What to Expect in Early Recovery from Addiction

By Olivia Pennelle 01/02/19

In early recovery we may discover co-occurring mental health conditions, trauma, and exhaustion. We may even find ourselves engaging in compulsive behaviors in other areas, like gambling or sex.

Image: 
Woman looking at her reflection in hand mirror; wondering what to expect in early recovery
I vividly recall the first few weeks of recovery — I was so out of my depth that I felt like I was jumping out of a plane every day. I had lost all sense of normalcy. Picture by Septian simon on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, a woman contacted me in the throes of early recovery. I vividly recall those first few weeks — I was so out of my depth that I felt like I was jumping out of a plane every day. I had lost all sense of normalcy. I felt lost. And I had no reference points to validate what I was experiencing. But I sure as hell was determined to stay on this track, whatever it took.

The woman I spoke with told me that Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t feel right for her, but she didn’t know what else to do. She was having restless nights and insomnia, and was kind of going out of her mind. I empathized and told her that in my experience, what she was going through is normal. I explained my struggles in early recovery and what I had found useful in those first few months. She was comforted by my advice and validation and after a few minutes I could sense her relief.

That encounter led me to think: What do people in early recovery do if they aren’t in therapy or a support group? What are the common experiences we face psychologically and physiologically, and what are some of the natural and effective ways to help us feel comfortable and supported?

When I was newly sober, AA was the only option for me. I ignored my instincts telling me that certain aspects of the program didn’t feel right, and instead threw myself into the fellowship and worked my way through the 12 steps. Even though I couldn’t continue to ignore my discomfort and eventually left AA, I will always be grateful for the mutual aid aspect the meetings provided, especially in the early days.

“Getting support is vital. You can’t do this alone,” says therapist and recovery coach Veronica Valli. “Therapy, exercise, connection — all these things can build a solid foundation in early recovery.”

In early recovery we may discover co-occurring mental health conditions, trauma, and exhaustion. We may even find ourselves engaging in compulsive behaviors in other areas, like gambling or sex. Below we’ve listed some of the most common problems you may experience in early recovery, their causes, and some possible solutions. Please consult your physician if you require medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.


Experience:
Tiredness/exhaustion

Possible Reason:
Your body is recovering from years of abuse. Your brain and other vital organs need to regenerate and recover. This takes time and may make you feel like you could sleep for a year.

Potential Solutions:

  • Sleep for a minimum of 8 hours a night and longer if possible.
  • Honor your body and rest as much as possible.
  • Scale back commitments so you can physically recover as well as emotionally.
  • Try restorative or yin yoga.

Experience:
Insomnia

Possible Reason:
“Sleeping” pre-recovery often meant drinking or using to the point of passing out. Your body’s natural sleep rhythm is completely disrupted and it’s going to take time to adjust. That can mean you’ll feel restless and struggle to fall or stay asleep. But your sleep cycle should normalize, especially if you prioritize your sleep routine.

Potential Solutions:

  • Build a sleep routine: turn off electronic devices two hours before bed.
  • Create a calm sleep environment.
  • Use aromatherapy (like lavender essential oils).
  • Take supplements to promote sleep: some people swear by melatonin or L-theanine, but be sure to consult your doctor before taking any medication or supplements. 

Experience:
Feeling sad or down

Possible Reason:
Often our brain chemistry is disrupted when we stop using drugs and alcohol. As with sleep, it is going to take time for your body to adjust to producing feel-good chemicals naturally.

If you experience depression for more than two weeks or if it is disrupting your daily life, consult a doctor or other mental health care professional. If you feel like hurting yourself or you are at risk for suicide, immediately seek help. Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text “HOME” to 741-741.

Potential Solutions:


Experience:
Physical Illness 

Possible Reason:
Your immune system may be working overtime to remove the buildup of toxins in your body from years of drug use, especially during the acute phase of withdrawal. It will take time to detoxify and rebuild the body’s natural defenses.

Potential Solutions:

  • Seek professional assistance from a medical provider.
  • Once detoxed, try to make lifestyle adjustments to improve your health by increasing exercise (in accordance with your doctor’s advice), and ensuring you maintain a healthy diet.

