While your recovery is yours to design, it’s important to first recognize some universals that exist on the road to success. My personal and professional experiences with addiction have afforded me with a clear sense of some “givens” that will crop up as you move forward. Below, you’ll find a list of both challenges and gains experienced by addicts during early sobriety. Remaining mindful of both lists will help keep you afloat during a potentially fragile time.
Challenges in Early Sobriety
Addiction, by its very nature, is an alienating experience. As you consider these challenges, take comfort in their universal nature as well as in the abundance of online and face-to-face supports available. Recovery does not have to be an isolating experience. In fact, enlisting supports secures far greater treatment outcomes than the “white-knuckle” approach. The challenges listed below will vary from person-to-person, but should afford you with a general sense of what to expect in the early sobriety.
Withdrawals are commonly defined as a distressing onset of symptoms that follows the decrease or cessation of a substance. These symptoms can range greatly in severity, some meriting medical attention. These variations are determined by multiple factors including frequency and duration of use as well as the specific type of substance being taken. Familiarizing yourself with common withdrawal symptoms as well as those that require medical intervention can lead to a smoother transition into recovery.
After navigating the physical withdrawals associated with recovery, addicts can expect to experience emotional symptoms as well. Addiction communities often refer to these less immediate symptoms as Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome or PAWS. The symptoms of PAWS tend to surface a month or two after the abused substance is eliminated and include sleep disturbance, mood swings, anxiety, and cravings. Like physical symptoms, the severity of PAWS is impacted by the type of substances abused as well as the individual’s length and frequency of use. Some people report no PAWS symptoms while others experience episodes for as long as two years into the recovery journey.
Cravings are commonly defined as “[R}ecurrent and persistent thoughts about [substances] and the inability of the individual to resist these thoughts and a compulsive drive to consume [substances] and loss of control over that drive.” Cravings are often present in both the acute and post-acute stages of early sobriety.
Cravings are the result of “cues” in an addict’s social, professional, or personal environment. These cues are commonly referred to as triggers. A trigger results from associations that addict’s establish during the course of substance abuse and vary greatly from person-to-person. Everything from the sound of a cork popping to driving past a location where substances were readily abused can trigger deep cravings. In early sobriety, some triggers can be deliberately avoided while others are beyond the addict’s control. Awareness of triggering situations can prove critical in the early stages of treatment.
Mixed Reactions From Friends and Family
Unfortunately, not everyone will be happy with your decision to live a healthier life. Those connections that have been formed with other addicts, as well as intimate relationships founded on mutual enabling and substance abuse will require reevaluation in the early course of treatment. It will be important to protect your sobriety and to surround yourself with individuals that respect your new lifestyle.
While the above challenges can prove physically and emotionally draining, they are often offset by the countless gains of early sobriety. The list below is a mere teaser of the positives that surface when substances are no longer in the picture. Focusing on the gains is critical to long-term success and affords addicts with a fuller and more productive life.
Navigating the agony of hangovers becomes second-nature for most addicts. When substances are eliminated and withdrawals become a thing of the past, your body will thank you. For “functional” addicts, this means entering each social or professional commitment without having to conceal headaches, nausea, or shakiness. For addicts who were experiencing more severe lifestyle repercussions, this means an opportunity to re-establish a productive, engaged life.
Decreased Feelings of Guilt, Shame, and Powerlessness
The emotional repercussions of regular drug or alcohol abuse are innumerable. In fact, the word most commonly shared by my clients in early recovery is “relief.” Not only does sobriety eliminate the decision fatigue associated with attempts at moderation, but also the shame and guilt that surface daily when an addict feels powerless over triggers and cravings. Eliminating some of the negative self-talk associated with active substance abuse creates an opportunity for addicts to explore the critical emotional territory of recovery.
Increased Energy and Improved Mood
Once your brain and body grasp their newfound freedom from substances, you can expect spikes in your energy. Despite flare-ups of the aforementioned PAWS, there will be other periods in which you feel vibrant and motivated. As you process years of numbed emotions, it might feel as though life is suddenly being viewed in high-definition. Even seemingly mundane day-to-day experiences begin to take on a new light. If these elevated moods begin to feel extreme, there is a possibility that you are experiencing what addiction communities refer to as the pink cloud of sobriety. Remain vigilant during your highs and your lows and view the more energized times as opportunities to enhance your sobriety toolbox.
Returning Interest in Hobbies
Chances are, many of your hobbies and interests fell to the wayside during the course of your addiction. Revisiting old passions and connecting with social groups that don’t center on drug or alcohol abuse is an important piece of the recovery process. Initially, it can be difficult to partake in activities without the crutch of substances, but over time, your enthusiasm and passion will return. Recovery also affords you with a chance to try something completely new.
Let’s face it--addiction isn’t pretty. Prolonged use of substances impacts commitment to nutrition, physical fitness, self-care, and even basic hygiene. The majority of my clients report higher satisfaction with their appearance within the first few weeks of recovery. Skin becomes noticeably brighter, eyes become clearer, and a healthier weight is often achieved. And while it’s difficult to quantify, there is something to be said for looking in the mirror and feeling proud of who you’ve become.
BONUS GAIN: You’re RICH!
You’ve likely spent significant amounts of money on your drug of choice. A fun exercise in early sobriety involves mapping out your old spending habits and determining how much money you are saving by living sober. A wonderful way to reward yourself as you reach personal recovery milestones is to allot that money for something special.
For every struggle that surfaces in the early days of sobriety, you can expect at least one gain. The more proactive you are in your recovery, the more readily you’ll reap the benefits of a substance-free life.
Jen Anderson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Sobriety Coach, and former alcohol enthusiast living in Florida with her husband and son.