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Quitting drugs or alcohol is relatively easy - anyone can hold on for a day or a few days or even a week or two. But staying quit for a month or a year or a decade is another thing entirely.

It’s easy at first to remember why you’ve stopped - but after a while you’ll start to fantasize about the good times you had on drugs or alcohol, and through some complicated memory gymnastics, you’ll start to sort of gloss over memories of negative consequences as you fixate on remembrances of pleasures and fun.

This is called selective memory and it’s something that happens to most people in the initial recovery period.

No one needs addiction treatment to quit using or drinking for a short period of time, but a lot of people do need the tools learned in treatment to overcome temptations and tricks of the mind – like selective memory – that doom so many well-intentioned recovery attempts to early failure.

Dealing with Selective Memory

  • You have probably had intensely pleasurable experiences using drugs or alcohol.
  • The reasons you have chosen to stop using drugs or alcohol probably have little to do with how good drugs or alcohol can make you feel. Your motivation to quit is likely driven by a wish to avoid experiencing all of the adverse consequences that accompany your use of drugs or alcohol.
  • Since ‘good-time’ daydreams can lead to relapse, it’s important to be aware of the dangers of these selective memory fantasies, be able to spot situations that cause you to fantasize and have strategies at the ready to counter selective memories when they arise.

Situations That Trigger Selective Memories

You can experience selective memory at any time, but some situations are more likely to trigger these dangerous fantasies, such as:

  1. When you find yourself telling stories about when you were using or drinking. Especially stories of crazy times or exploits
  2. When you find yourself listening to other people tell similar stories, especially stories that showcase wild fun and good times (these stories rarely feature the negative consequences and bad times also that occurred as a result of those good times).
  3. When you feel overwhelmed, exhausted or down you are more likely to fantasize about how good drugs or alcohol used to feel and about how good they could make you feel right now.

Overcoming Selective Memory

Selective memories paint a vivid but unbalanced mental picture of what life was like before you quit drugs or alcohol.

To diminish their power, you need to find a way to balance things out with more accurate recollections of things really were back in the ‘good old days’

Some good ways to do this include:

  • Make a list of what your drug or alcohol use cost you (family, custody of kids, job etc.) and keep this list in your wallet. Consult your list whenever selective memories start to emerge - or preferably - even in situations likely to prompt selective memories.
  • Take a visual reminder of the consequences of your drug or alcohol use - an eviction notice, medical report, divorce paper etc. – and put it in a picture frame. Put this frame on display where you can see it whenever you start experiencing the warning signs of selective memories
  • Make a list of people you harmed while using or drinking and how specifically you did them harm. Keep this list in your wallet and at the first sign of selective memories take a moment to give one of these people a call. *

Learning to See the Truth – The Value of Addiction Treatment

The truth is, not many of us would wind up addicted to drugs or alcohol if they weren’t fun and if they didn’t provide pleasure.

But those easy pleasures come with a high price tag and once you’re at the point where you’re ready to quit for good, you’ve decided that the fun of drugs and drink just isn’t worth all the pain and problems they cause.

Addiction is tricky though and relapse has a way of sneaking up on you...like through selective remembrances, poor coping skills, cravings etc - unless you’re careful and unless you’re prepared.

By learning to anticipate the risks to your recovery you can take pre-emptive steps to avoid them.

This is how addiction treatment helps, and learning great ways to deal with selective memories is just one of the skills you need to learn to give yourself the best shot you can at lasting recovery.

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Page last updated Aug 15, 2016

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