By Chris H.
On a hot August afternoon, I jumped into my car and took a deep breath. The aches, cold sweats, and vomiting were showing no signs of letting up anytime soon. I was deep in opiate withdraw, and feeling the full effects of it. When my car started a familiar yellow light alerting of the critically low fuel flashed, and I needed to make $20 take me on a 3-hour drive. The rush was on to leave before my roommates got back from work, so they didn’t chase me for the rent that was two months overdue or find out that I’m leaving – for good. “This is it; this will fix you,” I thought to myself.
I was doing something very common among addicts – using a geographical relocation to try to cure my addiction. No matter if it was the next state over or the other side of the world, the result was the same – until I finally realized the missing piece years later. Just six months into abusing prescription opiates, I knew I needed to make a change. I had recently failed out of university and began working a job in retail. Although I liked the job, I still massively struggled with coping with my recent failure at school and to cope I turned to opiates. I tried multiple different ways to stop using opiates, and nothing worked. The only solution I saw was to relocate back to my hometown and live with my parents. I can still remember that five-hour drive quite vividly. My back seat loaded with my very few possessions, thinking “I got this”. But again it’s back to the problem – I was still bringing myself along.
To be completely honest – it was effective for a while. I excelled in work, I settled down into a relationship, and everything seemed to be going swimmingly, and I quickly forgot about my using days. After a while, when work and my relationship became stale, the thoughts of using began to creep back in, and I had no effective tools to fight that voice with. Rock bottom came quickly, and in a matter of a month, I was in a much worse place than before I had moved. It quickly escalated from prescription opiates to heroin and even began injecting. This lasted for a long time, and a few years later thought I would try to change where I lived again, but this time much farther away.
I got an opportunity to work in Southeast Asia, and immediately took it as my chance to clean up. I moved overseas and settled into the new culture well. I had that same thought – I got this, and I repeated that critical error – I brought myself along. I followed the exact same path. For a few months, I did extremely well, focusing on work and living my life. What I realize now is that every time I moved, I was switching one addiction for another. Drugs were replaced with the adrenaline of working and being in relationships. The problem here is that once those replacements stop being effective – when a new job becomes mundane, or you have a problem with your partner – the only solution is to drink or use. And this is what happened to me yet again. I began seeking prescription pills and even though I knew the path it would take me, I didn’t have the tools to say no. Just like the first time, I fell much harder than before. I used drugs I never thought I would and did things I never thought I would to get them.
All I was doing was getting away from my old problems in one area, and starting to create a whole new set of problems in a new location. When considering moving, the focus is on all the negative aspects of our current living situation. We tell our self that there are too many bars, or my dealer lives too close to me. We insist that one particular family member or friend is contributing to our addiction. All we are doing with this is blaming our addiction on outside influences, and strongly believe that without them – with different life circumstances – we would not need drugs and alcohol. No matter where we go, we will always handle life the same way. We will react the same way to a boss telling us we need to work harder. We react to the same way when someone rejects us. Bills and rent still need to be paid on time. All of the little things that we were unable to deal with still exist, and we simply do not change. When considering a move, it’s important to examine the motives – are we truly looking for a solution, or are we just trying to escape?
At its core, a common component of addiction is escapism. We can’t handle life – whether its work, relationships or paying bills, we can’t do it. Drugs and alcohol are a way for us to escape that. When the drugs are active, we don’t have to deal with all of those issues. Geographical changes are just another way of doing this. When we move, we get away from all the problems we had caused, such as damaged relationships, using friends, and problems in our workplace. But moving doesn’t make those problems go away; it’s just a way to temporarily not have to deal with them anymore. This creates a very unhealthy pattern that perpetuates our addiction.
Along with the internal problems of relocating, there are logistical problems that go along with it. Sometimes the things we are trying to escape are beneficial. While some family and friends are harmful to us, others provide a much-needed support network. We rely on them for emotional and mental support in difficult times, and moving away means leaving that behind, and finding a way to replace that support network can be very difficult to do. Often though, to the addict, this is seen as an advantage. Think about when someone first goes to college. All of a sudden, you’re out on your own, out from under your parent’s roof, and you have the freedom to do what you want when you want. Similarly, when you move to a new area, there’s nobody to call you out on your past behaviours. People simply don’t know you or your patterns. While this is seen as “freedom”, it is quite detrimental for any sort of recovery and can often accelerate drug use and drinking.
Another major logistical problem is the stress of moving itself. If you have ever relocated to a new city, it can be one of the most stressful things to go through. There are so many things that have to get done and be taken care of – you have to find a place to live, find a new job, pack all your old things, get bills set up, change your ID, and of course find new friends around you. This undue stress can be too much for many to bear, and often results in drinking or using the minute we relocate since we have little to no coping strategies for stress.
While there are many downsides to using a geographical change as a primary way to fix your addiction, if it’s used correctly it can be a life-saving tool. A major advantage is that you are able to remove yourself from your old using grounds and take yourself out of your day to day life and stresses. Relocating in conjunction with behavioural work is one of the most effective methods for long-term recovery. This way, you can work on yourself in a safe environment.
My last geographical change was the only successful one. Before my move to Thailand, I was beaten, broken and down in a completely foreign country. When considering it, I was very scared that it would be just like the other times, and just turn out to be another failed attempt at getting clean. Thankfully it wasn’t, and I used the change of scenery to my advantage. So what did I do differently? For starters, I used relocating as a tool for recovery instead of an entire solution. I realized that all of the outside influences – work, location, and friends – were not what was causing my addiction, it was me. I checked into treatment – a place I would have a full support team and the time to work on some of the core issues of my addiction. The main thing was that I was ready to work on myself and recognized that I had to if I wanted any sort of long-term recovery. I used the change in location to give me a break from life and take care of the things that were keeping me using.
Now I’m almost two years clean, and I handle life in a much different way. One of my biggest problems was not being able to deal with minor everyday issues, and learning various tools of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helped me tremendously. No longer are there racing thoughts, catastrophizing any speed bumps that could potentially come up – just solutions and effective ways forward. Along with CBT, I also attend local support groups. These groups are an amazing place to be able to bring any problems and speak about them with a group of people who understand me and can relate to me. With these tools, I’ve been able to handle breakups, financial problems, job-related problems, and issues with family and friends in a healthy and constructive manner. Finally – a geographical change that worked!