Early Recovery

Early recovery includes the first 90 days of sobriety and can last up to the first year or so of recovery. The truth is, there’s no agreement on what constitutes “early recovery,” but what you’ll find here should be a good overview of this important time and offer you guidance on some tried-and-true ways to help sustain your recovery. You may, though, hear other definitions for this period in your sobriety.

What’s most important to understand is that early recovery is an opportunity for you to start fresh. You are now sober, perhaps for the first time in a very long time. This definitely will entail a lot of work (no question about that), and you may find that everything around you feels very real all of a sudden. You may find that various emotions come and go rapidly, without warning. Take this time to understand what you’re feeling, exactly, how to feel and allow yourself to process what it is you’re feeling, even if it is scary or just unfamiliar. This may involve a daily and even a minute-by-minute struggle. The fact is, recovery, just like whatever treatment you were given for your addiction(s), is unique to each person. There’s no straight path that every single addict follows. Here are some things you can do to stay the course and ensure you maintain your recovery in the early days, beyond the first three months or so:

Make time for play. Now that you’re in early recovery, you’ve likely realized that staying sober is a lot of hard work and it can be exhausting — and you’re likely ready for some playtime; you’ve earned it, after all. Taking time to enjoy yourself with healthy activities and relationships is an excellent way to add joy to your day and embrace life in recovery. What you choose to do in your playtime is entirely up to you — and it doesn’t have to be elaborate or take up a big chunk of time to be worthwhile. If you love reading, for example, take some time to loose yourself in a favorite book. Or, say music really gets you enthused, create a favorite playlist for your ride to and from work, school, 12-step meetings and daily errands. If you have kids, you may even want to involve them by taking a trip to the park or local museum. Whatever you choose, think of playtime as a much-needed opportunity to unwind, relax and rejuvenate. And, perhaps, the best part: You’ll be better prepared mentally to tackle those scheduled recovery tasks (meetings, counseling, goal setting) once you’ve played a little.

Be proud of milestones. In the world of 12-step programs, anniversaries and other milestones are a big deal, first celebrated by the awarding of plastic chips to acknowledge 24 hours, 30 days, 60 days and then 90 days of sobriety. At the one-year milestone, you’ll receive a bronze coin. Most people in recovery look on their first-year anniversary as the time when their sober life truly began to take form and shape. It’s a celebration of the hard work it took to get to this point in your recovery, and recognition of an achievement in creating a solid foundation of recovery.

Try not to let urges upset you. It’s common for cravings to surface in early recovery – even years after successfully being in recovery, sometimes. The fact that you have cravings shouldn’t be cause for concern; it’s how you handle them that matters most. It’s often said that if you can make it through 20 minutes (about the length of time a craving lasts), you’ll be fine. Distract yourself with games, reading, chores, work, exercise, calling a friend or your sponsor or prayer. Even a simple counting exercise can break the spell. If your cravings don’t hew to the 20-minute rule, monitor how long they last then develop your coping strategies accordingly.

Mix up meetings. If you’ve decided to go the 12-step route, part of this process will, of course, include regularly attending meetings. Pick one location to serve as your main hub, so to speak — that is, the one meeting you commit to attending each week regardless of any other meetings you go to; your home group is most likely the one where your sponsor is. But you’ll probably also want to mix up meetings to keep things from getting too rote or boring. So, from time to time, try out different locations; you’ll get a feel for the personalities and group energy at each of these and will undoubtedly find one or more other groups that naturally appeal to you. This mix can be crucial in helping you to keep a fresh perspective and continue to learn. Plus, you’ll widen your circle of sober friends and acquaintances.

Choose friends wisely. By now you know that you need to steer clear of all the people, places and other influences that made you more likely to use. If you try to maintain friendships with those who continue to drink, do drugs or engage in other addictive behaviors, you may realize that you have little or nothing in common anymore. More important, they are likely to jeopardize your sobriety. For example, anyone who’s tried to drink soda while their friends get loaded or stoned can attest to the fact that once you’ve adopted a sober lifestyle with conviction, being around falling-down drunks just isn’t that appealing.

Which is not to say it’s going to be easy to part with some of these old friendships or to break long-standing patterns of hanging out at happy hour with co-workers. You can either be upfront about it, explaining that you’re in recovery and choose not to use, or you can politely excuse yourself and simply say that you have other obligations. It’s really up to you; what’s important is that you find a way to remove yourself from these triggers. If you continue to hang out with people who use your drug(s) of choice, there may soon come a time when you say, for example, “What the heck? Give me a drink.” Before you know it, you’ve relapsed. Why take the chance? Early recovery is just too soon to put yourself in these potentially jeopardizing situations.

Prepare yourself for PAWS. Many addicts don’t see post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) coming. This condition, which can last from one month to several years after you stop using, includes a variety of symptoms, ranging from irritability, sleep troubles and intermittent anxiety to prolonged depression. Often, there’s an accompanying lack of motivation that can make doing regular things — going to work, eating dinner or watching a movie, for example — nearly unbearable. About half the time, these symptoms will simply disappear over the course of your recovery. For the other half, though — especially if you’re experiencing depression and it’s not going away — you will want to talk with your health care provider about the possibility of taking an antidepressant and/or starting talk therapy with cognitive-behavioral and other strategies.

