I’ve been sober a long time, and I’m still amazed at the mystery and power of triggers that send my mind reeling in an instant. Triggers are anything that remind you of using or drinking. Triggers jeopardize sobriety. In my experience, they sometimes feel like I’m in immediate danger, or leave me with a feeling of great relief. And, that’s why triggers are so mysterious. You just never know what you’re in for. That’s why every single person who is working on building a solid sobriety foundation should avoid them. Many addicts who are sure they are stable, lose their sobriety because something triggers them. So, it’s important to talk about things that trigger our sobriety. And, to be clear, ALL triggers jeopardize our sobriety.
In early recovery, most all alcoholics and addicts have vivid dreams where they are actively using. These are called using dreams. I have yet to meet someone in recovery who has not had a using dream. After 14 years sober, I still have at least one using dream per year. But, when I was new, they were horrifying, perilous things that put my sobriety at risk every time. Why? Because I didn’t have enough practice to manage them yet. So, let’s talk about managing them.
The most vivid using dream I’ve ever had was when I was in residential recovery. In order to evoke triggering images in the telling of this story, I’ll just say this. I wasn’t just using in my dream – I felt the effects of the substance I took in the dream. I woke up in a cold sweat. The dream was so vivid that even though I was awake, I was sure I’d relapsed. I was panic-stricken, and for a few minutes, I was positive I’d thrown my sobriety away. When I realized I’d just been dreaming, the relief was enormous. But, the dream shook me for the rest of the day. If this happens to you, I suggest you do three things to expel it.
VISITING PLACES WHERE YOU ONCE USED OR PEOPLE YOU USED WITH
It is nearly impossible not to one day return to place where you once used. And, it can be difficult to avoid all the people you may have used with. These are highly triggering situations that every sober person must face. It can feel impossible to detach from old friends. As a rule of thumb, I recommend immediately letting go of all “friends” you used with. I mainly used alone, so this wasn’t very difficult for me. But, I did have connections in my phone that I had trouble parting with. And, it was very much like having the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. I was actively working steps and determined to get sober, but I would not delete those connections from my phone. When you hear in meetings that your addiction is out to kill you, it’s no joke. My whole heart was in sobriety, but my addiction did not care. Those phone numbers triggered me every time I scrolled through my connections. They plagued me – until, at three months sober, I told my sponsor about them. And, this happened. She said give me your phone and tell me the names. I did. She deleted every connection from my phone. That phone is sitting in my closet now. It’s not a trigger anymore. It’s a reminder that when I follow direction, sobriety wins.
Obviously, it’s recommended that you do not visit places where you once used. In many instances, that is a hard and fast rule. But, in some cases, it’s complicated. If you used in your own home, it’s going to be tough not go back there. (As a reminder, this is one reason why residential recovery is so important. It allows you to strengthen your sobriety before immediately facing a place with triggering memories.)
I got sober in Atlanta, but my most vivid using memories are from New Jersey – specifically, Newark, NJ. The last time I used my drug of choice was in Newark Airport, a place I cannot avoid. Before I went home for the first time, I talked to my sponsor about my fear of going back to that airport and driving through Newark to get home. She gave me the tools I needed to succeed – Ask G d to remove my desire to use. Ask Him to help me protect my sobriety. And, she told me that in time, my old memories would be replaced with new ones. I did not believe that – at all.
The first time I flew home, I used the rest room on the plane – so that I didn’t have to go into that bathroom. I entered the airport and had a panic attack because triggers can and will make you feel like you’re walking on a balancing beam. I was shaking and terrified, but walked past the bathroom, out of the airport, and only relaxed when I was safely in my father’s house. I had the same fear of the airport when I flew back to Atlanta. But, here’s the hope. My sponsor was right about the power of making new memories. Newark Airport is one of my favorite places now, because it has nothing to do with using anymore. It has everything to do with being with my family. Making new memories is one of the best ways to strengthen sobriety.
Protect Your Sobriety by Avoiding TV Shows and Media that are Triggering
If you are new, now is not the time to binge watch the show, “Intervention.” There is no need to see someone using in front of you. And, you might think you can handle it, and then see something you can’t unsee, and find yourself craving a drink or a drug. Craving can and does cause relapse. Don’t risk it.
Sometimes, without warning, you’ll be watching a show or movie that isn’t about addiction, and be triggered by surprise. It’s bound to happen, and you to be ready for it, you must know how to manage triggers before one knocks you upside the head when you least expect it.
I follow the same routine every morning. I wake up, make coffee, and read the news. Recently, I opened a story and was met with a highly triggering image of a drug I once used regularly. Immediately, my mind rolled backwards in time. I felt the drug in my hand. I remembered how it felt to use it. One instant I was mentally sober, and the next I was not. If this happens to you, and it will, you must know how to manage triggers and keep your sobriety intact.
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