stages of recovery

Addiction is a complicated concept that is classified as both a mental illness and a chronic disease. For some, addiction happens quickly. One crazy night of experimentation and the habit was formed. For others, it develops over time. Social drinking on the weekends seems harmless until you realize it is Tuesday and you’re drinking alone. Understanding addiction and realizing that is what you are experiencing is the start of a new beginning.


Realize, however, that you are not alone. Approximately 23.5 million Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Only 11% of those addicted to drugs attend drug treatment facilities, and a majority of the facility admissions are for alcohol abuse. The largest percentage of those seeking treatment, approximately 30%, were adults ages 24 to 29.

Seeking recovery treatment for addiction can also be a complicated process. Often cloaked in secrecy, rehab programs have an aura of mysticism to the uninitiated. You often read news stories about famous people disappearing into rehab for 30 days. No one really talks about what goes on there. Some emerge “cured,” while others become serial rehab guests.

addiction to alcohol

Addiction to alcohol, or any other drug, is a chronic condition and there are 4 stages of recovery.

There are some simple facts about addiction and recovery that can begin your understanding of the process. Addiction is long, and so is recovery. Even if your addiction started the first time you tried heroin, by the time you are ready to recover, it has infiltrated your whole life. Recovery has to address all aspects of your life, and that takes time. No one developed his or her addiction overnight — it takes time to recover.

Recovery is a long journey and is experienced differently by different people. There is an unending list of variables in the way people approach rehab. From the number and type of substances abused to the underlying mental illnesses yet to be resolved, everyone has a different scenario. While their experiences, backgrounds and lifestyles are all different, and the way they withdraw from alcohol is different, the process of recovery has some common stages.

How the Stages of Recovery From Addiction Aid in Recovery

There is nothing cookie-cutter about addiction recovery, which is why individualized treatment programs work best. Experience has revealed some general structure to the recovery process, however, that can be used to set milestones and predict success. Understanding the stages of recovery begins to give you some insight.

Blindly walking into the unknown is no fun. It is better to learn from those who have gone before you. Breaking down the recovery process into four stages helps reduce the anxiety brought about by fear of the unknown. The first step to recovery, admitting you need help, is a big one. It will be a little easier once you have some idea of what to expect.

Understanding that there is some commonality to the recovery process reinforces the idea that you are not alone. By reaching out for help with your addiction, you are not jumping off a cliff into the unknown. You are simply joining a club of other people who have made the same choice and are working hard to achieve and maintain sobriety.

Addiction recovery is a long process, but breaking it down into steps makes it easier. Instead of seeing this mountain in front of you that you have to climb, you can see just the first little hill. You can remain focused on that small goal until you succeed, and then take on the next one, taking time to celebrate your achievements along the way.

recovery as four small test

Looking at recovery as four small steps instead of one big hurdle can help you celebrate the victories. Sometimes in recovery, progress is slow. Like every thing else in life, there are good days and bad days. When you’re having a series of bad days and feel like there has been no progress, you can look back at the stages you’ve already come through. Remembering where you were when you started makes even a little progress worth celebrating.

The stages of recovery can also be your barometer to check your progress. Recovery isn’t always a forward march to the finish. It is a lengthy process that sometimes feels more circular. Some people remain in one stage, going around and around for a while before they move forward. Remember, every one’s experience is different. By looking at your recovery as a series of four stages, you can see if you’ve done some backsliding and increase your efforts in that area.


4 stages of recovery

  • Treatment Initiation
  • Early Abstinence
  • Maintaining Abstinence
  • Long-Term Recovery

Each of these is an important step to sobriety and while everyone takes them differently and achieves the at their own pace, to be truly effective, each person need to complete each stage.


addiction treatment initiation

There comes a point when addicts cannot live without their substance of choice and they can’t live with it. Life becomes too difficult. Too many things are going wrong, and it seems impossible to maintain the status quo. The life of an active substance abuser is a careful balance of fulfilling responsibilities while primarily focusing on getting and consuming drugs. Holding down a job and maintaining relationships becomes very difficult under the cloud of addiction, which changes your behaviors, your personality and even your values temporarily. Eventually, the pressure is too much. Your life starts to fall apart, and you wish there was a better way.

In the treatment initiation phase, something — some setback or set of circumstances — makes the addict realize a change is needed. During this phase, she may try to regain the balance by limiting her use of drugs and alcohol to just the weekends, or he may try replacing his substance of choice with something that isn’t “as bad.” She may even try to limit her exposure to the people who do drugs with her.
These limiting activities are usually met with frustration because addiction cannot be overcome this way. Addiction is not about how much you use a substance. It is about how important using that substance is to you. You may have heard stories of people who had some awakening like a car accident or the death of a friend, quit drugs “cold turkey” and never looked back. Addiction recovery almost never happens that way. For most people, there is no single motivator strong enough to overcome the grip of addiction on their lives.

