What Is “Real” Alcohol Recovery? The Answer Is Different for Everyone
The first step toward alcohol recovery is accepting that alcohol use interferes with your life. Then you can take the necessary next steps to recover. The recovery process can take time and patience and may affect as many parts of your life as alcohol misuse currently touches—such as your relationships, finances, or career. There are various paths to recovery and the process differs from person to person.
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The idea of “recovery” can feel insurmountable, especially when viewed through the biomedical disease model, which considers recovery to be abstinence that must be maintained for the rest of an individual’s life.1
However, a 2012 study about the criteria for defining the “success” of alcohol addiction treatment notes that:
Relying on DSM criteria to define a sample of individuals in recovery may unintentionally exclude individuals who are engaging in non-abstinence or harm reduction techniques and making positive changes in their lives.”3
The study suggests that individuals whose misuse of alcohol has decreased and whose lives have improved in measurable ways are, in fact, in recovery. 3 Some researchers argue that improved psychosocial functioning and quality of life are more important recovery goals than maintaining strict abstinence with no relapses.4 In fact, many clinicians embrace a harm-reduction approach in which abstinence is included, but not necessarily the only goal. Some individuals find recovery through complete abstinence from their “drug of choice,” but do not feel that using other legal, recreational substances put them at risk of relapse. For example, not every person in recovery gives up smoking or surrenders their medical marijuana card.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.”5
SAMHSA has listed four dimensions that support a life in recovery:5
- Health—Overcoming or managing one’s substance dependency or use disorder while making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional well-being.
- Home—Having a stable and safe place to live.
- Purpose—Engaging in meaningful activities such as a job, school, hobbies, and having the independence, income, and resources to participate in society.
- Community—Having social support and relationships that foster love, friendship, and hope.
The recovery process is supported by social networks and relationships. Your support network may include family and friends who become advocates for your recovery.5 Many treatment programs and community resources offer family and friends support groups for this purpose.
Treating Alcohol Use Disorder
Many individuals who struggle with severe alcohol use disorder (AUD) or with alcohol misuse over a long period of time enter an inpatient treatment facility as part of starting their recovery process. Inpatient or residential treatment programs offer various types of therapeutic modalities. Depending on the type of facility, additional amenities may be offered.
If you have a physical dependence on alcohol and experience severe withdrawal symptoms when you do not use it, you may need to enter an inpatient detoxification facility before beginning a rehabilitation or other treatment program.
Some standard interventions offered in inpatient alcohol treatment centers include:
- Educational groups—Support on specific issues such as anger management, trauma, and relapse prevention.
- Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)—If medical staff is employed onsite, some treatment programs may administer and oversee medication-assisted therapy.
- Individual counseling—Counselors meet with clients in one-on-one sessions to discuss treatment goals, challenges, and other life issues.
- 12-step meetings—Clients may attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other 12-step meetings while in treatment.
- Family counseling and education—These counseling sessions allow friends and family to engage in the patient’s treatment.
Some additional amenities offered in some inpatient treatment centers include:
- Recreational activities—Fitness workouts, swimming pools, outdoor excursions, movies, games, and sober activities can be a component of treatment.
- Adventure therapy—Fun physical outdoor activities are organized for clients.
- Equine Therapy—This modality includes activities with horses to improve mental health.
- Mindfulness—Yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness practices may be offered in some facilities.
- Nutritional education—Clients may attend educational groups on health and well-being, nutrition, and lifestyle.
- Community service projects—Service work and group projects are a great way for clients to get involved in their community.
- Employment training—Services for clients searching for employment or job skills training may be offered.
Near the end of inpatient treatment, the client’s needs are assessed by staff members who work to develop an ongoing treatment plan for the client upon discharge. This plan, known as aftercare, may include arrangements for housing or employment, goals for recovery, and recommendations.
Many treatment centers include a recommendation to attend Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step meetings as part of an aftercare plan. AA attendance is highly encouraged if the individual went to meetings during inpatient treatment and found them useful.6
Research shows that 12-step participation—which may include having a sponsor, attending meetings, and performing service work—is associated with improved outcomes in alcohol recovery.6 Many people attend 12-step programs most of their lives for the support, encouragement, and camaraderie found in the meetings.
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Beginning Your Journey
When researching alcohol rehab centers, it is important to look for programs that cater to your specific needs, including rehabilitative programs that address multiple areas of your life. You may want to speak to the admissions department to learn more about the facility, clinicians, and program.
If you or a loved one is ready to get help, you may find the following questions helpful:
- How long have you or your loved one been struggling with alcohol misuse? Individuals with a long history of alcohol misuse are more likely to experience severe withdrawal symptoms that require medical monitoring in an inpatient detox center as part of the recovery process.
- Do you have medical or mental health concerns? Co-occurring physical or mental health conditions can impact how an addiction treatment specialist addresses your needs. Be upfront with your physician and treatment clinicians about your medical history.
- Are you interested in a program that serves a specific population (teens, elderly, faith-based, LGBT, etc.)? Many treatment centers focus on specific demographics in order to offer highly relevant activities, group counseling, and other amenities. Attending a program with peers who not only understand your goal of long-term sobriety, but share similar life experiences may enhance your treatment experience.
- Do you have other needs in treatment such as job skills training, family or couples therapy, or the ability to complete schoolwork in treatment? These options may be available as part of your treatment program. For example, if you have obligations you cannot set aside during treatment—such as child or eldercare, a final semester of school, or your own business—you may decide to opt for an intensive outpatient (IOP) program rather than an inpatient program.
- Does your insurance cover alcohol rehab treatment? In addition to speaking to the admissions department at your chosen treatment facility, you may need to contact your insurance carrier regarding the specifics of your coverage. In some cases, the facility or your primary care physician may need to request a preauthorization for inpatient services based on your medically indicated needs.
- Do you want to stay close to home for treatment or do you have the ability to travel? You may choose to receive treatment closer or farther from home for a number of reasons. For example, you may have more treatment program options farther away from your hometown if you live in a rural location.
Recovery from AUD is an individual path. But many people find recovery by taking advantage of their personal support networks, local community resources, and professional treatment. If you or a loved one are seeking treatment, get help at 800-948-8417 Who Answers?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (2014). The Science of Addiction, Treatment and Recovery.
- Subbaraman, M. S., & Witbrodt, J. (2014). Differences between abstinent and non-abstinent individuals in recovery from alcohol use disorders. Addictive Behaviors, 39, 1730–1735.
- Witkiewitz, K. (2012). “Success” following alcohol treatment: Moving beyond abstinence. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 37(s1), E9–E13.
- Mocenni, C., Montefrancesco, G., & Tiezzi, S. (2019). A model of spontaneous remission from addiction. International Journal of Applied Behavioral Economics. 8(1), 21-48.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. (2015). Recovery and Recovery Support.
- Witbrodt, J., & Kaskutas, L. (2005). Does diagnosis matter? Differential effects of 12-step participation and social networks on abstinence. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, (31), 685-707.