I would argue that there are really only 2 stages in addiction recovery.
Now we could actually break recovery down into 5 or probably even 10 different stages, but it seems particularly useful to me to think of recovery in only 2 main stages. Here they are:
1) Early recovery – the first few months to the first few years of your recovery
2) Long term recovery – the rest of your life
Let’s take a look at each stage.
Early recovery is a bit like being shot out of a cannon. It’s intense, disorienting, and potentially dangerous. But it can also be an exciting time of growth. What makes early recovery different from the later stage? Let’s consider:
1) Emphasis on learning – When you first get clean and sober, you have to relearn how to live. This is a monumental challenge and for most people I would recommend being in some sort of treatment center to get the ball rolling. One reason for this is because the task at hand can be so overwhelming.
Quite literally we have to learn a ton of new stuff: how to make it through each day sober, how to relax and have fun without using drugs or alcohol, how to socialize and interact with others without being medicated, and so on. Now obviously, after you have been clean and sober for a few years a lot of these things will have been learned, but when you are first starting out you have to go through and learn one thing at a time. For too long we have been living according to a different set of rules, letting our addiction dominate our lives. Now, all that has to change and this is one big learning process.
Early recovery is all about learning.
2) Emphasis on networking – If you look at the massive amount of learning that needs to occur in early recovery, you’ll start to understand that this would require a great number of teachers. Where do we get those teachers? From other recovering addicts and alcoholics, of course. Yes there is recovery literature out there to read but there is only so much that you can learn from the books, and then you have to dig in and find out about how to apply that knowledge in the real world. You can get that from direct experience or from the experience of others.
This is one thing that makes 12 step meetings useful – we can use them to learn from the experience of others. In addition to needing teachers in recovery, sometimes we just need the support of other recovering addicts to let us know that we are not alone in our journey. Again, this is more important in early recovery than in the later stages. You might also consider sponsorship or a recovery life coach on your journey.
Long term recovery
Long term recovery is about living the rest of your life. This is what we are striving for and if you have a solid foundation of learning and networking in early recovery then eventually you will transition to a full life in long term recovery. So what does successful long term recovery look like?
1) Emphasis on personal growth – Recovering addicts and alcoholics who are successful in the long run still have the threat of relapse hanging over their head, and the biggest trigger for that in most cases is complacency. The danger is that we will get too lazy and too comfortable in our recovery and this will eventually trip us up.
The way to overcome complacency is to push ourselves towards continuous growth. That is the secret to a long life in recovery – we have to always be learning and growing. When we stop moving forward there is danger in sliding backward. Note that we can pursue this growth in many different areas of our lives, not just in recovery-related areas.
2) Emphasis on holistic health – Many people stay too focused on traditional recovery concepts when they have been clean and sober for several years. It is better to shift to a more holistic view of your health as you progress in recovery so that you can live a healthier life in general. I’ve seen too many addicts in recovery who neglected their health and ended up dying young due to poor diet, no exercise, continued smoking, and so on. This doesn’t make sense when we consider that long term recovery lasts for the rest of your entire life. Therefore, we should shift our focus in recovery to one that encompasses our entire picture of health, not just our sobriety.
So how can we know what recovery stage we are in, and what we should be focusing on? My advice is to not worry about it, and simply use all 3 strategies:
1) Care for yourself (in all areas of your life: physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc.)
2) Network with others
3) Push yourself to grow