Get help today 888-319-2606 or sign up for 24/7 text support.
American Addiction Centers National Rehabs Directory

Early Recovery: Pitfalls and Possibilities

When someone who is abusing or who is addicted to illicit substances decides to enter recovery, it is a challenging, scary and life-altering event. Recovery implies facing an unknown future with the knowledge that one’s main source of comfort and coping­–the drug of choice – will not be available as a source of relief.

Yet recovery is aspired to, striven for, and struggled for because it implies, too, a new kind of life, one that brings back physical, mental, emotional and social health, with improved self-esteem and greater connection to important people in one’s life.

Stages of Recovery

The Betty Ford Institute and a panel of addiction experts in 2007 created the first consensus definition of the stages of recovery:

  • Early Sobriety:   Sobriety lasting for at least 1 month but less than 1 year
  • Sustained Sobriety:   Sobriety lasting for at least 1 year but less than 5 years
  • Stable Sobriety:   Sobriety lasting for at least 5 years

But recovery is not defined by sobriety alone. The Betty Ford panel described recovery in the  Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment article  as “a voluntarily maintained lifestyle characterized by sobriety, personal health, and citizenship.” In this context, citizenship was defined as “living with regard and respect for those around you.”

The First 90 Days of Recovery

Addiction experts often describe the first 90 days of sobriety as being the most crucial. This is because it is during this time period that relapse is most likely to occur. This early in the process, sober living skills and emotional coping skills have not yet become fully developed, and the recovering person struggles to learn these skills while also resisting the urge to seek comfort in old habits, including substance use.

Common Struggles Faced in Early Recovery

  • Adjusting to a sober lifestyle:  The newly recovering person must make many changes all at once–changes in habits and routines, changes in friendships and social alliances, and changes in the ways they deal with stress and emerging emotional issues that are no longer able to be suppressed.
  • The need to avoid “using” friends and make new ones:  Finding and joining a support group where they feel comfortable and welcomed is important for the newly recovering person.
  • Changes in family, parental, or co-worker roles:  The newly recovering person is often expected to take on more responsibility and have increased availability to those whom they may have neglected during the time when they were unable to do so because of their substance use.
  • Dealing with withdrawal symptoms, cravings and other physical issues associated with the early stage of sobriety and recovery:  If needed, the newly recovering person may seek medical help to relieve withdrawal symptoms. But often, by using positive coping skills (relaxation techniques, meditation, mindfulness, prayer, contacting a sponsor etc.) they can get through on their own and build confidence in themselves and their ability to deal with challenges on their own.

Mental and Emotional Attributes the Newly Recovering Person Must Acquire:

A Consensus Statement from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association (SAMSHA, 2004) outlined 10 Fundamental Components for Recovery. Among the most important are:

  • Hope: Motivation comes from a promise of a better future, with confidence that one has the potential to overcome the challenges and obstacles required to reach a goal. Hope is mostly a personal quality, but it can be nurtured by friends, family and other supporters.
  • Empowerment: Feeling as if you have influence over your own life is a key factor in being successful in any endeavor. Gaining strength and focusing on goals rather than past failures fosters empowerment during recovery.
  • Self-Responsibility: Taking charge of one’s own path, including both risks and rewards, as well as one’s own self-care, is ultimately the only path toward success in recovery.

Tips for Managing the Early Stage of Recovery

Tip#1 Create (and maintain) a daily schedule:   Routine is very important in early sobriety. Studies reveal that one of the main pitfalls leading to relapse is the failure to keep to established routines that were put in place to support sobriety. It would be useful to create daily routines and schedules for:

  • Meals
  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Work-related activities
  • Socialization and recreation
  • Meditation, prayer or inspirational reading
  • Keeping a daily journal

Tip #2 Create (and maintain) sobriety goals:   Goals help you clarify where you want to go; they provide motivation and encourage commitment as you move forward. Set:

  • 30 day goals
  • 3 month goals
  • 6 month goals
  • 1 year goals

Each time you reach a goal, acknowledge your success and reward yourself with something tangible, such as dinner out with a friend. Acknowledging and appreciating your small successes helps you maintain your commitment and energy over time.

Tip #3 Commit to a healthy lifestyle:   Often there is a need to “recover” one’s health as well as one’s sobriety. Ask a nutritionist or search online for ideas about healthy eating. Get regular physical exercise and maintain a regular sleep schedule.

Tip #4 Work Your Program:   Especially in early recovery, it is important to prioritize support group meetings, such as AA, NA or others that follow a planned program with proven success. The opportunity to find and use a sponsor, who becomes your coach, mentor and, most importantly, your main sobriety support person is perhaps the greatest key to the success of 12 Step programs.

Tip #5 Hope for the best, but plan for the worst:   Don’t plan on having a slip or a relapse, but have a plan in case it does happens. Statistics show that it is rare for recovery to follow a straight path to success; most involve one or more relapses. So it is realistic and practical to identify “potential troubles and triggers” (wanting to hold onto old friendships, dealing with being the only “abstainer” at parties, etc.) and have corrective actions figured out ahead of time so that you can quickly implement them (call your sponsor, go to a meeting, etc.).



Images Courtesy of iStock

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.