How long does it take to recover from addiction?
The question is a little bit tricky because asking it implies a couple of things:
1) That recovery from addiction has a fixed end point, where you can stop and call yourself fully “recovered.”
2) That recovery is a straightforward and linear process.
Neither of these things are true, in my experience.
The second one is partially true, that recovery is actually linear. But only after the person reaches what I would call “total and complete surrender.” Up until that point you are not really in a the mode where things are linear. You are a mess, your addiction is a mess, and your life is in total chaos. When you are struggling with addiction and denial you are not exactly moving forward in a straight line toward your goals. Instead you are jumping all over the place.
For example, I went to rehab three times in order to get clean and sober over a period of something like 7 years. Obviously this was a roller coaster ride with many ups and downs. It was not a straight shot to permanent sobriety.
Now on the other hand, if you tracked my progress this last time that I finally surrendered and went to rehab, you could make an argument that my progress was much more linear. But this is cherry picking your results, and is not an accurate assessment. The real truth is that I had to go to treatment 3 times and struggle a great deal before I was able to make that steady progress.
The other concept is that of the “recovered alcoholic.” People get all upset over the language that is used to describe recovery because they understand that the language that we speak can influence the way that we think. In other words, people get worried that saying “recovered alcoholic” instead of “recovering” can cause you to believe that you are fully “cured” of your alcoholism and therefore you do not need to push yourself in recovery. Hence you will relapse and die. This is their argument anyway, so if you say in an AA meeting that you are a “recovered alcoholic” they might freak out and jump down your throat and tell you that wrong and that you are only “recovering.”
I think that these reactions are a bit much, but the reason they do this is because they want to caution people from believing that addiction can be fully cured. It cannot be cured, and so they don’t want anyone saying that they are “recovered.” There is no end point in recovery. You don’t get to prop your feet up on the couch some day and say “I’m finished, no more work in recovery for me, I have officially arrived.” Because if you take that attitude towards sobriety then you may be setting yourself up for relapse. If you believe that you are “cured” then that is what things get dangerous. Relapse is sneaky.
With that in mind let’s explore the idea of how long it takes to recover, and what that might actually mean (since we know we can never be fully cured of addiction!).
The problem isn’t stopping, it is staying stopped
The question might actually be: “How long does it take to stop drinking?” If that is the case then you are really talking about the detox process, how long does it take for the body to get rid of the chemicals. In that case the answer is usually 3 to 5 days or so, potentially shorter or longer than that depending on what drugs you put into your body.
But that question is a distraction, and believe it or not, detox is really just a minor detail. It is still a big deal, but in light of long term sobriety, the 5 day detox is really just a drop in the bucket. An important drop in the bucket, but still just a drop.
The real issue is not stopping; it is staying stopped. I don’t care how addicted you think someone is, we can stick them in jail for a week and they will stop. They might need medical attention during withdrawal but other than that it is not going to kill them to stop putting chemicals into their body. Alcoholics and addicts can exist without their drug of choice after they make it through withdrawal, this is not impossible. But the question becomes: Can they stay stopped under their own power? Because once they walk back out on the street and have free will again, it is all up to them to remain sober.
Therefore you cannot really put an endpoint on recovery. I know a person who was in AA and who had 18 years sober, and they relapsed. This happened just a few years back and everyone in the meetings said that “they saw it coming, but there was nothing they could do.” Many people talked to this person and tried to get them to see the path that they were headed down, but it was no use. The person had snapped and was on a path towards destruction. So they relapsed and eventually they went back to the meetings and started over.
So if someone were to ask this person how long it takes to recover, they might get clever and say something like: “Apparently it takes more than 18 years!” Because they were sober for that long but then they relapsed, and now they are trying it again.
The question seems to imply that we can reach a point where we become “permanently sober” and this just isn’t the case. You may become sober and stay that way until you die, but this does not mean that every alcoholic who sobers up will stay sober forever.
What you can expect to change over the course of the first month or two
I am fond of pointing out that you need to take massive action in early recovery if you want a shot at staying sober.
You can expect a lot of changes to occur in the first month or two of your sobriety if you are on the right path.
First of all if you get sober at a rehab then you will have a lot of peers who are trying to sober up with you. The first thing that you need to protect yourself against is the fact that nearly all of them are probably going to relapse. Perhaps one or two of them will stay clean and sober for 5 years or more. If you plan to be one of those success stories then you need to prepare yourself for the idea that most of your peers are going to fall by the wayside. It happens.
This is why you should find a stronger support network the second you walk out of treatment. Go to a local AA meeting where the average length of sober time is probably about 10 years or so. That way you have a support group that is not going to be full of people who relapse every other day. You need strong support in early recovery. It doesn’t have to be AA necessarily, but on the other hand you need to find sober people who can help you. For the purposes of early recovery, AA is pretty darn useful. That said, I would caution against a long term dependency on daily AA meetings, but that is just my opinion. You can still go to meetings in the long run without depending on them for your recovery.
So at this point in your recovery you will be going through rapid changes. To be honest I when I was at this point in my recovery I did become frustrated for a few weeks and I could see that some people might definitely relapse. In fact I did not know if I would be sober “forever” or not and I felt very emotional at times. I believe this is part of the process. I was living in long term rehab at the time and I had a LOT of support systems in place. My peers and I would talk about recovery every single day, and we went to meetings every day, and had therapy groups twice a week, and so on. But it was still tough in those first few months and I questioned my future in recovery a few times. Most of the time it was fairly easy but not every day. There is some challenge to it.
I also wondered during those first few months if I would ever be free of the cravings and the thoughts for drugs and alcohol. I imagined that I would always crave alcohol and that this obsession would never leave me. This was a depressing thought. For the first few months I really thought that this obsession was permanent.
What you can expect to change over the course of the first year in recovery
During the first year of my sobriety I witnessed a miracle. This happened somewhere around the six month point of my sobriety while I was still living in long term rehab.
What happened is that I made it to the end of a day and was getting into bed to go to sleep. I realized at that moment that I had made it through the entire day without thinking about drugs or alcohol–not once. This was a miracle and I recognized it as such.
But I realize that every alcoholic and drug addict who “makes it” in recovery will go through this transition as well. And I am guessing (don’t know this for sure) that most of them will go through it in a similar time frame as my own journey. So somewhere during the first year or so of your recovery the “obsession to use drugs and alcohol will be lifted from you.” This of course depends on if you are “doing the work” in recovery and living a spiritual life.
What does “doing the work” consist of? In my opinion it is not necessarily about prayer, or meditation, or doing the exact suggestions that they tell you at AA or at rehab. Rather, it is all of those things if they involve taking positive action on a consistent basis. “Doing the work” in recovery is about taking consistent action more than anything else. We build a new life in recovery through momentum, through daily action, through establishing new habits.
Sometimes people get wrapped up in the idea that they need to do specific things to recover, or that there is only one true path in recovery, or that there is only one program that can possibly help people in recovery. I don’t believe this, and I have seen enough evidence in my journey to suggest that there is more than one way to recover. Even defining the spiritual experience can be a very tricky thing to do, because if you define it narrowly in the way that you experienced it yourself then you are probably going to confuse some people in early recovery. It is not necessarily helpful or fair to project our exact experiences on to everyone else, and to tell them that this is the only true path to sobriety.
Instead, there is a general path to recovery that can work if we focus on the similarities instead of the differences. For example, I know someone in recovery who uses a religious based program of recovery that has very little in common with modern day AA. And I know someone else who has been sober for over a decade and their recovery program is based almost entirely on physical fitness. So there is no one path to recovery but there are some fundamental principles that every success story in recovery seems to share. Those fundamental principles are:
1) Surrender. Everyone has to surrender to their disease if they want to overcome it. You can’t fight it directly. You can’t just reduce your drinking and expect to win over your alcoholism. You must surrender completely.
