even light a candle. Take a few deep breaths, or perhaps do a five-minute meditation to center yourself. Feel yourself connected to the moment: your feet on the ground, bum on the seat, hand holding a pen. Then write.  

Here are a few prompts that I found helpful when beginning my journaling:

  • Note your plan for the day
  • Process any niggling thoughts, resentments, or anything else that is taking up a lot of headspace
  • Log credits (this is my personal favorite): list everything you did that was helpful for you today, or what you’d consider a win. For example, getting up early, journaling, eating three meals, drinking water, heading to therapy or a recovery meeting, checking in with friends, posting in a recovery group, showing up to work
  • Make a pros and cons list of a decision you have to make
  • List some items you’d like to work through in therapy and why
  • Note any goals you want to achieve 
  • List the tasks you’d like to complete today
  • Can’t think of anything to write? Make a log book: how much you spent, what recovery activities you took part in, what you ate, what you accomplished, and whom you saw. 

There are so many different journal prompts out there, but you may find that once you start writing, you’ll just get in the flow of it. 

Building a recovery routine

Another aspect of my recovery routine was setting myself up for a good and productive day (and that could also include rest, which is productive, too). That means doing the same things every day to form a supportive habit. For me, that includes:

  1. Sleep: I go to bed around 10pm, and get up at the same time every day. This ensures I have at least 7 hours of rest each night.
  2. Exercise: After I have journaled, I take my dog for a walk and/or do an exercise class like lifting weights or spinning. Exercise really helps my mental health.
  3. Eat well: I eat three nutritious meals a day and ensure I don’t go longer than 4 hours without a meal or snack. Otherwise, I get cranky. I usually eat breakfast after working out.
  4. Hydrate: It’s surprising that I still have to remind myself to do this today. But I do. I find it hard to drink enough water, but know that if I do, I won’t get headaches or feel tired.
  5. Shower: showering marks the end of my recovery routine and the beginning of my workday. It’s astonishing how crappy I feel when I don’t shower daily. 
  6. Plan my day: The first thing I do when approaching work is to write a to-do list to keep me focused and on track. On Mondays, I also make a note of my meetings, school work, work, and recovery activities that week.
  7. Time for rest. It’s really important for my recovery to plan de-stressing activities, like Yoga Nidra, meditation, or walks in nature. If I don’t, I find myself zoning out in front of the TV eating snacks when I’m not hungry, and then waking up tired and cranky the next day. Rest is critical to my mental health. 
  8. Limiting screen time. To help me get prepared for rest, I have to set some boundaries around my phone and TV. Usually, I try to turn everything off around 8pm and go to bed and read. Otherwise, I have a terrible night’s sleep because I’m on my phone until it’s time to sleep, and that is too stimulating for me.

There are lots of different activities you can build into a recovery routine. The key is finding what works for you. It might be worth taking some time to consider how you’d like to support your day. Is it helpful to have a morning routine so you don’t feel rushed? Or is it more beneficial to have a nighttime routine of unwinding and relaxing? Take a minute to think about these questions and the types of activities you find helpful. That might mean trying some apps (we’ve written handy guides for the best sobriety apps on iOS and Android you may find useful), like Insight Timer, or walking in the morning. The only way we’ll know whether something works is to try it for a few days and check-in with ourselves. If it helped, great. If not, try something else. 

It’s also important to note that our needs evolve over time. So what might be helpful in early recovery may change after a few months or years. I found I needed a lot of structure and ritual in early recovery, but at nine years in recovery what I need is flexibility, self-compassion, and to prioritize rest.

Olivia Pennelle (Liv) has a masters in clinical social work from Portland State University. She is a mental health therapist, writer, and human activist. Her writing has appeared in STAT News, Insider, Filter Magazine, Ravishly, The Temper, and Shondaland. She is the founder of Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, Life After 12-Step Recovery, and Tera Collaborations. She lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Instagram @Livwritesrecovery and @teracollaborations

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