Gil has been sober for two months. This should be something to celebrate, but he feels angry 95 percent of the time. What’s going on? Shouldn’t he be happier now?
Sabrina thought her husband would be more pleasant to be around if he got sober. But these first few weeks of sobriety have been a new test on their marriage. Anger seems to be simmering below the surface every day. Is this the new Nathan? Will he always be angry?
Let’s Get Brutally Honest
First the bad news: Yes, anger is common in recovery, especially in the early stages. If anyone tells you recovery is all rainbows and sunshine, they’re blowing proverbial smoke up your rear.
So, what’s the good news? Anger is common in recovery, especially in the early stages. Why is the bad news also good news? Well, it means you’re not alone. If you’re experiencing a lot of anger as you start out on the recovery path, be comforted by the fact that it’s absolutely, positively normal. It also typically gets easier and lessens with each step down that path.
What’s the Problem?
The question is: Why is anger so common in recovery? Well, it actually crops up for a lot of reasons.
Here’s a look at some of the most common causes of anger:
- No More Novocaine
When we abuse drugs and alcohol, it’s usually to “numb” ourselves. We want to numb the pain. We want to forget. We want to escape. Instead of learning to cope in healthy ways, we turned to mind-altering substances. With this in mind, it makes sense that, when we stop using, our raw emotions are exposed. Our anger flares up unchecked. We have to go through the process of experiencing this emotion and learning to deal with it in other ways.
- But I Want It Now!
Just like the Snickers commercial says, we can get a little cranky when we’re hungry. And just like the toddlers who throw tantrums when they don’t get the candy they want, we often do the same in early recovery. After all, it may be the first time we deny ourselves the “candy” that we’ve become addicted to. The cravings and irritability that follow often manifest as anger or rage. Adjusting to these new sober restrictions takes some…adjusting.
- Wine and Rose Colored Glasses
In the throes of cravings and experiencing newly exposed emotions, it’s easy to start looking at the past through rose colored glasses. We forget the misery and somehow remember (albeit falsely) that things used to be better when we were using. Common rose-colored thinking might include the following: I used to be able to go to the bar and have a drink; now I can’t. Instead, I have to follow all these stupid rules. The focus isn’t on a better life without drugs and alcohol; the focus is on how much we miss the past. It’s the kind of thinking that leaves us resentful and angry. If we were wearing different glasses, however, we’d easily see our past was far from pretty.
- If I Have to…
Often, the stages of early recovery aren’t reached voluntarily. Court orders, employer-mandated treatment and interventions staged by loved ones create scenarios of forced sobriety. It’s not surprising to experience anger and frustration in these unique settings. The hope is that the initial reaction will eventually turn into a sense of peace – and even gratitude – as we get farther along in recovery.
- Emotional Roller Coaster
It would be hard to name an emotion that doesn’t find its way into recovery. As we experience this churning sea of emotions, anger is the one that’s most often used to mask other feelings. Let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to feel angry than it is to feel guilty, hurt or afraid. In early recovery, all those bursts of anger may simply be our way of expressing other (more painful) emotions.
Ready to Leave the Anger Behind?
If you’re experiencing anger during early recovery, it’s important to know that you can – and will – move past this stage and into a much more peaceful one. In many cases, time may be the simple factor that makes a difference. For others, coping strategies are the key to dealing with lingering feelings of anger.
Here’s a few trusted coping strategies to decompress:
- Get out in nature
- Talk to a trusted friend
- Seek counseling to figure out why you’re angry
- Get to the root cause of addiction
- Identify triggers and don’t pull them (thought patterns, activities, places)
- Exercise regularly
- Count to 10 (Don’t roll your eyes; this really works!)
Additional Reading: 7 Ways Life Gets Better When You Give Up Booze
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