For the majority of people, the first stage of recovery lasts for one to two years, and is focused on stabilising the day to day living experience without alcohol or other drugs. We can liken the experience to learning how to manage every day using only the non-dominant hand – everything needs to be learned over, and it is a steep learning curve.
Depending on the person, their drug of choice, and the history of abuse and/or dependence, some will require the structure of an in-patient program, including a medically monitored detox program. Mid to late-stage alcoholics and heroin addicts are almost certain to require such medical intervention. Marijuana, cocaine and amphetamine users may or may not require medical monitoring, depending on their individual history.
This is a time when 12-step program devotees will recommend "ninety in ninety" referring to the common practice of attending ninety meetings in the first ninety days. Since we’re talking about the dramatic changing of the habits of a lifetime, dramatic intervention is required.
Classic interventions in this stage include the behavioural-cognitive based thought stopping; scheduling and structuring of time; basic health concerns including attention to diet and exercise. From a somatic perspective, would also recommend body-mind-spirit oriented activities such as yoga, stretching, hypnotherapy, tai chi, qi gong, martial arts, meditation, etc.
The experience of the first year or two of sobriety is hard to predict. Some have a relatively "easy" time, some have a very difficult time. Contributory factors include age, gender, stress level, commitments, health, past trauma, support system, and desire for sobriety. Daily drinkers will have a different experience than binge drinkers; intravenous drug users will have a different experience than smokers and inhalers.
Second Stage Recovery
Second stage recovery lasts two to five years beyond the first stage, and is focused on family of origin work. For many, it’s a time of anger and frustration, and ultimately, of forgiveness and differentiation. Questions like these become loud and insistent: "what happened to me?", "why did these things happen to me?", "what can I do about what happened to me?", "how do I move through my history?", ‘how do I repair the damage I created in the past?"
Perhaps for the first time, those of us who choose to attend 12-step programs notice there is still a comforting reassurance about being there, continued interest in newcomers and supporting them in sponsorship, but perhaps for the first time a hint of "is there something more?" Yes, being of service and going to meetings because we have committed to do so is admirable, and in the treatment field, we now know that some people are now ready to move on to something more than 12-step programs can provide.
Having established a foundation for sobriety, and being active in ongoing daily practices supporting ongoing sobriety, this is a time when quality of life issues emerge, usually from a historical perspective. We wonder why our parents did what they did, made the choices they made, and explore the sometimes murky waters of the past. This is not to lay blame or guilt on our families for their choices and actions, but simply to understand them. Uncovering the underlying dysfunctional patterns which have been passed from generation to generation give validation to our experience, and can begin the laying of ghosts.
For some, this is the time when memories of traumatic events emerge. We speak of trauma as existing on a broad continuum. From the one-time falling off a bicycle at one end of the continuum to the most severe of serial/ritual abuse at the other end of the continuum. Many in recovery had been self-medicating the painful experience of earlier trauma, and life-long sobriety of quality and meaning can only develop as the traumas of the past are acknowledged and processed.
I believe this type of recovery cannot be complete utilizing the intellect alone. Since traumatic events are stored at cellular level in the body, unless these memories are processed, released and expelled, they will live on in the body to the detriment of the owner.
Third Stage Recovery
Third stage recovery begins anywhere from eight to ten years of sobriety onwards. Its focus is on higher level concerns – spirituality, the meaning of one’s life, purpose and calling, a life beyond the confines of addictive processes. Getting to this stage presupposes the navigation of first and second stages.
This is an opportunity to really explore and come to terms with our being spiritual beings having a human experience. It’s a time to identify the limiting beliefs dogging our success, and design powerful assumptions to take their place. It’s also about being in action to shift our fundamental identity from : "I’m an alcoholic/addict" to "I am a powerful human being no longer a servant to addiction;" or, shifting from "I’m an alcoholic/addict" to "I’m a grateful recovering alcoholic/addict." We no longer need to be run by our earlier experiences, we can truly transform our lives.
The transformation we speak of is not just about being clean and sober, or in recovery, it’s about becoming the more empowered because we have this for our history, for it has emboldened us. Those of us who can maintain long-term/life-long recovery have a certain resilience that distinguishes us from those much less fortunate who continue with the daily battle of addiction through the end of their lives. There can really come a time when we can proclaim loudly: "I am proud to be ME!"
With significant sobriety under our belts, those in third stage recovery can really begin the adventure of a lifetime – looking for the personal answers to the fundamental questions: