Addiction recovery is a time for major change: figuring out a new routine, learning to cope with life’s stress in healthy ways, and rebuilding relationships that may have been damaged. For many, it can be a lonely process. Some may not be able to return home to their families right away, others might have few sober friends to come home to at all. But a solid support system is an important aspect of staying clean; no one should have to go it alone.
But who says your support system has to be humans-only?
The Benefits Of A Companion Animal
Leaving treatment can be intimidating. One moment you’re in a controlled environment surrounded by people who genuinely understand you; the next, you’re right back in the real world where temptation and judgment are abound. Although many people can appreciate someone working to get their life back on track, not everyone will be compassionate.
Some may even need some time before they’re ready to initiate contact with you. And while your loved ones have a right to their feelings, it doesn’t make things any easier if you’re coming back with limited support.
One of the greatest qualities about pets is that they are completely non-judgmental. They know nothing about your past — your substance abuse, your mistakes, your fight for sobriety, nothing. To the animal you rescue, you have one major role: savior. The moment a pet realizes he is yours and you are his, you become instant partners without hesitation. He will be by your side the moment you need him, and always give you the benefit of the doubt. Because the truth is, even if he did know about your past, he wouldn’t care.
Animals have an amazing sense of compassion across species lines, and this is especially true when it comes to an owner who’s feeling a little low. Whether it’s perching on your shoulder or curling up on your lap, your companion will never hesitate to show you affection, especially when you’re down.
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Owning a pet can also be a big help in getting you back into a normal routine. It might be tempting to snooze the alarm to get a little extra sleep before work, but if you have a dog that needs to be walked, you’re obligated to get up and get your day started. And though you may resent having to get out of bed at the moment, pets have awesome ways of making your commitment to them worth the work with snuggles, tail wags, or simply the effort to be near you.
It’s a rewarding, productive way to wake up, and aligning the rest of your schedule with your pet has its benefits, as well. If you have the tendency to skip dinner, for example, get into the habit of feeding your pet before cooking. Your pet likely won’t let you forget, and it’s a simple transition from feeding him to preparing a quick plate for yourself.
Sense Of Purpose
Caring for a living creature also gives you an important sense of purpose. You might be feeling unfulfilled if you’re having trouble getting acclimated to work or aren’t connecting well with loved ones, but a pet gives you a reason to get up in the morning and something to look forward to at the end of the day. Your family may not depend on you the way they once did, but your companion genuinely needs you. He looks to you for his food, water, and shelter; he trusts you implicitly to care for his every need.
In return, you regain the self-confidence that you can not only care for yourself, but for another. It can demonstrate to others that you’re ready to take on responsibilities, which may even help when it comes to visiting your children.
Getting sufficient exercise is good advice for everyone, but it’s especially important when you’re in recovery. It’s a simple, healthy way to boost your body’s natural production of endorphins, and getting yourself into better physical shape can boost your self-esteem and overall mental well-being. It’s also a great way to burn off the frustrations of recovery, whether it’s a fruitless day of job searching, conflict with family, or cravings that feel like they’ll never subside.
A Companion Animal Will Keep You Active
Having an ever-ready exercise buddy in your pet can keep you motivated: just because you are willing to sacrifice your evening walk doesn’t mean your pet is, and he’ll keep you on your toes until he can burn off his energy. Opting for a smaller companion?
Maybe your bird enjoys the soothing music you listen to while doing yoga or your lizard likes to venture on his leash into the backyard. Incorporate your pet into your activities whenever it’s safe and permitted — they have a way of making exercise seem less like work and more like play, which means you’ll be a lot more likely to stay active!
A Companion Animal Can Help You Socialize
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges of sobriety is learning to socialize again. For some, substances were always a part of any social gathering prior to sobriety, and for others, it’s tough to open up and trust again; overcoming those challenges and accepting a new way of handling relationships takes time and practice.
Pets can ease the pressure by acting as an easy icebreaker. Going to the dog park and chatting with the owner of the pug your dog is playing with is low-pressure but engaging. The conversation will likely stay light, helping you ease back into positive communication without any expectations.
