The initial milestone of finally achieving a measureable form of sobriety can be uplifting – it’s a declaration of freedom from the oppression of addiction, the first step in a massive and brave journey towards total emancipation from the effects of drugs and alcohol and the tyrannical grip they’ve exercised on life – but it’s important not to get ahead of yourself within the early periods of sobriety and recovery. Recovery is a life-long journey, that’s what they say, but it does get easier to the point where you can at some point declare an addiction as part of a past chapter in your life, eternally something you carry with you, but not as a burden on your mind.
Finding that moment where you finally declare yourself the victor over addiction requires having an understanding of what you consider long-term sobriety. While sobriety is best measured in time, and even comes with little useful badges in certain treatment programs like the 12 Step program, it’s up to you to define at what point in your journey of recovery you finally reach that level of sobriety where addiction is not something you’re scared of anymore.
Long-term sobriety isn’t a time period strictly defined by anyone other than yourself. And defining that period – finding that goal – requires understanding what sobriety is versus simply being clean, and how long-term sobriety requires you to do much more than just abstain from alcohol and drugs.
It’s a Mental Thing
Addiction is a lack of control, in a way. When you become addicted, your brain rewires itself to think in a certain way. The part of your brain that perceives pleasure and syndicates its effects throughout the body becomes overwhelmed with such unnatural levels of pleasure neurotransmitters that it begins to form a craving for these signals, because most of our evolutionary drives – our instincts – are tied to these very forms of pleasure.
Delicious food after a bout of hunger, lust in periods of fertility, the satisfaction of water after a day of sweat and exertion – we’re at our happiest when our needs are fulfilled, yet nothing makes us as happy as pure concentrated chemical happiness.
And so our brains change, almost to accommodate this strange sensation of unnaturally being high. It starts as a craving, but develops into an addiction, one where your short-term thinking takes over your long-term thinking and you cannot stop yourself despite the consequences – you begin to lie, cheat, manipulate your way into getting another fix because nothing else matters.
The specifics of how addiction develops – with or without the presence of another mental disorder, through genetic predisposition and physical dependence or as part of another major factor such as peer pressure in your teen years or emotional instability following a major loss or breakup – vary from person to person. But the end result is the same – addiction is a terrible blight to the brain, and it’s really, really hard to deal with.
When you stop taking drugs, the brain basically reverses what was done to it. Most of this happens during rehab, when the drugs are released from the system, and in the weeks and months afterwards. Without this unnatural high, your body goes back to “normal” – but your mind never quite forgets what the high was like, and what wonders it did for your stress reduction. You could just forget your problems instead of dealing with them, and any pain you had meant nothing.
Long-term sobriety means not just saying no to drugs, but finding a really good reason for saying no. It means knowing just how tempting addiction is, yet still working against it – while actively being happy, and finding new ways to enjoy life, seek pleasure in it, and replace the feelings generated by addiction with healthy new habits that help you grow as a person.
Long-Term Sobriety Is Growth
While it’s known as drug recovery, you’re doing more than just recovering. You’re actively growing as a person, becoming stronger than you ever were, and using this dangerous brain disease as an opportunity to change your life and turn it around, using misfortune and turning it into the best it can be. Rehab is the beginning, the first step to a long journey – but afterwards, your sobriety shouldn’t be defined by the amount of days and weeks you manage to stay stone-cold sober. It should be defined by how you feel about life, the insights you make, what you learn about yourself and how you develop a new life around overcoming addiction and living in spite of it.
This isn’t just being opportunistic – it’s a necessity if you want to survive against addiction. You can’t simply bank on abstinence for the sake of abstinence – you need to beat addiction in every way imaginable.
Life Goes On
It’s been mentioned earlier that recovery is a life-long process, but life must go on beyond your addiction. There will come a time when you don’t have a reason to fear addiction – when you’ve found purpose and accountability and have both the support system and the responsibilities in place to say farewell to the idea of a relapse, and focus entirely on living your life beyond those experiences. Putting that in the past, without a sense of shame, regret, or lingering guilt, is important. Don’t leave things unsaid, don’t skip out on opportunities to ask for forgiveness and clear your conscience – take the time in your recovery to right wrongs and turn yourself into a person whom you can look into the mirror.
It won’t be easy, and the beginning will be especially hard. Some people choose to enlist the help of sober living programs or outpatient treatment programs when getting out of rehab, because of the struggle of finding a place in life right after the worst of the worst of your addiction. Hitting rock bottom then being expected to jump back into the world and find a job is a jarring transition, and that coupled with the emotional instability of early sobriety makes these the worst days – survive them, with the help of everyone you can find, and you will be able to look forward to better days.