Starting Recovery: The Necessity of a Detox

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You've made the decision to get help for your substance use - so where do you begin? Depending on substance used, amount of time used, and frequency, a detox stay may recommending to get physical and medical separation from your drug of choice.

What is detox? It falls into two key types that persists for some time following the cessation of alcohol and drug usage. Detoxification, or detox for short, is necessary to kick start the recovery process and lay the foundation for substance use recovery. It’s the process of removing substances from your body, typically with medical assistance to help navigate withdrawal symptoms that may occur.

Acute detoxification is the first type, marked by life threatening symptoms. The label acute comes from the level of risk you may experience while going through the detox process. This determination is made from a variety of factors, including type of substance used, length of time using and any medical conditions which may complicate the detox process. A person assessed to be in acute detox should never detox from home. Substances such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates can result in life threatening withdrawal symptoms such as seizures or comas. This type of detox should always occur in a detoxification center where monitoring and medication management can occur 24 hours a day, for the length of time necessary to complete the detox process.

The second type of detox is called sub-acute detoxification. This type of detox is reserved for those with less medical risk during their detox process. Typically those who don’t have medical conditions that could complicate the detox process and are using less harmful substances. Medical monitoring is still recommended during this process, but may be able to occur on an intensive outpatient or outpatient basis while detoxing from home. This does not mean that the detox process is any shorter - it may still take days or weeks - only that the detox is not life threatening.

How do you determine which detox would be best for you? Seek a medical assessment! Before undergoing any type of detox process, or ceasing alcohol or drug usage, you must consult a medical professional to determine what the best course of action is for you. Any type of detox will produce withdrawal symptoms, and it’s important to understand the risks of what these withdrawal symptoms may produce.

If you have been chronically using any substance for a significant length of time, the recommendation will always be to enter into a detoxification center in order to receive medication management and navigate withdrawal symptoms. While detox from home may be a possibility with certain substances, it’s still not recommended due to the level of discomfort that may occur. Those going through sub-acute or acute withdrawal may experience the symptoms such as anxiety, depression, cravings, pain, nausea / vomiting, insomnia, irritability and more.

In order to safely and most comfortably move into the foundational stage of your recovery, a detoxification center is an option for any substance that was chronically used. These centers offer medication management to dull withdrawal symptoms, 24 hour nursing staff, as well as exposure to therapy, 12 step programs and concepts needed to continue on your recovery journey.

Once an acute or sub-acute detox has been completed, the journey is just beginning. Many clients continue to experience Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWs) which can persist for up to a year. While acute and sub-acute detox deals with primarily physical symptoms, PAWs symptoms occur at an emotional and psychological level as your brain begins to heal from the patterns of chronic use. Due to this, it is always recommended that detox be only the first step in your treatment process.

Rehabilitation Centers, or rehab, is normally the second stage of treatment after completing a detox. These programs, typically residential or inpatient, allow you to go under the surface of your addiction and get to the root of the problem while navigating PAWs symptoms. These structured facilities include therapy, medication management, medical services, and exposure to community support for those entering into recovery as well.

The longer the time that someone spends in structured treatment programs, the better chance they have at sustained recovery. Don't rob yourself of the chance to build a foundation in recovery by only completing a detoxification program. Continue to build on the progress made in detox by continuing your treatment for as long as possible.

Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC

Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC