The First 90 Days

There may be debate about the general stages of recovery, but almost everyone agrees that the first 90 days of recovery are critical. That’s because it’s during this time that most relapses occur. You’re still so new to being clean and sober that you haven’t yet become comfortable in practicing your recovery skills or dealing with everyday life without your “drug” of choice, whether that’s a substance(s) or a behavior(s).

If you’re just returning home from treatment, there’s so much that gets thrown at you — your home, family, job and friends. Sometimes — often, in fact — it can feel like too much. When you give up an addiction, you give up more than a substance or behavior; you give up a means of navigating (however ineffectively) life. Without structure, routine and consistency, you’re likely to find your recovery far more difficult to manage, and it may even collapse.

So start off slowly so that you don’t become overwhelmed by all that you want or believe you need to do. Remember that recovery isn’t a race but a lifelong journey.

14 Steps for a Successful First 90 Days

1. Create (and keep to) a daily schedule. Making a daily schedule is much more than busywork. In recovery, it’s essential to have a clear list of what to do and when to help keep you on track. In fact, you’ll probably need to literally schedule most or even all of the hours of the day to accommodate what’s absolutely essential during early recovery. This includes the times you wake up, eat, exercise, work, attend 12-step meetings, go to doctor or therapy appointments, take medication, spend time with family and friends and sleep.

There should be blocks of time, too, for meditation and/or prayer, reading and hobbies. When you always know what’s next on your schedule, you’ll be less likely to have idle time to let your thoughts wander back to using again.

2. Make meetings a priority. If you went to rehab, you likely learned the value of attending 12-step group meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA); they may have even become a necessity for you in recovery. AA has a semi-official rule, called the “90-in-90 rule,” which strongly encouraging members to attend 90 meetings in 90 days. This can be one meeting every day for the full three months, or it can take the form of two to three meetings a day (morning, afternoon and evening, for example). Doubling or tripling up on meetings may even be a means of preserving your sanity during especially troubling times or when you feel a crisis or relapse triggers coming on.

However you do it, and whether you attend 12-step support groups or alternative meetings like SMART Recovery® or Rational Recovery®, ongoing support from people who are working to maintain their sobriety is crucial in the first 90 days and beyond. Visit our 12-Step Recovery section to find a meeting that’s right for you.

3. Find a sponsor, trusted mentor or therapist. If you participate in a 12-step program, finding a sponsor should be a high priority. This important person will help you navigate the program and will serve as your go-to person in times of crisis. For those who choose other kinds of self-help support groups, the goal should be to find and maintain a relationship with a key person you trust and can depend on.

4. Continue seeing your doctor or therapist. Many people in early recovery find that it’s essential to maintain a regular connection with their physician (especially if you’re on medication) and/or your counselor or therapist, if you’re seeing one. So now is not the time to skip appointments. Similarly, if you’re tempted to stop taking prescribed medications to ease cravings, withdrawal and/or a mental health issue, don’t; instead, pick up the phone and call your doc to make an appointment before stopping any treatment regimen.

5. Create a safe environment for yourself. The healing process requires that you feel secure at home. This means that you need to clear out anything that’s related to using — for example, bottles of booze, pills, illicit drugs, pornography or other addictive substances or objects — that are around you or accessible to you. Without delay, get rid of each and every one of them. If you don’t trust yourself to do this, ask your sponsor (if you have one), a trusted loved one to clean out your stash so that your environment is free of any temptation to use.

6. Ask for help from your loved ones. If you’re among the lucky ones who has a spouse, partner or loved one to support and encourage you, ask for his/her assistance in structuring your environment in early recovery. Together you can create a routine that not only works for your recovery but also takes into account and respects the needs of that person, as well as your family, if you have one. This is also the time to ask for a little time and patience.

Especially in early recovery, when staying sober is your primary focus, your partner/spouse may feel neglected or unimportant. Explain that you will need to be self-involved for a little bit longer, and that this is necessary in order for you to get well. Consider attending couples therapy so you can start working on rebuilding your relationship as you learn to live sober.

7. Make a list of goals. Every recovery journey is conducted in the here and now, but it also includes a focus on the future. To do that, you need to craft a list of goals, things that you would like to achieve in the next one, five, 10 or 20 years. When you first start creating your goal list, it may be somewhat vague. Don’t worry; you’ll fill in the blanks as you progress toward them. That’s why it’s important to put down short- and long-term goals. While you’re working on achieving the short-term ones, such as meeting your 30- and 60-day sobriety milestones, you’ll come up with ideas and steps that get you closer to your long-term goals.

For now, just list goals as they come to you. If you think of interim steps or requirements to achieving those goals, mark them down as well. This may include a long-term goal of finishing or getting a degree, and short-term goals of applying to a college or university, securing financing, choosing courses and attending classes.

