Let us start with some good news. The success rate for maintaining long-term remission from alcohol or drug use after achieving five years of continuous abstinence is upwards of 85%. Statistics like this represent hope and reward for everyone who chooses to stay the course, facing the difficulties, the tests and challenges that mark the recovery voyage. We are fellow travelers with a common purpose of building existences where substances no longer dominate or rule our decisions and experiences.
Recovery encompasses healing of the body, brain, mind and spirit, and the rate at which we recover depends on many factors, including age, genetics, substances used, duration of use, mental health issues, and physical and cognitive impairments. The road ahead for someone newly sober may seem daunting and even confusing, but the personal, physical and spiritual benefits are worth it. While there is no way to speed up the recovery process, outlining what happens during each year building up to the stabilizing goal of the five-year benchmark helps individuals recognize and accept, and not resist, the process.
The list included here is a general reference to what individuals might come across during the first few years of recovery but is by no means definitive. It is provided to help keep the process of recovery in perspective and show that arduous work of getting better pays off. The path you choose to achieve and sustain recovery is uniquely yours, yet you are united with millions who have come before or now ride alongside you as you chart a new course to freedom and happiness.
Year One: Early Recovery
Whether one attends a residential or outpatient treatment program or begins the recovery journey independently or with assistance of a therapist or mutual aid support (see All Sober’s Find Meetings section for available support group information), people encounter an enormous number of changes and challenges as they attempt to alter alcohol- and drug-seeking behavior. As a reminder that getting sober is not a one and done event, it is important to understand that it is not a linear process. The first phase, early recovery, may take place over an extended period to include return to use or relapse events, but also serves as a foundation for building a sober life. Observations, scientific research and experiential reporting include common occurrences noted in the following general list.
30–90 Days (About 3 Months) = Detoxification and Launch of Stabilization
- Post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS) — may last one week up to a few months and include increased feelings of anxiety, depression, sleeplessness and memory loss
- Mood swings
- Weight loss or gain
- Lack of confidence
- Emotional dysregulation or emergence of mental health issues to be addressed
- Digestive dysfunction
- Adjusting to new routines
- Changes in relationships
Positive Changes by 90 Days (About 3 Months) of Sobriety
- Physical and mental health improves
- Neurological issues improve
- Balance in sleep/wake cycles improves
- Focus and cognitive abilities improve
- Improved physiological functioning
- Increased energy and stamina
- Eyesight improves
- Enhanced mental functioning
- Feeling more at ease
- Social, personal and work relationships improve
- Hope for the future and motivation begins to return
Six Months to One Year
This period of early recovery is typically marked by an increased enthusiasm for newly formed sobriety. People begin to discover and participate in recovery support groups, fellowship with others in recovery and/or become engaged with community activities. Reestablishing ties in the community and participating in work or educational pursuits are common demonstrations of a willingness to reengage with social activities. These kinds of activities reinforce internal motivation to continue new behaviors and attitudes which will build a foundation for recovery.
Challenges during this time include the risk of relapse due to overconfidence from the “pink cloud” experience or a false notion that all is going great and nothing can disarm sobriety, but disappointments or external situations can test still-emerging recovery bases. Or the newness of the recovery experience, the excitement of discovering a new way of life, can seem suddenly dull. Nine months of sobriety is a common time for people to relapse, give up or turn negative on the sobriety quest, and at the same time, if no relapse occurs, this turning point begins an upward curve to the actual beginnings of the maintenance phase of recovery.
By now, physical improvements have begun to take hold and are noticeable, such as weight loss and balancing of sleep/wake cycles. Space is now opened to address underlying mental health issues that may emerge, and mental acuity and clarity in decision-making returns. Here are some of the noted benefits one may experience having achieved 365 consecutive days of continuous abstinence:
- Clear thinking, improved memory function, mood stabilization, increased ability to focus and make decisions
- Energy levels increased, applied toward work, family, sports and social interactions
- Discovery of a feeling of purpose and life taking on more meaning
- Formation of new friendships and social groups that support recovery
- Boost in self-confidence
- Financial stability due to responsible work habits and addressing debt and/or legal issues
- Sense of purpose and hope is established
One word of caution or common observation is that there is so much focus on reaching the one-year milestone that it is perceived as more challenging to achieve 18 months (one and a half years) of sobriety. With emerging or returning emotions long buried by alcohol and drugs, the perception may be that playing the long game is too exhausting. The wise phrase of “one day at a time” helps make it easier to break down challenging situations into manageable chunks of time.
Years Two to Five: Maintaining Abstinence to Advanced Recovery
Moving on to “advanced recovery” does not mean that one graduates or has finished all that is necessary to maintain sobriety, but it does signify a time when it takes less effort to think about all the vital steps to remain in remission. Habits, actions and thought processes are naturally incorporated into one’s own operating system as the direct result of the work and effort put into establishing one’s own recovery program that is suited to their needs. Addiction is not something that can be cured, but it can be managed and remission sustained, provided people continue good habits and vigilance to safeguard sobriety.
The odds of remaining sober and avoiding relapse vastly improve as you move into years two through five, with relapse events diminishing to 50% by the second year and only 15% at five years.
As the recovering person gains a solid footing in experiencing daily life without drug or alcohol use, the period of two to five years of living sober includes opportunities to rebuild or reestablish relationships, form new partnerships and ventures, and demonstrate reliability and consistent behavior toward friends, family and coworkers. This is truly a transformation in action.
Understandably, the media in the last 20 years and especially of late has focused light on the epidemics of death and loss due to overdoses and the destructive power of alcoholism, but here we celebrate the millions of people who are thriving in recovery. Addiction is a disease of isolation, and recovery represents a way out and a way of truly living that inspires and gives hope to so many. The Recovery Research Institute recently published results from a study that points to the fact that 9.1% of Americans, or 25 million, have resolved an alcohol or drug problem. If there was ever a doubt that recovery, or the effort put forth to attain and keep going on this new path, is possible, know that you are connected to millions who are simultaneously experiencing the same freedom and joy that sober living offers.
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