The First Year in Recovery: What to Expect

When you complete treatment for substance abuse or other addictive behavior and are beginning your recovery, you’re probably a little familiar with what to expect during those first few days and weeks. But having learned a bit about what will possibly happen and actually living it are two different things. Then, there’s the whole what happens for the rest of the first year that you have to contend with. What’s the best way to sort it all out? Is there some kind of roadmap or guidebook that can let you know what you’re in for? What can you expect in the first year of recovery?

Everyone is Different

You’ve heard this before and it’s well worth repeating. Exactly how your recovery progresses will be different from everyone else who’s in recovery. Just as your treatment progressed according to a tailored program specifically designed for you, it’s reasonable to expect that the pace of your recovery will be very much dependent on how you work it, your emotional and psychological state of mind, your physical condition, the strength of your support networks, living conditions, whether or not you’re employed, and other factors. In other words, while you can look at how others are doing – perhaps friends you make in 12-step groups – you really can’t compare your recovery to theirs. One person you meet may be recovering from a short stint of marijuana abuse and occasional drinking and seems to have no problems. Another may be a chronic, long-term alcoholic who also suffers from cirrhosis of the liver or other complications of alcoholism – and has a very difficult time. You’ll likely meet individuals in the rooms who have are in recovery after treatment for co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorder. Each person’s recovery will be unique. With that in mind, however, there are some phases of recovery during the first year that are fairly common. They may not occur in accordance to the calendar, but, sooner or later, everyone in recovery will likely experience them. Some may go through the recovery stages more than once – if they slip and relapse, or fail to do the work required.

Depression Common

Many people experience feelings of depression – the so-called “blues” – during the early stages of recovery, generally considered to be the first year in recovery. When depression occurs, it can not only interfere with your recovery but also your ability to participate in treatment. Let’s take a particular depressive symptom – poor concentration. If you have this symptom as a result of depression, you may be unable to or have more difficulty in paying attention to group therapy sessions or listening to another 12-step group member who’s sharing a personal experience during a fellowship meeting. Don’t be overly distressed about feeling blue during the first few weeks of recovery. But if the condition lasts considerably longer, or if you find that your feelings are worsening, that you have long bouts of sadness or think at all about suicide, get in touch with your doctor or therapist immediately. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK at any time of the day or night if you just can’t take it anymore. The call is free, and is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. You will be routed to the crisis center nearest to you. So while it’s normal to experience some periods of sadness or being blue in the early days of recovery, it should pass within a few weeks. As you get more involved and active in working your recovery, your thoughts will tend to be focused more on the doing and less on the thinking of negative and depressing thoughts.

Getting Acquainted with Schedules

Becoming accustomed to scheduling your time is critically important to getting your recovery jump started. At first, there’s the 12-step meetings that you need to put on your daily agenda. Since this is an all-new period of sobriety for you, it’s only natural that you’d feel confused, a little disoriented, fearful of doing the wrong thing, unsure what to do when, even how to get through the day. That’s what your 12-step meetings are for. Schedule them three times a day in the first few weeks, if that’s what it takes to ease your mind and get you on track working your recovery. The good news is that there are 12-step groups everywhere, in all 50 states and many foreign countries. If you can’t physically get to a meeting, you can find one on the Internet or engage in a tele-session. There’s always support available to you – and you simply must learn how to involve yourself in these meetings. Another vital step in your early weeks of recovery is to find a sponsor. Go to a few meetings and see how you relate to various individuals that you might consider asking to be your sponsor. Why do you need a sponsor so soon? The truth is that your sponsor can help you in the transition to recovery. Being unfamiliar with how the Twelve Steps work, or having a lot of questions about the group process, what to expect, how to handle overwhelming urges and cravings – that’s what your sponsor commits to helping you with. Your sponsor is not your therapist, however, and doesn’t undertake that responsibility. You still need to see your therapist if you have continuing care or aftercare as part of your overall treatment program. If not, and you do have some issues still to work out, call your treatment facility and ask for a referral. Don’t forget that your return home has caused a major shift in the family situation. Now that you’re back home, there’s the daily routine of the family that may factor into your recovery schedule. You can’t allow your recovery to be jeopardized because you feel obligated to jump right back in to a situation you’re not prepared for. To avoid hard feelings and misunderstandings, have a conversation with your spouse or partner right away about the importance of keeping to your recovery schedule. Schedules in the first three months will start becoming easier to deal with after the first few weeks. If you have a job, you’ll likely be returning to it shortly after you return home from treatment. This will probably be somewhat stressful, and there are a lot of conflicting emotions you’ll likely encounter when you go back to the job and interact with your boss and co-workers. Give yourself time to get readjusted. Don’t go overboard by tackling projects and assignments all at once. You’ll not only be over stressing yourself, you’ll be setting yourself up for a crash. Attempting to do too much too soon is a recipe for relapse. How do you get acquainted with schedules? Start by mapping it all out on paper or the computer. Jot down where you need to be – 12-step meetings, work, doctor or therapist, meals, hobbies, recreation, etc. – and when for each day of the week. Allow a little flexibility or free time to read, meditate, spend time relaxing with the family. Gradually, modify your schedules to meet your changing needs. And your needs will change as you progress in recovery. But keep in mind that scheduling is going to be important for your first year in recovery.

