Oct 22, 2019 | By James Secules

A Timeline of Sobriety


Early sobriety is a time of obvious difficulty for many. The challenges in the first few months of total abstinence are substantially different from those that pop up as one’s life begins to solidify and re-establish itself. It might be a legitimate struggle for someone in this time to sit through a football game on television and not get triggered by the countless beer commercials. They may have to complete jail time or community service hours. Perhaps their family has cut them off financially and emotionally and are being left to their own devices. These challenges make getting a flat tire or having one’s internet cut out pail in comparison. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the alcoholic who has one month clean is any worse off in the relapse-risk domain than the one with one hundred, their lives just look quite different. 

One Month

With 28 days of abstinence from drugs and alcohol, most people are still experiencing strong cravings, triggers, mood swings – maybe even drug dreams (dreams/nightmares about obtaining or consuming the drug of choice for the addict). Although recovery professionals are beginning to change this, a classic treatment stay in rehab is 28 days. On the more negative side, coming out of treatment might be a difficult transition back into normal life, as the addict still isn’t used to doing ordinary things without their main crutch. The relapse rate for people that are merely thrust back into their old lives after a one-month vacation in a rehab is insanely high. Any psychologist or therapist would tell you that jumping right back into an old routine during this violently turbulent time in one’s life, is an obvious recipe for disaster. With one’s life at stake, most people are recommended by treatment teams, social workers, or even their families, to live in a peer-support sober environment afterwards.

Sitting with 30 days sober, though, has its benefits. At this stage of the game, the recovering addict is likely on fire with their sobriety. Often, due to some wreckage of their past, they have the time to dedicate all waking moments of the day to staying away from drugs and alcohol. Most importantly, they were very recently in a clinical environment where they hopefully learned some new things and were able to get honest and reach deep into their emotions with a trusted therapist. For these few reasons, the outlook for a humble and honest person in recovery at this phase has a strong positive outlook ahead of them. 

Five Years

In contrast to this, the individual with five years under their belt has a significantly different lifestyle. With this far of a separation between themselves and the substance, they hopefully aren’t thinking about using everyday. When they do, it’s usually a fleeting thought and all they have to do is continue on with their daily routine for it not to become an issue. With some years in a program, they’ve likely done whatever work is suggested of them within that pathway of recovery, thus helping them make sense of their past and right most of the wrongs from active addiction. Staying sober on a daily basis shouldn’t be an issue for the person with five years away from the addict lifestyle in the same way as the person with five days. This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not still a dangerous time. The adage, ‘Once an addict, always an addict’ can be considered controversial to some, but dumbly obvious to others. Recounts of the lives of thousands have shown that even after some time has passed, one’s addiction is still alive and well, just waiting for the once afflicted person to pick up another beer, joint, or needle. Although their life can be considered fairly stable, one wrong step can quickly change this. 

This issue begs a closer look at what this really means. Take, for example, an individual that’s been sober from alcohol for five years who recently crashed their car and gets prescribed opiate pain medication. They’ve never had an issue with narcotics before so they don’t think that taking them would be an issue. However, percocets appear to light up the brain the same way that alcohol once did for them, plus they already have significant pain. Using the physical ailment as an excuse, they venture down the path of substance use once more and wind up becoming physically addicted to whatever opiate they can find within months. Another classic example is an alcoholic who gets given divorce papers out of nowhere. This seems to them like justification to go to the bar and find something to numb the pain. If anyone asks, they can just play them the sob story and anyone with a soul would admit that drinking a few glasses of wine seems like an appropriate response (for a normal person). Shortly after this, they’re drinking everyday to keep the sorrow away and lose their job. Examples of this sort of thing are everywhere and appear far too often within people’s stories. 

Everyone’s Path is Different

The audience at this point might retort,

“But you said that all they have to do is go on with their routine and they’ll be fine, right? Why don’t they just do that?”

Well, unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

At some point, the addict and alcoholic understands that the same things that kept them sober at one month are not the same things that keep them sober in their present lives. They may come to realize that they’ll be okay if they don’t hit seven meetings a week. Some probably won’t relapse if they don’t contact their sponsor every other day. They don’t really need to keep sponsoring others to stay clean; plus that’s difficult to fit in with their busy schedule. When these thoughts start floating around in their brains, they’re backed up by experience. They start going to fewer meetings and seem fine. They see other people live their lives without sponsorship or a higher power and since they’re doing okay, the addict at hand clearly can, too.

This is a dangerous path to go down for two reasons: everyone’s sobriety is different, and while less involvement is generally permissible, no involvement is not. “Yeah, I stopped working a program,” is a sentiment in the response of almost every client walking back into the doors of their rehab after six months or so. Although the exact same routine from early sobriety is probably not required for a person with five years to stay living a life without drugs or alcohol, parts of it surely are. It’s the belief of many in 12 Step programs that without a steady practice of certain things, the dried up alcoholic will surely drink again. Others in this demographic believe that a long period of abstinence could be possible, but their quality of life will suffer without spiritual and community engagement. Almost all can agree, however, that staying connected with what worked, definitely isn’t a bad idea. 

Addiction is Life-Long

Whether you have one or one hundred months under your belt, staying sober or clean is no easy task. The allure of intense dopamine rushes never fully goes away. The most dangerous times are, for sure, the first few months of early sobriety. That doesn’t mean, though, that relapse isn’t still just around the corner even with a decade of abstinence under the belt. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please contact Sober Nation today at: 866-317-7050

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