Addicts use drugs and alcohol as a way of hiding from life. It’s unclear if the lack of life coping skills occurs before addiction, if addiction worsens a minor deficiency in life skills, or if some consequence of the addiction process somehow destroys previously acquired life skills. But, however the chronology works out, most recovering addicts end up being unable to cope with life. They cannot deal with simple day-to-day living because they don’t know how.
Most non-addicts find the idea of not having life skills to be somewhat baffling. However, the addiction process is very destructive to the self while simultaneously making the addict very selfish. When deep in a drug or alcohol fog the basics of self-care such as cleaning, eating and sleeping slip away. The ability to converse with and interact with others in a normal two-way relationship vanishes. Addicts become completely incapable of dealing with the slightest bit of stress or real emotions. They cannot handle any level of responsibility, not even something as basic as showing up on time for an appointment.
If recovering addicts are not taught life-coping skills, the first time they encounter a stressful situation or have to make a life decision they will retreat into the only coping mechanism they have left, relapse. In order to achieve a lasting sobriety, it is, therefore, essential that they be given training in life skills. The life skills that recovering addicts need to master can generally be classified into one of four different categories:
- Independent life skills
- Controlling emotions
- Coping with stress
- Social interactions
- Independent life skills
A basic life-skills training program usually begins with putting the recovering addict in charge of taking care of himself or herself. The basics of laundry, tidying up, and presenting a neat clean appearance to the world are encouraged. The next step is nutrition. Good nutrition is essential for addiction recovery. A good life-skills training program teaches recovering addicts how to shop, cook, and eat basic, nutritious foods.
As an adjunct to this training, the basics of budgeting money need to be learned. In order to achieve a stable, independent home life that can support them in sobriety, recovering addicts need to be able to secure stable employment and financial independence. For many recovering addicts, these are longer-term goals that should be shelved until the addict learns other life skills.
Many addicts struggle to control their emotions. They feel the same emotions as others, but they don’t know how to deal with them. When an addict experiences strong emotions, they reach for drugs and alcohol to suppress the emotions instead of controlling and dealing with them. Learning emotional self-control is essential in order to keep the recovering addict from relapsing.
The most important set of life skills for a recovering addict is how to deal with stress without drugs or alcohol. Stress is the number one trigger for recovering addicts to relapse. Unless an addict can learn how to cope with stress in a healthy way, long-term sobriety is unobtainable.
Many non-addicts also struggle with coping with stress in a healthy way. Non-addicts may not reach for drugs to deal with stress, but they often use unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as overeating or blowing the budget on a shopping trip, to deal with stressful situations. Learning that stress is a frequent part of life, and learning healthy ways to cope are useful skills for anyone. These skills are absolutely essential for addicts to keep from relapsing.
Some of the skills taught to recovering addicts about how to cope with stress include realizing that stressful feelings are normal, recognizing them as a possible dangerous trigger of relapse, and then healthy coping skills to relieve the feelings. Healthy coping mechanisms include exercise, yoga, meditation, listening to music, talking to a friend. Most recovering addicts are also given some kind of emergency help line to call if all else fails and they know they are about to relapse.
Many addicts have dysfunctional social networks. Strained interpersonal relationships are sources of stress and can trigger relapse. Recovering addicts need to be taught about communication, how to engage in conversations with others, how to develop real relationships based on mutual respect and honesty, and even more importantly, how to set boundaries with others and how to say no.
A final life skill that recovering addicts need is to learn how to enjoy social events without drugs or alcohol. Many recovering addicts have never attended a fun social event while sober before, and learning how to do so is another step in the path towards sobriety.