When we make up our minds that we genuinely want to to pick up our drug of choice (whether it be narcotics, alcohol, nicotine, or anything else) and are determined to do so, there is no power in the universe capable of stopping us.
Let’s be honest though, those occasions are few and far between.
A much more common situation is that we feel a physical and psychological compulsion to relapse, but are determined not to do it.
Our addiction gets a hold of us, starts to torment us physically and mentally, and tries to convince us to relapse, and, naturally, we’re tempted.
We’re tempted, because we know that giving in and relapsing will bring temporary relief from the excruciating pain of a craving, but we’re also determined not to give in, as impossible as that may sometimes feel.
Over the years I’ve dealt with several addictions — first alcohol and nicotine, and most recently food- and I’ve also had enough relapses with each to learn a thing or two about how to prevent them.
For me, it all comes down to this:
When I feel that immediate, all-consuming compulsion to drink, smoke, or over-eat right right now at this moment, when I feel the temptation become unbearable, when I feel that a relapse is inevitable but unwanted, I do one simple thing:
Hit the Pause Button
Just step back and mentally press pause on the situation and on everything else that is going on around me.
Once that pause button is hit, I can do any number of things to help me get through without succumbing to a relapse.
In my experience, I’ve found these four techniques — each one involving changing the way I’m thinking- to be effective in helping me to quash that craving and move on, still sober, still smoke free, and still happy.
1: Think Back to The Last Time I Caved to a Craving
The last time I got drunk, the last time I smoked a cigarette, and the last time I binged on food were all truly horrible experiences for me.
It’s for this precise reason that I’m so grateful for them.
If you’re reading this, I’m sure the last time you caved to your addiction wasn’t exactly a joyful experience either. If it was, you wouldn’t be reading this.
Now is the perfect time for you and me to stop and think:
Is that horrible experience really what we want?
Because as cunning as our addictions are in tricking us into believing that somehow it’s going to be different this time, that horrible experience is really what’s waiting for us.
When I get trapped in the delusion that I can somehow drink, smoke, or over-eat without it being a disaster, I can hit the pause button, rewind, and think back to those experiences.
I can vividly remember what it was like, right to the point that I actually become physically repulsed by the idea of ‘picking up’ or ‘using’ again.
I’ve done this enough times now that I’ve come to associate drinking with the horror and black dread that consumes me after waking up from a drunk, with the chaos and rage and darkness and fear that are completely at odds with the peace and serenity I enjoy today.
I associate smoking with something that is filthy, with coughing up my lungs to the point of vomiting – exactly what I did with my last cigarette.
I also associate over eating with feelings of sickness and shame, a physical bloating and nausea combined with the increased sense of self-loathing that at times is utterly crippling.
Do I want all that again?
I’ve had to rework my thinking to eliminate any pleasant memories of using the things that I’m addicted to, and replace them only with thoughts that physically disgust me.
It’s difficult to drink booze, smoke, or over eat when the thought of doing so makes me feel sick.
This takes some practice, and I may yet write more on this, but for now, let me tell you what I do when even that doesn’t work.
2: Play it Forward: Visualise What Will Happen if I Cave To a Craving
The problem with the addictive mind is that it doesn’t deal in logic or rationale.
This means that, even if we make ourselves feel sick thinking about the last horrible experience we had with our drug of choice, the devious deviant that lurks in the addicted mind can still bounce up and put forward a compelling argument.
It says things like:
‘Yeah but that was then, this is now.’
‘It will be different this time.’
‘Because you’re in recovery, you’ll know how to control it better, this time you really CAN just have one.’
The logical part of us knows that this is, frankly, B.S, but if we get so far down the road to a relapse, then we lose the ability to think with the logical mind, and instead the addictive mind takes over.
All those arguments seem legit, and if we’re really badly craving whatever it is we’re addicted to, it can be tempting to let ourselves be suckered in by them.