8. Pay attention to your diet, sleep and physical activity. Getting back to feeling in tip-top shape and maintaining your sobriety entail more than just streamlining your schedule, of course. Part of your new, structured environment in early recovery involves taking care of your nutritional needs and getting adequate rest and regular exercise. During early recovery, you are likely to be recovering from the effects of your addiction, or from complications related to your using. For example, you may be anemic, feel weak, or have a compromised immune system.

Begin by stocking your refrigerator and pantry with the following

  • Whole foods (including fresh fruits and vegetables)
  • Lean meat
  • Seafood
  • Whole-grain cereals, breads, rice or pasta

If you’re not a cook and you don’t have anyone to prepare meals for you, buy a good cookbook or research recipes online to create menus filled with nutritious, easy-to-make meals. In fact, you may find that preparing tasty dishes can be a form of therapy and relaxation, besides being good for your overall health. Visit our Recipes section for some easy meals during recovery.

It’s also common to experience periods of sadness or feeling blue in the early days of recovery; many who return home following treatment say they just want to hole up and sleep for a couple of weeks straight. Others are plagued by insomnia; addiction disrupts the body’s circadian rhythms, making it difficult to fall (or stay) asleep without your drug/behavior of choice. In general, you should work toward getting eight to nine hours of solid shut-eye per night.

And try to schedule some time each day to get active; start with a 20-minute walk and add on from there. Regular exercise builds your body back up and gives you a healthy way to release difficult or pent-up emotions, including anger, sadness and frustration. Visit the Sleep and Exercise sections for more tips on these.

9. Learn your triggers and practice healthy coping skills. It goes without saying that you need to avoid triggers that can push you toward relapse; these can be especially hard to manage as you start your recovery, when you haven’t yet developed a set of tools to help you fend off the cravings to use.

Simply put, you’ll need to start by finding ways to steer clear of the people, places and things you most associate with using, including:

  • A former drug-using acquaintance
  • An old haunt where you used to drink, score drugs, gamble or hook up with casual sexual partners

Since you can’t realistically get rid of all known triggers — which can include things like the sound of ice cubes in a glass on TV, or an ad promoting a nearby casino — keep a log, if that helps, so you know what to do when you experience a trigger.

The good news is that most cravings and urges last only about 20 minutes. If you can get through them by using your coping mechanisms (distraction, counting, cleaning, crossword puzzles, calling your 12-step sponsor, etc.), you’ll not only have effectively overcome the craving, you’ll also have the beginning of a manual of various ways to help yourself stay sober.

10. Don’t rush back to work. If you can, give yourself a week or two before you go back to your job, if you have one. You’ll need this time to re-acclimate to being home and to get your schedule down for how, exactly, you’ll maintain your recovery. For example, you may want to find out the times and locations of the 12-step meetings you’ll be attending, perhaps daily, especially if you find returning to work very stressful. You might go to a meeting before work, at lunchtime and/or right after work, for example, during the days and weeks you’re first back on the job.

11. Limit social engagements. A well-rounded and healthy recovery process includes time for seeing friends and getting out to enjoy recreational and educational activities. But the first few weeks of recovery isn’t the time to start jamming up your social calendar. In fact, strive for the opposite. While you certainly can and should see some of your close friends and go to a movie or two, for the most part during the first 90 days you will want to stick close to home or invite close friends and family over to visit. There will be plenty of time down the line to ramp up your social life, when you’re more confident of your ability to effectively maintain your recovery in all situations and are feeling strong and healthy again.

12. Avoid major life changes. Keeping your life simple means adhering to the 12-step rule of no major life changes during your first year of recovery. Major life changes include everything from getting married or divorced, changing residences (unless you need to in order to remove yourself from partners or friends that continue to use), quitting or changing jobs (unless absolutely necessary), deciding to have children and so on. There will be ample time to make these major decisions when you are stronger in your recovery and more confident in your capabilities.

13. Celebrate milestones. Baby steps are very important in this beginning stage of recovery. The 30-, 60- and 90-day sobriety chips that you will receive in meetings (if you attend them) are more than just pieces of plastic; these symbolize your ongoing commitment to recovery and are an achievement to be proud of. Take the time to celebrate (in a sober way) these important reminders of the new life you’ve chosen. 

14. Give thanks for each day. Sometimes we get so caught up in day-to-day routines — whether in the first 90 days or years later — that we fail to express gratitude for our successes, lessons learned and accomplishments. It doesn’t matter if you’re thanking yourself, God, a higher power or the power of the spirit. What does matter is that you put your feeling of gratefulness out there. This is one aspect of your newly structured life — prayer, meditation or you may wish to call it something else — that pays dividends far beyond the mere utterance or thinking of the words.

Even the most stressful or frustrating day deserves acknowledgement. You’ve made it through the day and have succeeded in facing many diverse challenges and opportunities. That means you are that much better equipped to face tomorrow.

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