The first thing you should know about recovery is that everyone has his or her own experience.
While it would be nice to have a step-by-step guide of exactly what to expect, that just isn’t the reality.
With that being said, the first year of recovery can be painted in rather broad strokes. Depending on the specific substance, the stages of recovery will vary in degrees of severity and time. All in all, the first year presents a rollercoaster of ups and downs.
Sometimes it will feel easy. Other times, you will find yourself outraged. From joy to tears, the best chance of surviving the initial obstacles is by knowing what to expect. You can’t defeat an internal opponent without first knowing what to look for.
There are no hard or soft lines defining the different stages of getting sober, but here are two conditions to be aware of during the first year of recovery.
1. The Many Phases of Detox
The first thing a person will experience after giving up a substance is some kind of detoxification. In cases where a person is using opiates or another physically addicting chemical, medication and treatment will be necessary in order to help wean the body from the substance safely.
For other substances, like methamphetamine, the body will require extra rest and adequate nutrition. Seeking medical attention is always recommended in order to find the best treatment for your unique needs.
There is a common misconception that once the initial phase of detoxification is complete, the absence of the chemical will allow the person in recovery to increasingly feel better. Unfortunately, while the initial phase of detox is an essential component, it is not the end game. In fact, in many cases, once the drug is out of the system a person can feel worse.
An article in Psychology Today explains that the elimination of toxins is just the first phase of detox. The second phase of detoxing, and its intensity, will correlate with the severity, time, and types of substances a person was abusing. The second phase can last anywhere from two weeks to several months following cessation. At worst-case scenario, the condition could last longer than a year.
This second phase, termed post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), is still being researched. While many addiction research specialists are fully educated on PAWS, many suffering from this condition are not, according to a Huffington Post article. The importance of being educated on PAWS could be the difference between a person relapsing (or worse) and long-term sobriety.
PAWS can develop after having been dependent on the following:
- Benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Ativan)
- Opiates (heroin, Vicodin, Oxycontin)
Symptoms of PAWS include:
- Mood swings resembling an affective disorder
- Anhedonia (a form of depression leading individual lacking the ability to feel pleasure)
- Extreme drug craving and obsession
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Depression (suicidal ideation and suicide)
- Emotional numbness or overreaction
- Inability to focus
Depending on biological and environmental factors, anyone suffering from PAWS could feel a varying range of symptoms. If you feel any of these symptoms, talk with your doctor or treatment specialist.
2. The Need for Structure
Along with these emotional and cognitive dysfunctions, during this time, depending on how long a person used, the sudden entry into an uncertain future can be overwhelming. The slightest change in routine can trigger anxiety and cravings.
Professional treatment is critical in many cases because it provides immediate structure and a team of counselors, therapists, and support in order to create a solid foundation. If you participate in a support group like AA, attending meetings consistently and frequently will also help provide support for the difficult times.
A lack of structure combined with possible PAWS symptoms likely explains why so many relapses happen in those first three months. The hopelessness that comes with depression and the anxiety that comes with a lack of support and a consistent, reliable routine can lead a person to believing that a drug or drink is the answer to feeling better.
Taking this into consideration, under severe cases of addiction, staying in rehab or outpatient treatment beyond 90 days might be the best solution to prevent relapse.
Many people in recovery initially feel excitement and joy at being clean, a natural high that comes in the beginning. The world can appear full of possibility and rosier than ever. Be aware that the initial high will eventually fade, and you will find yourself facing the same issues that were there all along.
Getting sober doesn’t solve problems that existed before you ever picked up the substance. Be realistic, and get help if you feel yourself sliding. Recognize and accept the substantial self-care and work that will be required for your continued sobriety. Addiction will never be cured, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to thrive.