Nobody sat me down when I first made the decision to get clean and sober and said “here, this is what you can expect to go through, this is the timeline, this is what you should expect to feel, experience, etc.”
I wish they would have!
So after a decade of sobriety I think it is time to lay out the timeline for others. Here is what to expect when you quit drinking or using drugs:
What to expect from the process of surrender
Do not expect surrender to be easy or automatic. In fact, this is the biggest struggle in your entire recovery process and you may stall here for decades before you finally “get it.”
The problem with the surrender process is that it would appear that you cannot choose to do it. You have to let it happen. This point is debatable of course. There are many people who believe that addiction is a choice.
Anyone can say “I want to stop using drugs and alcohol and I wish I was magically sober!” But unless they have the willingness and the conviction to take massive action and really follow through with a recovery program, their wishes are not going to materialize. Real surrender is a very intense point of desperation that has to be reached before the true healing can begin.
A long time before I actually surrendered, I wished that things were different. This is an important point. So I was not yet ready to surrender fully, but I wished that my life were different and that I was not hooked on drugs and alcohol. Did I wish that things were different? Yes. Was I willing to put in the effort needed to make serious changes? No. So there was still this disconnect there.
You may hear other people talk about their moment of surrender and apply their ideas to your own situation. Keep in mind that your path may be different from theirs. Some people describe a very spiritual experience, a flash of light, a religious conversion moment, and so on. Your own experience may be less intense than this, but do not compare yourself to others. If you experience a moment of true surrender then just go with it. The nature thing to do if this happens is to simply ask for help. Ask the people in your life to help you get clean and sober. Whatever they suggest to you, go with it.
What I remember from my own moment of surrender was a feeling of relief. I was smiling at the moment, because I knew in my heart that I was done using drugs and alcohol. This was not a flash of light or anything intense like that. Really what it felt like was a “falling away.” Something inside of me just fell away and this was my struggle to control the situation. My need for control is what was “lifted” from me and so I was left with this willingness to change. I finally saw the futility in chasing more drugs and alcohol. I saw that it was never going to really get any better, I saw that I was never going to be truly happy if I kept chasing that next buzz, and I accepted the fact that others might actually have a way to help me if I became open to it.
I really did have this amazing sense of relief at this moment. It all happened in an instant. I knew that I was done using drugs and alcohol because that stubborn piece inside of me, that stubborn need to control my drug use, it just fell away. It disappeared. I do not know why and I did not choose for that moment of surrender to occur at that time. It just happened and so I asked for help.
What to expect during your first week of sobriety
If you actually ask for help from your friends, family, or loved ones then they will most likely direct you towards professional treatment services of some sort. They may also direct you to an AA or NA meeting as well, but most people will recognize a need for inpatient rehab. At the very least they should make some phone calls, ask some questions, and find out what would be the best place for you to get the help that you need.
It may depend a bit on what substances you are addicted to, but most people will need to go through a medical detox. Certainly for substances like alcohol, going through detox is the safest route because not doing so can be a health risk. Certain other drugs can be risky as well if you avoid detox.
So you can expect that most families or friends will make some phone calls and attempt to get you into a treatment center. You can also expect that you might have to wait a few days, depending on your situation and your funding. How you pay for treatment is an entire issue in itself, and can be a problem in some cases. If you do not have private insurance then you might still be eligible for rehab services, it all just depends on your unique situation, where you live, and so on. The best approach is to just get on the phone and call up a rehab and see what is available, what you need to do, and how you might be funded for treatment. In some cases you may qualify for funding that you did not know you were even eligible for. Obviously the rehabs want to help people (that is why they exist!) and so they will do whatever they can to figure out how to get you the help that you need. Unfortunately, rehab is not free and there is no way that it ever could be. It has a cost and that cost has to be paid. So just be aware that treatment does, in fact, have a cost to it, and so securing funding for rehab may become an issue at some point. Hopefully in your case it is not an issue and you can get whatever help is recommended to you without any problems.
