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Are caffeine and nicotine a drug relapse?

A long debate has existed about whether nicotine and/or caffeine addiction mean you aren’t sober. A few diehards cling to this opinion. They believe you should be free of all mind-altering substances. But is it true? Can there be a middle ground? Are these popular substances affecting your chances of recovery?

Yes, there is a middle ground. The main conclusion is that it is up to you to decide whether nicotine and caffeine are a relapse for you and should be considered harmful to your recovery.

Early Sobriety: Not a good time to overcome nicotine or caffeine dependence.

A lot of change is thrown at you when you first try to get sober. You’re learning new daily routines. Your old solution for loneliness and sadness is no longer an option. You have new hours of free time that you need to account for. You may need to change your circle of friends.

With all this going on, old-timers in recovery usually suggest you avoid tackling a smoking or coffee habit while getting sober from alcohol and drugs. It could be overwhelming and distract from the much more important goal of sobriety from alcohol and hard drugs.

This recommendation runs alongside the suggestion that newcomers should avoid new dating early on. A romantic relationship can cause a whirlwind of emotions and distraction from building a foundation for recovery.

A long-time habit of tobacco and caffeine usage probably isn’t the most deadly obstacle to tackle. Alcohol addiction is. So the best advice for early sobriety is, “First things first.”

Smoking can act as a gateway

In my experience, when I was smoking, I didn’t feel as emotionally and physically strong as I was when I wasn’t smoking. When the habit set in, every waking moment revolved around when I could get my next smoke. My energy levels sank, and I lost motivation for more healthy hobbies like exercising and going outdoors.

This state of mind made me more susceptible to relapse. The grip cigarettes had on me, and the lifestyle I adopted for them didn’t look much different from when I was drinking alcoholically. Smoking is a slippery slope because it makes me feel like an addict again. New research also points to smoking as a gateway to relapse.

The general feeling of being sick and having low energy didn’t help either. My sleep wasn’t great because I would want to smoke if I woke up for any reason, even if it was the middle of the night and I had to use the bathroom. This isn’t the healthy place I want to be so I can enjoy sobriety fully. As a non-smoker, I don’t have to worry if spending time with someone would get in the way of a smoke break, and I could spend hours outdoors without feeling fatigued.

Smoking and caffeine alter your mood

If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit smoking and energy drinks change our moods—much the same way as drugs and alcohol.

The purists do have a point that they are mind-altering. I smoked to enjoy downtime more. I smoked to lift my mood and calm my anxiety. I drink coffee to feel the energy I otherwise wouldn’t have.

For me, however, I don’t immediately obsess over drinking again when I light up or drink coffee. They don’t trigger the craving for booze that the AA Big Book talks about. I haven’t met anyone who says they cause that effect in them either, so I suspect it’s a universal experience.

I assume that smoking and coffee don’t trigger a craving because they don’t cause the extreme euphoria we get from booze. They improve our mood, but not to the point where we feel intense, impossible joy. That’s why, for me, these drugs are less dangerous than something like, say, prescription narcotic medicine.

Beating yourself up doesn’t help

Nothing feels as bad as beating yourself up for a habit you’re not yet ready to give up. There’s no need. If you ever want to stop, there are plenty of resources out there, and you can muster the will to go through with it, even if it means failing over and over.

Remember that we don’t have to achieve perfection to have meaningful sobriety. Some vices take a lifetime of work, or they could take a long time before they’ve taken enough toll that we want to change our behavior.

Perfection is another way of disappointing yourself. Be grateful you’re overcoming a more significant addiction that could put you in the grave in a week through some accident or overdose. There’s much to be happy about now that you’re becoming sober, and acknowledge that time takes time.

Find a middle path

I couldn’t give up coffee. I drink a few cups a day. I also switched smoking to nicotine gum and patches. I am still fully addicted to caffeine and nicotine, but I am grateful I can get by without smoking. It’s my middle ground, and I remain open-minded to the idea of quitting both entirely. I’m not there yet, however.

So you, too, may adjust but still need to overcome the habits. That’s okay. Sobriety is about finding what works for you and becoming the best person you can become, which means not being perfect.

For you, this could mean cutting back to 3 cups of coffee instead of 4. Or it may mean switching to a vape and lowering the nicotine level over time. This method is very popular. Vaping never worked for me, but the nicotine gum did. The gum is what I found as my solution for now. The concept of switching to a less harmful version of nicotine is called harm reduction and has a lot of research behind it.

You can be happy you don’t smell like smoke all the time, and your teeth are whiter if you switch to a milder form of nicotine consumption. These little milestones signify growth. It doesn’t require entire abstinence before you feel like you’re getting somewhere positive.

Long-term: You may naturally decide to give up old habits

Over time, you may find that smoking and high caffeine intake no longer align with what you consider healthy. So you may seek out ways to stop. That’s a natural part of growing in recovery. But getting to that state of mind shouldn’t be expected in early sobriety when it feels like your whole life has changed.

Remain open to new ideas and ways of living.

As we mature and get comfortable with daily living as sober people, we start to question our old beliefs and behaviors. We may not feel comfortable doing things the way we always did. This feeling doesn’t apply only to coffee and nicotine but also to ways of relating to the world, people, problems, and relationships.

We could start to feel guilt where we never did before. So we decide to set new goals and make an effort to improve. Quitting or moderating caffeine and nicotine may be one of those goals.

The decision is up to you

Few will hold it against you that you drink coffee or smoke in the 12-step rooms. Nearly everyone drinks coffee and more than average smoke. If you think you should be free of them before you consider yourself sober, that’s up to you. But it’s not a requirement. And it shouldn’t become a hammer to beat yourself up with.

We may decide to change our other behaviors once we become comfortable with our newfound sobriety. As the days roll on and we solve life’s problems successfully, we may conclude old vices don’t fill a need for us anymore.

The purists should not dictate what your sobriety looks like. Take the time to outline what true sobriety means from your perspective. Keep in mind that this outline could change over time.

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