The Stages of Recovery from Addiction

Addicts and alcoholics are notorious lovers of the quick fix, like wayward children they want it all and want it right NOW. So, the next logical question, from those seeking treatment and recovery is ‘How long does it take to recover from drug and alcohol addiction?’ If you have taken a sneaky peak at the graph at the top of the page, you might be surprised to see that it takes place over a longer time frame than just the period it takes to detox. In fact the word detox doesn’t even appear there at all! And if you are looking at this table and glimpsing at the task ahead thinking: ‘recovery smackovery this looks like climbing Everest in a bikini with a rucksack of bricks’, do not be discouraged. As much as scary words like ‘shock’ and ‘grief’ appear these are not the sum total of the experience. If you are looking at how to stop using or drinking, the probability is that it took a bit of time to get to this point so keep it real and keep reading.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain and is recognised as such by neuroscientists, medical experts and drug and alcohol treatment centres from Bali to Boston. As with other chronic illnesses:

  • It gets worse over time
  • It is treatable
  • It changes biology – This is really relevant to why addicts recover over time!
  • If untreated, it ultimately results in death.

Addiction is a simply packaged word for a pretty complex subject because so much of the disparity within the human condition comes into play. This is especially pertinent when considering the time it will take an individual to recover. A diverse range of factors including such things as: age, gender, substance(s) of choice, length of time using, method of use, biology, general health, family history and trauma suffered pre addiction/during addiction must be taken into account. Addiction, while being something which is indisputably unique in every case does have a baseline of similarities including but not limited to:

  • Obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviour
  • Denial
  • Low self-esteem and a big ego
  • Anxiety and insecurity
  • Feeling like an outsider or a victim
  • Wanting the quick fix
  • Depression

What is Recovery?

This is another really relevant question because there are a number of different recovery models out there in the world. The 12 step model encourages people to think of themselves as recovering (in the ongoing sense) because they see this as an incurable disease and one which they will always be in remission from. Other recovery models such as Rational Recovery argues that if the individual has stopped using then they have recovered and hanging on to the ‘addict’ or ‘alcoholic’ tag simply holds them back. Let’s say that, in the broadest possible sense recovery means not using drugs or alcohol and having an improved quality of life, one where you have managed to repair the damage from the past and develop some sort of personal growth. This again, is going to be a very personal thing. What connects you to life? What makes you feel full? What do you need to work on?

The Stages of Recovery

Despite all the funky idiosyncrasies of each individual case, it is really useful to have some sort of timeline of what to expect. Just as there are many different types of recovery on offer there are a myriad of different ways to look at it. Many frameworks look something like this:

  • Awareness grows that using and drinking is a problem
  • The consideration or contemplation stage where the user starts to think about stopping
  • Exploring options and preparing to stop
  • Taking action or early recovery
  • Advanced recovery or maintenance and relapse prevention

Now, this is all very well, good and true but not really very descriptive about what to expect from the experience and let’s face it, addicts love to weigh up all the angles on a topic.

The Science of Creating a New Habit and Willingness

Recovery is all about retraining your brain to think differently by doing things differently. This is one of the reasons that 90 day treatment programs are the preferred option because it is widely believed that this is the approximately the amount of time that it takes to break an old habit and establish a new one.

There has been a variety of research on this topic and one example comes from Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London and her team who decided to see how long it took to form a new habit. Her subjects were not addicts and alcoholics, just people trying to do something differently. They chose a variety of things from drinking a bottle of water at lunch every day to running for 15 minutes before dinner.

At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers analysed the data to determine how long it took each person to go from starting a new behaviour to automatically doing it. Their study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, showed that it took between 18 and 254 days for people to change depending on their circumstances. This relates to addicts because it’s so important to have realistic expectations about the fact it takes a little consistent effort to change the way you do things. This is why one of the most important assets that you can have when seeking treatment is willingness, if you are willing, you are half way there.

Recovery Over Time and Being Open Minded

The framework pictured at the top of the page is one used by neuroscientists to explain the challenges of recovery. Essentially each stage relates to the way the brain functions and the way in which consistent daily recovery activity helps achieve significant psycho-neurobiological changes. Without getting too hung up on the science, this is about getting your right brain and your left brain working together in unison and this doesn’t happen without the golden key of regular action. In practical terms this means prayer and meditation, reflective reading, keeping a journal, relating to other people and helping out those around you. For all intents and purposes this helps your brain get connected.

And it is hardly surprising that those initial stages are labelled ‘shock’ and ‘grief’. The buffer that existed between the addict and the world is stripped away and just on a tactile level the world looks, feels, tastes and smells different. This is a jolt to the system; the brain and the mind are not used to this and the shock can manifest as anything from an anxiety filled nightmare to an exciting pink cloud and any measure of emotions in-between. It’s not unusual either for the shock to send you ping-ponging from one extreme to the other. And it’s pretty natural too to grieve the loss of that substance as it’s possibly the most significant relationship that you’ve had in a substantial length of time.

Recovery is all about finding a way out of the negative maze that characterises the mind of the using addict and developing, among other things, the ability to be secure within yourself and to feel empathy and joy. Things, by the way, that originate in the marvellous grey matter between your ears. Recovery is not mysterious and cloaked in fanciful new-age hocus pocus. All you really need to kick start this process is a little open-mindedness. Without that how are you ever going to try any new ways to live?

So although the task might seem gargantuan, the brass tacks of the matter are that all you really need to get started is a smattering of open mindedness and a sprinkle of willingness. Recovery is a process, not an event and one which you get out basically what you put in. The question therefore should really be: ‘how rich do you want your life to be?’ NOT: ‘how much time does it take?’

If you have a problem with drugs and alcohol and have some willingness to retrain your brain give one of our expert advisors at Seasons Bali a call to see how we can help


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