When beginning a recovery program, it is essential for people to commit to changing certain aspects of themselves. People who have never experienced addiction often think that this applies to superficial characteristics. For example, if people stop seeing friends that they used to do drugs or drink alcohol with, then this constitutes a major identity shift. If they start working out or take up a hobby, this, too, could mean that they have turned their backs on histories of substance abuse.
The reality of addiction is that giving up a life of problematic drug and alcohol use is difficult and requires a much more comprehensive identity shift than commonly thought. If people facing past instances of substance abuse attempt to retain some parts of their old selves, this may result in a series ofrelapses and risky behavior that never results in complete sobriety. Instead, undergoing an identity transformation can lay the groundwork for an enduring and stable recovery.
Explaining white-knuckle sobriety
Most people have a common image of people in recovery just out of addiction treatment. They may be sitting at home, absentmindedly watching television and performing some other task without giving their full attention. After giving up drugs or alcohol, these people have yet to create new lives for themselves, which means that the thinking and actions behind addiction still remain.
This is known as “white-knuckle sobriety” or “dry drunk syndrome.” While people may not be actively abusing substances, they have yet to remove themselves from a life in which those things are possible. Sitting at home all day creates the opportunity to call a dealer or go to the liquor store, and nothing but willpower stands between people and returning to a life of substance abuse.
The main issue with people who experience white-knuckle sobriety is that they still see themselves as those with substance abuse problems. This is a form of self-sabotage, where people are merely waiting for themselves to trip up and relapse.
The key to successful sobriety is to change people’s views of themselves. Addiction and Recovery magazine explained that, on average, people conform to what they expect of themselves. If a former cigarette smoker begins to think like a non-smoker, he or she is unlikely to purchase tobacco products because that is what a smoker would do.
However, there are various forms of identity transformation. A study conducted by researchers at Central Michigan University discovered three major types of identity transformations in people with histories of substance abuse. Learning the characteristics of each category may help people move themselves toward the ones more likely to result in long-term sobriety.
- Temporary conversion: This type of identity transformation is the least permanent and most often occurs during a period of intense regret over one’s actions. After a night of heavy drug or alcohol use, people might wish that they were different and could resist the hold of illicit substances. However, just as quickly as temporary conversion comes on, it fades away when people take another dose of their substance of choice.
- Alteration: As people continue to use drugs for an extended period of time, they may become different types of substance abusers. For example, a person who initially smoked marijuana a few days a week but graduated to more serious opiate or methamphetamine use changes his or her behaviors and expectations in response to the drug.
- Conversion: Similar to the first category, regret and willingness to change may become so overpowering that people commit themselves to a treatment program. Though conversion is not as instantaneous as it may seem, it functions as the start of an enduring and stable sobriety.