How nostalgia can hurt your recovery

Recovery stories

The other day I was snuggled on my couch, attending a Zoom AA meeting (thanks to Covid-19!).

I personally knew most of the people lined up in the little boxes on my screen, and because of the laid-back manner of this particular meeting, the talk became a little chatty.

One member chatted about a funny story from her past – the day she hid bottles in the crawlspace of her house just to come eye-to-eye with a raccoon. 

Most of us couldn’t help but laugh because we have all been there (Well, not the raccoon part, but the hiding bottles in random spots).

Then, out of the blue, one member said, “I miss those days.”

It stunned me, and I barely heard anything else in the meeting. I was worried about her because I knew exactly what she meant: Those days weren’t all that bad.

I, too, have idealized my addictions to the point where I decided I needed to give alcohol another chance –which led to a year and a half more misery in active addiction.

We all have memories of life before recovery, and most of the time, these memories are ones that make us cringe.

I mean, who wants to remember the destruction, the pain, the hell that we lived through?

It’s important to remember this pain at times, as it is a powerful reminder of why we are sober today and how we don’t want to go back there.

However, over time these bad memories may fade. We are happy with our new lives, and when we look at our past, we experience nostalgia.

The good parts totally overshadow the bad parts to the point that we forget about the deadly reality of our addiction.

What is Nostalgia?

Nostalgia is an emotion defined as wistful or excessively sentimental, sometimes abnormal yearning for a return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.

Nostalgia occurs when we idealize or romanticize the past: we minimize the bad, magnify the good, and lose sight that the bad was really bad!

What Causes Nostalgia?

There are many reasons why those of us in Recovery can become nostalgic about the past:

  • We want to dwell on the positives because it makes the negatives seem less painful.
  • We experience triggers that take us back to the past, for example, old friends or an old song.
  • We may miss friends we used to drink or use with.
  • We may reminisce about a favorite bar or place where we used to hang out.
  • We form our identity based on our past to try to make sense of it.
  • We bond with others by talking about the past.
  • If we are fearful about the present or future, we may look to the past to feel safe.
  • If we are dissatisfied with our current life, we may look to the past for comfort.

We can experience any or several of these causes for nostalgia.

Nostalgia by itself isn’t necessarily negative, but when we focus too much on the past and romanticize it to be something it was not, it can be dangerous for our recovery.

Nostalgia and Recovery Don’t Mix Well

Nostalgia can be dangerous for those recovering from an addiction.

When in recovery, we are taught to focus on the present. This is foreign to many of us, but we try to live in the moments, day-by-day.

However, now that we have worked through a lot of that pain, our lives generally get better!

When we remember the “old days,” the pain from our addictions is often overshadowed by the fun we had, the so-called comfort we felt from our drug of choice, and soon, we romanticize our pasts.  

We think things like that, “It wasn’t so bad” or “Maybe I didn’t give that drink or drug a fair shot.”

Around 40-60% of people relapse, and often people have feelings of nostalgia beforehand. As we know, relapse begins long before we ever take a drink or drug.

Relapse begins in our minds and can start with a seemingly innocent thought. These thoughts are dangerous and should be combated with the truth right away.

How to Combat Nostalgia in Recovery

The first thing you should do is reach out.

Recovery is a “We” process, and no one has to recover alone!  

When you think that you should give your addiction another chance because it wasn’t that bad, you’re not thinking clearly. You’re not thinking about the facts.

Call someone else, whether it’s your sponsor, your support friends, or your family members.  Ask them to remind you of what you were like in your addiction.

Tell them what you’re thinking. Listen to what they say.

Then, remind yourself of the negative consequences if you drink or drug again. Make a list and include physical symptoms, mental effects, and emotional effects. Be as honest as you can. Add to your list when you think of something else. Read and re-read your list.

Practice mindfulness and stay in the present. You are living a new life and creating new memories.

Ask yourself, what can I do now that I couldn’t do while I was in active addiction?

For example, you could work on a degree you have always wanted, you could learn to play an instrument, you could spend quality time with your family and friends. The options are truly endless.

Ask for Help and Receive It

Asking for help can be hard, especially these days when many of us are at home due to Covid-19.

However, support for Recovery is essential. There’s no way around it; you can’t do it alone.

If you are feeling uneasy about past memories, ask for help immediately.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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