I was lucky enough that when I finally asked for help, I was able to get into a detox and a residential rehab fairly quickly. If you have never been to detox before, here is what you can expect:
It is set up with medical staff, nurses will tend to the detox patients and you will generally not be forced to attend groups or lectures or anything while you are going through the withdrawal process. They will generally give you medicine in order to help keep you comfortable through withdrawal but they will NOT allow you to get hooked on any new medications if you do not want to. Some people believe that if they go to rehab they will be hooked on pills for some reason. This is not the case and you will be weened off of any medications before you leave rehab.
After you are well enough from the withdrawal process they will usually transfer you out of detox into a residential unit where you start attending groups and lectures and meetings. Most rehabs are 12 step based but some are religious based as well. So you attend classes throughout the day, you eat lunch, and they might have a group where you go outside or do some recreation, and so on. They usually will have a 12 step meeting every day or nearly every day. They do their best to try to teach you how to recover from addiction.
Most rehabs are heavily controlled environments so you will not be tempted to use drugs or alcohol while there. You can be assured that you will be completely safe and drug free while in rehab and you will not be tempted to use. This is the normal expectation anyway. If you find people using drugs or alcohol inside of a rehab then I suggest that you find another rehab.
During the first week of recovery you can expect to feel pretty darn strange. This is new, uncharted territory for you and you are going to be going through all sorts of emotional processes. One of them is you are trying to forgive yourself and give yourself a break so that you can start this new life in recovery. Obviously being in rehab and being away from all of the people in your life and also being thrown in with a new set of people is a lot to deal with. It is a wild ride and an incredible experience to get clean and sober in a rehab with a new circle of friends while meeting all sorts of new people in recovery.
The best approach is to just sit back, relax, kick your feet up, and take it all in as it comes. Don’t let anything bother you or rile you up. It’s not worth getting agitated over anything. Many people in early recovery get upset about something while they are in treatment and they let it affect them negatively. They suddenly realize their lack of control and they resist this and get upset and storm out of rehab with an excuse to go get high. Don’t do this. Just relax. Things will unfold perfectly from here if you just let them. Once you are in rehab you are in a position to discover this new life for yourself, but you have to be patient and let it come to you. It takes time. Expect the process of recovery to unfold slowly for you.
What to expect during your first few months of recovery
Most people who attend treatment will only be there for 28 days or less. I happened to go to long term rehab myself and therefore I was living in rehab for 20 months continuous. But this was not actually so strange because ultimately it was a lot like living in a dorm with a set of peers. And eventually I left the long term rehab center and also learned how to live sober “out in the real world” as well.
So the first few months of your recovery will be all about transitioning out of rehab and into “real world recovery.” This is your real test of sobriety. Anyone can stay clean and sober in a rehab setting, but the true test is when you finally go back home and have to learn how to be clean and sober in everyday living.
If you are following suggestions from the rehab then it is likely that you will be attending local AA or NA meetings. If that is your path and your choice in early recovery then I would suggest that you dive into those meetings head first and really get involved heavily in those programs. Later on in your recovery you may decide that you want more freedom or that you want to invest less time in 12 step programs, and that is fine. But in early recovery my advice is to take whatever help you can get and to really focus hard on following through.
This is the “make or break it” period of time in early recovery. So many people relapse during this phase that the odds are heavily stacked against you. Realize this and compensate accordingly. If you are doing the 12 step thing then get a sponsor and actually use that sponsor, call them daily, hit lots of meetings, get involved, take real action. Start working with newcomers in recovery immediately, do not wait until you have a certain amount of sobriety. Instead, start finding people who have one day sober, one week sober, and start helping them right now. Immediately. This is a lifeline and if you take action and start doing these things right away then you have a good chance at “making it” yourself.
To be honest the first few months of recovery were really tough for me emotionally and I do not know if I could have made it without the support of living in long term rehab. In particular I was sort of mourning the loss of my friends (from addiction) and also the loss of the drugs themselves. It was a tough time and I am not sure when it started to get easier but I would say somewhere around the 3 to 6 month point.
