After I got out of Brighton, my first stint at an in-patient rehab facility, they were still there. After 30 days the cravings, my desire to consume intoxicating substances, had not waned one iota. To quote the great Marshall Mathers, “I planned to relapse the second I walked out of that bitch. Two weeks in Brighton (a month in my case), I ain’t enlightened.” And basically I did just that, getting stoned with regularity at the ¾ House where I resided until my eventual removal from the premises. Cravings might be the single greatest obstacle facing a person in recovery for the simple fact that they seemingly last forever. This post is meant to address three questions: how long can you expect them to last, how to best prepare yourself to not fall into their trap, and how to expedite their duration.
There’s no clear answer to the question how long cravings last. Most literature on the topic asserts that they decrease significantly after the first one or two weeks. This wasn’t the case for me. Sure, it took a week or two for the first round of withdrawal symptoms to subside. After two weeks you no longer feel as though you’ve been hit by a train, your exorcism-like habitual vomiting subsides, and you regain control of your bowels; but- for me at least- the cravings were still there. In my opinion cravings come in three phases: physical, mental, and emotional.
Like I mentioned the first phase, physical cravings, usually lasts no more than two weeks. Physical cravings are inevitable, they last a consistent amount of time for everyone and (short of blood doping) there’s no way to accelerate the misery they bring. The second and third stages are more complicated because they are psychological rather than physical. They’re one of the many facets to post-acute-withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). In my experience PAWS were very real, lasting about one year. Experiencing PAWS feels like prolonged depression. It’s periods of emotional paralysis with intermittent overwhelming, almost unbearable, rushes of emotions.
The second phase, mental cravings, seemingly come out of nowhere. One minute you could be watching your nieces basketball game then WHAM your mind begins to employ all sorts of ass backwards rationalization techniques to justify, “just one more time.” Perhaps you begin to sweat, starting to pace frantically around the court. In the Brighton story I mentioned this, mental cravings, is where I got tripped up. Now, the damnedest thing happened following my third tour in rehab- the one that so graciously led to me cleaning up- the mental cravings weren’t there. So while my brother grabbed a beer on the plane ride home from the Watershed these mental cravings just weren’t there for me. So what was the “cure” to mental cravings? Allow me to speculate. Mental cravings are curbed through acceptance. What made this period of rehabilitation different from previous efforts was that I had already accepted a lack of control prior to even entering the facility. My shift in acceptance had occurred three months earlier while laying in a hospital bed when I came to the realization that, try as I might, I just couldn’t seem to implement a successful suicide. It’s kind of funny now but accepting the fact that I was doomed to a life of misery on this sufferable rock called Earth marked the greatest shift in my life. My advice to you is if you desire to end mental cravings learn acceptance.
Much like mental cravings the third phase, emotional cravings, can show up at the most inopportune times. These are the little buggers that creep up on me from time to time. I hypothesize emotional cravings are brought on subconsciously in times of emotional stress. Frequently they are brought on by triggers and anything, particularly in early sobriety, can be a trigger. Why might that be and what’s the response to combat them? To answer that we must get to the root of the question behind why people become addicted to drugs. At first glance this question might seem overly broad, I know for me that I thought I used for a multitude of reasons: to celebrate, handle loss, unwind, amp up, and pretty much any other other reason I could justify. In short, if the day ended in “Y” it was good justification to use, but if you weed through all that BS there’s a rather simple reason behind why I used with such feverish regularity: it had become a coping mechanism. To paraphrase the saying, “Monkey see, monkey do” monkey experience adverse external stimuli, monkey consume dope for twelve years straight. Emotional cravings reappear because we’ve developed a conditioned response in deal with external stressors our lives encounter in the form of a pill, drink, smoke, line, or shot. With this in mind, answering the question how do we plan a counterattack against emotional cravings might seem obvious. We develop new, healthy coping skills.
Have you ever wondered why some people seem relatively unbothered by cravings while others deal with them for years? It’s likely because those users had developed acceptance and healthy coping techniques predating their drug use. It was why the mental cravings were not present for me following my third trip to rehab. Taking this rationale a step further I believe this is the reason why some people don’t seem to ever cross that invisible line between recreational drug user and chemically dependent drug addict. While some people (myself included) are seemingly addicts even before illicit substances are a part of the equation. Speculation aside, the hard truth is this: the urge to use never really goes away completely. There’s still days when sweet siren song of a Fentanyl patch calls my name, but here’s the good news. They don’t hang around at all times and when they do occur these moments are fleeting. There you have it, my take on cravings and my best practice approach as to how to handle them. My opinion is that cravings occur in three stages physical, mental, and emotional. The first round, physical cravings, are inevitable. The second and third phases, mental and emotional cravings, can be muffled using the above listed techniques. Below are a list of tips when it comes to battling cravings.
Tips to Battle Craving
Recognize triggers: You only know what you know, and you can’t work towards addressing a problem if you don’t see it coming! Triggers lead to cravings, I’ve gone as far as keeping a cravings journal because it helped to increase my awareness of what triggered them. Be cognizant of what triggers you and work to steer clear of those things.
When a craving pops up: Even when you do your best to avoid triggers there will always be cravings that pop up from time to time. Here’s a step by step process of what to do in these situations. Craving arises → Uncomfortable, uneasiness set it → Recognize it → Resist, but don’t fight it → Allow the craving to be present → Relax your body → Recognize your body relaxing → The craving passes.
Here’s an example: To this day when I see someone with a pill bottle I have an immediate urge to know what it is. When someone sets a pill bottle down on the table an instinctive discomfort comes over me. Upon recognizing this I implement a resistance technique. I make a physical change, for me I’ll either yell “STOP” or say it authoritatively to myself when yelling out loud would seem inappropriate. No stress or internal dilemma takes place, I don’t initiate the lost battle of trying to rationalize with myself, I simply say stop and allow the feeling to be present a moment. After some time implement a relaxation technique, for me five slow deep breathes in through the nose and out through the mouth. Take a second to recognize how good it feels to be relaxed then “BOOM” the craving dissipates.
Talk with someone: I highly encourage seeing a therapist but you don’t have to pay someone to share about how you’re feeling. Rallying behind your support network can be a major benefit.
Stay Busy: Listening to music, hitting the gym, writing a journal, or going to a 12 Step meeting are all fantastic ways to push cravings out of your mind. Take the time to figure out what you enjoy, try a variety of different things, and fill your schedule so there isn’t time for cravings.