Recovery with a Medical Condition: How to Stay Sober

Recovery from addiction has many threats to maintaining lifelong or long-term abstinence. Life will throw curve balls to the strongest of recovery programs and individuals who practice them.

Some recovering addicts begin their journey because they became addicted to medications they were taking for a medical condition. They began to abuse their medication(s) and/or became addicted, even though the medication(s) were prescribed for a condition that existed for them at the time. Because of this, some recovering addicts will need to maintain a medication regimen for life. Others may require short-term or situational medication while they recover from a medical condition that requires the medicine.

These are challenging situations. That’s why many addicts return to active addiction during the treatment of a medical problem and the use of pain medication or other mind-altering medications.

Your Own Best Doctor

Doctors are often too quick to misunderstand the need for not taking medications that are habit-forming and/or mood-altering. It is important for recovering addicts to have a strong understanding of their susceptibility to becoming dependent on medication that is prescribed to them. Be proactive in talking with your doctor, dentist or other healthcare provider. They probably do not understand the need for non-addictive substances to treat your condition. It is your job to protect your recovery.

However, if you are in pain, these medications may be the appropriate treatment to be used for the short-term. No one should have to “bite the bullet” to stay off medication. Recovery does not mean that you have to “tough it out” without appropriate medication. Medications are designed to help specific conditions. When those conditions exist, use of medication can be appropriate and very important.

Short-Term Medication Use

Many times dental work, back injuries, surgical procedures and other situations require medications to recover from the situation. Addicts in recovery have many avenues to walk through during these times.

  • Make sure the prescription has specific times and amounts to be taken. Do not allow your physician to write broad instructions, such as “as needed” for the medication. This can lead too easily lead to abuse of the medication.
  • Have a family member or friend hold the medication and dispense it to you only as prescribed. Remember, once you take a pain pill, you are under the influence and may not be able to make optimal decisions about the need for more or less medication. Let someone else decide this for you fairly.
  • When the pain can be managed with aspirin, Tylenol or Ibuprofen, switch off from the prescribed pain medication. (It is widely known that these are much more effective in pain such as headaches, dental pain and muscle aches than pain medications.)
  • If possible, after surgery, ask that you be taken off medications before leaving the hospital. With the numbers of people in recovery, this is not an unusual request and is frequently met with cooperation of the medical staff.
  • Be sure to appropriately dispose of the medication when you are finished taking it. Do not save it for another purpose…that is drug abuse! And do not flush it down the toilet–that contaminates the water for all of us!

Long-Term Medication Use

Many recovering addicts have chronic medical conditions that may require medication to overcome or live with. Others can be treated without medication in many instances. Doctors may prescribe medications that are addictive, but necessary to sustain life in the most comfortable way possible. Be sure to discuss the properties of the drugs they are prescribing, along with alternative treatments that may be available. Options exist for nearly all conditions and medications used for those conditions.

If you are taking medication to offset a condition that requires it, stay away from the opinions of those who are judging that as “using” behavior. Be clear, within your own heart and mind, and be informed about your condition as well as options relating to the issue. Speak with a sponsor or trusted friends and family members who truly understand your situation and what recovery is about. If you have determined this is the best course for you, be sure that you follow the instructions that your doctor has recommended. This is being responsible for the drugs you are taking, as well as your health issue.

Be Smart

This is not a topic for 12-step meetings or support groups. This is a personal issue and does not need to be discussed in general gatherings because you will be subjected to the opinions of people who are afraid of your relapse; most of whom are not doctors or informed about why you have chosen this path. Keep your personal choices personal.

When taking the medication, be sure to stay within the guidelines of the medication. Take it only as prescribed. Most addicts relapse when they either take more or less than advised. If you find you need to have your medication altered, tell your doctor so that you are not making medication and medical decisions on your own.

Frequently prescribed medications can be those for a pain condition or a problem with anxiety, depression or to assist with sleep. Most of these conditions can be treated without narcotic or habit-forming drugs on the short-term. Behavioral counseling and modification is often a good alternative to sleep disorders or other anxiety disorders. Pain can often be treated without prescribed medications and can have alternatives that work equally well. Depression can be treated most often without addictive medications. Be sure to talk with your doctor about alternatives to prescription medications.

What to Do if Relapse Occurs

If you begin to abuse your medication, you have relapsed. Even when the medication is something other than your previously abused substances, this is not at all unusual. Sometimes cocaine or alcohol addicts find that pain medication is a whole new world of trouble for them. Most addicts will be susceptible to addiction to Benzodiazepine medication, which is frequently used for sleep disorders and anxiety treatment.

If you begin to abuse medication that is prescribed for a condition that is ongoing, ask your doctor for help in finding a replacement medication or substitute that will not be equally addictive for you. Then begin to get off the problematic medication with your doctors’ supervision. This may require hospitalization or formal detoxification. Follow the doctor’s instructions to get off the medication and become treated with the new regimen.

Get back into recovery as quickly as possible. Give yourself the opportunity to reestablish stronger tools to remain abstinent and let go of judgments about your situation. Many people have this experience, so do not beat yourself up for this. Because so many have this trouble, you will find understanding and compassion in the recovery community you belong to. Remain open and honest about how your relapse took place and be willing to follow simple directions to regain abstinence.

Kelly McClanahan has an MSW/ASW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 25 years, she has a CATC-IV credential. She is also a lecturer and workshop provider for meditation, mindfulness and issues arising in long-term recovery. Kelly is currently writing a book about the spiritual principles in 12-Step recovery.


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