The first year of personal recovery is a challenging and exciting time. For many, it is filled with an onslaught of “firsts”—the first time at a sporting event without drinking, the first time going to a party without using illicit substances, and the first time feeling like a whole person in a long time. Navigating this critical period can be difficult, though, and finding success in that first year is a lot easier with a solid support network and a bit of personal awareness.

Why is the first year so important?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), recovery is a “process through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” That is a tall order at first glance and one that can seem daunting even to those who have come to the point of never wanting to see a substance ever again. If we take a closer look at what recovery is, we can see that it really entails learning how to live an entirely new life that strives to find personal wellness. In reality, then, recovery is about navigating the world with a new set of rules and social norms (without substances!).

Imagine if you were a newborn living in your first year, a time filled with learning about the world and how to survive. The first year of recovery then is no different. We must spend our time learning, taking care of ourselves, and adapting to a world that is largely still the same.

What does the research say?

In 2006, a study sponsored by the National Institute of Health (NIH) found that of those who are likely to experience a relapse or reoccurrence of substance use, are such because they have a lack of positive coping skills and a higher sense of self-efficacy. Furthermore, in a 2008 study, NIH found that only a third of individuals who remain abstinent at the year marker are likely to be in recovery at a later date. What this research tells us is that the first year is a critical period to ensure long-term success in your life of recovery.

Strategies for finding success

Since that first year is crucial, it is important to outline a plan of action that you will take after initiating your recovery journey. According to the research, most individuals relapse because they have a lower self-efficacy and lack positive coping skills. In any plan you develop with your support network or treatment team, these items are a top priority.

Following the recommendations of your clinical team is always a good idea, whether that is for a substance use disorder or any other disease. These individuals are well-trained and versed in the art of long-term recovery, and know what it takes medically for you to find long-term success. Whether they recommend eight weeks of intensive outpatient or a longer program, follow their advice! Aftercare is where many of us continue to practice positive coping skills while we are also part of the world again. Without modeling these skills, relapse is not only more likely, but life can quickly become unbearable.

Find a recovery community and engage with it every day

Whether you choose to participate in a 12-step recovery, SMART recovery, Refuge recovery, or some other form of a mutual aid recovery community, you should engage with that community every single day. Your peers will help provide you accountability for your actions, give you a sounding board for decision-making, and give you that extra support when it is needed most. Recovery may begin in treatment, but it thrives and grows out in the community!

Make a daily schedule and keep it

If you remember our analogy about the newborn baby, this makes a ton of sense. When learning how to live a new life, structure and routine can give you a huge advantage. Whether that is making the same meeting daily, waking up at the same time, or picking up the phone to call a friend after going to outpatient—make a schedule and commit to keeping it. When we follow a schedule, life is less likely to get out of control and unmanageable in early recovery.

Make it a point to learn important life skills

Self-efficacy is equal parts having the knowledge to do something and the belief that you can do it. Often, our substance use is more important than learning how to cook, do laundry, or balance a budget. Take the time in this first year to learn how to do those things and become good at them; not only will you feel better and have new skills, but you are helping protect yourself from turning back to substances for those feelings!

Whatever your plan is, remember that the first year of recovery is an important time. We get to learn about ourselves in ways we never thought possible, build and remake personal relationships, and experience the world with a whole new outlook. Protecting your recovery should be a priority, and it is one that should be planned out as soon as you begin the process. If you have questions about this process or need more advice, the best thing to do is to reach out for help!

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.