How Long It Takes to Achieve Stable Sobriety
When I was an Assistant District Attorney I participated in many in-chambers conferences where defense attorneys tried to get their clients into drug treatment. I was astounded that applicants to Delancey Street, a respected program in San Francisco, had to sign up for a two-year commitment. It seemed like forever. How could it possibly take that long, I wondered? Wasn’t 30 days enough?
Many people think even a 30-day stint in rehab is a luxury. I did. The only thing I found attractive about going was that I thought that it would be a time-out from life, really a time-out from falling apart, where I could relax and regroup. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s work, hard work. All you do is sit in an endless succession of meetings and talk. But believe me, facing one’s addiction is arduous. Emotional work is far harder than physical labor, in my experience.
But rehab is just the beginning. You can’t learn to live sober in a sheltered environment like a treatment facility. You have to do it day in and day out in the real world, facing all your problems without the medicine you used to use to cope. It’s so difficult, AA found the only way to make it imaginable was to focus narrowly on one day at a time. Looking at the longer-term is simply too challenging at first.
When I drank after my first stint at rehab and returned for a second, the head cook there, himself an addict with many years of sobriety, asked me, “How many years did you drink?” When I told him, he responded, “And you expect 30 days in rehab to change decades of habit? Get real.” He was right. You can’t unlearn patterns of a lifetime in 30 days. That’s why Aftercare, attending meetings, and working a program is so important every day.
How long is it before someone is comfortably sober? It varies by individual, depending on a host of factors like the severity of the addiction, the level of seriousness with which one dedicates himself to the program, the quality of the support system one builds, whether there are other underlying psychiatric issues, etc. Some learn faster, some slower. For this slow learner, something my rehab’s Alumni Coordinator said helped give me permission to find my way in my own time. “Hell,” said this most-accomplished model of long-term sobriety, “I was a complete basket case for my first five years of sobriety. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t do much more than learn how to take care of myself.”
There’s a saying about recovery one hears often in AA, “It works, if you work it.” Achieving stable sobriety depends on how the sober addict works at it. If one works hard at recovery daily, attends meetings regularly (most successful addicts I’ve known go to at least one meeting every day for a very long time), works the 12 Steps with a sponsor, practices the program’s principles, and volunteers to help newcomers in recovery, his chances of successful long-term sobriety are far greater than if he doesn’t.
It’s important not to get complacent. No matter how many years of sobriety one has achieved, relapse is always a danger. I’ve known people who have relapsed after 10, 15, even 20 years of continuous sobriety. They all shared common denominators: they became convinced they had the program “down,” stopped going to meetings and let their programs slip. They stopped working to counter the irrational imperatives of the addict brain, imperatives that remain no matter how long it has been since one’s last drink or drug use. So recovery is not something any sober addict can ever take for granted.
Neuroscientists agree that because of the significance of the brain changes resulting from drug abuse, attenuation of the power of addiction is a process of years, not months. And they say that because of the permanence of those brain changes, relapse is always a danger. That’s what having a chronic disease means.