The Addiction Recovery Journey in 9 Steps

woman in recovery
Everyone's addiction journey is different. The important thing is to never be afraid to ask for help.

The specifics of every person’s addiction journey are different, but for most people, the path to recovery follows a similar trajectory: a “bottom” followed by the decision to take action; the initial, often traumatic physical and mental adjustment to life without the substance; the gradual establishment of a “new normal”; and somewhere in there, work on the difficulties that led to addiction in the first place, helping them feel stronger than ever before.

Remember, everyone’s different—just be honest with yourself about how you’re doing, and use all the recovery tools you find helpful. Never be afraid to reach out for help.

#1. Admit You Have a Problem

For many people, this step follows a bad experience: maybe a terrible night out or losing your job or a relationship. Whatever your bad experience looks like, remember that although being at the low point feels miserable, there’s nowhere to go but up. It’s both a humbling and an empowering place to be. If you chose to read this, the idea that you might have a problem is probably percolating somewhere. It’s okay if it takes you a while to get to this step; just keep reading all the information you can find about recovery and be honest with yourself.

It’s both a humbling and an empowering place to be.

#2. Find Support

For many people in recovery, this step made the difference between that final, successful attempt at sobriety and all the failed ones that came before. Support doesn’t have to mean AA; it could be a friend, a relative, a doctor or an online support group. Most people find it essential to talk to someone about what’s been going on. It keeps you accountable and provides you with support when you need it. You can always add to your sober community later, but it’s good to enlist some help right away.

Support doesn’t have to mean AA; it could be a friend, a relative, a doctor…

#3. Detox

The first few days of sobriety can be very challenging physically: you might experience withdrawal symptoms, or perhaps have a terrible hangover or comedown from that last binge. Depending on the severity of your addiction, you might need medical supervision during your detox. When in doubt, ask for professional assessment.

Hang in there: it will pass.

#4. Early Sobriety + PAWS

Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) is a controversial topic: some people say it doesn’t exist. It’s the stage of withdrawal after the immediate physical sensations have passed, and it can take many forms; to name a few: irritation, panic, anxiety, trouble sleeping, depression, trouble concentrating. It can also last a long time—as long as a couple of years in severe cases—though symptoms generally lessen significantly over time. Whether or not you believe in PAWS, you’re sadly unlikely to transition straight into feeling great, and particularly in the early stages, you’ll probably need to lean on your sober community a lot.

PAWS can take many forms, including:

  • Irritation.
  • Panic.
  • Anxiety.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Depression.
  • Trouble concentrating.

You’ll face hurdles like your first weekend sober, and you’ll start to mourn your relationship with your drug of choice. It might feel as though you’re losing an old, loyal friend, but remember how dysfunctional the relationship was, and the hell you went through at the end. You’re not alone. Every recovering addict goes through this mourning phase and emerges into a happier place.

#5. Finding New Routines

At some point, the initial mourning and anger will pass, and you’ll realize that you’ve settled into some new routines. Maybe it’s a 12-step meeting you always hit after work when you’re feeling vulnerable, or a bedtime routine or morning exercise now that the mornings are yours again. Replacing bad habits with new, healthy ones can be one of the most empowering parts of recovery. After years of having drugs or alcohol dictate your every decision, now you get to start making some of your own choices about how to spend your time.

Replacing bad habits with new, healthy ones can be one of the most empowering parts of recovery.

#6. Pink Clouds

In the first few months of sobriety, when you start to hit your stride, you might have days so good you feel like you’re walking on air. Some people in recovery call this phenomenon “pink clouds.” By this stage you’re sleeping better, saving noticeable amounts of money, you look better, you have time for hobbies again, and most importantly, you don’t have toxic chemicals streaming through your body, messing up your chemistry. Sadly you’ll likely have non-pink cloud days, too, but all of those positive changes will stay the same.

By this stage you’re sleeping better, saving noticeable amounts of money, you look better, you have time for hobbies again…

#7. Put Your Life in Order

Every person struggling with addiction lets certain things slide. Maybe you’re behind on your taxes or up to your neck in debt, maybe you haven’t been to the dentist in 10 years, maybe you need to lose 30 pounds. A lot of people in AA want to jump straight to Step 8: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” There will definitely come a time when you have the strength to address these things, but try not to rush it. Getting sober is a big enough job – focus on that in the early stages. Overwhelming yourself with other tasks when you’re not ready is a good way to tip yourself into relapse. You’ll probably feel ready to tackle some of these things when you have a few months sober.

Maybe you’re behind on your taxes or up to your neck in debt, maybe you haven’t been to the dentist in 10 years…

#8. Avoid Relapse

Once you’re settled in your new way of life and everything has become more manageable, it’s easy to grow complacent. The disease of addiction requires constant vigilance, and one of the best ways to avoid relapse is to recognize “prelapse,” the conditions that generally, for you, make you feel unable to cope without a drink or a hit. It might be stopping your exercise routine or your regular check-ins with your sober community, or maybe overwork or not asking for help. Whatever it is, relapse strikes when you’re feeling vulnerable, so successful recovery depends on you taking care of yourself and learning to recognize the conditions that prefigure a fall.

The disease of addiction requires constant vigilance, and one of the best ways to avoid relapse is to recognize “prelapse”…

#9. Enjoy the Rest of Your Life Sober!

At a certain stage you’ll realize that days, weeks or even months have passed since you last thought about drinking or drugs. When you’re not obsessed by one thing, life opens up and you can appreciate the full beauty of every day. It won’t be perfect, and bad things will happen because that’s life. But if you stay present and use whatever tools work for you, you’ll soon find yourself navigating life’s challenges stone-cold sober, and that’s a pretty amazing feeling. And now that you have the ambition to do more every day than struggle to the corner store for a can of Coke, you’ll start to reap the rewards in all areas of life.

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