February 28, 2024

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Addiction recovery can be tough for veterans. Here are five helpful tips.

5 min read


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

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

The Brockbergs are authors of “End Your Covert Mission: A Veteran’s Guide to Fighting Pain and Addiction.”

Many veterans struggle with addiction and other physical and mental health concerns. 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 join veteran-specific support groups. Recovery then becomes their new reality.

As psychologists who treat veterans, we think that the road to recovery comes with a better understanding of addiction. Veterans, like many other people, tend to use substances for a variety of reasons — as a way to cope, push down, celebrate, or “heal” wounds. Substance use can ebb and flow between use, misuse and abuse.

Addiction often results when a person cannot refrain from using substances or when substance use causes functional impairment (an inability to complete daily tasks). A 2017 study found that of the veterans who initially sought help at the Department of Veterans Affairs approximately 11 percent met the criteria for a substance use disorder, which include impaired control and risky use.

Experts in medicine and psychology have come to better understand and treat addiction as a disease that affects both body and mind. Addiction can be described as a dysfunction of certain parts of the brain. Some people also may have a genetic predisposition to it.

While dealing with addiction, some veterans may have other mental health problems such as anxiety, mood-related disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder, trauma-related disorders such as PTSD, and issues with self-harm or suicidality. For some, symptoms of these problems are present only when using substances. A veteran may get sad or reminisce about painful memories only when drinking heavily. For others, situations can trigger symptoms when they are sober. A veteran can get anxious when they are around a lot of other people and use substances to feel better in these moments.

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

We often say things to ourselves that we would never say to others, such as “I’m an idiot, why did I relapse?” and “You’re never going to be able to do this.” Ask yourself, how do these statements help with recovery? They don’t. We will have better results for our ongoing recovery when we treat ourselves with respect, love and care. We also have to meet ourselves where we are at. It helps with reducing feelings of self-judgment or shame, and increases a sense or feeling of safety and security.

Embracing the new ‘normal’

What does “normal” mean? When we have an idea about what our experience needs to look like, we’re probably trying to recapture a specific feeling, memory, or thought. You may know someone who focuses on the past and says things such as, “I wish it was like it was before all this.” Perhaps that person is you. It is natural to want to relive a previously enjoyed feeling or memory. But how much energy are you putting 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 and feels like, what would it show? Be realistic. Your recalibrated self may 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 worry that having problems with substance use, or having mental health issues means they’ve done something wrong, or 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 out in your mind the other way. What happens after we ask for help or express how we feel? What happens when a person listens to us, supports us and acknowledges our pain? Does that stigma go away? The answer is simple: It does if we let it.

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

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

Use your veteran voice to help others

This willingness to offer support and assistance to fellow veterans in recovery is a wonderful characteristic of the veteran 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 finding relief is a normal part of life. You can start by exploring your own story and sharing it with someone else.

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