During the treatment initiation stage, an addict may also start to investigate treatment options. She may even try some self-help or home remedies. He might enlist the help of a friend or loved one to police his substance abusing behaviors. For many, the frustration of not being able to control their usage pushes them further into the addiction. They are unable to get out of the cycle by their own willpower or the willpower of others. For most people, another serious setback is needed to bring them to recovery.

Treatment initiation starts when you first seek help for your problem. It doesn’t matter how you ended up at rehab — be it of your own free will, by way of intervention, because of a court order or any other reason. Everyone’s first step on the road to recovery is treatment initiation. This is the first step of the four stages of recovery and the most important because without stage one, there is no recovery.


Abstinence begins with detox, cleaning the substances out of your system. Although it has a dreaded reputation, most people agree detox is not as bad as they expected. Still, adjusting to a clean body and brain can feel strange. Depending on what your substance of choice was and how long you had been taking it, your body may be shocked to exist without it for the first time in years.

During and after a detox, as the chemicals are leaving an individual’s body, the person is introduced to recovery. This has all the good and bad features of joining a club. You first have to learn the rules and procedures. Life in the club is different than outside. They use an unfamiliar language, the jargon of recovery, and there are rules about how to interact with others that may be foreign to you.

group recovery

At this stage, you will be integrated into a group of other individuals that are working towards recovery as well. At first, you will be the newest member, but that will change in time. Everyone in the group is at a different point in their recovery. The group accepts you immediately because they recognize they were once where you are.

Being in a group of peers helps facilitate this step of recovery. Even if you consider yourself a loner, you will come to appreciate the support of the other group members. No one recovers from addiction alone. These people are the first support system in your new sober life. They are the best people to start with because they empathize with you. In time, you’ll learn to develop a support system that includes non-addicts as well.

Early abstinence is an important stage of recovery for a few reasons:

  1. You begin to develop relationships with other sober people — You will quickly learn that you need to distance yourself from the people you used to drink with because they will pull you back into your addictive activities. When you’ve spent a majority of your time recently drinking and drugging, it’s hard to know where to find new friends. The people in your recovery group are safe friends because they are sober now, too.
  2. You begin to develop trust — You realize that you really can’t do recovery on your own, and you’ll have to trust the people around you to help. But trust is one thing that is almost always broken in addiction, so relying on a group of strangers can be scary. The trust begins to build when they share their experiences with you and you open up to them.
  3. Intimacy with self is able to emerge — One of the primary reasons people turn to drugs is to quiet the voices in their heads. They do not want to deal with the thoughts and emotions swirling around in their heads, so they check out with drugs or alcohol. This disconnect with yourself begins to heal in early abstinence, and you become re-acquainted with your thoughts and feelings.
  4. New Tools for living sober are introduced — Just as you’re wondering how you’re going to do all this recovery stuff without a drink, your question is answered. You are introduced to some basic strategies for getting through life without that drink. At this stage, everything is a struggle, but with these tools and the support of your recovery group, you will get through it and learn to embrace a sober life.

Again, everyone reacts to every stage differently and has their own experience. Some feel elated to be free and other feel fear or mistrust. All are acceptable and normal. If you are in treatment, use the opportunity to process whatever comes up for you.


stage 3 of recovery

After several months of abstinence, you reach the third stage of recovery. In this stage, you begin to struggle less with the actual substance and more with yourself. This is where some of the real work takes place as you begin to uncover some of the root causes for your substance abuse.

Addiction almost always occurs with an underlying mental illness. Whether the addiction was the result of the other illness or the addiction caused it is not really important. Treating both conditions is important, however, to the success of your recovery. Left untreated, any mental illness will make it impossible to overcome the addiction. Once you get used to not having drugs in your system anymore, it’s time to address mental and emotional issues.

At this stage, you usually develop a new clarity that is initially uncomfortable. All the emotions you were using drugs to escape from are there glaring at you. You have limited experience in dealing with emotions, and your reflex is to run away from them. But now it is time to work through them. With the proper help and support, you learn to understand your emotions and process them one at a time. In the meantime, there are additional strategies to help you maintain your sobriety under this increased emotional pressure.

This is when you learn that addiction recovery is all about you. With help, you set aside the blaming and begin to take control of your life again. It’s not a quick process, but if you truly invest yourself in it, you will be pleased with the outcome. During this stage, you will be riding the waves of emotion with plenty of highs and lows, but that will even out in time.

You also learn in this stage about the self-care you haven’t been doing. Part of living a healthy lifestyle is taking care of yourself with good nutrition, exercise and mind care. For many recovering addicts, this part is like learning to walk all over again. Substance abuse leads to risk-taking behavior, and most addicts take plenty of risks with their health. They are often surprised by the amount of self-respect they gain by simply nurturing their bodies and souls.

Stage three is usually the longest part of recovery, although there is no way to predict precisely how long it will be. In the common language of recovery, it’s over when it’s over. Part of healing is reducing stress and learning to accept things as they come. You will do some of your deepest work in this stage of recovery, but that also means you will achieve the greatest sense of satisfaction.

