The recovery process for a drug use disorder is complex, in part because it varies heavily from individual to individual. While addiction is recognized as a chronic illness, careful management can lead to lasting sobriety. But it’s important to recognize that careful management for what it really is – hard work, on a daily basis.
The recovery process never ends, but that’s not a bad thing. Rather than a curse or a hindrance, it’s important to think of it in the context of recovery often being nothing more than a collective effort to live a better, healthier, more conscious life. While there is a therapeutic and psychiatric side to treating addiction, the recovery process goes beyond the therapist’s office, beyond the walls of a rehab clinic, and beyond the rooms and halls of a sober living home.
To understand why recovery never ends, it’s important to understand what addiction is, and how critical a change in lifestyle and thinking is to lasting sobriety.
Addiction as a Chronic Disorder
Addiction is widely considered a progressive condition, triggered by internal and external factors that nourish the compulsive use and overuse of addictive substances, often with catastrophic physical, mental, and social consequences (and often despite these consequences, until death).
Addiction is as ancient as we are, yet its history in medical literature largely traces back to the days when powerful opioids like morphine were used for medication, until doctors began to realize a trend of self-destructive overconsumption in their patients. Since it was discovered that morphine has these powerful properties, other drugs have since been discovered and researched for the same phenomenon, including substances like cocaine, amphetamines, and tranquilizers.
What these drugs all have in common is the way they interact with dopamine and other similar neurotransmitters in the brain, and the way they interact with certain regions of the brain – particularly the regions affected by the limbic system, most notably including the hippocampus and amygdala.
Long-term use in some cases leads to changes in these systems, largely driven by a feedback loop created through repeated use. In other words, the more a person consumes an addictive drug, the more likely they are to get addicted, and the brain plays a role in making all this possible.
External factors also play a large role. Certain people are far more at risk for an addiction than others, particularly because they are either more likely to gain access to drugs/be exposed to drugs, or because they have a powerful psychological reason to use drugs (as a way to mask pain, either physical or emotional). These risk factors include race, socioeconomics, physical conditions like chronic pain, and psychiatric conditions like major depressive disorder and schizophrenia.
Recovery must address both problems, by providing alternative forms of coping, by treating underlying disorders and conditions, by allowing the brain to heal through a long period of sobriety and careful medical attention, and by providing structure in a person’s life through a stable support system, steady income, and a sense of purpose.
Recovery is More Than Rehab
The rehab process is often a critical part of recovery, as it is often a person’s first real experience with a drug-free safe space since they’ve become addicted. Rehab aims to help jumpstart the long-term recovery process in a person by helping them through the initial challenges of withdrawal and early sobriety, while preparing them for the many challenges yet to come.
Most rehab programs last for only a month or two, but recovery doesn’t stop there. While some manage to get back on their feet after a single stint in rehab, there’s much to explore within the first year or so of recovery that isn’t explored in rehab. Sober living homes represent another opportunity for recovering addicts to continue their recovery in a drug-free and supportive environment.
However, it’s about more than just staying away from drugs. Working against addiction means identifying the factors that continue to enable a person, whether they are psychological, social, or even physical. Addictive drugs trigger addiction by virtue of their own chemistry, but an extended period spent away from drugs often helps dispel that portion of the problem.
What is left, then, is the psychological craving for drugs that remains after months or years spent chasing the high as a way to escape any number of potential negative feelings. Going sober often means confronting many of these feelings, and that’s a process that realistically takes years to thoroughly undergo.
In order to really overcome an addiction, a person has to essentially identify all the ways in which drug use has helped them avoid addressing the problems they’ve had with themselves and the world around them, and then find alternative forms of coping, to continue dealing with upcoming challenges and find ways to manage the stress of everyday life.
Finding Ways to Support Long-Term Sobriety
One aspect of recovery is a strong starting foundation – seeking professional help in your most vulnerable moments is hard, but necessary for many. It’s very difficult to find lasting sobriety without help, and professional help is often the most competent and reliable for people struggling heavily with chronic relapses and addiction.
But long-term support through professional means isn’t realistic, nor ideal. Not everyone can afford to spend a significant portion of their lives going to therapy or being surrounded by addiction experts – nor would most want to. However, help is important. Some days are better than others, but we need to rely on those we trust the most on our worst days to keep us sober and sane.
Friends and family play a critical role here as our primary caregivers and therapists in the long-term, providing anything from an ear to talk to, to a shoulder to cry on, or a bed to sleep in.
Having sober communities to be in helps as well. From virtual communities online where it’s possible to catch up and speak on a daily basis, to scheduled yet infrequent meetings and get togethers, having sober friends you stay in touch with is important as a way to not only remind yourself to maintain your own sobriety, but help others. This, in turn, can help you.
It Never Ends, But It Does Change
Eventually, recovery becomes life – but in a good way. Being a part of a loving family can be a crucial part of the recovery process. Achieving greater success at your dream job can be an important part of the recovery process. Setting new goals, overcoming personal challenges, and even failing in the face of overwhelming odds and deciding to try again can all be important parts of recovery.
Because addiction is so overwhelming and encompassing, its treatment can be encapsulated as a healthier approach towards life – starting out with psychiatric treatment and professional help, but leading to a long-term recovery process defined by loving friends and relatives, and lasting meaning.