Avoid Overconfidence

When you’re about six months into your recovery, if things have been going fairly smoothly for you, it’s quite possible that you might start to feel a little overconfident. You may think, for example, that you can take a chance and go out with your former drinking buddies again – just once. You may tell yourself that you’ll just have coffee or sparkling water, but the odds that you’ll be able to stick to this resolve are slim to none. Don’t be tempted. It’s simply not worth the risk. Anyone who’s ever tried this will tell you it’s harder than they thought. And once your pals start bending their elbows at the bar and try to shove drinks in your direction, it’s all over. You’ll never be able to stop at just one. In fact, the first one is just the prelude to way too many. When you’re in recovery, you just have to give up the idea of ever drinking again. That may seem way too tough to handle – and forever is, if you think about it in those terms. Just resolve to stay sober today. Live in the present. Resist the temptation to think that you can handle the cravings and urges that will come your way if you put yourself in harm’s way – like going to hang out at the bar with your friends. Just do what you need to do today for your recovery. Greet each day with a positive outlook and keep working your recovery.

Nine Months to One Year

After three-quarters of a year and moving on up to the one-year mark in recovery, things should be smoothed out quite a bit. By now, you know the danger signs, the people, places and things you have to avoid because of their association with addiction. You know when you’ve pushed yourself too hard and need to back off a bit, recognizing that your recovery always comes first. You might start thinking that you’ve got this whole recovery thing licked, that you can slack off a little and forego meetings. Don’t succumb to this thought. One quick way to derail your recovery is to stop doing the work you need to be doing. When you’re focusing more on getting ahead, making more money, all those other plans that interfere with the business of your recovery, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. For one thing, your recovery could stall. You may not make any progress in working the steps or you could even slip and relapse. Sure, you might not be going to as many meetings each week. That’s perfectly understandable. There is a tendency to need the frequency of meetings less as time goes on. But you still need to go to your weekly meeting. Don’t let this become a casualty of your new life. You are in recovery and you will always be in recovery. If not for recovery, where would you be? Another benefit to continuing to go to meetings is the reinforcement such support brings. No matter how many years you are in recovery, there will always come a time when you have a crisis. You might think you’ve left cravings and urges far behind, having successfully weathered them time and time again. Then a major situation comes up, one which taxes you emotionally, psychologically, and even physically. Suddenly you forget what to do, or your formerly-successful coping mechanisms don’t work this time. It happens, and more often that you think. Even your sponsor has times of crisis. Just because he or she is your sponsor doesn’t mean these things don’t happen. Many in recovery continue to attend regular – at least weekly – 12-step meetings for many years. It’s like maintenance to them, keeping them where they need to be and always with their recovery first and foremost. Also, after you conclude your first year in recovery, if you’ve worked all through the Twelve Steps, you might be at the point where you begin to think of being of service to others – those who are new to recovery, just as you once were.

Relapse Dangers

Although it’s more likely to occur during the first 90 days of recovery, the danger of relapse is always there. The only way to guard against relapse is to actively work your recovery each day, every day. Recognize that there will be good days and days where everything seems to go wrong. It doesn’t matter if this is the first month or month nine. When stuff happens, it sometimes happens all at once. By working your recovery, practicing the strategies that you’ve found effective, networking and gaining support from your family and 12-step groups, you will be gaining strength and confidence in your abilities to remain sober. What are the chances that you’ll relapse after a year? The good news is that the longer you’re clean and sober, the less likely that you’ll have a major relapse. If you do slip, you’ve got ready access to a solid support network that can help you get back on your feet again. If it’s a temporary slip, just get back to doing what worked to keep you sober before. If it’s a major relapse, consider going back in for treatment. Maybe there are some lessons you didn’t quite learn the first time that will make more of an impression this time. Whatever happens, a slip or a relapse isn’t the end of the world. It’s not a failure, either. It just means you need to work your recovery harder. But, if things have been going well for you the past year, relapse is less likely to occur. That doesn’t mean that you won’t be tested. This is where your sponsor and 12-step support group really come in handy.

First Year Sobriety

There’s no question that the first year of sobriety can be alternately a time of elation, depression, delight or confusion. You may go from being completely thrown by events and challenges to being better able to cope with daily stresses and opportunities. Learning how to deal with anger, overcome isolation, find joy in learning new things and meeting new people, even learning how to experience and appreciate overwhelming – and completely unexpected – happiness takes quite a bit of doing. One book that may be helpful is First Year Sobriety, by Guy Kettelhack. It is available for download through A paperback version is also available through Amazon. Another book that some have found insightful is My First Year in Recovery: A Journal for the Journey.

Rejoice and Keep Working the Steps

Bottom line: when you’ve made it to your first-year anniversary of sobriety, it’s time to celebrate the milestone and keep working the steps. Recovery is all about continuity, doing what works, learning how to be of service to others once you’ve found your footing. Rejoice in your sobriety and live in the present, happy and joyful in each day of recovery.

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