Finding Your Path to Recovery from Alcoholism

Millions of people have a clinically alcoholism, but currently only a small percentage seek treatment in the United States.1

Research shows that barriers to seeking treatment include a person’s perception of treatment, stigma regarding alcoholism, individual financial circumstances, and an individual not yet feeling motivation or willingness to change.2 Barriers like these create a treatment gap that may have kept you or a loved one from finding a path toward recovery. It’s essential to find ways to bridge this gap.3

In this article:

What Will Recovery Mean for Me?

A clinical diagnosis of alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD), according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5), is appropriate if you have met the clinical threshold of experiencing two of the following symptoms in the previous year:4

  • Having a physical tolerance for alcohol (i.e., needing to use more alcohol now than you did when you initially began using alcohol to experience the same effects)
  • Having cravings for alcohol
  • Having withdrawal symptoms when you do not use alcohol that stop when you use alcohol again
  • Drinking alcohol for longer periods of time or in larger amounts you intend
  • Trying to cut back or quit using alcohol unsuccessfully, especially if you have tried more than once
  • Spending a lot of time in activities related to alcohol, including recovering from the effects of alcohol misuse
  • Having given up activities to spend time using alcohol
  • Having failed to fulfill responsibilities as a direct result of drinking behaviors
  • Having social or relationship problems due to alcohol use
  • Having known physical or psychological problems caused or aggravated by alcohol use, but continuing to use alcohol despite these progressive physical or mental health issues
  • Using alcohol in physically dangerous situations

Each person may have a different definition of recovery from alcoholism. Someone with an AUD may define recovery differently than a psychiatrist or substance misuse counselor. When you begin to work toward recovery—whether on your own or with an addiction treatment care team—establish your definition of and expectations for your recovery journey.4

Researchers on recovery have taken previous and current definitions of recovery and combined them to form the following, widely recognized definition:

“Recovery is a process of behavior change characterized by improvements in biopsychosocial functioning and purpose in life.”4

However, this definition is a short sentence to represent the weight and significance of recovery for someone currently living with an AUD.4 Your recovery may involve harm reduction or strict abstinence, ongoing professional support or building a personal support network, but the foundation of your recovery will be improving how your life looks, functions, and feels tomorrow and every day after.

What Are the Benefits of Recovery?

Alcoholism has demonstrated negative impacts on physical, psychological, and social health.5 When you enter recovery, you can start to identify where alcoholism has impacted your life specifically and begin the healing process. For example, abstinence from alcohol use can allow damage to your liver or kidneys to begin to heal. You may have the opportunity to address other mental health concerns that were masked by the effects of alcohol. As you learn how to live in sobriety, you may be able to work on relationships with your loved ones.

Everything that was once a risk associated with continued alcohol misuse can become a benefit of pursuing recovery.5

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What Are My Potential Paths to Recovery?

Everyone with an AUD deserves to experience the benefits of recovery. The path you take to get there will vary based on numerous factors, including your culture and the dominant culture where you live, your psychological needs, your behavioral health needs, your socioeconomic status, your location, and other factors.6

A path to recovery includes the specific resources and steps you take to overcome alcoholism. For example, many people choose to join Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)—a peer support group dedicated to supporting anyone working to overcome alcoholism. AA offers process groups and programs to help guide recovery, including the well-known 12 Steps. AA also has a related fellowship for families—Alcoholics Anonymous Family Groups (Al-Anon)—where family members of people with alcoholism can receive social support, learn how to support the recovery of a loved one, and heal from the damages of alcoholism as it affected their family.6

Other resources that may guide your recovery include the following.

Medically Supervised Detoxification

Many people need medical in the early stages of recovery when alcohol withdrawal symptoms are the most severe. Medically managed withdrawal is safe and effective. In these detox programs, medications can help curb cravings and ease physical discomfort. If potentially significant medical complications arise, professionals are on hand to alleviate them.

In order to jumpstart your recovery, your medical team may recommend medication-assisted therapy that continues after initial detox. Common medication used in the treatment of AUD include:7

  • Disulfiram—A medication that causes an acute reaction within thirty minutes of drinking alcohol to discourage alcohol use.
  • Naltrexone—A medication that not only curbs the cravings for alcohol, but also blocks intoxicating effects.
  • Acamprosate—A medication that is typically given a few days after the last alcoholic drink and reduces cravings and other withdrawal symptoms.

