We’re already a few months in of 2022 and statistically, only a portion of us who set New Year’s resolutions have kept them through this point. The start of a new year marks a time when many people set these resolutions for themselves. There’s hope for a renewed sense of vigor that will propel us towards the changes we’ve been wanting to make for a while. Recovery milestones—like reaching the one-year, five-year, ten-year marks—should be times of reflection and mindful celebration. If you have an opportunity to ask someone in long-term recovery how they felt around these anniversaries, you’ll likely hear that many people felt “antsy” or got “the jitters” the closer they came to these milestones. It’s a similar feeling that we experience whenever a new year approaches: we have a sense of urgency to make changes and we resolve to meet our goals.
The DSM-5 (the fifth version of the manual used for assessing and diagnosing various disorders) refers to the timeline of recovery from substance use disorders by using two categories: in early remission and in sustained remission. Early remission is the period of time from initial sobriety through 12 months, during this time, symptoms of substance abuse and the risk of relapse decline. Sustained remission begins after the first year. So the DSM calls an entire year “early”?! This may seem like a reach, but there are reasons why the first year of sobriety needs to be approached delicately.
During the first few months of sobriety, the brain is playing a game of catch-up to return to normal functioning. Some of the brain’s functions, including motor skills, bounce back rather quickly within a matter of a few weeks. But more complex thinking skills take much longer to strengthen. This highlights the importance of setting goals, having a plan for achieving those goals, and tracking progress along the way.
Another reason to stay mindful with a plan during this initial period of time is to more effectively manage any mental health symptoms that arise or worsen. A majority of people in early recovery report an increase in mental disorder symptoms, like depressive fatigue or mood swings. This discourages people who were hoping to feel better once they began abstaining from their drugs of choice, but often people abuse substances because they’re trying to cover up these symptoms. This is why the highest rate of relapse occurs within the first three or so months of sobriety.
Around the 6-month mark, other dangers have the potential to lead people in recovery to relapse. You might hear people say they’ve “beaten” their addiction. They no longer feel they struggle with cravings; they notice their mental and physical health are improving, they feel invincible; so why continue attending as many meetings? Surely only one meeting a week will suffice. Plus, there will be more free time to focus on quality time with loved ones and other leisure activities! There’s nothing wrong with wanting to spend more time with your family or wanting to focus on hobbies. The problem lies in the decline of engagement with recovery resources. A similar problem occurs with people taking certain medications like antidepressants: the belief that, because they no longer feel the symptoms that prompted them to begin medication management in the first place, they can stop taking their medicine. The recovering addict must realize that their consistency in engaging with resources like meetings and sponsorship is exactly what is building their success. Time matters, but what you do during your time is most vital.
So don’t give up on your resolutions, even if you’ve slipped; in the recovery world, it’s important to return to your goals if you experience relapse. The quicker one re-engages with the recovery community, the better. Resiliency is built through persistence, not through perfectly maintaining one’s goals.