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Recovery - it takes work and it lasts for years… sounds heavy doesn’t it?

But actually, though you will sweat and toil in the beginning, recovery is mostly about learning to live a happier, healthier, more balanced and ultimately more satisfying life - and when you look at things from this sunnier perspective, starting off on a life-time project doesn’t seem so bad.

After all, what is life but an ongoing project of self-improvement?

What Is Recovery?

OK - so you hear the word recovery bandied about quite a lot - but what does it mean? If you have a drug or alcohol problem - are you in recovery as soon as you stop using or drinking?

Well, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) recovery is simply a process of changing your life (such as by quitting drugs or alcohol), and working to improve your health and well-being, working to live a more self-directed life and working to reach your full potential.1

So, recovery is ...

  1. changing your life in some fundamental way (such as by stopping drugs or drinking)
  2. working hard every day thereafter to continue to improve yourself

Some common ingredients of a successful life of recovery include

  1. Working to maintain health (physical and mental health)
  2. Finding a safe and stable place to live
  3. Finding purpose in life, such as through family, work, volunteering or other activities that bring meaning
  4. Building and maintaining positive social relationships

Quitting is a big part of recovery, but it’s not the only part… so it’s not surprising that recovery lasts a lifetime.

A Recovery Road Map2

OK, so recovery takes a long time… but what happens along the way? How do you get from addiction and chaos to health and stability?

It’s a very reasonable thing to wonder about - so to help you out, here’s a recovery road-map that outlines the common stages and tasks of the next few years of your recovery life.

Note - this recovery road map is most applicable for people dealing with fairly severe substance abuse/addiction issues.

Stage 1 - Getting Started


  • The first few days to the first few weeks

Treatment Needs:

The treatment tasks associated with the first stage are:

  • Completing a detoxification program (if necessary)
  • Getting a substance abuse treatment needs assessment and a placement recommendation
  • Enrolling in an appropriate program (residential program, day treatment program, or intensive outpatient program) and getting started with the psychosocial meetings


  • Get started with some form of treatment
  • Get started resolving serious immediate problems (like withdrawing, or finding a stable place to live)
  • Develop a treatment plan


  • If you are enrolled in a treatment program, learn the expectations and your responsibilities.
  • Get started with psycho-educational treatment services (for example, get started attending intensive outpatient treatment meetings)
  • Work on addressing your most immediate serious life-problems
  • Resolve treatment scheduling and payment details and issues
  • Work on making a list of people you can count on for sober social support

Completion Requirements:

You can say you’ve finished the first stage of recovery when:

  • You’ve finished with detox and are no longer experiencing acute withdrawal symptoms (you can still be feeling protracted withdrawal symptoms and move to stage 2)
  • If you’ve entered a treatment program, you’ve received a completed assessment, developed a treatment plan and started participating in scheduled treatment sessions

Stage 2 - Early Recovery


  • Roughly 6 weeks to 3 months

Treatment Needs:

  • In the second stage of recovery people generally benefit from participation in a residential rehab program, a day treatment program, or an intensive outpatient treatment program

Goals and Activities:

  • Maintain abstinence (or, if you are working to moderate or reduce harms - continuing to meet your goals)
  • You’ve been learning that you need to change a lot of your behaviors and habits, so a goal for this stage is to keep-up with all the changes you’ve had to make
  • Make a solid relapse prevention plan (identify your triggers and develop strategies to manage cravings, etc.)
  • Identify and start to work on personal problems (in stage 1 you identified and worked on emergency problems, such as finding housing. In stage 2 you start to work on more internal problems, like learning to control anger or frustration)
  • Get active in a community self-help program (like a 12 step program)

Completion Requirements:

You can say you’ve completed the second stage of recovery when:

  • If you’re trying for abstinence, when you’ve achieved 30 consecutive days
  • You’ve developed and set into motion a relapse prevention plan and a plan for your continuing psychosocial treatment into the next stage
  • You’ve started participating regularly in a community support group
  • You’ve developed a safe and stable sober support network
  • You’ve resolved all of your acute emergency situations likely to trigger relapse. For example, you are maintaining a stable living arrangement, you’ve received attention and treatment for any pressing medical or dental problems and, if necessary, you are receiving psychiatric medications

Stage 3 - Recovery Maintenance


  • From roughly 2 months to a year

Treatment Needs:

  • People in stage 3 of the recovery process generally benefit from continuing participation in stepped-down outpatient substance abuse treatment - attending one or two evening sessions per week, on average

Goals and Activities:

  • Maintain abstinence (if this is your intention)
  • Put your relapse prevention plan and skills into practice - continue to learn new coping skills
  • Increase and strengthen your sober support network
  • Continue to work on personal issues
  • Work toward meeting educational or career goals
  • Continue to work with community support groups
  • Continue with medications, if appropriate

Completion Requirements:

  • Continuing abstinence (if this is your goal)
  • Continuing to improve your relationships
  • Living in substance-abuse free housing
  • Continuing to participate in some form of support group
  • Have found assistance for other personal problems
  • Demonstrating better coping and stress reduction skills

Stage 4 - Continuing Recovery


  • Indefinite

Treatment Needs:

  • Continuing to participate in community support organizations (if necessary)

Goals and Activities:

  • Maintain abstinence (if this is your goal)
  • Work on moving toward independence and away from any reliance on addiction treatment
  • Work on maintaining/improving healthy lifestyle
  • Work on maintaining social support network
  • Dive into meaningful recreational activities - continue to develop new hobbies and interests

Completion Requirements:

  • At this stage, the goals are all about continuing to build and maintain a healthy and rewarding life. Ideally, this is something you never get finished with.

General Principals of Recovery Success

You don’t have to figure it all out right from the start - you’ll unravel the mysteries as you work through the process, and anyway, there is no one right way to do this. Everyone is different and everyone needs to find their own unique way forward.

But that being said, there are some general principles - forces - that lie beneath the surface of most successful recovery efforts; keep these principles in mind and you’ll likely increase your own odds of success.

  1. There’s no single right way to find recovery - there are many pathways to success. If anyone tells you they know the only way forward, they aren’t being truthful.
  2. Recovery starts from hope - nurture a belief that you can meet the challenges of recovery - one day at a time - and you probably can.
  3. You build recovery in your physical body, in your mind, in your spirit and in your environment/ community. For the best odds of success you should find the support you need to grow and heal across all of these dimensions (medical care, spiritual guidance, etc.)
  4. You don’t recover alone. The people you surround yourself with play an important role - and that role can be helpful or harmful, depending. Ideally, close friends and family can be enormously supportive and encouraging.
  5. If you live with the legacy of past traumas, you increase your chances of success by addressing your past suffering.
  6. You increase your odds of success by making full use of the support, advice and experience of peers facing similar challenges - such as in community self-help groups.
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Page last updated 01/09/2015

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