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The joy of living a healthy, self-directed life caps the journey to recovery from addiction.  But there’s no universal roadmap for getting clean and sober.  So how do you make it through the early days of recovery?  Or transition from treatment to the trials of everyday life?

People who have overcome drug and alcohol addiction say it’s crucial to immerse yourself in the recovery process — even when you don’t feel like it.

Richard Buckman made himself attend 12-step meetings — more than 500 each year in his first three years of sobriety.

“I recognized that I needed to become willing to do things I did not want to do in order to stay in recovery,” says Buckman, a clinical social worker and addiction therapist who has been in long-term recovery since 1988.  Buckman is the current Board Chair of Faces & Voices of Recovery, a national advocacy movement.

“Clean and sober socialization was crucial,” he says.  “I would force myself to go to the diner with others, to attend barbeques and participate in other group outings and to get into a habit of calling others on a regular basis. These activities were contrary to my basic instincts and often felt as if I were trying to walk up a down escalator until they became common place.”

Embracing Bold Changes

The process of recovery is highly personal and largely influenced by your support network and ability to deal with setbacks.  Addiction experts recommend taking time each day to regain your health and reduce negative emotional states that can trigger relapse.  Basic healthy habits are essential:  daily exercise, nutrient-dense eating, quality sleep and managing chronic stress through counseling or meditation.

You may also need to make striking changes in your environment — avoiding risky places and people who fueled your active addiction.

“This can be troubling, especially when there are friends you really care about and that treated you well — they just happened to drink or use illicit drugs too,” Buckman says.  “Many of those who continue to use alcohol and other drugs do not comprehend on a meaningful level the breadth and scope of our intentions to remain abstinent.”

Buckman said it was helpful to arrange a low-risk meeting in a public place with a few friends from his past.  Then he’d express his love and respect for the individual — while making it clear that drugs and alcohol could no longer touch the friendship.

“I found that if our relationship was important to them, they would honor my request and show support,” Buckman says.

Since the first year of sobriety is especially vulnerable to relapse, experts say it’s wise to connect with people who will champion your recovery.  Lean on peer mentors, your addiction therapists, and a sober circle of friends and family to strengthen your resolve.

“Without support, our chances of maintaining long-term recovery from addiction are very small,” says Tonya Wheeler, Executive Director of Advocates for Recovery (AFR) in Colorado.  Wheeler is a Level III certified addictions counselor and a person in recovery since 1990.

“Recovery is not just about putting down the drink or drug.  It’s a lifestyle change that comes with many challenges along the way,” Wheeler says, noting that each person should choose his or her own pathway and support system that’s effective.  “It’s critical to have a strong recovery support network in place and have the willingness to use that network in times of challenge.”

Today, you can also find recovery support online or on your smartphone.  There are dozens of mobile apps to bolster your efforts — such as iPromises Recovery Companion or Hazelden’s Field Guide to Life, which provides first-year support and relapse prevention tools.  Personal stories of inspiration are posted on websites such as Faces & Voices of Recovery ,and free information on relapse and recovery is available from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration .

Building Resilience with Peer Support

Clean living meetings can help you manage the disease of addiction and glean self-help strategies from peers on a similar recovery path.  One study showed that rates of abstinence were about twice as high among those who attended a 12-step group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) following treatment (Kaskutas, 2009, Journal of Addictive Diseases).

“During my first six months it was rough, but I stayed close to the program and got to meetings every day and wrapped myself in the loving arms of AA,” says Thomas Earl Patton, a Washington D.C. attorney in long-term recovery.  “It was they and the loving care of God that got me through it. I was able to see in others’ programs that it did get better, and that hope sustained me.”

In his early recovery, Patton says he experienced strong sugar cravings, among other changes.  “I drank much coffee the first six months and didn’t sleep well,” he says.  “Then a beautiful day arrived when I was about six months sober that I slept soundly, the withdrawal was behind me, and the beautiful promises of AA began coming true.”

Peer-to-peer support includes both AA and other 12-step organizations such as Narcotics Anonymous — as well as alternative pathways including SMART Recovery, LifeRing Secular Recovery and Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS).

To find a recovery meeting near you, check the listings on the group’s website or try mobile apps such as Steps Away or 12-Steps AA Companion.  Online meetings and chat forums are often available also.

Relapse:  A Learning Opportunity

Neuroscience has greatly advanced today’s understanding of addiction, and the profound ways that drug and alcohol abuse alter brain chemistry.  Addiction is now recognized as a chronic, relapsing disease that requires long-term care strategies like any other persistent illness.

“Relapse to drug use sometimes happens, but actually isn’t different than other chronic diseases like diabetes or asthma,” says Dr. Redonna Chandler, Acting Division Director of the Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“While difficult, relapse isn’t a sign of failure, but rather an indicator that more or different drug treatment may be needed.”

The first year after rehab is especially trying — typically, only about 40-60% of patients completely abstain from alcohol and drugs in their post-rehab year (McLellan, et. al., “Drug Dependence, a Chronic Medical Illness:  Implications for Treatment, Insurance and Outcomes Evaluation,” published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, October 2000).  Lack of family and social supports, low economic status and co-occurring psychiatric conditions are key predictors of relapse.

The good news is that there are millions of people in recovery from addiction, and many endured one or more relapses before achieving long-term sobriety.

If you do relapse, view it as a signal for renewed intervention — whether you need to re-engage medical treatment, learn behavior therapy techniques to manage cravings, or enter a sober living home.  Don’t derail the success you’ve already attained, since addiction is treatable and continuing your recovery can enhance your well-being.

Studies also show the longer you are able to maintain your abstinence, the less likely you are to relapse.  If you can make it to five years or more of sobriety, you have a reassuring 86 percent chance of long-term recovery (Dennis et al. 2007; see graph below from the National Institute on Drug Abuse).  And that’s worth doing the real work of recovery.   

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Here are some additional resources to support your recovery: