Some of the most gratifying moments in life are the result of persistence through hardship and struggles. Sometimes, the things we desire don’t come easy, but that’s why achieving these goals can be so rewarding. For drug and alcohol abusers, abstinence is a big step and, like many other moments of triumph, absolute sobriety doesn’t happen without a lot of effort.
For long-term drug and alcohol abusers, choosing a healthier lifestyle isn’t as simple as ordering a salad instead of a Big-Mac. There are real consequences that need to be managed. The addicted brain doesn’t work the same way as a sober one, as it’s learned to adapt to the chemical changes introduced by drugs or alcohol. Because of this, abrupt discontinuation of substance use can confuse the brain and bring about some undesirable symptoms. We call this process withdrawal.
Withdrawal is the brain’s reaction to the absence of the chemicals from drugs or alcohol that it has learned to depend on. When those chemicals are no longer present, normal bodily function is disrupted as the brain struggles to understand what is happening. Symptoms of withdrawal are extremely uncomfortable and, sometimes, dangerous. Too often, the onset of withdrawal symptoms can be enough to make an addict question their commitment to sobriety, which is why it’s important to know what to expect during the withdrawal period.
Detox is the process of cleansing the body of the harmful remnants of drug or alcohol use. During this period of time, the body is working hard to stabilize and regain its functionality without the assistance of the foreign substance. Everyone experiences detox differently, and not every substance produces the same symptoms of withdrawal. Generally, withdrawal will produce symptoms such as:
- Profuse Sweating
- Nausea and Vomiting
- Anxiety or Panic
While many symptoms can be managed at home, without clinical assistance, alcohol, methamphetamine, crack or cocaine, and opioids may be better managed through supervised medical detox. In fact, it is highly recommended to consider professional medical detox when planning any recovery. Consult a doctor as soon as possible to understand how to safely manage withdrawal symptoms specific to your circumstances.
Supervised medical detox is conducted in treatment facilities that are designed to monitor patients throughout the detox period and ensure a safe environment to manage the extreme discomforts of withdrawal. As detox is the vital first step of any recovery program, seeing that it is completed thoroughly and safely is critical to the success of the entire treatment process.
While professional medical detox is advised, some may still choose to manage their symptoms at home. The detoxification process is unpredictable and can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks, which is why it should be planned in advance and should not be decided on a whim. There are a few things to consider while planning this attempt without medical supervision.
Choose a safety partner. If you choose to attempt home detox, it’s best not to go through it alone. Making sure a close friend or family member is available to check in periodically can be a valuable safety measure. This individual can act as a safety partner and should be familiar with your recovery plan so they are able to respond to emergencies accordingly.
Taper off, if possible. To reduce uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal, gradually tapering off drug use can be effective. While it may mean a longer detox process, this gives the brain time to process the changes in chemical levels and react with more manageable withdrawal symptoms. However, because of the nature of addiction, some find it difficult to self-regulate decreased dosages and this method can sometimes result in a full relapse.
Stay hydrated. Because withdrawal will likely induce diarrhea, vomiting, and profuse sweating, the body will easily dehydrate. Drinking plenty of hydrating fluids during the detox period will improve comfortability and can help avoid a trip to the ER. In addition to water, electrolyte fluids, such as Gatorade and Pedialyte, are the best solutions for replenishing fluids and maintaining hydration.
OTC management. Many symptoms of withdrawal can be managed through the use of over-the-counter medications. Some medications available at any Walmart or CVS include antidiarrheals, antihistamines, or motion-sickness medications for nausea and vomiting. Aches and pains can also be managed by using acetaminophen or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory. It’s always a good idea to consult a doctor prior to introducing these medications to your system, and medications should only be used as instructed.
Keep busy. No matter how well symptoms are managed, there is bound to be some level of discomfort and cravings. When discomfort and cravings intersect with boredom, there will be the possibility of relapse. When planning for detox, structuring or outlining the events and activities of the coming days can help take the mind off of symptoms and cravings. Doing enjoyable things or spending time with supportive friends or family members during this time can be helpful in keeping the mind occupied.
Know when to call a doctor. While it’s normal during this time to experience undesirable symptoms, it’s important to know which ones may be warning signs that the body is in distress. Rapid heart rate or breathing, symptoms of dehydration, or any unexpected symptoms may be indicators to contact a doctor or call 911 immediately. Even if you’re unsure, seeking professional medical assistance will ensure that nothing is left to chance.
Before recovery from drug or alcohol addiction can even begin, you must overcome the inevitable symptoms of withdrawal. This process will be experienced differently but to some degree by everyone. A combination of factors such as age, length and type of addiction, and pre-existing medical conditions make everyone’s withdrawal process different.
But, as with any achievement in life, persistence pays off in the end.