Drug recovery, or drug addiction treatment, is the process of helping addicts take the steps necessary to move from struggling with their addiction to be comfortable and confident in their sobriety. Even then, recovery doesn’t end, and continues until life’s end. More than just a treatment, recovery is a commitment to living a drug-free life after experiencing the detrimental and deleterious effects of addiction.
To understand the recovery process, it’s important to break it down into individual parts, starting with the onset of addiction and the difficulties that one typically encounters when trying to overcome it. More than anything, the most important first lesson for any recovering addict is to understand that addiction is a disease and requires treatment.
It Begins in the Brain
When a drug is first taken, the brain reacts to it on an individual level, with some people appearing more sensitive to certain drugs than others. When it comes to illicit or addictive drugs, this rule plays a role in dictating how long it takes for drug use to turn into dependence. But regardless of individual resistance, most people’s first time with an addictive drug is highlighted by a chemical high, produced by a release of dopamine and other brain chemicals in response to the drug.
That release is often so far beyond anything else in life that it incentivizes repeated use, often pushing the boundaries of what we consider pleasure. It’s along the way that the body and brain begin to fight back against this influx of brain chemicals by numbing the effect of the drug and speeding up its metabolism, trying to ‘normalize’ its use. This is where tolerance kicks in, requiring higher and higher doses to achieve the same high.
Independent from this phenomenon, addictive drugs also kickstart a process known as dependence. How long it takes for a person to become dependent differs according to genetics, mental health, and various other factors, but when dependence does start, the brain begins to accept the drug as normal and struggles to function without it. Quitting, for any reason, causes someone who is dependent on drugs to experience uncomfortable and even painful withdrawal symptoms, ranging from extreme cravings and nausea to headaches, shivers, fevers, and more.
Separate from physical dependence is the phenomenon of emotional dependence. This is when a person begins to rely on a feel-good drug as a way to deal with sadness, trauma, and other feelings of pain or sorrow. Because drug use is a maladaptive coping mechanism, it doesn’t help the person address the issues that are causing them said pain, amplifying the pain whenever the high wears off. For people with emotional dependence issues, an addiction may not necessarily be physical, but they often still need help to wean themselves off drugs and find ways to deal with the emotional problems that led them to self-medicate in the first place.
Overcoming both emotional and physical withdrawal often requires outside intervention. Because of the nature of addiction, an addict’s own attempts at getting better alone are often futile. With the help and support of their loved ones, however, an addict can seek out professional help and start the recovery process. This starts with overcoming the first of many hurdles to come: withdrawal.
Withdrawal symptoms start hours after the last high and last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the drug, the constitution of the user, the intensity of the addiction, the dose taken, and so on. Most withdrawal symptoms are very uncomfortable but easily manageable, but some drugs present with dangerous withdrawal issues, particularly depressants such as alcohol, barbiturates, tranquilizers, and (less frequently) benzodiazepines. Depressant withdrawal issues may rarely cause death.
Because of this and a variety of other potential dangers (passing out, electrolyte loss and dehydration), it’s highly recommended to start withdrawal in a professional medical setting, either in a hospital or a drug recovery clinic. Once withdrawal starts, recovering addicts are typically kept under observation and medical care until the symptoms begin to fade. After withdrawal, when patients become lucid and start to feel normal again, other issues begin to emerge.
Healing the Mind
The early days of recovery are known for rollercoaster mood swings and the infamous ‘pink cloud’, wherein a recovering addict feels extremely hopeful and optimistic about the future, only for these emotions to vanish or crash into feelings of sorrow or anger. As the mind tries to adjust to sobriety, cravings grow in intensity, and many addicts struggle to sit still or be calm. Anxious feelings, excited feelings, depressed feelings, and other forms of hyperbole complicate the first few days of recovery, until things begin to settle down.
From there, the task of any therapist or psychiatrist in addiction treatment is to help an addict identify why they started using drugs, what emotions and situations push them to want to use drugs again, and what exactly they find most difficult about being sober. This part of treatment takes the longest, because it ideally continues throughout the first year of recovery, until a patient grows comfortable with their sobriety and finds their place in a sober world, while learning to completely abstain from drug-related temptations and illegal indulgences.
Most of the healing doesn’t take place in the therapist’s office, however, but takes place within the patient’s skull, over months, years, and decades. While addiction changes the way the brain works and responds to certain stimuli and chemicals, much of its effects can be reversed given enough time away from drugs. This can be sped up with a healthier lifestyle, particularly with a balanced and conscious diet, and regular exercise.
Getting Past Relapses
Relapses occur in most addiction treatment cases within the first year and become increasingly rare the longer a patient remains sober. While this shows that it becomes easier with time to resist temptation and not go on a bender, it also signifies that despite treatment, most recovering addicts continue to struggle with addiction. This is because rather than being an acute illness with a straightforward cure, addiction is best described as a chronic, progressive disease, requiring continuous treatment to avoid relapses and maintain remission.
But when relapses do occur, they can become opportunities for recovering addicts to consider their weaknesses and address them accordingly. Most relapses are triggered and figuring out when the process of relapsing began can help those who relapsed prevent it from happening again, growing stronger in the process.
The Long-Term Journey
Because recovery is a lifelong process, it’s important to be mindful of the long-term. While the first few weeks, months, and years of recovery are the most stressful and crucial, addiction’s chronic nature means a recovering addict must remain motivated to stay sober, incentivizing themselves by setting and achieving goals only made possible through recovery and sobriety.