When I find myself in this situation, I again have to hit the pause button, only this time I have to play the movie forward and ask myself one very important question:
Realistically, what will happen if I drink / smoke / over-eat?
You can insert your own addiction above and ask yourself the same question.
From there, I have to answer that question by visualising how the situation will pan out for me.
If I’m jonesing for a cigarette, hitting the pause button means I can think through and vividly imagine what the experience will realistically be like.
I start with just going to the store to buy cigarettes.
Even though there are two stores on my doorstep, the staff there know me and know that I quit smoking, so I’ll have to travel further afield to buy them, because I can’t face the shame of the staff knowing I’m about to start smoking again.
I imagine handing over my hard earned money, and all the things I could buy with that money instead.
Then I imagine myself lighting up, and dealing with the horrible taste of the cigarette (ever noticed how foul they taste when you pick one up after being smoke free for a while?), followed by the huge, violent cough as my body rejects the filth clogging up my lungs.
Then I imagine becoming hooked again, and having to go through the same ordeal as last time to break my nicotine addiction again. If I really want to be harsh, I can imagine myself being unable to quit this time, contracting lung cancer, and dying a very sick man.
Trust me, that’s usually enough to make me forget about it.
It works for anything.
Visualise. Try it.
Using where you are now as the beginning of your story, play that story through all the way to its ultimate conclusion. In some cases it might be as extreme as death, but even if its not, I’m willing to bet money that the end of your imagined story is not going to be something that’s going to make you want to go out and relapse.
3: Write a List of the Positives of Abstaining
If we were to write down a list of all the positive things we could gain by picking up our drug of choice, the chances are it would be a very short list with one thing on it:
Temporary relief from the symptoms of a craving.
In my experience, that temporary relief is followed by a longer-term suffering as I deal with the consequences of my relapse.
In other words, it’s hardly a positive at all.
However, If we were to write down a list of all the positive things we could gain by abstaining, it would likely be a much longer list.
Depending on which addiction I’ve been dealing with, my lists typically include things like.
- I will be fitter and healthier
- I will have more money because I won’t have spent it on booze / cigs / food
- I will become stronger — physically and mentally — for beating this temptation
- My house won’t stink of cigarette smoke
- I will continue to enjoy a good relationship with friends and family — which I wouldn’t have if I was drinking
- I won’t increase the chances of getting an illness or disease, such as cancer or diabetes.
These are just a few that I can think of from off the top of my head, but if you really sit down and think about it, I’m sure there are many more which are applicable to your own unique situation.
As an added bonus, I’ve found that sometimes, just spending time writing this list is enough to forget all about the temptation in the first place.
Try the ‘Not Now, Maybe Later’ Game
Just because our brain and body is telling us right now that it wants our drug of choice, we do not have to immediately make a decision about whether or not we’re going to use that drug.
We can instead make a different decision:
The decision to nothing until later on in the day.
I call this the ‘Not Now, Maybe Later’ Game, and it’s exactly what it sounds like.
Let’s say I’m dealing with food addiction, and a compulsion to go out and binge eat.
Before I do anything, I can hit the pause button and say to myself.
“I might be craving a food binge, but I don’t want to do it now. Maybe later, in an hour, if I still feel as strongly, I’ll give in to temptation.”
If an hour passes and that compulsion is still there, I can play the game again.
And that’s the best thing about ‘Not Now, Maybe Later,’ it’s a game you can play as many times as you want to, as frequently as you want to.
When I first quit smoking, I would sometimes play it every five minutes over a short period of time, and it worked.
It’s all about delaying the decision making process.
If we feel tempted to relapse and immediately make a decision that we’re going to do it, then we’ve got no chance of escaping that feeling unharmed.
If we delay that decision for an hour, or even just five minutes, it gives us some room to breath.
By the time comes that we told ourselves we can make a decision about whether or not to relapse, it’s often the case that either the compulsion has gone away on its own, or that we’ve been able to get the help we need to weather the storm without once again becoming a slave to our addictions.