Inpatient Rehabilitation

When you choose inpatient rehab as a path to recovery, you commit to staying in a long-term program that offers round-the-clock care from psychiatrists, physicians, nurses, therapists, and technicians. Inpatient rehab offers the following benefits:8

  • Continued medication management for withdrawal symptoms
  • Alcohol education classes
  • Early recovery skills classes
  • Relapse prevention education
  • Peer support groups
  • Twelve-step groups
  • Dual diagnosis treatment for those with both an AUD and mental illness
  • Individual counseling
  • Aftercare planning and ongoing support

Aftercare planning is essential for maintaining recovery. With the help of a therapist, a plan for ongoing support will be created. It may include services like:9

  • Vocational counseling
  • Case management
  • Mental health treatment
  • Medication management
  • Family therapy
  • Assistance finding community and peer support groups
  • Recovery activities and events

Intensive Outpatient Program

Not everyone can take time away from their job or family to attend inpatient rehab. Intensive outpatient programs (IOP) offer services on a part-time basis. Unique treatment plans are created to help people receive ten or more hours of treatment, including medication management. When not participating in therapy, participants return home.10

Intensive outpatient programs offer:10

  • Individual counseling
  • Early recovery skills groups
  • Relapse prevention groups
  • Family therapy
  • Social support groups
  • Medication management for withdrawal

Individual Counseling

Individual counseling is sometimes referred to as psychotherapy. Some individuals seek one-on-one counseling to help with other issues and later learn they can benefit from treatment for their AUD. With the help of a therapist, you can learn more about recovery, make actionable recovery goals, and the explore the many paths to recovery.11

Individual counselors utilize different treatments to assist with AUD at any stage. Methodologies include:12

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)—CBT is a form of talk therapy that focuses on changing thoughts that may be negative or irrational. The theory is that changing thoughts leads to a change in feelings and behaviors.
  • Motivational Interviewing (MI)MI can be implemented as part of CBT and works well for people who are in denial or hesitant to enter treatment for AUD. Therapists use open-ended questions to help clients find their own personal reasons to get sober.
  • Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention Therapy—A big part of recovery is paying attention to your body, understanding what it needs, and meeting those needs. Mindfulness skills like meditation, yoga, and acupuncture are holistic tools that aid long-term recovery from alcoholism.

What If My Path to Recovery Is Not Clear?

Recovery from alcoholism is not easy. You will face emotional and physical challenges associated with both the use of alcohol and the process recovery. Psychologically, you may experience changes in your mood or you may have to come to terms with symptoms of a secondary mental health concern. You may find yourself irritable or easily agitated, anxious, and depressed due to withdrawal symptoms. Physically, you may notice aches and pains that were previously masked by alcohol, digestive problems created by alcohol misuse, or changes in how your major organs function.13

However, once you enter recovery and start working to overcome alcoholism, you can access a wide range of treatment services to help you heal each area of your life.

If you are unsure where to start on your path to recovery or have questions about recovery from AUD, call 800-839-1686Who Answers?.

Resources

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). National Institute of Health. Alcohol Facts and Statistics.
  2. Schuler, M. S., Puttaiah, S., Mojtabai, R., & Crum, R. M. (2015). Perceived barriers to treatment for alcohol problems: a latent class analysis. Psychiatric Services (Washington, D.C.), 66(11), 1221–1228.
  3. Schmidt, L. A. (2016). Recent developments in alcohol services research on access to care. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 38(1), 27–33.
  4. Witkiewitz, K., Montes, K. S., Schwebel, F. J., & Tucker, J. A. (2020). What is recovery? Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 40(3), 01.
  5. Rehm, J. (2011). The risks associated with alcohol use and alcoholism. Alcohol Research and Health, 34 (2), 135 – 143.
  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (U.S.), Office of the Surgeon General (US). (2016). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  7. Lee, J., Kresina, T. F., Campopiano, M., Lubran, R., & Clark, H. W. (2015). Use of pharmacotherapies in the treatment of alcohol use disorders and opioid dependence in primary care. BioMed Research International,
  8. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (1997). A Guide to Substance Abuse Services for Primary Care Clinicians, Chapter 5—Specialized Substance Abuse Treatment Programs. Rockville (M.D.): Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 24.
  9. Davidson, L., White, W., Sells, D., Schmutte, T., O’Connell, M., Bellamy, C., & Rowe, M. (2010). Enabling or engaging? the role of recovery support services in addiction recovery. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 28(4), 391–416.
  10. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2006). Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment, Chapter 3—Intensive Outpatient Treatment and the Continuum of Care. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 47.
  11. National Institute on Mental Health. (2016). Mental Health Information. Health Topics: Psychotherapies.
  12. Carter, J., Sharon, E., & Stern, T. A. (2014). The management of alcohol use disorders: the impact of pharmacologic, affective, behavioral, and cognitive approaches. The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders, 16(4).
  13. Sullivan, E.V., Harris, R. A., Pfefferbaum, A. (2010). Alcohol’s effects on brain and behavior. Alcohol Research and Health, 33(1-2), 127–143.

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