So expect this emotional turmoil, expect that there may be an emotional roller coaster, and plan accordingly. Find massive amounts of support in your recovery in any way that you can. I was living in rehab, but you can certainly find support in other ways. In particular, getting heavily involved in AA meetings and sponsorship can be one solution that is available to most people (and is also free). Use whatever you can to get the support and help you need. Your first year of recovery is tough and most people do not make it through sober.
Think about that: most people do not make it through the first year. Therefore, if you want to be one of the people who make it through sober, you have to be one of the people who take serious action, who take massive action, who build this huge amount of support for themselves. This is not as difficult as it sounds, but you still have to DO IT. I did it very simply by living in rehab. You might do it through heavily involvement with AA or with a religious community. Find your strength.
Another thing to expect: everyone will relapse (just about). If you went to rehab, nearly everyone who you “graduated” with will relapse. I am not trying to be a depressing or fatalistic but you should be prepared for this regardless. Nearly everyone you know in early recovery (who is just trying to get sober initially) will relapse. Be prepared for it.
What to expect after a year of recovery
After a year or so in recovery I started to get comfortable with the idea of being clean and sober. It was getting easier. I no longer craved alcohol or drugs every single day like I did in the beginning.
In fact, somewhere around the six month mark, I noticed that I had a day in which I never even thought about using drugs or alcohol. This was a miracle. I thought this to be an impossibility, but it happened at only six months sober. Incredible.
So you will change, and sobriety will become easier, more automatic. Therein also lies a danger: once you get too comfortable, there is a threat of complacency and of relapse.
The solution for complacency is to start taking on new projects of personal growth. If you are pushing yourself to grow and to make positive changes in your life then you are doing everything that you need to do in order to fight complacency.
For me, I started by trying to exercise on a regular basis and also to quit smoking cigarettes. I sort of flirted with the exercise goal for a while and it took me a few years to finally beat the nicotine addiction, but I was trying through my entire first year to work on both of these things. I did not master either of those changes during year one but I was chasing both goals. I think this was important. I was living with many other recovering addicts and alcoholics, most of which thought I was nuts and they just continued to smoke cigarettes. (Again, nearly all of them relapsed eventually).
At the one year mark you are still quite vulnerable to relapse, in my opinion. In particular, some people get anxious when they approach a sobriety date like the one year mark, so be cautious of this as well. After a while you will realize that the milestones (two years sober, three years sober) matter less and less. Sobriety is a gift that you enjoy each day.
What to expect after multiple years or decades of sobriety
Right now I have over a decade of sobriety and I have been living in recovery for almost one third of my life. This is a significant amount of time in recovery any way that you cut it. I have now been clean and sober for longer than I used drugs and alcohol.
It does get easier, in my opinion. If it is not getting any easier after multiple years clean, then you are doing something wrong in my opinion. Now this is not to say that you cannot go through a rough spot or two, but your life should be going smoother and smoother in recovery.
This change is based on your actions in recovery, which should be leading you to pursue:
* Greater health.
* Positive changes.
* Less emotional turmoil.
* Healthier relationships.
* Spiritual tranquility.
And so on. If you are not achieving these things then you should shift your focus until you are getting them. Positive change in recovery is cumulative. Find someone in an AA meeting with ten or twenty years sober who sounds like they are happy and ask them what changes they have made in the last decade. They will likely laugh and say they don’t have time to explain it all! This is the kind of life in recovery that you should aspire to create. Lots of action, lots of positive change.
My life is incredible today and I cannot imagine things being much better. I continue to seek more positive changes, but I am already reaping the rewards of having made positive changes and lots of growth over the last 11 years. Sobriety is a cumulative adventure. Start taking positive action and amazing things will happen. Life gets really good at some point and then it just keeps getting better and better. This is because your personal growth and the positive things in your life start accumulating in recovery. Blessings grow. This is the life you were meant to live all along.