Stage three begins by breaking down your situation and taking a closer look at the individual components. At the end of this stage, you are putting your life back together with better parts. You start to apply what you’ve learned in recovery to your daily life outside of the program.

By this time, the person has been sober for about three months. If treatment guidelines have been followed and the tools for living sober are being utilitzed, the withdrawal symptoms and craving has all but subsided. Most people at this point are off withdrawal medications. You may be in an outpatient program, living in a sober living facility or back home with your family. Some have transitioned back into their normal daily routins with 12 step meetings, new sober coaching technologies and other professional supports are in place to hlep maintain sobriety.

At this stage…

  • Life is changing on the inside
  • Life on the outside is beginning to reflect this change
  • Old thoughts and feeling may emerge, but now you have healthy tools to process them
  • Additional supports have been identified
  • New healthy relationships are being formed
  • Old relationships are going through a healing process

This part of the 4 stages of recovery focuses more on maintaining the sobriety, and ways to help prevent relapses. You learn how to use the tools you were introduced to in stage two and three and you will learn how to apply them to your life for sobriety success.


Building a healthy, substance-free life after addiction is a tremendous achievement. It allows you the sort of happiness you could never have imagined while you were actively abusing drugs. You know your strength and can reclaim your self-worth. In many ways, it is like a dream come true.

After spending a long time focusing on your addiction, when you reach the fourth stage of recovery, you get to focus on your life. Your memory of addiction will always be there, but your daily activities don’t include the extreme emotional introspection that marked the previous stage of recovery.

This doesn’t mean recovery is over, though, but living a healthy lifestyle has become a habit by now. The tools and strategies you learned earlier in recovery are embedded in your regular routine. You’ve built a support system of sober people and developed friends with common interests that are not centered around partying or getting high.


You’ve created a new life for yourself and are now focused on living it. Part of living your new healthy life is continuing to work your program at intervals. You may attend 12-step meetings, periodic counseling sessions or a support group. You know what works best to maintain your sobriety.

There will be stresses that come up, and relapse is still possible even at this stage. When a crisis occurs, instead of reaching for a drink, you have retrained yourself to reach out for help, call your counselor or attend a meeting. Using the tools you learned in recovery, like increasing your self-care during stressful times in life, you can respond to a life crisis in a healthier way.

Anticipating stressful situations and having a plan in place to deal with them confidently can help prolong your sobriety. You will become an expert at spotting triggers and steering yourself around them. When one area of your life is in turmoil, like the loss of a job or breakup of a marriage, you will employ strategies from your recovery to get through it without substance abuse.

The process of recognizing temptation and avoiding relapse will never stop. Much like getting up every morning and brushing your teeth or having a cup of coffee, recovery from addiction requires attention daily. Recovery is not just about stopping drinking or using — it’s about living a life. You never have to drink or use again. Help and support are available.

Sometimes unexpected events threaten to derail your recovery from addiction. Addiction is a powerful force, and although it is far behind you, emotional issues may come up in the future that make relapse seem inevitable. Part of your long-term recovery, this fourth stage, may be to face a brief relapse. If you remember that recovery is a long journey, you will realize that there is time to recover from mistakes. At this stage, you have the tools you need to recover again if you slip up.

Learn More About Addiction Recovery

universal stages of recovery

The four stages of recovery are fairly universal, but everyone’s journey takes a different path. The length of time spent at each stage varies greatly from person to person. Also, the progression through the stages for some people is linear, while for others it can be more cyclical.

Moving backwards and repeating a step is not a sign of failure. It simply means your treatment in that area is not complete or needs to be adjusted to accommodate new issues or other things you’ve learned about yourself. Sometimes you think you are ready to move to the next stage, but then you determine there was some unfinished work you must go back and do.

No matter what direction your recovery takes, a good treatment program will help you move through these four stages of recovery at your own pace. Regular re-evaluation and adjustments in your program can keep you moving down the path to a happy, substance-free life.

Addiction recovery can be a complicated process filled with coordinating treatment modalities and multiple diagnoses. These four stages of recovery, however, provide a guide to the process. They help break down a long journey into more manageable steps and give you some idea of what to expect.

To learn more about the stages of recovery or any other aspect of addiction and rehabilitation, contact JourneyPure. Our website is full of useful information about the latest treatment modalities in conquering addiction. We know that addiction recovery is a big step, and we want to make it as comfortable as possible for you.

If you are suffering from addiction, we can guide you through the stages of recovery and help you achieve and maintain a lasting sobriety. Our individualized treatment programs are innovative, using the latest science-based modalities in a holistic approach to mental wellness.

At JourneyPure, we address the entire individual, incorporating nutrition, physical exercise, experiential therapy and neurofeedback into a treatment program that is right for you. We’ve created comfortable facilities where people struggling from addiction and other mental illness come for compassionate care. Our continuum of care begins with your first phone call and extends through follow-up services well beyond your initial sobriety.

Call JourneyPure today and begin your journey to recovery.