Ups, Downs, and Everything in Between: Understanding the First Year of Recovery

Here is one fact in recovery: quitting drugs or alcohol is the pivotal first step of sobriety. After all, you have to quit first. Then the recovery journey begins.

While most people want to hear a definite timeline in recovery, the truth is, there isn’t one.

Everyone’s recovery experience is as unique as they are.

Factors such as time spent in addiction, medical history, mental health issues, and environment significantly impact recovery.

However, there are some commonalities that most people experience in their first year.

If you’re new in recovery, you can expect ups and downs, but stick with it. When you come through the challenges stronger, your successes will be that much sweeter.

Here are some common things that occur during the first year of recovery:

Post-Acute Withdraw Symptoms

Once you have initially detoxed from alcohol and drugs, you may feel like the withdrawal phase is over. While the intense parts are behind you, you may still struggle with Post-Acute Withdraw Syndrome (also called PAWS) through your first year of recovery.

What’s happening here is that your brain is working hard to repair the damage caused by your addiction, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

PAWS symptoms include:

  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Low energy/fatigue
  • Unexplainable physical pain (headaches, stomachaches, etc.)

Some people only experience PAWS symptoms for a few days or weeks, while others may experience them for years. If these symptoms become overbearing, don’t hesitate to reach out to a medical professional for help.

Strong Emotions

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It’s normal to feel strong, sometimes unpredictable emotions in early recovery. You have suppressed emotions through drugs and alcohol, and now they are full-blown, demanding to be felt.

Common emotions in recovery include:

While these are typical emotions in early recovery, research from The National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that alcohol, drugs, and mental health issues are strongly related.

If these emotions become overwhelming, don’t hesitate to see a therapist or counsellor who could help you work through them in healthy ways.

While you may not feel well early on, it is not worth giving up your recovery. The truth is, you will start to feel better, sometimes quicker than you may think.

Here are some proactive ways to keep your sobriety first during (and beyond) the first year:

Get Support

Support during the first year (and after) is vital to your recovery. It’s essential to build a strong support network early on, so you can learn to lean on others when needed.

There are many types of support available, including:

It’s common to not reach out for help in early recovery, but there are people out there with the knowledge and experience necessary to help those in recovery. 

Reaching out for help and building a strong network is going to get you through the hard days.

Create Routines

A solid daily routine is imperative in early recovery because it helps you build habits and balance while giving you structure and familiarity.

Set some time each day to prepare for the next day. First, write down what you need to do to support your recovery. This could include prayer and meditation, attending support groups, and reaching out to others in recovery.

Then, write down what you need to do (work, school, responsibilities). Make time for self-care such as personal hygiene, exercise and hobbies.

Some people find it useful to schedule their routines hour by hour, while others find it beneficial to list “to-dos” and complete them throughout the day.

Once you get into a habit of creating a daily routine, you will find it easier to stick to.

Hold Off on Major Decisions

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Early recovery is a time of healing, and it should be guarded with care. Typically, making big decisions like changing careers, starting a new romance, or having a baby, is not advisable during this time.

The reason to avoid making major decisions in early recovery is that this first year is more than likely stressful already.

Moving from addiction to sobriety takes time, and any further stress could rock your recovery.

In addition, big life decisions demand a great deal of attention, which could put your recovery in the back seat.

Celebrate Milestones

Recovery is full of “firsts,” especially during the first year.

Of course, there are the sobriety milestones, like the first 24 hours, 30 days, 60 days, and so on.

Then, there are the milestones that are unique to you: the first time you go to a social event sober. The first time you think through a situation with a clear head. The first time you notice your surroundings and feel peace.

These are all examples of recovery milestones, and you should celebrate them all. Each milestone is a symbol of growth.

Keep Moving Forward

Early recovery can often feel like two-steps forward, one-step-back, experience. Emotions, distractions, and your own mind can often tell you that your recovery is not worth keeping.

This is a lie that everyone in sobriety often feeds into, but it should be thrown out immediately.

While early recovery may feel unbearable at times, think of it like this: your alcohol or drug addiction was unbearable and brought you tremendous pain.

Recovery may be painful, but it is a different type of pain. It is a pain that brings healing and restoration.

You can choose recovery and save yourself from the pain of addiction.

Keep moving forward, and you will reap the benefits that a sober life brings.


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