How should you define a successful addiction recovery? In some ways, this can be challenging, due to recovery’s ongoing nature. You may get an easily marked recovery starting line, but you may never get a clear finish line.
Defining a successful addiction recovery can be especially challenging for the loved ones of people with substance use disorder, who can only observe recovery from the outside.
Sobriety Defined, Then and Now
So how long do you need to be free from misuse of alcohol and drugs to be considered sober? How long do you need to remain sober to be considered successfully recovered, instead of still in recovery?
Traditionally, successful addiction recovery meant staying completely sober from all substances, while “counting time,” perhaps by earning 12-step coins for each chunk of sober time, and celebrating “clean birthdays” every year. For many people, viewing recovery in this regard was helpful, and meaningful in a way that kept them able to live healthier, happier lives. In 2007, the Betty Ford Institute convened a panel that defined recovery as a “voluntarily maintained lifestyle characterized by sobriety, personal health, and citizenship.”
In recent years, the focus of addiction treatment has begun to shift away from counting time spent sober, to counting time without problematic addiction behavior. The DSM-5 diagnoses a remission or recovery from substance use disorder as having a 12 month or longer period where you have met none of the DSM-5 criteria for substance use disorder—which includes behaviors such as using more of a substance for a longer time than intended and continuing to use despite suffering negative consequences related to your addiction, such as health problems, failures at work, and relationship problems.
SAMHSA’s Principles of Recovery
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is always working to advocate for people in recovery and help professionals in the field as well as consumers to understand mental health and addiction recovery, and to continue to evolve the prevailing concepts related to recovery. To this end, they recently developed an updated definition of recovery, which includes a list of four major dimensions that support a successful addiction recovery.
Their official definition of recovery is: “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” To support this process of change, individuals must attend to the following four dimensions:
Maintaining proper help to help defeat your addiction, and its symptoms. By making healthy choices you improve both your mental and physical health.
Locating and staying in a safe and stable home environment. Finding a reliable place to live will help with your overall recovery process.
Regularly engaging in meaningful activities such as school, volunteering, employment, family caretaking, or creative pursuits; and achieving and maintaining the income, independence, and resources to take part in society.
Finding and maintaining social networks and interpersonal relationships that provide, love, friendship, support, and hope.
How to Define Your Addiction Recovery Success
Research has shown that these four different dimensions of addiction recovery do not necessarily progress at the same rate, or even in the same direction. For example, mental health often declines early in recovery, as the individual contends with withdrawal symptoms and learns to cope with stressors without relying on substances. Changes in the brain brought on by addiction can also create mental health problems, and while most of these changes can heal, it may take a long while for the brain to achieve the right balance of neurotransmitters for optimum functioning. Other dimensions, such as purpose, may only improve gradually, as the individual figures out what they want to do with their lives and starts taking on more responsibilities and gaining more independence.
What matters in recovery is that you continually work towards overall life improvement, using the resources available to you and within you to resolve problems and heal wounds, to connect with others, and to take actions to manage the unique vulnerabilities that contributed to your addiction behavior. Improvement in all areas may not be equal, and you may backslide in one area while leaping forwards in another, but as long as you can look back after six months, a year, or more, and know that you’re in a better place than you were before, you are achieving a successful addiction recovery.
If this concept of recovery sounds somewhat non-specific to you, it’s because that’s partly the point. There are a multitude of different ways to achieve a successful addiction recovery. Some people may thrive while following the 12-steps, while others may not respond well to that approach. Some people want to be high-achieving and make their mark on the world in a big way, while others are happier living quietly, enjoying new hobbies and time with friends. Either way, successful recovery means building a good life, and what it means to have “a good life” is entirely up to you.
No matter what kind of life you choose to build, and even if you haven’t yet decided what kind of life you want, still remember to celebrate milestones of all kinds (with healthy activities and rewards). It’s important make note of addiction recovery success, but you don’t have to “count time” if you don’t want to. Rather than celebrate “90 days clean” you may choose to celebrate the first time you attend a family event without drinking, or the fact that you’re now fit and healthy enough to run around the block without panting.
Removing the Stigma of Relapse
Relapse is common in substance use disorders, and should not be seen as a failure. Recovery is a journey, and sometimes you’ll have to take detours, or even switch vehicles. You may think you’ve already reached your destination, only to discover a few months later that you haven’t quite gotten there yet. It’s all part of the process. Rather than tear yourself or someone else down as a failure for relapsing, you should support them for returning to treatment or changing their treatment plan so they can get sober again. If someone “beats cancer,” only to have it come back, you would not call their recovery a failure, you would just support them through a new round of treatments.
