Early recovery is a confusing time, not only because returning to “normal” life outside rehab can be jarring but also because the brain takes time to heal from the cognitive impairments caused by prolonged drug use. With the aid of neuroimaging, we can see the physical changes that take place in the brain as a result of addiction, and we know that in most cases, it can repair itself over time.
Many recovering addicts, frustrated by difficulties remembering things, concentrating for more than a few minutes, understanding abstract concepts and solving problems, ask, “I stopped using drugs – why do I still feel so confused?”
Hearing “just give it time” is rarely satisfactory for the recovering addict who wants to feel better now. In addition to counting the days of sobriety, there are a number of concrete steps recovering addicts can take to stop feeling confused and start thinking clearly:
Attend 12-Step Meetings or Alternative Recovery Groups.
Twelve-Step recovery can help compensate for memory and learning deficits by reminding recovering addicts what they have lost to the disease and the steps they need to take on a daily basis to hold onto their sobriety.
As part of the 12-Step process, addicts share their story, which reminds them of the situations they need to avoid to guard against relapse. They also hear other people’s harrowing struggles with addiction, which can be a reminder of how bad the “good old days” really were, even when the addict begins to forget.
No one understands suffering better than a fellow addict in recovery. Having been there themselves, they can offer tips and techniques on how to get through the confusion. The Steps themselves act as a security mechanism, continually reinforcing what addicts are supposed to do next to keep them on the path of recovery so they don’t have to remember.
Write it Down.
As anyone over 50 or so can attest, one trick to managing a declining memory is to write everything down. When the mind is overloaded with racing or jumbled thoughts, it’s easy for important tasks to be forgotten. By keeping a written record, whether on paper, computer or smartphone, recovering addicts have frequent reminders of where to go and what to do without having to rely on their memory.
Lean on Loved Ones.
Family and friends know the recovering addict best, care about their recovery and are likely part of their day-to-day life. This puts them in an ideal position to offer gentle reminders about important events and help them keep track of their schedule. They can also lift the recovering addict’s spirits and offer support and encouragement when the frustrations of early recovery set in.
Follow an Aftercare Plan.
Continuing to see a therapist or counselor is an essential part of early recovery. A therapist can help the recovering addict sort out cluttered and distorted thoughts and keep a broad perspective on the challenges of early recovery. Certain medications may also assist in restoring mental acuity and memory function.
Nutritious foods, regular exercise and adequate sleep can speed the brain’s healing process. Alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, yoga and mindfulness meditation, reduce stress and help put the mind and body in the best position to get well. Sober recreation and socializing are other valuable coping strategies that can help the time pass in constructive ways and make the recovery process more enjoyable.
One Day at a Time.
There’s a lot the recovering addict can do to improve their thinking, but these steps are just pieces of the puzzle. At some point, recovery requires the addict to have faith in the process, celebrate the progress they’ve made and take it one day at a time.
The focus on one day at a time helps recovering addicts remember what they’re supposed to do. Those who have trouble planning and then remembering what they planned or why they wanted to do it may find that focusing solely on today eases any deficits in memory, planning and executive function.
Some days will be better than others, but each day life will make a little more sense and goals will become that much closer. Without even realizing it, the recovering addict will soon be clear on the who, what, when, where and why of daily life without second-guessing themselves.