Addiction: How to Survive the Urge to Use

Addiction: How to Survive the Urge to Use

“One day at a time.”

Even if you don’t attend a 12-step group, I bet you’ve heard that saying plenty of times.

And it’s true. If you think about it, tomorrow never comes. In the world of physics, it’s impossible. It is always today. “Tomorrow” is really just a concept. Every morning you wake up, it’s today, right? You can’t wake up and it’s somehow yesterday (unless you’re Bill Murray in the classic movie Groundhog Day). It’s always today.

So we really have little choice. One day at a time it is, and that day is today.


I’ve had my share of cravings over the last 30 years, and I haven’t always won. But I’ve learned a lot.

Sometimes my cravings for a drink or a pill seem to come out of nowhere, just a throwaway thought. Sometimes it comes back. Other times, I can feel myself getting more and more stressed and overwhelmed and find myself obsessing about using. Those are the worst times, because I feel compelled to do it, like I no longer have a choice.

I think the antidote to this vulnerability is to try and be present as much as you can.

You know how you hop in the car sometimes and the next thing you know, you’re at work? But you don’t really recall getting there? Automatic pilot took over (thank God) while you were busy thinking, talking, texting (ahem), playing with the radio, rehearsing a conversation, looking for your lanyard, whatever.

It’s through sheer repetition, paying attention *just* enough, and maybe a little luck that you make it alive on those days.

In my experience, paying actual attention to what I’m doing helps. Plus, it’s safer – especially when you’re driving or walking through a scary neighborhood (including your mind).

When I feel overwhelmed, stressed, or panicked – often precursors to using – the best thing for me to do is distract myself: Get involved in a project I’ve been neglecting, do something creative, get into the book I’ve been reading, even surf the internet.

The point is that I need to pay strict attention to what I’m doing. That way, I’m thinking about the project, or what I’m writing, or the book I’m reading, or watching cat videos on the web.

I’m not focusing on drinking or using (or being depressed/anxious/angry/scared).

In fact, each time I’m able to do something consciously like that, I’m re-training my brain to be more flexible and building roads to other (positive) habits. That’s called plasticity. I wrote a little bit about that here.


You betcha it can!

But you do your best, right? Sometimes it’s an hour at a time, or 5 minutes at a time. Or one breath at a time.

(Side note: I read a great book by that title, One Breath at a Time, by Kevin Griffin a few years ago. He’s a Buddhist meditation teacher who takes us on a journey through the 12 steps of recovery, using Buddhist principles. I found it very interesting, as he weaves his personal story into it also. It was the first time I read something that explained meditation in a way I could comprehend. I highly recommend it.)

You may be asking yourself, “But how do I distract myself? I don’t feel like doing anything but going out and getting wasted.”

Well, it’s easier (and harder) than you think. You need to fight the urge or thought and do the opposite. Don’t worry; it gets easier as you practice, I promise.

In fact, one way to distract yourself is to make a list of ways to distract yourself! Granted, it can be exhausting and frustrating to have to keep finding little things to do so you stay out of trouble. I’ve been there, especially when I’m depressed.

But it does work. For instance, if I busy myself in a coloring book, I’m focused on that. And especially since I’m such a perfectionist, it does require concentration. (Once, when I was in an OT group in a psych unit, the psych tech challenged me to color outside the lines. Can you imagine?? I couldn’t do it.)

Or if I’m working on a puzzle, that might keep me busy for half an hour or more. That’s 30-60 minutes where I’m okay with myself and the world and doing something fun, positive, and productive, rather than being preoccupied with my emotions and fighting with my brain. Life is “normal-ish” during that time.

Of course, if you attend 12-step or other support group meetings, you could go to one of those during this difficult time and get lots of support – or call someone who “gets it”.

Life is made up of years, months, weeks, days, minutes, seconds. Focus on the second you have right now and do something with it.

“Even if you don’t know how to make it better, at least don’t make it worse.”

That’s a quote from an OT leader that no one liked much because she seemed irritable and grumpy all the time. But after she said that, a few of us softened up to her (because we could relate) and, in turn, she softened up to us. Quite a bit, actually. 🙂


Here are a bunch of things I do (or *could* do) to be in the moment while an urge passes or an anxiety attack calms down:

Short-term activities:

  • color
  • take a shower
  • hop on social media (of course, that could be long-term, too!)
  • text a friend
  • call your mom, dad, or another loved one
  • call a friend and ask if there’s anything they need help with
  • go to a support group meeting (They have online meetings now, too. I’ve only tried one, and I found it awkward, but that was a few years ago. Maybe I’ll try again. Here’s a link if you’re interested.)
  • go for a walk
  • exercise, even for just 5 minutes
  • do yoga or stretching exercises
  • write a letter to your addiction or your emotional state
  • bake
  • go for a jog or bike or swim
  • write in a journal

Longer-term activities:

  • work on a project you’ve been wanting to start
  • create a website for free at
  • or start your own blog – free – at WordPress or blogger
  • do a puzzle
  • clean one corner of a room (or more)
  • run to the store and buy ingredients for dinner – and then actually cook it!
  • do laundry (I know, I know)
  • join a sports team or a bowling league

And that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head! Play around with these lists, make your own, share it with a loved one who won’t judge you. Do whatever it takes to make it work for you.

It’s even better if you can do these things (or other pleasant activities) on a regular basis, no matter your state of mind. The more you do them (aka: practice), the more it becomes a habit to turn to these positive activities rather than acting on your impulses.


The main thing is to get through the urge or craving or string of negative thoughts. By distracting yourself and being conscious of what you’re doing, you don’t have to suffer and white-knuckle it. When you’re in the moment, your thoughts and actions are narrowly focused on the task at hand. It’s comforting.

I was *just* reading a blog post a few minutes ago (I can’t write a whole blog post in one sitting, so I take short breaks) that nails it on the head.

Jennifer Louden, inspirational, courageous writer, ( writes:

“The truest practice I know is to welcome what is happening without wishing it to be different than it is and to do so with great tenderness and self-compassion.”

Wouldn’t that be nice? Aside from the tenderness and self-compassion, which are deep topics in their own right, I think that accepting what is going on at this very moment is the way to go. No, it’s not easy, and yes, you have to do it about a thousand times a day.

And no, I don’t practice it enough myself. It requires commitment and willingness, which I have been lacking recently. But I’m working on it.

By making it through each moment with intention, whether it be a tough one or a serene one, you build the muscle of mindfulness, of being present. That will help you appreciate the positive moments more and it will help you realize that you can get through those tough times without using or otherwise damaging yourself.

It just takes practice, like most things in life.

Okay, I’m off to go practice what I preach.

Keep it Real, Warriors!


image credit: Quickmeme

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