Coping with Tough Times Without Alcohol or Other Drugs

Coping with Tough Times Without Alcohol or Other Drugs

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Strategies to counter the stress of being a Solo Mom without resorting to old, addictive habits

A lot of people in recovery say that getting clean and sober is not as hard as living clean and sober—in other words, it’s difficult to cope with life’s day-to-day stressors, its occasional crises, and all the difficult feelings that go along with them without falling back on bad habits. In my therapy work with clients, I hear about these kinds of challenges often.

My client Laura (this and all subsequent names are pseudonyms) lost a teenage son in a car accident and started drinking heavily. A few months later, concerned that she was losing control and that it was making her less available to her two school-aged children, she came to me for substance-abuse counseling and decided to quit drinking. She did well for several months, but she was unprepared for the intensity of her feelings as the anniversary of her son’s death approached.

“There are nights when the pain just levels me,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to die from emotional pain. Losing him was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and it feels like it’s happening all over again. Only now that I’m not drinking, I have no ‘off’ switch for the feelings. How can I get through this sober?”

Another client, Towana, stopped smoking pot after years of daily use and was stunned by the anxiety and insomnia that followed. “I tell myself that I don’t really need pot. It isn’t worth the risk of losing my job over a drug test. As a single mom, I’m my family’s only source of income. I know pot isn’t supposed to be addictive, but now that I’m off it, all I do is worry about everything. Like, why is my youngest son struggling in school? And how do I deal with their father not paying child support? Do I try to take him back to court? We’re behind on our bills this month, and I’m not sure how I’ll catch up. Sometimes I’m awake at night for hours and can feel my heart pounding.”

A third client, Marisa, came for counseling because she had started taking more of her anxiety medication than her doctor prescribed. In talking with her, though, it became clear that her recent instances of taking excessive amounts of the medicine were in response not to anxiety but to anger. “I get it that marriages end, but he walked out on us less than a month after Jordan was diagnosed with autism. It was so selfish and heartless. He makes a big deal about paying his share without a court order, but so what? I don’t need money; I need the partner he promised to be. But he’s off with that woman, and sometimes I just want to slash his tires or slap his face. But I am not that kind of person. I would never really do that. So I pop a couple of Ativan, and it passes.”

Ruth was also abusing substances after her long-term relationship fell apart, but her drug use was fueled by different emotions: guilt, sadness, and regret. “Luke was such a good partner. I think my affair was a kind of temporary insanity. I didn’t even like the guy so much, so I don’t know why I risked everything. Now I would do anything to go back in time and change it all, but I can’t. I’ve ‘made my bed,’ as the saying goes. But sometimes I can’t deal with it all. I need to be numb.”

The wish to ease or temporarily numb difficult feelings is often an aspect of substance abuse and can pose challenges in the recovery process. But there are healthy strategies you can use—and they work. The following are suggestions for coping with difficult emotions without the use of a substance. They are not intended to take the place of mental-health treatment. If your struggle with emotions is intense to a degree that it is interfering significantly with your functioning, especially if they are accompanied by thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, consult a mental-health professional. But for nonemergency situations, for life’s difficult everyday struggles, these are some strategies that you might find useful.

  1. Choose a positive distraction. Sometimes the best short-term strategy is a nondestructive escape from a difficult feeling or situation. Different types of activities work well for different people. A long walk, a matinee, or a good book can give you enough of a temporary reprieve to get through a tough afternoon or evening without giving in to the urge to drink or take drugs. Many people find that it helps to make a short list of positive activities that work well for them during a time when they are feeling relatively relaxed, as it can be hard to generate ideas when you’re in the middle of having strong emotions and urges to use a substance.
  2. Learn about and practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is the state of being deliberately and nonjudgmentally aware of what you are experiencing in a given moment. It can be a powerful tool for changing your relationship to your moods and beginning to feel more self-aware, empowered, and in control of your responses to life’s challenges. There are numerous websites, books, and workshops for learning about what mindfulness is and how to develop and practice it. Additionally, many counselors and therapists incorporate mindfulness into their treatment. If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness, the Parton Center for Health and Wellness at Middlebury College in Vermont has numerous links to resources on the subject, including free podcasts and recommended reading.
  3. Talk to someone supportive. This tried-and-true approach usually works best if you know what kind of support will help you the most right now and can convey it to the other person ahead of time. For instance, “I just need someone to hear what I’m feeling,” or “I need someone to give me suggestions on how to handle this,” or “I need someone to remind me that I’m not alone.”
  4. Go to a self-help group meeting that is specific to your situation. Possibilities might include a substance-abuse recovery group, a mothers helping mothers group, or a group specific to a different problem you are dealing with, such as an abuse survivors group. Look for a group that is solution-focused, where members are helping one another with a combination of emotional support and practical suggestions.
  5. Try physical activity or a creative outlet. Physical exercise has well-known mood-stabilizing benefits and can help you feel you are doing something beneficial rather than destructive. Creative pursuits such as drawing, painting, writing, dance, and music can be a pleasant distraction or a way of expressing something deeply personal.
  6. Connect with what you find most meaningful. For some people, this means prayer and meditation, and it can be part of a 12-step recovery program. For others, it means spending time in nature or perhaps listening to music, viewing art, or reading poetry. The important part is connecting with something you experience as powerful, meaningful, and vast, ideally something you experience as a source of strength and hope.


  • The more experience you have getting through difficult situations and feelings without using alcohol or drugs, the easier it will be for you to do so the next time.
  • Realize you are building strength in a realm that will make you better able to deal with whatever challenges you encounter in life and, in doing so, are also modeling this for your children.

Susan Lemere is a Solo Mom of two, as well as a therapist, a writer, and an artist coach.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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