Working through breakup heartache in early recovery 

Let’s face it — breakups are tough for just about everyone, regardless of whether or not they struggle with addiction or alcoholism. They’re even tough for people who’ve been sober from drugs or alcohol for a long time, despite how strong their recovery program is. Nevertheless, for those in early recovery that are only just beginning to navigate emotions for the first time, a breakup can feel downright unbearable. And, while it can challenge anyone’s recovery, newcomers in sobriety are particularly vulnerable. 

Having said this, there are ways to cope with a breakup and stay sober through it. And, when all is said and done, it’s important to remember that the only real way to get through any difficult emotion is to feel it. As the old adage goes, “the only way out is through.” And, once we strip away the drugs and alcohol, we commonly discover that those painful emotions we used to mask through substance abuse never actually went anywhere. They continued to cause us deep-rooted pain that we never truly could identify until we took a good look at ourselves. And, this can be a liberating revelation once we learn how to face hard feelings because it means that we also have the power to work through them. And, as a result, we don’t have to carry around the heavy baggage anymore. 

If you’re in early recovery and have recently gone through a relationship breakup, here are some tips that can help you get through it without resorting to old coping mechanisms: 

Put your recovery first. While this might go without saying, you’d be surprised how commonly it’s overlooked. As addicts and alcoholics, many of us are subconsciously looking for reasons to drink and use. Painful emotions that accompany something like a breakup are a great excuse to get hammered and if we’re not careful, it can be really tempting to overindulge in the pain. This may sound like a crazy notion, but remember that addicts and alcoholics in active addiction or alcoholism will often go to any lengths to get high or drunk. Additionally, they will look for just about any justification. So, rather than leaning into drugs and alcohol, try leaning into your recovery program instead and see what happens. More than likely, you’ll find that there are plenty of people in the program who’ve gotten through a breakup or two and come out the other side stronger than ever. And, most importantly, they’re still sober. 

Do nice things for yourself (aka, practice some self-care). Okay, the first thing on your self-care list should probably be to put your recovery first. But, after that, just be good to yourself. Spend time with friends, take yourself out on dinner dates, go to the beach, go surfing, paint or play music — whatever it is you enjoy that’s easily accessible to you, do more of it! Many of us lose ourselves in the person we were romantically involved with and when we find ourselves on our own, we realize we stopped doing nice things for ourselves. Well, it’s time to reinvest in our own well-being. We might even discover new hobbies and interests along the way. One of the many beautiful things about this is that when we tap into things that bring us joy, we no longer need someone else to make us happy. And, if and when we do eventually meet someone, we’ll enter into a new relationship feeling already whole on our own. Therefore, the person we meet will only enhance our lives rather than, as they say, “complete us.” Because feeling like we need someone to complete us is a lousy place to begin a relationship. It’s also risky to our sobriety. 

Keep a journal. Because alcoholics and addicts have historically avoided emotions, we often don’t even know what those emotions are when we finally start feeling them. This can make them even more challenging to process if we don’t know how to identify them to begin with. But writing down how you feel can be the first step toward getting your feelings out into the open so you can start to understand them. And, of course, once you understand why you’re having the feelings you’re having, you’re much better equipped to begin working through them. Feeling your feelings, even though it seems hard, is a good thing. And, the sooner you learn how to process your emotions, the sooner you’ll get to the other side of them. Another helpful reminder is to remember that feelings aren’t facts. Keep this in mind when you’re journaling — whatever you’re feeling at any given moment will eventually pass. This isn’t to say that your feelings aren’t valid, but recognizing that they aren’t, in essence, real in the tangible sense can help you to accept them for what they are. 

Meditate. If you don’t have a meditation practice yet, now might be a good time to adopt one. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to meditate, but a good place to start can be to just focus on your breath for a few minutes. It might sound cliché or obvious, but most addicts and alcoholics have really busy minds and it can be tricky to shut out the head chatter. Keep it simple when you’re first getting into meditation so that you don’t overwhelm yourself (meditating should be enjoyable, not overwhelming). Try sitting for three minutes — breathe in for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four. 

Repeat this several times before returning to a normal breathing rhythm for the duration of the three minutes. This type of equal breathing helps to calm your nervous system and it also occupies your brain to help eliminate the head chatter, at least for a few minutes. Try increasing your sitting time by one minute each day until you reach 20 minutes a day. And, when the thoughts do come, don’t try to avoid them. Instead, try observing them without judgment. As addicts and alcoholics, we’ve spent a good portion of our lives avoiding difficult emotions or trying to mask them with drugs and alcohol. By meditating and observing our thoughts in a non-judgemental way, we can start to accept our emotions as just another facet of being human rather than something to be feared. Meditating also gives us the opportunity to pause before reacting to negative emotions which often leads us straight to old coping mechanisms. It takes a mere moment to shift our thinking and there’s a lot of power in that almighty pause. 

Don’t isolate. This idea seems to get drilled into our heads pretty early on in recovery, particularly for those working a twelve-step program. And it’s good advice. While you don’t want to run away from your thoughts, you probably shouldn’t be spending too much time alone with them in early recovery either. Particularly if you’ve recently been through something emotionally challenging like a breakup. Once again, lean into your recovery network, assuming you have one. Some of your fellows in recovery, particularly those who’ve been sober for a while, are bound to have been through a breakup in sobriety. Moreover, this particular network of friends is used to navigating all sorts of emotions without abusing drugs or alcohol, so they’re a safe group for you to be spending time with. They can also provide emotional support, along with the experience, strength, and hope that comes from navigating difficult emotions in recovery. Stay close to the people. 

Get some exercise. Nothing beats a good endorphin rush. It’s like a free and easy high with no hangover to speak of, except maybe some achy muscles if you haven’t properly stretched (so, stretch!). If you play sports already, great — you’re two steps ahead of the game. Grab your tennis racket, or your basketball, or your runners, and get to it. Not a sporty type? That’s okay, too! Brisk walks count as exercise. Yoga is a great one as well, and it doesn’t have to be strenuous. Try a light Hatha class or even a restorative yoga class will work. Anything that gets you active and moving will deliver a healthy dose of dopamine — the brain chemical that makes you happy. Dopamine delivers that “high” most of us sought in drugs and alcohol, but exercise produces it naturally which is a beautiful thing. 

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For anyone out there who’s struggling right now after a hard breakup, we feel your pain. Heartache is one of the most uncomfortable feelings in existence, but, once again, it’s just a feeling, not a fact. And it will pass, we promise. The most important thing to remember, and we can’t stress this enough, is that you absolutely do not have to drink or use in response to heartache. Be patient with yourself. If you’re going to meetings and putting your recovery first, then this is, hands-down, the best place to start. Everything else will fall into place and life will continue to evolve in the most beautiful and unexpected ways. When we show up for our recovery, life shows up for us. 

Kembali Recovery Center can help…
If you or someone you love is struggling to get sober or stay sober, Kembali Recovery Center is here for you. Please remember that you never have to do this alone. Contact us today to speak with one of our counselors and learn about our program.

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