How to Maintain Substance Use Recovery

Photo by Mark Duffel / Unsplash

Recovering from a substance use disorder is no joke. The first steps of seeking help typically are urgent and guided by others. This can include entering a detoxification center, or going away for residential treatment. It all starts with the sought after words, “I need help.”

These first steps are crucial to seeking help; not only because of the need for support, but also for legitimate medical reasons. It’s important to note that certain substances require medical monitoring when detoxing (like alcohol or benzodiazepines) and cannot be safely tapered at home. Treatment - if accessible to you - is a resource that should be utilized. Better treatment outcomes, and longer sobriety, is correlated with the amount of time spent in treatment. Use these resources to build your foundation in recovery.

Substance use recovery is often evaluated by clinicians using the framework of the “Stages of Change” from the transtheoretical model (TTM) of change. It allows for providers to pinpoint motivation and current stressors, while tailoring interventions to what the client needs. These stages are pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and relapse. The goal of substance use treatment is to ease clients through the first four stages of change, until the client can settle into the maintenance and set up protective factors to guard them from relapse.

So when that first six months or a year of sobriety has come to a close, what are the safety nets that should be set up to continue our maintenance of substance use recovery? Below are some resources that can be added to your maintenance checklist to ensure you maintain all your recovery has to offer.

  1. Recovery Routine: Maintenance means exactly what it says: maintain your current recovery routine to ensure you not only avoid relapse, but enhance your quality of life. As anyone in recovery will tell you, the relief that begins to set in around six months to a year of recovery can trick your brain into thinking “I’ve got it all together now”. Be weary of this thought. It’s only in the continued actions, such as 12 step meetings, social support, and spirituality, that you can consolidate and continue your commitment to sustaining new behavior. Whatever you were doing in your first months of sobriety should be sustained or enhanced to reinforce this behavior.
  2. Expand your Social Circle: As we grow and change in recovery, the people we may have initially surrounded ourselves with may not fit anymore. This is okay! It’s always important to continue seeking out new people who can grow with us, offer us a new perspective, or help us make deeper changes to the way we interact in the world.
  3. Reinforcement Management: This is a really simple skill that can be applied to all ways we want to change. Simply put, you reward yourself when you engage in changed behavior. These rewards may happen automatically (i.e. when I don’t drink, I feel physically better) or they may need a little help from you (i.e. when I respond to a situation without yelling, I get ice cream). It sounds childish - and it kind of is - but it works! Allow yourself to sustain changed behavior by identifying what positive things happen as a result of change.
  4. Self-Awareness Skills: In order to maintain, we need to stay alert to subtle shifts in our thinking, environment or actions. Cultivate self-awareness like a religion. Sneaky thoughts will creep up on you once you reach the maintenance stage of recovery. “It wasn’t that bad” or “I think I could handle it differently now”. Exercises like calling a trusted friend to give you feedback on decision making or keeping a journal to evaluate these shifts are a life-saver when it comes to maintaining your recovery.

Revel in the maintenance phase of your recovery - this is the space where further growth and exploration of who you are becomes possible. This phase is the longest and most sought after stage of your recovery. But always be mindful that it’s a privilege, not a right, and requires your continued effort to help you build the life you’ve always dreamed of.

Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC

Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC