7 minutes Written by Adam Elliott

Recovery from substance abuse can be a lifelong fight for many people that have struggled with addiction; and while every step of this journey is important, it is the first year of recovery that has been shown to often be both the most impactful upon that journey and the hardest part of it. Ashley Treatment provides a good breakdown of the statistics here, but the gist of it is that in the first year up to 85% of people relapse after treatment and two thirds of people relapse within the first few weeks of beginning treatment. In my own personal experience of working with clients that are in recovery I have found that those that are able to make it through that first year are much more likely to continue to stay sober. To me this means that this is the most important time to work on addressing the causes of someone’s addiction and learn how they can replace their drug of choice (DOC) with healthier outlets. Counseling can help you to work on these underlying issues to help prevent the process from repeating itself over and over again.

Why is early recovery so important and so difficult?

Once someone decides to give up their substance of choice and start their journey of sobriety they are quickly attacked by two of addictions greatest weapons: withdrawals and cravings. Withdrawals are the physical reactions of our body when it is suddenly deprived of a substance it has grown very used to having. As we abuse substances our body can become dependent on them to function “normally”, and since our body likes to try to stay as balanced as it can it incorporates our DOC into its normal routine. This is partly why we develop tolerance to substances over time, our body begins to expect us to use them and increases the production of chemicals that counteract them. This is also why addicts will begin using just to not feel sick and feel “normal”.  Once we decide to stop using our DOC our body is still expecting it and has grown dependent on it to function; and while this is something it will adjust to with time, that time can be unpleasant to say the least. While withdrawal symptoms can vary from person to person and depend on their DOC, they often involve extreme fatigue and physical pain or discomfort. Clients have told me the hardest part is feeling like you just want a moment’s reprieve from the feelings and how tempting it can be to get it. The other weapon addiction will use are cravings, in a way the mental counterpart to withdrawals. As we grow more accustomed to using our DOC to alleviate our problems and numb ourselves we become psychologically dependent on it to function. Cravings are a result of this and can be like a constant impulse to use, because we are so unused to going without it. And since most addicts lack healthier coping mechanisms, cravings can be especially difficult to fight as our substance use has likely replaced or gotten rid of any outlets we might have used before. So early in recovery we are fighting both our physical body withdrawals as it tries to get used to going without our DOC, and our mind’s dependence on our DOC to numb ourselves to our problems. While detox can help alleviate the worst of these, they are something that everyone will struggle with on their journey of recovery and often are what bring that journey to an early end.

Other causes of relapse

Another of the reasons why the first year of recovery is so difficult is that to increase our chances of staying clean we have to change huge parts of our environment. I have heard addicts repeat time and again three of the most common causes of relapse: people, places, and things. The people we used around and with, the places we used, and the things that we had while we were using. These can serve as triggers that remind us of using or can be what we are using to escape from, and if we don’t work on changing that environment then we can find ourselves pulled right back into addiction. If the people around me are not supportive or worse are actively trying to get me to use then how can I hope to stay clean? Humans are social animals, and the people in our lives have a lot of pull on how we act and live. When we use substances in locations repeatedly our brain remembers where we use and starts preparing for it, this is why addicts often OD when they use the same amount of their DOC at a new location. This is also why going back around the houses or streets we used at can trigger cravings, our body is preparing itself for our DOC to show up. Changing our environment is one of the most important things we can do to better our odds of staying sober. And while this is easy for me to say, and a lot harder to be the one doing the changing, it is one of the most reliable ways of improving your chances in recovery that I have seen from the clients I have worked with.

How does therapy help me stay clean?

Addiction is not just a physical battle, but more often a mental one. In my experience with working with clients struggling with addiction I have come to the understanding that it is not the substance itself that is the main problem, it is the reason why someone is using it that needs to be addressed if we want to stay clean. People use drugs for a reason; because life is unsatisfying, so they can numb themselves to what they don’t want to feel, because they feel it helps them function. But regardless of what that reason is, we have to address it if we want to see real progress, otherwise it will continue to drive us towards what we know and have gotten used to. This is why counseling can be such an important tool in the first year of someone’s recovery, because it gives you a place to figure out the why and what you can do to change it. By having a place to talk about our lives we learn to face these issues instead of trying to run from them, and we can learn better coping skills to replace our substance abuse. In my mind that’s all using is, it’s a coping skill, just not a very good one. So if we can learn healthier alternatives and start addressing our underlying issues then we eventually get to a point where our DOC has no draw for us. Addiction is also hard on us and an addict’s life often has many problems that have been building up, so it is important to have a place where you can talk about it and learn how to be more comfortable opening up. While counseling is no guarantee to keep you from relapsing, it is something that I have seen benefit so many people who otherwise had no idea of what to do and who struggled with facing their problems. If you or someone you know is starting the road to recovery then now is the time to see how counseling can benefit you and help you improve your odds!

Avatar Adam Elliott

Written by Adam Elliott

Adam Elliott is a therapist in Alabama who specializes in individual therapy.