Assessing Your Drinking and Drug Use
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How a New Year’s resolution can help
Earlier this week, I listened to a client explain at length the evidence that he does not have a problem with alcohol or other drugs. As a therapist specializing in helping people with substance-abuse problems, I have probably heard such explanations literally hundreds of times. Sometimes I suspect that the person has an active addiction, but sometimes I’m really not sure. This is not an exact science, and there is still much we do not know about the many different paths and appearances that a substance-abuse problem can have.
What’s sad to me at these times, though, is the degree to which clients who make these speeches seem to think that I need substantial convincing, that I’m automatically at odds with them, that I have clinical hunches that need to be disputed or appeased. After all, my experience has shown me that the more people get involved in speculating about whether or not a particular person has a problem, the more guarded and defensive he or she becomes and the more the waters are muddied.
On the other hand, I sometimes work with clients who are beginning to question, often very tentatively, the role that alcohol or drugs is playing in their lives. They’re not at all convinced that they have a real problem, but they’re also not completely convinced that they don’t.
For Solo Moms, this uncertainty can be especially heartrending and complicated. Knowing that her children are depending on her being present, healthy, and safe makes the stakes even higher when questions arise about whether or not a mom’s substance use has become problematic. Teetering between the conviction that nothing is seriously wrong and the worry that a problem is developing, Solo Moms sometimes stay in limbo about their substance use for long periods.
If that description fits you (and it certainly fits for vast numbers of people), first of all, good for you for having the insight to ask the hard questions. Second, in a holiday-specific version of advice I often give to clients who are trying to sort out the nature and potential harmfulness of their substance use, I would like to suggest a New Year’s resolution: make a goal to reduce or stop your drinking or drug use for a certain period of time and see what happens. Write down your goal somewhere.
But that is not all. I suggest you take the resolution one step further by committing to and writing down a second part to your resolution, something you plan to do to if you find yourself unable to meet your goal.
After making this resolution, you might discover that quitting or reducing your intake is a piece of cake, in which case, you are probably not addicted (though this does not mean that there aren’t other dangers associated with substance use for you to think about or that you won’t cross a line into addiction down the road). Now you are free to consider how to proceed in a way that feels right to you, providing it doesn’t endanger you or others, or put you at risk of incarceration.
Suppose it goes the other way, though. Suppose you discover, launching into the new year, that you can’t refrain from indulging in alcohol or other drugs, or that your actual use exceeds your intended use.
If you have made this discovery, congratulations—you have just learned something very important about yourself. What do you do next? That’s where the second part of the resolution comes in.
Remember, before you embark on your resolution, you are making an agreement with yourself that you will take some action in getting help for your substance use in the event that you find yourself unable to follow through on your goal about alcohol or other drugs.
Here are some examples of a good follow-through plan:
- Go to some open meetings (no commitment or self-labeling required) of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or any other 12-step fellowship in your area that’s concerned with the substance you are using. Listen to people’s stories with particular attention to when and how they knew they had a problem. Ask questions. Read the organization’s literature.
- Make a counseling appointment with a professional who has substance-abuse-treatment experience. Share that you are figuring out if you have a problem and what to do about it. Shop around until you have someone who will help you sort it out for yourself rather than pressure you to take one action or another.
- Have a conversation with that coworker who has shared that he or she is in recovery. Ask about his or her experience, and, if it feels appropriate, ask if he or she will give you feedback on your own situation.
- Talk with your primary-care physician about your concerns. Individual physicians have vastly differing amounts of substance abuse–specific knowledge and experience. With that said, your doctor should certainly be aware of symptoms of substance-use disorders and may also be able to refer you to other kinds of specialists for further help.
- Consider a detox admission or an in-patient treatment center. This is especially true if your recent substance use has been life-threatening, such as using heroin in combination with other drugs or drinking and driving. Sometimes a medical setting is necessary to help people withdraw safely and effectively, and get recommendations about next steps.
Why is this second part such an important part of the resolution? Because a primary indicator of a substance-use disorder and/or addiction is loss of control over your ability to avoid or restrict your use of substances. That means, if you tell yourself you’re going to quit or cut back for the next two months and are drinking or using drugs within the next couple of days, you are probably experiencing a medical condition that interferes with your ability to follow through on the resolution. It’s not your fault; you didn’t ask for a substance-use disorder. Yet, for many, it is an unpleasant shock that can quickly turn into denial if you haven’t already promised yourself a next step you will automatically take. And my experience has been that for vast numbers of people, the first discovery that the person has lost some control over his or her substance use is an important turning point. It can head you in the direction of getting help and moving forward, or it can be a point you look back on regretfully, bemoaning the fact that you did not seek help when the writing was first on the wall.
It is not easy to make a sincere resolution about something as major as your use of alcohol or other drugs. But if you take this brave step, it will either put your worries to rest (at least for now) or point you in the direction of getting the help you need and deserve.
Wishing you a happy and healthy 2016, Solo Moms!
Looking for support and connection? Our confidential community of Sisters is a great place to start.
Susan Lemere, ESME’s Addiction Resource Guide, is a Solo Mom of two, as well as a therapist, a writer, and an artist coach.
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