2) Action. You must take massive action. You can’t just put a small effort into recovery and expect for your life to change. You need to think big, and take action accordingly. For example, if your life is a train wreck due to drinking, you don’t just wander into an AA meeting and expect to be “cured” by attending one meeting here or there. It takes more than that. This is why surrender is necessary, so that you will become willing to take the required amount of action.
3) Follow through. So many people who start out in recovery end up falling by the wayside. They have good intentions but they do not follow through. Their commitment becomes weak over time and they do not take massive action. They do not take consistent action. If you look at the other fundamental principles then you can see that this one stems from a lack of surrender. If you lack willingness then you failed to surrender fully. If you lack follow through then it means that you also lack willingness. In the end it can all be traced back to surrender. When we talk of total surrender we are really speaking of this total “ego death” where you become willing to push your own ideas to the side and to listen to others instead. You must be willing to follow directions humbly from others. If you are not at that place yet (total surrender) then your recovery is not going to turn out well. You will just sabotage your efforts by using your own ideas, which will get you into trouble.
A five and ten year timeline of addiction recovery
After five years in recovery you will probably start to feel like being clean and sober is “the new normal.” I know that by the time I had five years sober this was true for me as well.
But that does not mean that you can put your feet up and relax. If you are still in a community of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts then one of the first things you will notice is that people do still relapse after multiple years clean. It happens. So if you want to prevent it from happening to you then you will need to take action.
Again, it is always about action. Surrender, willingness, action. If you are taking massive action then this sort of implies that the other two pieces are in place already (surrender and willingness).
A good test of this is to ask for suggestions from people you trust in recovery, and then to follow through on the advice that you are given.
If you are doing this consistently then it is a strong sign that you are taking positive action and working towards a healthy life in recovery.
This is because taking suggestions from other people is like a massive shortcut to wisdom. When you ask advice from others in recovery you get their best ideas. You get their most helpful advice. And if you do this over and over again then you will draw from the most positive ideas and the most helpful actions that you can possibly take in life. You learn from the mistakes of others. You avoid falling into the traps that they fell into. There really is no better way to live, because you are essentially borrowing their wisdom and experience.
I don’t believe that ten years sober is really any different than five years sober. In my experience there is a clear separation between “early recovery” and “long term sobriety.” For other people it might be broken up into more than two stages, but for me it seems to be just the two. I was in early recovery for maybe 18 months or so and then somewhere along the two year mark I transitioned into what I would call “long term sobriety.” Of course those are just labels and the important thing is that you keep taking positive action every day. Just because you think you are in long term sobriety does not mean that you can be lazy. In fact the opposite is true, if you think that you have “arrived” at the long term sobriety stage then you had better get going and figure out how to overcome complacency! I will give you a hint, it is all about taking positive action every day on a consistent basis and challenging yourself to move forward. And the same old shortcut works in long term sobriety as well: Ask others for their advice and then take those suggestions and act on them.
One day at a time
One of the most popular sayings in the recovery world is “one day at a time.” This is because we recover one day at a time no matter how badly we may want to “accelerate” our progress.
But each day is a gift, an opportunity. Each day that you wake up in recovery you should focus on gratitude, just for the fact that you have free will and you can try to improve your life today.
If you use this approach then at some point you will realize that you are living a bold new life in recovery, and that you have not really “arrived” but now you realize that you never want to “arrive,” you would rather keep moving forward and pursuing personal growth the way that you have been doing all along. It is about the process, not the outcomes. And the process of personal in recovery is what will get you excited and motivated to be alive, to enjoy life, to enjoy the recovery process. You know that you will have more lessons to learn in the future and you make peace with that, you are actually excited about challenges that may lay ahead. This is when the “day at a time philosophy” becomes a gift.
What about you, have you “arrived” in your recovery? Are you happy to be living in the process today? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!