Although the ideal goal in recovery is to completely abstain from drugs and alcohol, abstinence alone does not equal addiction recovery success. You could be completely sober, but if you have negative relationships, a rocky home life, no stable income, and no meaningful pursuits, you can’t exactly claim a successful recovery.
On the other hand, if you got drunk the night after a loved one’s death, ending a two-year streak of sobriety, but did not continue to drink afterwards, and were able to return to and maintain the well-rounded, healthy life you had built in recovery, you could consider yourself to be quite successful. A brief relapse does not erase all the improvements you made, and does not cancel out your previous 24 months of sobriety as if they never happened. Those achievements are still yours to be proud of.
Besides, complete abstinence, forever and ever, can be difficult to achieve, and in some cases, impossible. If someone has an addiction to food, they can’t be expected to stop eating, and a sex addict should not be expected to never again have sex. There are gray areas when it comes to substances as well. Very strict time counters would say that you have stopped being sober and are starting back from day one if you had to take painkillers for a time after a surgery or injury. But it would be kinder, and more practical, to understand that an exception had to be made, and to celebrate the fact that you were able to stop taking painkillers when you were supposed to, and return to living drug-free afterwards.
It is crucial to recognize that problems can ebb and flow, and to make sure that judgement does not get in the way of your progress. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are starting back from zero after a relapse. All the tools you acquired during recovery, all the progress you made—these things are still a part of you. Believing they are not makes you vulnerable to giving up and losing hope.
Recovery Is Not One-Size Fits All
The United States is suffering a huge treatment gap. A recent SAMHSA survey found that 89.2% of Americans who need addiction treatment are not getting the help they need. To close this gap, we need to increase access to quality treatment, raise awareness about the efficacy of addiction treatment, reduce the stigma associated with substance use disorder and treatment, and encourage physicians to implement more screening and intervention methods so that patients with substance use disorder can be diagnosed, and referred to a treatment facility.
Once you accept that you need help for a problem with drugs or alcohol, the next step depends on your unique needs. You may choose to check into a facility for a medical detox, followed by inpatient treatment, where you live at a hospital-based treatment center for two weeks to 90 days. Or you may find that an outpatient program is more appropriate for you. It doesn’t matter which kind of treatment interventions you choose, as long as those choices are based on what you need for your own situation and goals. There is no one-size fits all recovery experience, and some people have to figure out what works best for them as they go along. Do your research, ask for help, keep an open mind, and sooner or later, you’ll find the solutions that work best for you.
Recovery Continues After Rehab
Each moment of your recovery journey is equally important. You’ll learn so many important lessons in rehab, but it is equally important to apply those lessons well as you transition back into everyday life after being discharged from treatment. Recovery isn’t just about finishing a program and staying sober—you also have to get out into the world, be self-sufficient, and take care of your bills, your health, and your happiness.
As you continue on in recovery, stay true to the things that you value most. While one person you meet in treatment might see getting a six-figure salary as the symbol of their recovery success, another may see success in planting and growing vegetables in a community garden. The milestones you use to measure your success do not have to match anyone else’s. As long as you feel content with yourself, comfortable in your own skin, and hopeful for the future—or at least feel as if you are working towards feeling these things, even if you haven’t quite gotten there yet—then you can be grateful for what you are accomplishing in your recovery.
Here are a few pieces of advice to remember to help you along the way to a successful addiction recovery:
- Stay in counseling for as long as you need.
- Ask for help and support from family and friends, and work to improve and maintain the relationships you have.
- Give and receive support in 12-step or other kinds of peer support groups—these are also great places to make new friends who can help you enjoy fun, sober activities.
- Try new things—hobbies, activities, classes, events, groups, places, people, entertainment, foods, etc.
- Work on ways to manage stress, like exercise, visualization, deep breathing, playing with a pet, making art, spending time with loved ones, and so on.
- Improve your self-esteem and sense of self with journaling or other forms of personal expression.
- Set goals and work towards them—professionally, personally, creatively, and/or academically.
- Never forget that health is about more than sobriety—getting quality rest, good nutrition, exercise, positive recreation, stress relief, and good self-care are equally important.
- Pay attention to what matters to you and what works for you, and celebrate your achievements along the way!