Where Science Meets the Steps

The new science of addiction

Five Surprising Facts About Advanced Recovery

Threats to recovery are ever-present, but they change over time.

candles to celebrate sobriety anniversary
There’s no specific number of years required, but you know it when you’ve made it: Advanced Recovery. You’re no longer plagued by drug cravings; you take care of yourself and help others; you have goals, passions, and a whole lot to live for. Ten or 20 years in, you may think you know it all about addiction recovery. But here are a few facts you might have forgotten or overlooked, and that newcomers to recovery may need to hear when the future is looking uncertain:

#1 Relapse Is Still a Threat.

Because addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease, recovery must be a priority for life. Relapse rates from addiction range from 40 to 60 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. They are typically highest in the two years after treatment, and are considerably lower for those who maintain abstinence for five years or more. Still, other studies have found significant relapse rates (up to 25 percent) in narcotic addicts even after five or more years sober.

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Threats to recovery are ever-present, but they change over time. Stress and exposure to drug use triggers (the people, places, and things associated with past drug use) are two of the most common reasons people relapse. Even in advanced recovery, you may take a mood-altering drug for legitimate medical purposes and find yourself back in an addictive cycle. You may romanticize the bad old days and decide you’ve paid your dues long enough to drink or use moderately. Complacency can lead you away from the coping skills and recovery principles you learned when you got sober. Much to the surprise of yourself and others, you can end up back where you started, or worse.

Relapse is not considered a failure of treatment or an indication that you aren’t working hard enough, but rather a sign that you need additional support. For some, this may come from a self-help support group or a sponsor, or perhaps a “booster session” with a therapist or drug rehab program. Knowing your relapse triggers, staying focused on your recovery, and reaching out for help can help prevent relapse and quickly get you back on track in the event of a slip.

#2 Giving Is Receiving.

One of the most important parts of recovery—and a fulfilling life—is helping others. For addicts, in particular, service combats problematic patterns such as isolation, narcissism, resentment, and relapse and builds empathy, self-esteem, and a sense of purpose.

In a 2004 study by Dr. Maria Pagano, 40 percent of alcoholics who helped other alcoholics were able to avoid drinking for the year following treatment whereas only 22 percent of those who did not help others stayed sober. Later, Pagano also found that addicts who helped other addicts reported improved self-image and lower levels of depression. While some people in advanced recovery prefer to help other addicts, for example, by becoming a sponsor or sharing their story at a drug rehab center, others volunteer in the community or help a friend or neighbor in need.

#3 Sobriety Can Be Fun.

In the midst of active addiction, stability and routine may have sounded outrageously boring. Now, those things create a foundation upon which you can have some real fun. Life without drugs and alcohol can be deeply fulfilling, particularly in advanced recovery when you’ve learned how to work through difficult feelings in healthy ways, created a network of sober friends, and allowed yourself to relax and let go.

Once you’re firmly grounded in your recovery, you may be able to attend concerts and other events where drugs or alcohol are often present without jeopardizing your recovery. Instead of using, you take trips, go out to dinner or even enjoy a quiet night in. And it’s not boring or depressing to do these things sober; it’s actually fun—not the type of high-risk, consequence-laden “fun” associated with drug use, but an even better kind.

If you’re finding life in recovery to be a drag, you may need to reevaluate your personal life. How often are you going out, exercising and meeting sober people? When was the last time you tried something new, or revisited a pastime you used to love?

#4 Recovery Is More Than Staying Sober.

Some people believe the work of recovery is done after they stop using drugs and alcohol. Also known as a “dry drunk,” these individuals find that year after year they are just as miserable as before. That’s because recovery is a way of life, a series of decisions, not a single act.

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. It’s never too late to get back to recovery basics: therapy, nutrition, exercise, coping skills training, relationship-building, and so on.

#5 Life Can Be Great Again.

Before you got sober, you likely had dreams and goals you sacrificed to drugs and alcohol. You may have imagined a different life but disregarded it as a pipedream. Now, years into recovery, you have the freedom and know-how to make that vision a reality. Life will never be perfect, but with ongoing effort, it can be great again.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, there is a series of promises for those who find their way into advanced recovery. These 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

When you invest in your recovery, the rewards return to you tenfold. Whether you’re two years, 10 years, or 30 years into recovery, take joy in nurturing and preserving it. After all, it’s because of your recovery that your life is what it is today. 

David Sack, M.D., is board certified in Addiction Medicine and Addiction Psychiatry. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health he oversees such treatment programs as Clarity Way in Pennsylvania, Promises in California and Texas, and The Ranch outside Nashville.

David Sack, M.D. is board certified in Addiction Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine and serves as CEO of Elements Behavioral Health and Promises Treatment Centers.

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