A drug problem can turn an entire life upside down, damaging career prospects, academics, relationships, health, and one’s day-to-day world. Recovery is always possible, but one of the hardest parts about recovery is learning how to celebrate living in the shadow of a past substance abuse problem. In this guide to loving life after addiction, you’ll find out about the realities and possibilities of rebuilding your world after the damage of drugs.
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I: Getting Legal Help
Despite many advancements in the understanding and treatment of substance abuse, recovering addicts still face overwhelming stigma because of their experiences. There is still a strong perception that addiction is both a choice and a sign of a weak character; for this reason, people in recovery often struggle with legal issues concerning job offers and housing policies.
However, as HBO’s Addiction project explains, “it is illegal to discriminate against people in recovery […] who are seeking jobs, housing, education and services.” Across federal and state laws, employers, landlords, schools and government programs are forbidden from refusing to offer their services to someone in recovery from a drug or alcohol problem. This means that a person in recovery is eligible for the same jobs, housing arrangements, schools, or services as a person who is not in recovery. Such laws are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act, both of which consider former drug abuse to be a form of legal disability.
The only grounds for which services could be denied is if the employer (or service provider) could legally prove that a person’s addiction history would prevent them from successfully carrying out their job tasks, prevent them from being in good academic status, or would violate the pre-existing housing policies (that is, the housing management cannot amend the terms of residence as “proof” that the past history of substance abuse would be contrary to those terms). Furthermore, evidence of current drug use could also be legal basis for denial of service, but federal law does protect people who are still using drugs “if they are otherwise entitled to those services.”
II: The Importance of Knowing Your Rights
Understanding the ins and outs of the legal problems that can arise because of past addiction issues is complicated, so much so that people in addiction recovery can easily be taken advantage of. In 2004, a national poll of people who were receiving treatment for their drug and alcohol abuse (the first such poll of its kind) found that 25 percent of respondents felt they had been “discriminated against when trying to obtain employment or insurance.”
This is why legal services that specifically help people in recovery exist. For example, the Legal Action Center, a public interest law firm, promises to “help people rebuild their lives with dignity,” through legal counseling in cases of suspected discrimination. Many other advocacy groups across the country help formerly addicted people with legal cases if they feel that their rights have been violated because of their past drug use.
There is nothing about getting legal help that sounds or feels like loving life after addiction, but having the right kind of professional counsel can be what makes it possible to enjoy life to the fullest in the aftermath of the damage of a substance abuse problem. With the right kind of advice, the mistakes of the past do not have to close doors that could (and should) legally remain open. And for most addicts, the law dictates that their former addiction should not prevent them from having the job they want or the home they dream of having.
III: Financial Assistance after Addiction
According to CreditCards.com, financial disaster is one of the signs of addiction. As the substance abuse deepens, bills and rent go unpaid, and greater shares of income are diverted into securing more drugs or alcohol. For many people who have been through an addiction, the end of the line comes when they are evicted, fired from their job, or run out of money for groceries, or encounter some form of financial ruin because their drug habit became all-consuming. A former meth addict relates how his dependence on the drug led him to accrue $40,000 in debt, with a repossessed car and no home. “The financial hardships hang with an addict,” he said.
Because of this, people in recovery usually have bad credit, and the financial obligations can be sources of stress in and of themselves. Financial institutions will be reluctant to trust a recovering addict with a line of credit for fear that the investment could be wasted again, and getting loans or housing applications approved becomes much harder.
A bankruptcy attorney suggests that once formal recovery is completed, a person can apply for bankruptcy or some other form of debt relief, which allows for a curated wiping of the slate. With the right kind of financial advice and guidance, this allows a person to start from scratch and rebuild their credit instead of trying to pick up where they left off.
However, some realities remain. Child support and alimony incurred from a failed marriage due to addiction would still have to be paid. Similarly, if a person lied to creditors about the need for money (for example, saying they wanted to buy a car but instead used the money for drugs), the debt cannot be discharged since debt as a result of fraud is not covered by bankruptcy protection. Nonetheless, some legal relief is possible, and retaining the services of a personal financial counselor for securing that relief can be very helpful in piecing together a post-addiction life.