Avoid dating. The “one-year rule” for waiting on romance/sex has been long used by AA and other self-help groups as a way to help safeguard recovery. The reason: Caring for yourself should be your primary objective now and a relationship can distract you from those efforts. You’re also still learning about yourself — and especially your new self, without drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex or whatever you used. This means you may not be in the best place to judge who would be a suitable partner. It’s also important to note that it’s easy to become addicted to the high of a new relationship and/or sex. (This, of course, is particularly dangerous for those who are in recovery from love, sex and/or porn addiction(s).) Visit our Dating section in to read more about the dangers of dating in early recovery.

Continue to work on making amends. Making amends to those whom you’ve wronged is likely part of your recovery plan, especially if you attend 12-step meetings. This step can take a few days or many years to finish; there’s no set timeline. By making amends, you’re setting past wrongs or repairing any damage caused by mistakes you made. The exception, however, is if doing so would cause more harm. Making amends is more than just praying and meditating on these mistakes, but whenever possible, taking action to repair what needs to be fixed. If you stole money from a family member to pay a gambling debt, for example, making amends would mean paying back the money.

Watch out for overconfidence. After being in recovery for a while, it may start to seem like you’ve got it all down. You know what to do and you’ve begun to feel like you can handle any situation. As a result, you may let some of your regular recovery to-do items slide, like regularly attending 12-step meetings or practicing self-care habits like healthy eating or exercising. If you find yourself becoming complacent or overly confident about your sobriety, you may need to reassess and reinvest in your recovery program.

Recognize the signs of relapse. Knowing the signs of relapse can give you the time to take proactive steps to avoid slipping back into using. For some, a single trigger can signal relapse is on the way. The key is learning how to recognize the warnings and reaching out for support at the first sign of trouble. Some common signs include:

  • Increasing feelings of hopelessness or negativity
  • Easily angered or annoyed
  • Complacency or overconfidence
  • Increased stress
  • Skipping meetings
  • Putting yourself in risky situations
  • Loss of interest in family, friends and activities

Apply the rules of healthy living. Addiction takes a tremendous toll on the body as well as the mind, and it’s very common for addicts to neglect basic self-care. To build your body back up, it’s crucial that you eat regular, well-balanced, nutritious meals; get ample, good-quality sleep each night so you wake up refreshed, renewed and ready to take on the day; and schedule some time every day to be physically active and to de-stress. All are crucial not just for regaining your health, but also to ensure you have the fortitude to stay sober, in early recovery and beyond. Visit the Healthy Living section for more tips.

Develop your spiritual side. You’ve been through a lot. So it’s natural to feel physically, emotionally and spiritually drained by the experience. As you make your way through recovery, take the time to reawaken (or awaken for the first time) your spirituality; many people in recovery find that doing so can greatly enhance quality of life and strengthen recovery. You don’t need to be a religious person to be spiritual; a spiritual connection can be cultivated through mindfulness meditation, yoga or simply walking in nature. Mantras, prayers and affirmations can help reinforce both your spiritual self and your commitment to a sober, healthy life.

Take time to have fun. Having a good time without using may be a brand-new experience for you, so it can definitely take some patience and practice to figure this out. Start simple and go to a funny movie or comedy show with a friend, or work on a hobby. Maybe a visit to a spa, or redecorating a room, is more therapeutic for you. Whatever it is you find relaxing and fulfilling is ultimately good for your recovery.

“Feel your feelings.” Sit in on a couple of 12-step meetings and this is one of the recovery buzz phrases that you’re sure to hear. Seasoned members have learned (often the hard way) that one of the biggest mistakes those in early recovery can make is to deny the emotional place in which you find yourself. Convinced that emotions are less important than actions, or that you’re unjustified, unreasonable or unspeakable, you may ignore, avoid or “stuff” them. When you dismiss feelings as silly, unfounded or not worth exploring, they don’t go away, though; they simply move underground, so to speak, to a place where they can come back later. While it’s true that emotions shouldn’t rule us, it’s also true that moving from a life of addiction — with all of its established characteristics and predictable outcomes — to a life of sobriety is going to produce difficult, uncomfortable feelings. Do your best to look at these honestly and give yourself space and time to sort them out, as they arise.

Mind your financial responsibilities. Who doesn’t feel stressed out by bills? You may have a mountain of these to deal with following treatment, too. If you’re just getting back on your feet, it’s tempting to bury bill in a drawer or just ignore them completely. But as you’ve learned from your treatment, if you leave things untended long enough, they’ll only get worse. Part of structuring your environment in early recovery is making a serious effort to stay on top of your finances. Even if you can’t pay all your bills right now, you can talk to a financial counselor to come up with a plan that will put you on track to eventually meet your obligations. Ask your 12-step sponsor or a friend or family member for a recommendation, or call your creditors yourself and work out a repayment schedule. Even if you’re behind on your mortgage, most lenders would much rather receive some payment each month than have to foreclose on your property.

Keep in mind that walking away from your monetary responsibilities carries some long-term consequences and is especially damaging to your credit. But perhaps even more important is the fact that abandoning your responsibilities goes against what you’ve learned about being in recovery. Though it is not your fault that you have an addiction, you do need to accept responsibility for your actions. And your financial responsibilities are part of that.

Set, and complete, goals. It’s important to carve out some time in your schedule for creating recovery goals. You need time to think, dream and create short- and long-term goals and the action plans to go along with each. Begin with a more easily attainable goal, like being on time for work every day, or taking your child out for ice cream after school once a week. Think of your goal-setting as an ongoing process, one that you will never be done with. It’s important to continually strive for something on the horizon that gets you closer to the life you want to live — even if that may seem a little nebulous in these early days of your recovery.

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