If someone turns down your initial interaction, choose to see it as practice for learning positive ways to cope with perceived rejection. There are a dozen potential reasons that the stranger acts aloof, but accepting that you can’t control the reactions of others is an important part of recovery — and it’s much easier to learn when it’s not a loved one. Besides, you’ll be heading home with your best friend before long, and tomorrow you can try again with a different neighbor.
Indoor pets can alleviate some social pressures, too, especially when you have company. The best friend you haven’t seen since treatment may not know exactly what to say to you at first, but meeting your new cat is a great way to ease into small chat. Does your bird know any tricks or songs he can perform? Does your rabbit like to explore every inch of the house when he’s out of the cage?
Having your pet as a buffer can keep things light enough to get the ball rolling with conversation, putting you and your loved one at ease. Not ready to have people over? Talking about your indoor pet is still an easy, interesting topic to engage someone in while grabbing a cup of coffee together or heading to a meeting.
Build Communication Skills
In addition to facilitating social situations, the act of owning and interacting with a pet can also help build those skills. You might not be ready to be completely open with your loved ones about your history and current sobriety status, so start by confiding in your pet. Try talking out a problem to him so that you’re more eloquent when you reach out to friends and family. Practice important conversations so you’re confident when they arise. For example:
- What would you say to your former dealer if he invited you to go party?
- What exactly do you want to say to the brother you haven’t spoken to in six years?
- How do you explain to your spouse that you never meant to hurt him or her?
The more you can think about and actually practice what you’ll say, the better you’ll be able to communicate and hopefully mend fences more effectively.
Leaning on your pet for emotional support isn’t just about becoming a better speaker, either. It’s therapeutic. He’ll always be ready to listen — night or day, holidays, weekends, whenever — and won’t offer his opinion.
He won’t look at you any differently no matter what you say. You can vent to him about a bad day at work or address an underlying issue that came out in your addiction counseling. You can even tell him a joke when you need a laugh. Whatever you need to talk about, your pet will always be there to listen and love.
Excellent And Healthy Distraction
Pets can also be an excellent distraction in recovery. Too much idle time can lead a person to dwell on all their challenges and their seemingly small odds to overcome them; but with a pet, there’s something outside of your addiction status to focus on. You might really miss having that glass of wine after work, but having your cat as a lap-warmer instead can certainly ease the sting. It can take a few weeks to adjust to staying in most nights and avoiding temptation, but having your pet at your side makes you feel more confident and supported in your endeavor.
You can even use your pet to completely replace old behaviors: the Saturday afternoons you used to spend at the bar can now be spent at the dog park or teaching your bird new tricks. Not only will you eliminate the association to your past life, you’ll look forward to the replacement activity.
Finding The Right Pet At The Right Time
It’s important to note that you should never adopt a pet without accepting that it is a years-long commitment. If you aren’t sure you’re ready for major caregiving responsibilities, start with lower maintenance animals like fish or hamsters. Don’t jump into a bigger commitment than you’re ready for, and do check with your family or roommates ahead of time.
Let them know that caregiving will be your own responsibility and you’re fully committed; remember, leaving someone else to care for your pet is not only neglect, it completely voids the benefits of pet ownership and your credibility for handling responsibilities.
There is mixed advice on when the right time to adopt a pet is. Talk to your sponsor and/or counselor about your options, and take their advice with care. Consider volunteering at a local rescue organization until you’re ready to adopt. You’ll have the chance to feed, socialize, and play with wonderful animals, and play an important role in supporting them until they find a forever home.
You might even consider it a sort of rewarding penance: your life was saved in treatment, and now you’re returning the favor by helping save the lives of animals.
Consider A Rescue Animal
When you’re ready to make the commitment, adopting a rescue is your most valuable option. Both you and the animal will have unique insight that can truly impact one another — each of you has come from a difficult situation, and each now faces a brand new way of life.
You both may fear you’ll be judged unfairly or that the past will repeat itself. This understanding and compassion can only bond you with your new pet, and perhaps even make you the best possible companions for each other.
Though it comes with plenty of challenges, recovery also has its share of rewards. Having a companion animal to stand by you in the dark times and celebrate with you in the light might be one of the best choices you ever made — and you’ll have many years to make the most of it.