Building credit does not happen in isolation; it will take time, effort, goodwill, and coordination. Credit counselors and nonprofit organizations, especially those that focus on working with people in substance abuse and/or mental health recovery, know how challenging and frustrating it can be to re-enter society after treatment. The advice they give will be invaluable in learning how to navigate the complicated world of personal finance.
Part of the process will be repaying debts – sometimes socially, sometimes financially. Having unpaid debts can be a strain on mental health, but a sound plan for re-establishing solvency will not only make the day-to-day parts of life much easier, it will also secure a long-term journey. Coming up with a sound plan isn’t easy, but that’s where advisors and counselors (with the recommendation or referral of a treatment facility) will help a person.
The best advice might be to not worry about finances. It is easier said than done, but the first priority is to get healthy. The time to deal with debt will come, and when it does, a person in recovery is in a much better position to assess the damage and how best to resolve it.
IV: Navigating the Job Market
Getting a new job (or leaving an old one) after completing a formal recovery program can seem like the biggest first step away from an addiction. A career is a form of identity, and the line of work a person is in says a lot about the kind of person they are. This is why much of the rehabilitation in a treatment facility focuses on the (re-)development of necessary skills that will make a person eligible and attractive for a new job.
Specifically, counselors will work with a client to narrow down what kind of job the person wants and whether this path is right for the client at this time. It is hard for a newly sober person to have this necessary perspective, and this is where the insight of a career counselor (one who is familiar with the process of recovery) can shed some light. To do this, the counselor and the client will go over the client’s past employment history, education, training, resume, and relevant specifics of the addiction and recovery. For example, jobs with exposure to stress and alcohol, such as the service industry, will probably not be a good fit for the person. Some jobs can legally disqualify applicants who have a past history of substance abuse or a criminal record, and this will also have to be factored into the job search.
Stress is a part of any job-hunting experience, and even people who have no substance abuse issues feel scared, anxious, and agitated about interviewing for a position. They may even feel depressed after a string of unsuccessful interviews. Having the support of a career counselor is critical, because they can guide the person through the more difficult parts of the job hunt.
V: Discussing Past Drug Use
Many sober individuals may wonder how to talk about their past drug abuse in an interview. The easiest answer is to be honest; lies will inevitably be uncovered and could lead to termination, and all the problems that come with it. The best strategy is to be honest if asked; clarify that the recovery is complete, and that you will be happy to submit to any random drug screening and testing the company may require as a condition for employment. As long as the potential employer doesn’t introduce new policies that target you for your past drug use (which would be a legal issue), you will have done everything possible to get your post-addiction life started on the right foot.
However, there is always the possibility that a recovering person doesn’t get the job, either because they simply weren’t the best candidate or potentially because the past history of substance abuse was a dealbreaker. Disappointing as this may be, it is important not to lose focus; setbacks are part of the process, and there are other jobs to apply for. It may even be the case that the initial rejection leads to a job that turns out to be a better fit, but for a person who is repairing their life after addiction, this perspective might not come easily. Working with a career counselor, and being part of an aftercare group, will help keep the person on track to learn from the experience and pursue other professional opportunities.
According to FlexJobs.com, you have ultimate control over what you want and do not want to reveal during the interview. A career counselor will assist you with your preparations, but the final decision on what to divulge and what to keep is ethically and legally yours. By clarifying your intentions and sticking to your plan before you start, you will be in charge – not just for the interview, but also for your professional life after addiction.
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VI: Resuming Higher Education
Many people in recovery want to go (back) to school. Education represents the chance to make a fresh start, to learn vital new skills, and to develop into a new, better person than the one who lived to addiction. Re-enrolling in college presents many challenges, but there are a number of opportunities that can arise from taking this step.
