Young addict in recovery from addiction staring at the outside light under graphittied bridge.

The First Year In Recovery From Addiction

Last Updated: Tue, January 23, 2024

60% of recovering addicts relapse in the first year. Which should be understandable. For addicts, even those with a strong support system and medical treatment, it’s not simple cutting a “habit” out of their life, but a lifestyle. It’s uprooting someone whose always lived in hot weather and moving them to the North Pole. For addicts, their substance becomes their motivation to do everything. So friends, family, jobs, hobbies, everything becomes a means to an end; to serve their addiction. This is important to understand, because it will ultimately, help those in recovery to survive year one, and hopefully on through the rest of their lives.

Dopamine, Reward System & Substance Abuse

In the short-term, drugs typically affect the central nervous system, numbing pain, altering balance and/or motor function, and increasing dopamine – among other things. However, dopamine aids in numerous functions and, chief among these, is motivation. Dopamine sets a threshold for actions to be achieved; in other words, motivation. Dopamine provides enough “lift” for you to want to pursue an activity or achieve the same effect. This also has a learning effect, meaning it shows the brain what action prompts the release of dopamine. What this does, is create a an appetite for dopamine and whatever caused it to be released.

In a positive light, the “learning” element of dopamine is what helps people form a healthy habit like cycling, jogging, or working out. On the flipside however, you experience dependence of a substance with painful consequences.

This learning element of dopamine affects the reward system of the brain. The brain now knows what action elicits more dopamine and will seek it out. As the reward system grows more and more skewed through continued use of the substance, addicts no longer associate their drug of choice as a “likening,” but a “necessity”; no longer a desire, but a craving; no longer a habit, but an addiction.

Many drugs either slow the rerelease of dopamine or pump so much into your system that you’re never without it for very long. This can cause an addict’s reward system to fall so far astray that they may believe their drug is as necessary as water. This is what makes a the first year for a recovering addict so difficult. It’s not just about quitting a drug, it’s about living with something you’ve taught your brain that it can’t possibly live without.

Year One Recovering From Addiction

Most people seek out help from treatment facilities to start the recovery process. These are typically at designated centers for 30 days with programs extending to 90 days (not necessarily on campus but in therapy, meetings, etc.). Those 30 days are extremely helpful to work through withdrawal since opioids, drugs, and alcohol typically feature withdrawal symptoms of one month or less.

However, even once the physical and mental withdrawal symptoms have passed, cravings continue to be a problem. Many recovering addicts struggle with cravings because the brain has been reprogrammed to be motivated by immediate rewards. This is why when an addict in recovery starts to think about the lifelong commitment to sobriety, they can get overwhelmed and feel hopeless – both of which are yellow flags for an imminent relapse. This is also why a recently sober addict can see a milestone of a year and become discouraged. So here are 7 things you can do (and be cognizant of) during your first year of sobriety.

  1. Accept A 24 Hour Struggle

Rather than think of “how far you have to go,” focus on the day in front of you. It’s not a lifetime or even one year, it’s one day. Make it through one day, and you will have achieved sobriety. Repeat that the next day and the next.

In many ways, the methodology behind sobriety is the same as tackling any large task. The goal is never to think of the “final product,” but to do mini tasks that work towards that goal daily. John Steinbeck has been famously referenced as being an author who only wrote 1 page a day (and many of his novels are hundreds of pages). Don’t think of writing a thousand page novel, focus on one page.

  1. Celebrate Milestones

Milestones increase as time goes on, but celebrate your first day of sobriety; your second; your third; your first week. These celebrations aren’t simple motivation tactics, but they can assist with that immediate gratification bug that’s been gnawing at your brain. Now you’re actively reprogramming your brain to respond positively to continued sobriety.

  1. Find Fun Activities

Join sporting leagues, join fantasy sport leagues, make time to read or play video games. Find ways to engage in a playful activities. Sobriety will have plenty of ups and downs, and if it always feels like work, you won’t be motivated to succeed, so find time to have fun. It can be with or without other people, just find activities that require little effort and provide you with some actual satisfaction.

  1. Change Up Your Meetings

What’s great about meetings is they help you to form a new routine. You have to operate on someone else’s time table and especially if you’ve set multiple meetings in one day, you’ll find yourself too busy to indulge in cravings. Not only this, but by visiting different meeting locations, you’ll widen your support network and ensure that if your primary location closes for some reason, you have backups.

  1. Focus On You

This is important because addiction is similar to having someone else take control over your brain and drive you around. Focus on your health and self improvement even if it means doing something that would otherwise be a social faux pas. For instance, if you bought tickets to a concert you’ve been dying to go to, but know that the concert scene is a trigger, then nix the show. If a friend invites you to be in their wedding party, but you’re worried about a relapse, it’s okay to drop out. Don’t put others before yourself. Even if there’s a morsel of guilt, it will be nothing compared to what a relapse will do to you and their relationship with you.

  1. Get In Touch With Feelings

So many drugs numb our senses and as you go through withdrawal, you’re bound to experience more than a few mood swings. Don’t try and control these, feel them. Find out why you feel a certain way, what’s really causing it and what you can do about it.

  1. Check In With The Past

You don’t need to criticize, shame or guilt yourself. But in your first year of sobriety, when you have tough days, look back and consider what brought you to this point. Why did you make the choice to get sober? For many this is what leads them to the infamous quote, “My worst sober day is still better than my best drunk day.”

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