As Valentine’s Day approaches, we’re surrounded by images of idealized love: fragrant roses, luscious chocolates, and red-hot romance. But for those recovering from a substance use disorder, romantic love can be complicated. Relationships with partners or spouses may be bruised, broken, or a work in progress.
According to Bronwyn McInturff, director of the UAB Medicine Addiction Recovery Program, the best first step in mending existing relationships or preparing for the possibility of romance is to focus on self-love.
“Clearly seeing who you are while forgiving your weaknesses and embracing your strengths is at the core of recovery,” McInturff says. “It’s critical to develop compassion for yourself while working your sobriety program.”
Millions of Americans struggle with both sobriety and self-love. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are 16.6 million heavy alcohol users in the U.S., along with 53.2 million illicit drugs users. More than 20 million Americans report having a substance use disorder. “When someone is actively using or drinking, there’s a lot of shame and self-hatred,” McInturff says. “It’s extremely difficult to cultivate self-love.”
That struggle continues even after that person steps onto the path of recovery. McInturff acknowledges that learning self-love is a process but cautions, “Don’t wait until all of your shame is healed before giving yourself permission to love yourself.” If self-love seems like a bridge too far, she encourages those in recovery to “fake it ‘til you make it,” adding, “Sometimes the believing comes later.”
Nurturing Practices for Self-Love
McInturff offers these five nurturing practices to develop self-love:
1. Forgive yourself. “Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you love what you did or that you want to forget about it,” McInturff says. “It’s an acknowledgment that your behaviors were an outgrowth of your illness, not that you are morally bad.” The way forward? “Stay well, take care of yourself, love yourself, and recognize what happened, but don’t dwell on it,” she says.
2. Develop self-compassion. Negative self-talk is a major stumbling block to self-love. “A woman came to me who’d had a drink and relapsed,” McInturff says. “She said, ‘Why am I so stupid? I hate myself.’” McInturff challenged the woman, asking that if her best friend had shared that same experience, how would the woman respond? After the woman admitted that she wouldn’t judge her friend, McInturff said, “Let’s practice the words you’d use with your best friend so that you can use gentler language with yourself.” Another approach, McInturff says, is to see one’s own actions through the lens of a therapist. “Seeing yourself objectively can stop the rush to judgment,” she says.
3. Set specific goals. “Set narrow and humble recovery goals,” McInturff says. Initially, the goal is to stay sober, one day at a time. The next goal might be to become less depressed. After that, the goals can become specific. “We’ll do vision boards or goal-setting and break big goals into action steps,” she says. “If you say you want to be a good dad or be there for your family, it’s important to ask what that looks like and how you’re going to get from here to there.”
4. Engage in daily reflections. “Self-love can get a boost when you prioritize introspection,” McInturff says. “Meditating, taking a walk, journaling, or writing down a daily gratitude list can focus your thoughts.” Understanding one’s desires, feelings, and beliefs supports being intentional in actions and fosters positive self-regard.
5. Embrace self-care. During the month of February, UAB Medicine’s Addiction Recovery Program turns attention away from traditional Valentine’s Day activities and focuses on self-care. The women’s group may make bath bombs or enjoy a spa day. The program may offer chair massages. While the media often characterize self-care as relaxing in an island paradise or buying a new wardrobe, McInturff stresses that self-care doesn’t have to break the bank. “If you don’t have money to get your hair or nails done, you can share meals, play games with friends, or draw,” McInturff says. “Thanks to UAB’s Arts in Medicine program, our substance use disorder patients have worked on collaborative art projects that they found extremely fulfilling.”
For those in recovery, it can be difficult – and sometimes painful – to cultivate self-nurturing thoughts and practices. The UAB Medicine Addiction Recovery Program is designed to help. The program is available to adults who are at least 18 years old and offers short-term in-patient care and intensive outpatient care. Once outpatient care is completed, UAB provides continuing care, crafting personalized and evidence-based plans to support patients in their recovery. “We hope that our commitment to each patient demonstrates that they’re worthy,” McInturff says. “They’re deserving of care, compassion, and – most of all – self-love.”
Click here to learn more about the UAB Medicine Addiction Recovery Program.