Getting a degree can potentially mean qualifying for more jobs, thereby diversifying professional opportunities. The accomplishment of graduating after two or four years of hard work can be a validation for the trials of sobriety, a tangible sign that the sacrifice was worth it. For those who developed their substance abuse problems during their school years, going back to college represents a chance to right those wrongs, which is an important step in the recovery process.
Going back to school can also represent change. Instead of returning to the same life, especially if that kind of life was the source for frustration or stress, the educational experience can be a stepping stone to new possibilities and goals.
Higher education is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, and for people who are prone to stress and anxiety, the rigor and grind of homework and deadlines can bring back good memories of drug or alcohol abuse. The risk may be multiplied for those who live on campus, where there is often a strong drinking culture, and alcohol is always within reach. Fortunately, schools understand the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse, especially for students who are struggling with behavioral and mental health issues. For this reason, many institutions offer resources for people in recovery who are resuming their education. Most campuses have student organizations that create safe spaces and events for recovering people, where there is no pressure to drink alcohol, and students and staff act as advisors and accountability partners. Sober groups ensure that the college experience remains both fun and conducive to sobriety.
VII: Setting Realistic and Achievable Goals
Importantly, a person should be prepared for the stress of college life. The idea of gaining admission to college is a very attractive one, but a counselor will keep the person’s expectations realistic. It will be too easy to sabotage recovery by assuming that college will be easy. The person will need to be ready with appropriate coping strategies for stress, anxiety, and even homesickness before signing up for a single course. These strategies might include joining a sober student group, finding a recovery sponsor who lives close to campus (or one who also went to school after recovery), and perhaps talking with the dean or program director at the school about special accommodations that might fall under the school’s disability and wellness policies.
Going back to school after addiction is a great idea, but it is a big step and should be made after careful consideration and planning. If a person is ready to start that journey, then the learning and social experiences that come from higher education will go a long way in helping to enjoy life in recovery.
VIII: Finding Love after Addiction
Starting a relationship is one of the biggest questions facing a person who is starting their life after an addiction. With drug and alcohol abuse under control, and with a post-treatment outlook and perspective, there is the belief that this will make the person a much better romantic prospect than before. Recovery can be exciting; dating someone can feel like adding to that excitement.
But there is a very good reason that most recovery coaches tell their clients not to date for the first year after treatment. In this period of time, people are still getting to know themselves, especially their strengths, limitations, and weaknesses. Being in love, or having a sexual attraction to another person, is a very powerful impulse, one that compels anybody (regardless of past substance abuse or lack thereof) to do foolish, risky things. For a person who is still navigating the challenges of life as a newly sober person, the impulse can be as tempting as a drink or drug itself.
IX: Dating in Recovery
It is not easy to talk about dating, but it is very important for a person in recovery to have that conversation with their counselor, sponsor, or therapist. This may entail developing a dating plan, which is a clear list of emotional goals and red flags. Clarifying these points will not only save the person from heartbreak; it might save them from relapse.
A dating plan could consist of such goals as:
- Not dating a person who has substance abuse problems of their own
- Not dating a person who has no interest in meeting the individual’s friends or family
- Wanting to date a person who is looking for more than simply sex
- Wanting to date a person who is willing to consider a long-term relationship
- Wanting to date someone who share similar values and interests
- Not dating a person who does not have a steady job or vocation
These may seem harsh and restrictive, but the point is to give the individual a healthy foundation with which to enter the dating scene. Disappointment and rejection are never pleasant at the best of times; for a person who has a history of behavioral and mental health issues, those storms might be almost too much to weather. By controlling the situation as much as possible, and by making appropriate room for the voice of a counselor, therapist, or sponsor to be heard, a person in recovery has a much better chance of finding companionship than by rushing into a relationship as soon as treatment has finished.
Having clear goals and intentions also makes the process easier for the prospective romantic partner. From that perspective, dating someone in recovery brings its own challenges. Wine at a romantic dinner may not be possible; emotional and physical intimacy might take a while; and the inevitable fights and disagreements that are part of any relationship take on a different tone if there is the concern of relapse. As with any relationship, honesty and communication are clear, and this might mean that the individual and their significant other attend group and counseling sessions together to better understand how their union will work.
