Recovery from alcohol use disorder (AUD) is about more than avoiding alcohol. It calls for life changes that include finding the reasons why alcohol became so important in your life and figuring out healthy ways to manage those things.
Most people go through several stages of recovery, but there’s no single schedule to follow. Because your situation is unique, you may find that each stage is longer or shorter than average.
Stage 1: The Transition to Abstinence
This stage of recovery begins the moment you decide to stop drinking. Most of your efforts are aimed at managing the urge to drink, but it’s about more than just saying no.
Coping skills include caring for yourself. For instance, getting enough sleep and exercise and eating well are good habits that make you a stronger person. You also want to find activities to replace drinking, things you can turn to when cravings strike. Other steps are to put together a support system of family and friends and to join a support group.
This stage is also when you emotionally and mentally accept that you have a problem and begin to see yourself in new and positive ways. But this isn’t a good time for sweeping changes, like a career switch. That’s too much change at once.
One challenge you may face is alcohol withdrawal symptoms. These have different stages, too. The first phase is called acute withdrawal, and symptoms tend to be physical, like nausea, insomnia, or even tremors and seizures. If these symptoms make it harder for you to stay sober, medications may help. In severe cases, care at a facility might be best for you.
Next comes post-acute withdrawal, with symptoms that are more emotional in nature. You might have a lot of anxiety, feel irritable, lose interest in life, go through mood swings, and worry that you won’t be able to have a successful recovery. These symptoms can come in waves. You might feel fine for days or weeks, and then suddenly, they hit you like a tsunami. This is a common pattern for many people.
The transition stage and post-acute withdrawal symptoms can last up to 2 years.
Stage 2: Recovery and Repair
Think of this stage as a delayed reaction to the effects that drinking had on your life. It’s often when you start to realize that you have to pick up the pieces and do the hard work of repairing relationships. On some days, you might feel that for every step forward, you take two steps back. But the truth is that you are making progress on your recovery journey.
It’s important to keep taking care of yourself, to double up on your commitment to recovery, and use tools to improve your self-image. Things like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you see yourself as you are now, not as you were, and better understand the uncomfortable feelings you may have about drinking (and not drinking!). Staying involved with your support group is also key to avoid a relapse.
This stage usually lasts 2 to 3 years.
Stage 3: Personal Growth
This stage is open-ended. Think of it as a plan for the rest of your life. A big part is learning about yourself and dealing with the negative thoughts and actions that may have pushed you to find relief in drinking. Even though self-care and smart life skills are always important, this is the time to start seeing the bigger picture, become more involved with the world, and reach out to help others in your life. These positive connections can help you avoid temptations and relapses.
Recovery: What’s Really Involved
The real key is recovery success comes from within you. You need to be ready to make the necessary changes to stop drinking. Then, you can work with your doctor to find the best treatment plan for you. This may be a combination of therapy, group support, and medication. Many people with AUD also have major depression or anxiety. Treating these mental health issues is a must, especially if they were at the root of your drinking.
Experts point out that recovery is about more than just not drinking. In fact, there’s even a term for people who abstain but who don’t make vital life changes to break a misuse pattern, stop other unhealthy lifestyle habits, and address problems that probably led them to drinking. It’s called dry drunk syndrome.
Some signs that you’re in this situation are feeling resentful that you have to stop drinking, thinking of drinking as the good old days, and replacing drinking with a different harmful habit, even food or shopping if done to an extreme.
The best way to avoid or overcome dry drunk syndrome is to get help when you decide to quit, rather than trying to go it alone.
Reaching out for help isn’t a sign of weakness; it can make you stronger. A structured recovery program gives you one set of tools, and a self-help group gives you another. This may feel like a lot of effort on your part, and it is. But therapy sessions and group and one-on-one meetings all work together.
Lifestyle Changes That Make a Difference
These building blocks create a stronger foundation for a happier life:
Avoid falling back into old ways. In addition to changing your outlook on life with a therapy like CBT, you'll want to make a break from people and situations that encourage drinking.
Embrace honesty. There’s a lot of lying to others when you try to hide a problem like AUD, but you may not have been truthful with yourself, either. Acknowledge the misuse to yourself as well as your support group, your family, and the medical professionals you’re working with. This may not feel comfortable at first, but that discomfort is normal and helpful.
Take better care of yourself and your needs. This means finding ways other than alcohol to feel more confident, at ease, and content. Neglecting your health, being overly critical of yourself, or punishing yourself because of your problem isn’t the answer. In addition to nourishing and exercising your body, it helps to nourish and exercise your mind. Approaches like mindfulness and yoga help you overcome negative feelings, ease anxiety, relax, and sleep better.
Watch out for self-sabotage. Recovery can feel tedious at times. You might long for the “fun” days of drinking. You might think that this time, you can have the control over drinking that you lacked before, or even start to question whether you had a use disorder. These are signs that you’re denying your problem, and they’re often the first step toward a relapse. No matter the stage of your recovery, they’re also signals to check in with your doctor or therapist for help to stay on your recovery plan.