Piecing life back together after active addiction isn’t as simple as putting down drugs and alcohol. Sometimes the reconstruction process takes a few months but, for most of us, it takes years. It’s unreasonable to expect that the things we destroy over a long period of time are going to be restored overnight. It can be tough for newly clean and sober individuals to fathom that recovery is a process rather than a cure. The addict mind wants a quick fix – both literally and figuratively speaking. Our brains are wired to feel better, and feeling better often means running on auto-pilot toward the acquisition of “more”.
One of the biggest obstacles we face in early recovery is the financial devastation created by compulsive drug and alcohol use. When substances are the priority, everything else falls by the wayside. Sobriety might feel good mentally and physically, but when the reality of debt comes crashing down, it can take the wind right out of our sails. Recovery may start to look unappealing: “If I got clean and sober for this, why bother? If life is this hard, I don’t want any part of it”.
It’s not easy to face up to the many ways we have skirted our financial responsibilities in active addiction. To add insult to injury, we live in a society where the ultimate aim is to “keep up with the Joneses”. Appearance is everything…and the cultural norm is to carry massive amounts of debt in the pursuit of the perfect facade. The Joneses adage is familiar to recovering alcoholics and addicts. In active addiction, appearance is everything. When we look good, no one can tell when anything is wrong.
The “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality is a double edged sword. Not only does it encourage the compulsive pursuit of “more”, it also promotes the idea that one’s external appearance should reflect an unrealistic ideal. Instead of “keeping up with the Joneses,” it might be a better idea to turn tail and stride determinedly away.
Perception is Everything
Financial redemption isn’t unlike recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Recovery requires a rewiring of the brain, which entails a perception change. This mental shift is achieved by taking action steps like attending recovery meetings, seeing a therapist, and engaging in other self-improvement exercises. Financial redemption also requires a perception change. In order to make an adjustment to one’s thinking, one can take action steps such as reading personal finance blogs, seeking credit counseling, or meeting with a financial advisor. These steps will demonstrate that relief is possible.
Breaking free from the crushing weight of debt and impoverishment isn’t the only objective. It’s also valuable to consider the significance of money in relation to happiness. Studies show that money doesn’t equal happiness. While having enough money is correlated with personal happiness to the degree that one’s needs are comfortably met, visitors to so-called “third world countries” sometimes return to their “first world” homes feeling baffled by the contentment of people living in poverty-stricken conditions. This contentment may come down to attitude. Developed countries live in a constant state of “craving”; their citizens want bigger homes, newer cars, and the latest iPhone. The Refuge Recovery program, which is a Buddhist model, posits that “craving” is a prime source of suffering. In less developed countries, where a consumeristic culture is a distant concept, the craving for material goods may not be as prevalent.
There is nothing wrong with desiring financial success. In fact, this aspiration is a normal part of the overall recovery process. However, it is important to abandon the notion that money is a suitable replacement for drugs and alcohol. Shopping and gambling addictions emphasize the gravity of misguided financial attitudes. Money is a tool for living…not an aim.
What About Bankruptcy?
One of the most commonly asked questions in our money-centric life skills group is about bankruptcy. Sometimes the damage incurred in active addiction can appear insurmountable. Depending on your circumstances, the situation may, in fact, be impossible to repair. Declaring bankruptcy is a personal decision and nobody has the right to make that decision for you. However, bankruptcy can appeal to the “quick fix” nature of individuals in early recovery. It is very important to consider all the implications before filing. Bankruptcy follows you for at least seven years. While it is possible to clear medical debt, student loan debt is very rarely discharged. Bankruptcy attorneys and financial advisors are invaluable resources – they can assess whether or not bankruptcy is a reasonable option or if there are other alternatives that could solve the problem without having such a dramatic impact on your credit score.
Many recovery programs have an “amends” element, which means that a recovering individual takes the time to make amends to people and institutions he or she has harmed. A bank or creditor is an institution. Borrowing money and not paying it back is stealing. By this logic, an amends is owed to the institution. The amends making process looks different for everyone, but it can be very healing; you not only have the satisfaction of taking responsibility and making things right, but you also have the ability to viscerally experience the financial consequences of compulsive substance use and/or credit card swiping. The hardship of repaying debt can create a sense of gratitude for the things you have and renew commitment to a substance free life.
Bankruptcy is an understandable necessity in extreme cases but, on the other hand, it is not an excuse to skirt responsibility or return to flawed spending habits.
Getting Back on Your Feet
It is impossible to condense a crash course in personal finance into a few paragraphs. Therefore, the merit of a financial advisor or credit counselor cannot be emphasized enough. If finding a job is a challenge, many communities have resource centers which offer free assistance with career development and resume writing. A Google search will also yield hundreds of free articles and blogs on employment and finance.
If you don’t have concrete goals to motivate you, it will be difficult to create lasting change. Write your goals down and share them. Make a vision board depicting the life you’re striving toward and hang it somewhere you can see it. Talking about your goals keeps you accountable and internally reinforces their significance.
Before you can take baby steps in a new direction, you have to have a realistic sense of your monetary resources. It’s essential to know exactly how much income you’re grossing and to implement an ironclad budget. Tracking your spending is a must. You’ll be surprised by how much the little expenses add up. If you spend $20 a week on coffee or eating out with coworkers, it compounds into a whopping $1,040 a year. That chunk of change could make a huge difference when applied to debt.
Paying off debt and achieving financial stability doesn’t mean you have to turn to extreme couponing or craft homemade toilet paper from tree bark. It’s an exercise in creativity. How can you replace luxury expenditures with something free? If there are no luxury expenditures, how can you increase your income stream? Do you have any hobbies you can turn into a side hustle? How can you apply the same manipulative ingenuity you once employed to attain substances to the pursuit of financial stability and independence?
Each person’s situation is different – therefore each person’s goals will be unique and varied. Some people may be tens of thousands of dollars in debt, while others may simply want to stop living from paycheck to paycheck. For still others, it may be a combination of both hardships. Whatever the case, individuals recovering from substance misuse or compulsive behaviors must build a solid foundation in addiction recovery before longterm financial recovery will be possible. If you are not committed to looking inward – i.e. the process of personal growth and bettering yourself – you won’t see the value in aspiring to anything more than your current situation. You will be content to settle for less. You won’t consider goals and aspirations beyond getting the next fix. With the rare exception of lottery winners, financial recovery is never delivered on a silver platter. If you are abstinent for a short time, material items will naturally begin to return. However, these gains are unlikely to be progressive and permanent without consistent work. Part of getting clean and sober is chasing recovery as hard as you once sought drugs, alcohol, or other addictive processes. The same can be said of financial recovery. One must pursue financial health with the same zeal. As you evolve as a person, so too do your financial prospects.
Autumn Khavari is The Process Recovery Center’s web content writer. She received an education in Substance Abuse Counseling from Beal College in Bangor, Maine.