Christmas has come and gone and New Year’s Eve rapidly approaches. Most of my clients came through last weekend virtually unscathed. Still, many of them with several weeks, months, even a year or more of sobriety still feel “funny”. The question I get all the time is “If I am sober, how come I still feel like this?” When asked what “this” feels like, I get a variety of responses from not being able to think clearly, not being able to sleep, being unable to do the simplest of tasks, unable to remember where they put things, unable to walk straight, to not being able to put a coherent sentence together and more. What is up with that?
The truth is that substance abuse does far more damage to the body and brain than many people think. There is brain damage that we all know and acknowledge happens, but there is also nerve damage that has to be dealt with. Post Acute Withdrawal syndrome (PAW) is a phenomenon of sobriety. Acting “drunk” when not high is one symptom. Feeling like someone stuffed cotton in the brain is another. Some people trip over their own feet or run into doorways, all in the name of sobriety! While using may temporarily “fix” these problems, continued use will eventually make them worse.
One study I read indicated that 75% to 95% of all addicts exhibit signs of PAW beginning a few weeks after acute withdrawal. Remember that it takes time for the body and brain to heal. One thing about PAW is that it seems to be stress induced. Many addicts have never learned to deal with stress without ingesting some substance. Learning to deal with anxiety and stress through relaxation techniques, exercise, proper diet, and counseling can go a long way towards reducing PAW. With the holidays still in full swing, we need to take extra special care to make sure that our clients who are battling drug/alcohol addiction understand that stress may bring on these “funny feelings” and that once the stress is reduced they will go away. Time will eventually heal PAW as the body and the brain fully heal. Unfortunately, PAW symptoms may show up years after a person get’s sober. The good news is that the addict isn’t alone in this and learning to recognize stressful situations and deal with them as they come is the very best way to eliminate Post Acute Withdrawal syndrome.
Linda Magnelli is a counselor who works in Phoenix as a substance abuse and mental health counselor specializing in difficult cases.