If you’re five, 10 or 20 years into your recovery and can answer a resounding “yes” to the following questions you’ll know you’ve made it into long-term maintenance of your hard-won recovery:
- Are you no longer plagued by cravings?
- Can you take care of yourself and help others?
- Do you have short- and long-term goals, hobbies and passions?
- Can you cope with emotions and stress in a healthy way?
- Have you created a network of sober friends?
- Do you have a safe, healthy home?
- Have you held a steady job?
- Can you relax and let go while remaining sober?
- Do you consider a sober life a fulfilling life?
If this sounds like you, you’re well-established in maintaining your recovery. As mentioned above, there are no universally agreed stages and transitions of recovery. Maintaining recovery doesn’t look the same for everyone, of course, but generally speaking it is much more than an extended period of abstinence. Rather, it’s a lifelong commitment to a sober life filled with positive, supportive relationships, good nutrition, and enough rest, exercise and stress management. It’s a stage in which your personal goals and dreams can thrive. When you’re maintaining your recovery long-term you might well consider it unthinkable to return to the way you lived when you were using and can’t imagine anything that would be worth losing your sobriety over. Even in the face of a major loss or crisis, you are able to maintain your resolve and your sober life.
What AA Says
Alcoholics Anonymous, which refers to this stage as “advanced recovery,” identifies a series of “promises” for those who find their way there. Even if you don’t belong to a 12-step program or group, you can enjoy the same or similar benefits, which include:
- A new freedom and happiness
- An appreciation for the past, with no regrets
- Peace and serenity
- The ability to use personal experience to help others
- Freedom from self-pity
- An end to selfishness
- A positive outlook
- Economic security
- Intuition to handle difficult situations
- Guidance from a higher power
With a few solid years under your belt, you can now really start to enjoy a sober life. You’ve done the hard work and you’re ready to reach beyond day-to-day survival to day-to-day living. Perhaps you’re embarking on a new job, relationship or hobby or looking forward to finishing a 5K or escaping for a few days on a fun family vacation. The point is that the possibilities are many, and part of maintaining recovery, is planning for the future and fulfilling your dreams.
Though you’ve largely made it past the hard part — your chance of relapse is less than 15% after five years of sobriety, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse — you still need to be aware of any threats to your ongoing recovery. And, in fact, these threats may be different now that you’re maintaining recovery. For example, while it’s always important to safeguard against stress and triggers (people, places and things that you associate with substance abuse or a compulsive behavior), you may now take a mood-altering drug for, say, depression and find yourself back in an addictive cycle. Or you may think that you can handle moderate use of a drug or alcohol; some people can, but others cannot and may jeopardize their sobriety. Remind yourself of the coping techniques that have worked in the past — going for a run, calling a close friend or your sponsor or “urge surfing”(imagine yourself as a surfer who will ride the urge, staying on top of it until it crests, breaks and turns into less powerful, foamy surf). And don’t hesitate to call your therapist for an emergency session if you need it, or pop into a nearby 12-step meeting; listening to others’ stories, especially those of newcomers, can help remind you of the hard work you’ve put in to get to this point.
Part of preventing relapse during this stage also means continuing to work with a mental health professional to address any additional issues that may have emerged in early recovery, like problems related to parenting or marriage, as well as past traumas and/or a co-occurring mental illness. Whether you’ve experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse in childhood or grew up with a mentally ill parent or in a house with domestic violence, for instance, there may be some lingering emotions from past events that you need to work through to ensure lifelong sobriety. And you’re in a better place to deal with these issues now that you’ve gotten to know the new sober you and have real-life experience dealing with daily stress and potential triggers in a healthy way.
The Power of Helping Others
Another crucial part of long-term recovery is being of service to those in need — and in fact, it has been shown to combat isolation, narcissism, resentment and relapse, as well as build empathy, self-esteem and a sense of purpose. According to research led by Dr. Maria Pagano at the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, 40% of alcoholics who helped other alcoholics were able to avoid drinking for the year following treatment; only 22% of those who didn’t help others stayed sober. Another study by Pagano found that addicts who helped other addicts had improved self-image and lower depression levels. You can give back, too, by volunteering at your child’s school or in the community, becoming a sponsor yourself or sharing your story with people who are just starting out in recovery at a self-help support group meeting, rehab center or elsewhere. Your efforts don’t have to be recovery-related, though many people in recovery find this type of service to be particularly therapeutic and deeply rewarding.
If, years into recovery, you’re still feeling resentful about getting well, angry about the past or hopeless about the future, ask yourself whether you’ve done the emotional, psychological and spiritual work of recovery. Remember: It’s never too late to get back to recovery basics, which include counseling, nutrition, exercise and learning coping skills and understanding triggers. You already know that recovery is a lifelong process and every day brings new opportunities to make good decisions that support your desire to live a sober life.