Early recovery tends to be an exciting time. After years of substance abuse the individual will once again be free and their future will be full of options and possibilities. It is just like they have been released from prison – or escaped a death sentence. This period of sobriety does tend to be wonderful, but it can also be dangerous. It is during the first year of recovery when people are most at risk of relapsing back to their addiction.
For the sake of convenience it is possible to divide recovery from addiction up into different phases. These phases are not meant to be taken too literally because everyone moves at their own pace and will experience different things. The stages that people pass through include:
* The individual acknowledges that they have an addiction problem
* They develop the willingness to escape this problem
* Investigation of recovery options
* Action to end the addiction
* Early recovery
* Recovery maintenance is a stage that never really ends
* Advanced recovery is when staying sober becomes second nature, but this does not mean that they individual will have escaped the risk of relapse
Early recovery has a number of different definitions. Some writers on the subject view it as the first few months of sobriety while others describe it as the first year. This can be the most precarious stage of recovery because there is so much expected of the individual. They will need to develop new skills and new ways of thinking if they are to make it beyond early recovery. In order to do this they will have to stay motivated and make sobriety their number one priority in life.
The risk of relapse back to addiction never goes away completely, but it is most likely to occur in early recovery. It has been suggested that the percentage of people who do return to substance abuse within the first year of recovery may be as high as 75%. The dangers of this period of sobriety include:
* The transition from rehab to home can be a particularly dangerous time. The individual will be leaving a protected environment to return to the real world and familiar temptations.
* Early recovery has been described as an emotional rollercoaster. People often find that their emotions feel far more intense than usual, and they will no longer have the option of substance abuse to escape these feelings.
* It is common for people to experience pink cloud syndromewhen life feels great and staying sober feels easy. The danger with pink could syndrome is that people can become too confident.
* Some individuals can take on too much in early recovery and this means that they become overwhelmed.
* The individual can make the mistake of believing that giving up alcohol or drugs will be enough to bring an end to their difficulties. This type of thinking can be fatal because there will be a reason for why the individual fell into addiction in the first place, and if they fail to address this it will be there to trip them up again in the future.
There are a number of reasons for why the transition from rehab to home can be a challenge including:
* When the individual is in rehab they will be in a supportive environment. They will not be able to expect as much support once they get home.
* Going home usually means having to face the mess that the addict will have created by their behavior. Those who end up in rehab will usually have done so because they hit a particularly low point, and the ramifications of the rock bottom may still be creating ripple effects.
* In rehab the individual is protected from the temptations of alcohol and drugs because they will not have easy access to such substances. This changes as soon as they go home.
* When people leave a treatment facility they can feel like it is there graduation day. They should feel proud of their achievement, but it would be a mistake to believe that the work is over.
* The individual will be returning to the daily stresses that once sent them running to substance abuse. Unless they develop new tools for dealing with these challenges they will be at risk of returning to old behaviors.
* If people have expectations of early recovery that are too high they are setting themselves up for disappointed, and they may use this as a justification to relapse. It will take time and effort for the individual to build the type of life that they wish to achieve.
In order to reduce the risk associated with the return home it is advisable that people:
* Begin planning for their return home from day one in rehab. This means making the best use of all the available resources – nobody can do this work for them.
* They should consider some form of aftercare for once they get home because this can greatly increase their chances of achieving lasting sobriety. This might involve therapy sessions or joining some type of recovery fellowship.
* It is recommended that those leaving a treatment facility should avoid their former drinking or drugging colleagues. It is also best to avoid going near bars, or anywhere where there is likely to be illegal drugs, in early recovery.
* People need to be developing new and effective strategies for dealing with stress.
* The individual needs to be aware of the common pitfalls of early recovery and be prepared to overcome these.
* It is vital that the individual has realistic expectations. Their life is not going to be perfect just because they gave up alcohol or drugs – nobody gets a free ride in life.
It is suggested that people avoid making any major changes in the first year of recovery. This would include things like:
* Starting a new romantic relationship
* Moving house
* Having a baby
* Launching a small business
* Starting a new job
The reasons for why such changes need to be avoided include:
* When people first become sober they will already have enough to deal with. Adding extra stress could prove too much for them.
* It can take a couple of years before the individual has a better understanding of their aspirations and needs. If they make major changes too early in recovery there is a high chance that they will later regret them.
* Staying sober has to take priority in the first year.
* The individual can allow this diversion to become an addiction substitute. They may be becoming involved in a major change in order to avoid dealing with more pressing issues.
Early recovery tends to be a time of great highs and great lows. There are a number of reasons for why the individual will experience this emotional rollercoaster including:
* The individual will be expected to make many changes in their life. The stress of doing so can lead to emotional turmoil.
* The initial acute withdrawal symptoms only last a few weeks, but the individual can also suffer from post acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), and the effects of this can last a year or longer. PAWS can have a negative impact on mental functioning (a feeling of fuzziness) and this in turn can impact emotions.
* Those people who have been addicted to alcohol or drugs for many years will no longer be used to dealing with their feelings. This can mean that their emotions feel intense and out of control.
* Substance abuse has the effect of numbing emotions. When people give up using mind altering chemicals these emotions can feel like they’ve returned with a vengeance.
* The joy of escaping addiction can mean that the individual feels incredibly good and positive. In some instances they will become so high on life that it becomes dangerous – this is referred to as pink cloud syndrome.
In order to escape the dangers associated with the emotional rollercoaster in early recovery it is best that the individual:
* They need to be aware of the potential dangers associated with strong emotions in early recovery. If people know what to expect they are less likely to fall into any traps.
* Develop strategies for dealing with strong emotions.
* Seek support from a therapist or recovery group.
* Create an action plan to be used when emotions appear to be getting out of control.
* Keep a journal in order to track these emotions.
* The individual needs to keep in mind that feeling too high can sometimes be as dangerous as feeling too low.
It can sound a bit curmudgeonly to suggest that people can become too high in early recovery. After all, this person is likely to have suffered years because of their addiction and now they are free at last. There is no suggestion that the person in early recovery needs to be afraid of being happy, but there are dangerous associated with becoming too high such as:
* The individual can become overly confident so that they start to take their recovery for granted. This means that they stop doing the things that have been keeping them sober.
* The pink could is unlikely to last forever. When the individual comes down they can react badly and may use this as a justification to relapse.
* Emotional sobriety is the path to true happiness in recovery. This type of sobriety involves being able to avoid emotional extremes such as the pink cloud.