Any kind of relationship involves a lot of hard work, patience, and forgiveness; this is even more true for a post-treatment relationship. But if both partners are willing to combine their efforts in following the dating plan, checking in with the sponsor and accepting the reality of what dating in recovery means, then there is no impediment to loving life – and having a life of love – after addiction.
X: New Friends for a New Life
Even beyond romance, a healthy life after recovery entails making an inventory of all relationships. Not every friendship and connection is beneficial for sobriety; people who remind the individual of past substance abuse (old drinking partners, drug dealers, etc.) will have to be cut out of the new life. This can be one of the hardest parts of recovery because it means permanently closing the door on people who can threaten the hard-fought sobriety, but it is impossible to fully embrace an abstinent lifestyle by maintaining contact with the constant (and attractive) reminders of drinking and drug use.
Again, this is where the support of a therapist, sponsor, and/or understanding romantic partner is invaluable. Having a reliable network of people who can help the person through the part of the recovery process that can be the saddest and most unforgiving makes a significant difference in being sober and truly living life to the fullest.
XI: Hobbies and Activities
Much of the focus of recovery will be on different ways a person can take charge of their newly abstinent life, not in a dominating, control-obsessed way, but by making the most of the second chance offered by treatment and rehabilitation. For many people coming out of addiction, this means trying new hobbies and activities. Exercise, particularly running, is one of the most popular pursuits because of the plethora of physical and mental health benefits. Running has been shown to alleviate depression and improve brain connectivity, which assists with boosting mood, memory, and cognitive abilities. It’s also a great way of building a healthy body; and for a person whose drug or alcohol addiction almost certainly ruined their diet, stamina, body image, concentration, and mental acuities, running is an all-encompassing natural antidote.
Running doesn’t have to be a solo venture. There are many benefits to doing it with a partner, and this provides a great area for a couple to bond in the new relationship. Of course, it does not have to be running. There are sober groups for cycling, sober yoga, and everything from rock climbing to gym memberships. Exercise not only helps prevent relapse; it also gives sober people a network of likeminded friends with whom to experience healthy living and adventure.
XII: Cooking and a Healthy Diet
Not all leisurely pursuits have to be outdoors. Cooking therapy is often used as a form of treatment itself, giving individuals a creative outlet to express themselves and to assist with physical and nutritional rebuilding after the damage of substance abuse. Vice magazine writes of how simple fares – making cakes and cooking fish and chips (with lemonade batter instead of beer) “has helped turning recovering addicts’ lives around.”
As a recreational activity, cooking can be as complicated or as simple as the person wants it to be. It can be a source of inspiration and passion, or it can be a quaint, private activity as a way of saving money and eating healthily. But by making a tangible investment in a necessity of day-to-day life, cooking allows people in recovery to celebrate one of the most basic pleasures of life: a well-cooked meal.
XIII: Healthy Living after Addiction
Being in good physical shape and maintaining a healthy diet is important for anyone. For those in recovery, these things take on slightly more significance. Drug and alcohol abuse can have chronic health effects that last well after the last instance of consumption, and that require a person to be very mindful of what they eat or drink, even after treatment. For those who require medication as part of their recovery, there are side effects to consider. This is why coming through an addiction requires that people take extra care of themselves. It is not only a case of avoiding drugs or alcohol; it can also mean eating the right kinds of food (diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health), getting enough exercise, and engaging in intellectually and emotionally rewarding activities.
All of this requires investment in just the right balance. Some newly abstinent people throw themselves into their recovery activities and end up becoming burned out, which can set the stage for a relapse. However, by coordinating activities and relationships with a counselor or sponsor, a person can feel confident that recovery doesn’t have to be a long and boring to-do list. Instead, life after addiction can be a series of challenges and accomplishments, each one leading to happiness and fulfillment.