Advice |  Addiction recovery can be difficult for veterans.  Here are five helpful tips.

Advice | Addiction recovery can be difficult for veterans. Here are five helpful tips.


Dustin Brockberg, PhD, is a psychologist and adjunct faculty member at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. He served in the US Army from 2004 to 2008, including a deployment to Iraq.

Kerry Brockberg, PhD, is a psychologist and works at the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute (Allina Health).

The Brockbergs are the authors ofEnd your secret mission: A Veteran’s Guide to Combating Pain and Addiction. »

Many veterans struggle with drug addiction and other physical and mental health issues. Asking for help is often a daunting task for veterans, but many do. They seek individual or group therapy, engage in 12-step programming, use medications and rejoin veteran-specific support groups. Recovery then becomes their new reality.

As psychologists who treat veterans, we believe the road to recovery is through a better understanding of addiction. Veterans, like many other people, tend to use substances for a variety of reasons – as a way to cope, to ward off, to celebrate, or to “heal” wounds. Substance use can go back and forth between consumption, misuse and abuse.

Addiction often occurs when a person cannot abstain from using substances or when substance use leads to functional impairment (an inability to perform daily tasks). A 2017 study found that among veterans who initially sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 11% met the criteria for a substance use disorder, which includes impaired control and risky drinking.

Medical and psychological experts have come to better understand and treat addiction as a disease that affects both body and mind. Addiction can be described as a malfunction of certain parts of the brain. Some people may also have a genetic predisposition.

While coping with substance abuse, some veterans may experience other mental health issues such as anxiety, mood-related disorders including depression and bipolar disorder, trauma-related disorders such as PTSD and problems with self-harm or suicidality. For some, the symptoms of these problems are only present when using substances. A veteran may become sad or recall painful memories only when he drinks heavily. For others, situations can trigger symptoms when they are sober. A veteran may become anxious when around lots of other people and use substances to feel better in those times.

The more veterans are aware of co-occurring issues and when and how symptoms present, the more likely they are to find a way to better manage the addiction. Recovery is a physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual and cultural experience. We want to celebrate and help support the ongoing recovery, and here are five ways to strengthen and work in and towards the recovery process.

We often say things to ourselves that we would never say to others, like “I’m an idiot, why did I relapse? and “You can never do that.” Ask yourself, how do these statements help in recovery? They don’t. We will have better results for our ongoing recovery if we treat each other with respect, love and care. We must also find ourselves where we are. It helps reduce feelings of self-judgment or shame and increases feelings or feelings of safety.

Embracing the new “normal”

What does “normal” mean? When we have an idea of ​​what our experience should be like, we’re probably trying to track down a specific feeling, memory, or thought. You may know someone who focuses on the past and says things like, “I wish it was like before all this.” Maybe that person is you. It is natural to want to relive a previously enjoyed feeling or memory. But how much energy do you put into trying to restore a past that is just that – the past?

Create a new normal that reflects and embraces who you are now, especially during your recovery journey. If you drew a picture of what your new normal looks like, what would it show? To be realistic. Your recalibrated self can include your current pain, but also the many good things in your life. Recognize the tools, relationships, and attitudes that have become part of your new normal.

Many veterans fear that substance abuse or mental health issues mean they have done something wrong or that they are a bad or worthless person. They know that people with such problems continue to be stigmatized, so they fear what others will think of them. But play it in your mind the other way around. What happens after we ask for help or express how we feel? What happens when someone listens to us, supports us, and acknowledges our pain? Is this stigma disappearing? The answer is simple: it does if we let it.

For many in the addiction recovery community, the moment they realize they are powerless against the drug of their choice, they experience an overwhelming sense of relief. There is power in speaking the truth and acknowledging that a problem exists. There is power in admitting that we were wrong or made a mistake. There is power in asking for help. Once we have identified and admitted that we have a problem, we can do something to fix it.

Trust that your voice is worth listening to. What you have to say is important. When you open your mouth, you also open a new kind of future. Each time you share your recovery with others, you open yourself up to the possibility of learning from their experience and perspective. Sharing in this way can help you feel more connected and respected. It can help make your dependency burden lighter and more bearable, because now you are no longer carrying it alone.

Use your veteran voice to help others

This willingness to provide support and assistance to other recovering veterans is a wonderful characteristic of the veterans community. Your voice as a veteran is important. We want you to be part of the movement that helps veterans end the silent suffering of addiction and join the mission in which sharing experiences and seeking relief is an integral part of living. You can start by exploring your own story and sharing it with someone else.

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