Experience:
Stress and feeling overwhelmed

Possible Reason:
We’ve spent a long time using substances to numb and escape our feelings. It is only natural that when we stop, we will begin to feel overwhelmed and stressed out. This is normal in recovery.

Potential Solutions:

  • Find stress-relieving activities that work for you such as: exercise, therapy, yoga, journaling, or meditation.
  • Give yourself a break and work on developing self-compassion.

Experience:
Feelings of disconnection

Possible Reason:
Having been numb or in a state of intoxication for so long, it may feel abnormal to be sober. You may want to withdraw and isolate, feeling like you are disconnected from your body and from other people. This is really common.

Potential Solutions:

  • Find activities that increase connection to yourself and others, such as social events, mutual-aid meetings, meditation groups and solo meditation, and time with friends and family.
  • Work with a somatic specialist who can help you connect with your body.

Experience:
Addictive/compulsive behaviors

Possible Reason:
You may find yourself engaging excessively in gaming, gambling, sex, shopping, eating — anything that gives you that same feeling of escape and a rush of dopamine. This is called addiction transfer and it is frequently experienced by people in early recovery.

Potential Solutions:

  • There are 12-step fellowships for addiction to sex and love, gambling, eating, and more, but many of us have found we need help beyond what a 12-step program can provide. Try working with a therapist if possible.
  • Think about some healthy ways to relax and increase feel-good hormones naturally, such as exercise and connection with others.

Experience:
Mental illness

Possible Reason:
Sometimes getting sober uncovers an underlying mental illness. If you experience mania, intrusive thoughts, severe depression, or any other troubling or disruptive symptoms, seek the help of a medical professional.

The prevalence of co-occurring disorders is high in people with addiction, with nearly 40 percent of us also having a mental health diagnosis.

Potential Solutions:

  • Seek professional help; if medication is prescribed, take as directed.

Experience:
Discovering past trauma

Possible Reason:
Like mental illness, the occurrence of past trauma in those with substance use disorder is high. Research has shown that one in four children and adolescents experience at least one traumatic event by the age of 16, and more than 13 percent of 17-year-olds have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many teens have used alcohol and drugs to self-medicate and numb the memories of this trauma.

Once the drugs are removed, we may begin to recall trauma and may have untreated PTSD.

Potential Solutions:

  • Seek professional help, working with a doctor and therapist as recommended.
  • Recover the capacity to self-regulate in a healthy way through therapeutic help, and learn effective rest and relaxation practices.

Experience:
Lack of joy; not knowing what to do in your free time

Possible Reason:
It is very common for sober people to have no idea how to have fun. That’s because we always associated enjoyment with getting loaded!

Potential Solutions:


Experience:
No sober friends

Possible Reason:
Now that you’ve stopped hanging around with your drinking buddies, you might find that you don’t have as many friends as you want. This is also normal.

Potential Solutions:

  • Build friendships though healthy activities: find a gym community, go to meditation classes, (re)discover a hobby and practice it with a meetup group, or find friends in mutual-aid groups.

Experience:
AA isn’t for you

Possible Reason:
12-step groups aren’t the right fit for everyone.

Potential Solutions:


Experience:
Relationship difficulties

Possible Reason:
This can be one of the most painful things we experience in recovery. Often we don’t know how to relate to others, especially when it comes to romance and intimacy.

Potential Solutions:


Experience:
Feeling socially and emotionally drained

Possible Reason:
Often we commit to doing too much while in recovery because we’re no longer hungover all the time, and we have much more energy. But we also find ourselves tired, overwhelmed, and not wanting to go out a lot.

Potential Solutions:

  • Learn how to say no and honor your needs. Beyond getting sober, becoming comfortable with saying no is perhaps the most freeing thing you’ll do!


Note: The Fix does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, nor does anything on this website create a physician/patient relationship. If you require medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, please consult your physician.

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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including Recovery.org, Workit Health, Ravishly, Recovery Campus, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE. Find Liv on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Liv also co-hosts a podcast — Breaking Free: Your Recovery. Your Way. Listen here.

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