How to Avoid a Relapse after Major Surgery

By Elizabeth Rosselle

Getting clean and sober is a lifelong journey for those who take their recovery seriously. And, it also means dealing with life on life’s terms without drugs or alcohol, regardless of the circumstances. This means going through all of the daily ups and downs sober, including the death of loved ones, possible job losses, family turmoil, and other painful events. On the flip side, it also means being fully present for all the good stuff like marriages, babies being born, birthdays, promotions, and family vacations, among other things. 

Many addicts in sobriety discover that if they’re working a solid recovery program, dealing with life on life’s terms gets easier and easier. In fact, they’ll often describe it as being better sober than it ever was in active addiction because they actually get to show up for life, and this is a good thing. No hangovers, no more forgetting what happened the night before, and no more dancing on the table before collapsing into the punch bowl at the nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. For those who give the whole recovery thing a solid go, living this way is, more often than not, a complete relief. 

One potential scenario that’s often not addressed before the fact, however, is the likelihood that at some point in the sober journey, the addict will face needing surgery. Of course, it’s not a guarantee, but assuming recovery is something he or she decides to commit to for life, surgery is a strong possibility as humans are not entirely invincible. If and when the situation arises, it’s important to be prepared, especially when it comes to post-operative care as painkillers are often prescribed, and these pills are usually opiates.

Whether you’ve been sober for 15 days or 15 years, no one is immune to relapse, particularly where things like opioids are concerned. Nevertheless, there are steps you can take to help ensure that you protect yourself from a relapse. Be objective, trust your doctors, and maintain an open line of communication with your loved ones and your recovery community if you have one. 

Remember that you have tools—and you aren’t who you used to be.

It’s easy to slip into fear and worry knowing that you might not only be facing pain but that you also might be experiencing some of the same sensations you had before getting sober. We’re, of course, referring to the way post-surgery painkillers and opioids might make you feel. This can seem triggering for a lot of people, but remember, you have a whole new set of tools in recovery that you never had before. Use them. Lean on your recovery network, practice mindfulness, and be open and honest with your doctor about your past. As long as you stay two steps ahead, you should be fine. You have the support you need and you’re not the same person you were when you were in active addiction. 

Be honest with your loved ones about your fears.

Be upfront about your fears with your loved ones. Don’t be ashamed of these fears. This is the perfect opportunity to practice being vulnerable. Those who care about you the most will understand and have your back the whole time. If they know you’re afraid of a relapse, you can also ask them to make sure they help keep you in check. Make sure that this group includes people from your recovery community. These people know what to watch out for, and they can help make sure you don’t slip into old behavior. 

Trust your doctor.

As long as your doctor is aware of your past and your addiction, there shouldn’t be any reason not to trust that he or she has your best interests in mind. If the benefits of the surgery far outweigh the risks of relapse, then your doctor should recommend surgery. A trusted medical professional is going to do their best to ensure that the process is as smooth as possible for you, including your aftercare. This includes providing post-procedure medication alternatives to opioids for pain management if available in your case, or by providing the right combination of opioids and Naltrexone to block the euphoric and sedative effects of opioids. Make sure you communicate your concerns with your doctor at the outset, and he or she can help you come up with the best post-op treatment plan. This will help ease your anxiety at the outset so that you’re as relaxed as possible for your procedure. 

Explore alternatives to opioid pain relief if this is an option. 

Once again, talk to your doctor about your history of addiction and find out if there’s an alternative to opioids for pain management after your procedure. If you don’t communicate, then there’s no way for your doctor to know that you have concerns in the first place. It could be the case that won’t be a need for anything more than ibuprofen. But, if your doctor doesn’t know you’re in addiction recovery, he or she may think nothing of prescribing something stronger and more addictive. Just make sure you’re upfront. This will make a world of difference in the end. 

Use as directed and put someone else in charge of your pills (don’t hold them). 

Often, it can be a good idea to put someone else in charge of your post-op meds. You won’t be feeling quite like yourself after surgery, and your defenses could be down, particularly in regard to your addiction. If, however, you ask someone that you trust to be in charge of your medication, like a significant other or a friend in recovery, they can ensure that you’re taking your meds as directed. They can also ask you the right questions about how you’re feeling and help you determine when it might be time to taper off the strong stuff. 

Plan out your aftercare in advance and stick to it. 

This might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s actually a step that’s often overlooked by addicts going into surgery, and it’s an important one. Talk to your doctor about how you should manage your pain post-op. Find out what the minimum amount of suggested time will be to take your pain medication, and also what the maximum amount of suggested time is (in case you’re tempted to call in a refill). This can help you anticipate what you’ll be facing after your surgery so that you can plan accordingly. It can also help the person who’s in charge of your pain medication. It will give them a reference point so that they know if and when to call you out on any potential pill requests that might be excessive. 

At the end of the day, the prospect of surgery can induce anxiety in just about anyone, regardless of whether or not they struggle with addiction. And, while those of us who are in recovery need to be extra diligent, we shouldn’t put off important procedures for fear of a relapse. As long as we’re open and honest about our concerns with our doctors, close friends, and family members, we’ll have the right people in our corner keeping an eye on us. In recovery, we have the right tools to get through just about anything as long as we use them. 

Kembali Recovery Center can help

If you or someone you love is struggling to get sober or to stay clean, Kembali Recovery Center is here for you. Contact us today to learn more about our recovery program. You never have to do this alone. 

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