There are so many frameworks for overcoming substance use, and many of them involve steps, timelines or numbered lists. While these methods have their place, it’s important to remember that the addiction recovery process is rarely linear.

When you’re working towards sobriety, there are dozens of factors at play. Your addiction history, withdrawal symptoms, distress tolerance, triggers, social relationships, mental health, job security and so much more influence the way you pursue freedom. Sometimes, a setback in one area can mean repeating parts of the journey.

If you’ve struggled to fit into a generic addiction recovery timeline, the problem likely isn’t you — it’s the mold you’re trying to fit into. In this article, we’ll provide a more fluid outline of the addiction recovery journey so you can reach lasting sobriety.

The true nature of the addiction recovery journey

There’s no doubt you’ve come across a provider that promises “6 steps to sobriety” or a 12-step program in your search to break free from substances. While these types of services surely have benefits, they may not be realistic for some individuals for one major reason: Relapse.

Sadly, relapse is all too common for those striving to get clean from drugs or alcohol. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that the relapse rate for those in recovery for substance use disorders is between 40 and 60 percent. While these numbers are significant, that doesn’t mean recovery is impossible.

Rather, these numbers indicate that relapse is not abnormal. There are plenty of reasons for this, too. The effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain are severe, essentially hijacking the brain’s control over behavior, states the National Institute of Health. Relapse is so common that some schools of thought even consider it to be part of the recovery process. 

While the NIDA’s study focused on substance use relapse, there are plenty of other potential setbacks. Job loss, a damaged relationship, stress and any number of issues can make you feel like you’re starting from the bottom again, even if you managed to avoid drugs or alcohol.

Regardless of how you view relapse, it’s important to remember that all setbacks can be overcome and recovery is possible for anyone.

Repeating the steps of the journey

While it’s simpler in theory to break down the addiction recovery journey into steps, this can give the impression that the steps only need to be completed once. In reality, it’s much more likely that the process of recovery will require you to complete some steps multiple times, and often out of order.

For example, you’ll need to learn coping skills to manage distress early on in recovery. These coping mechanisms may be geared towards managing the pain of withdrawal and sticking to detox. Later on, you’ll need to revisit this step, as you encounter more mental triggers than physical ones.

Perhaps you’ll also have to create a new life for yourself more than once. You may find that you have a stable income and a decent group of friends after initial treatment, but later decide you’re ready to start a family or want to pursue higher education. As life changes, you’ll have to modify or redo the different phases of recovery.

Common threads in the recovery process

Although there is no perfect, one-size-fits-all addiction recovery timeline, there are some common threads.

  1. Coming face-to-face with the problem —  Acknowledging an addiction is a major step in anyone’s journey. While for some this may happen in an instant and only once, for others it may be a slow revelation or happen several times over months or years.
  2. Engage your friends and family —  Addiction is never easy in isolation, and as long as you’re not a hermit, it’s going to be essential to involve your community, or build a new one. The people you are surrounded with will support or jeopardize your sobriety, so set yourself up for success by holding onto positive relationships.
  3. Overcome triggers — One of the most essential phases of your addiction recovery journey will be your ability to master triggers to use drugs or alcohol. You’ll learn how to face all the stressors of daily life and overcome strong temptations. This will come with time and in the context of professional treatment. 
  4. Renew meaning in your life — A life that has been controlled by drugs and alcohol leaves a person eager for purpose once they’ve started to break the chains. There are endless opportunities to renew meaning, but you may have to search more than once and it generally doesn’t happen overnight.

This list is by no means chronological, though you’re likely to encounter each of these experiences before you’re sober for good.

You’re not starting from scratch

When you’re going through the addiction recovery process and a relapse happens, it can feel like the end of the world. Have courage, though, because no setback puts you back at ground zero. You still have the skills and the knowledge you’ve gained, and you’ll always have a chance to renew your journey to freedom.

Start or restart your search for lifelong sobriety with Real Recovery. Whether you’re trying to break the cycle of substance use for the first time or the tenth, you’ll find the personalized help you need here. Schedule your appointment today or call 1-855-363-7325 to reconnect with the life you deserve.