by Michael Hurst
Roller coaster rides are tremendously exciting. The wind screams past your ears as you fly through the air at thrilling speeds. Excitement and adrenalin surge through your body as you hold on for dear life. Intermittent moments of terror occur – suddenly you dip violently into a downward curve, your stomach feels as though its been left behind, and it seems as though the ride could go out of control at any moment. An article you read years ago about a roller coaster flying off the rails tears though your mind. You veer wildly to the right and the left, then up and down again. Whew! Suddenly, without warning, the ride ends and you disembark, feeling dazed, disoriented and euphoric.
That’s a pretty accurate description of early recovery. The first few months of recovery are filled with incredible highs and lows and you rarely know what’s coming around the next corner. Your body, mind and spirit are undergoing a tremendous amount of change and adjustment.
The roller coaster stage may last as little as six or nine months; for some, it can take as long as two years. The average length of time spent in the roller coaster stage is one year. Lets take a look at some common experiences on the roller coaster of recovery.
Every recovering person will experience physical changes, and depending on the type of drug and length of time used, these changes can be mild or severe. Alcoholics, for instance, may suffer from nutritional and vitamin deficiencies which impair mental processes and interfere with the body’s natural and healthy balance. For example deficiencies in thiamine cause one of the most typical problems for alcoholics in this stage – short-term memory loss. For this reason, many alcoholics describe feelings of “being in a fog” in early recovery. Also, because of the debilitating impact of alcohol on the central nervous system, recovering alcoholics may experience tremors, insomnia, dizziness, and blurred vision. These symptoms don’t always cease when the initial withdrawal ends – they may continue to one degree or another for the first few months of recovery.
Different withdrawal symptoms will accompany different drugs. Amphetamine addicts may have difficulty staying awake during the first few weeks; their sleep-starved bodies have been pushed far beyond normal limits and their physical systems are attempting to re-establish balance. Marijuana addicts, on the other hand, may have significant difficulty falling asleep; their bodies don’t know how to relax without marijuana, and their thoughts may race a mile a minute when they attempt to sleep.
Addicts of all types may experience irritation, restlessness and discontent during the early stages of recovery. Many times, aches and pains that had been concealed by their pain-killing drug of choice become apparent. Also, the feelings which were so effectively suppressed for months, years, even decades, begin to emerge, many times bringing pain and shame with them.
Mood fluctuations are part of recovery. There may be a tendency to blow small issues out of proportion. Newly recovering persons sometimes create problems for themselves by overreacting to everyday situations, thus giving themselves plenty of ammunition for a negative, relapse-prone approach to recovery. In the rooms of AA and NA, it is not uncommon to hear the newcomer declare, “I was better off when I was drinking and using! I feel upset all the time now; the slightest issue sets me off I used to be so much more easy going and relaxed.” It’s not difficult to be easy going and relaxed when sedated; drugs provide an addict with a tremendous tolerance to discomfort. The challenge of recovery is to learn how to deal with pain and discomfort without drugs or alcohol.
For many, the biggest dip in the roller coaster ride comes immediately after coming off their drug. Their body, which has been dependent upon and accustomed to the routine ingestion of drugs, now begins to rebel. The anxiety, fear and tension during this stage can make one feel as though their nerves are raw and exposed. There are many supplements to bridge this valley, to combat the drug cravings, and soften the post-use crash. These supplements, amino acids, vitamins, etc., assist in the regeneration of the physiological process and allow the brain chemistry to regain a healthy balance.
In addition to physical needs in early recovery, the need to nourish the mind and spirit through the support of 12 steps groups, such as AA and NA, cannot be overstated. Chemically dependent persons, if left to their own devices, quickly revert to self-defeating patterns. Recovering individuals will need to immediately plug into AA/NA after treatment. It is imperative to find a different way to live, and this is rarely accomplished by using the mind that created the problem to solve the problem. It requires something larger than us, and the success of programs such as AA and NA point cearly to the effectiveness of using a support group process for this purpose.
Early recovery is indeed thrilling and terrifying, sometimes simultaneously. Some addicts experience a “pink cloud” or euphoria which may last days, weeks, or even months; however, as the person confronts the wreckage of their past, encounters possible post-use difficulties, such as sexual impotence, and is confronted with drug and alcohol triggers, e.g. old haunts, using friends, etc., this pink cloud sometimes disintegrates rapidly and disillusion and disappointment result. This is when many fall into the trap of using willpower and deciding to do it “my way.” Immediate involvement in the recovery community, attention to diet and nutritional changes, and a strong commitment to recovery will all serve the addict in surviving the emotional roller coaster of recovery.
Recovering people will look back on their first year of recovery in much the same way as the person stepping off the roller coaster ride with a tremendous feeling of relief and satisfaction, newfound sense of courage, and a feeling of “Whew! What just happened?” The roller coaster ride of early recovery is challenging, exciting, difficult and scary. And in the end, it’s worth every second of it.