“Life gets better and more beautiful”: The 3 Stages of Recovery from Addiction

By the time she was 30, Shante had been using heroin and cocaine for a decade, drifting in and out of inpatient rehabs and outpatient programs. She entered each program with good intentions but no concept of what “recovery” actually involved.

“I used to think I was going to get clean and then my life would be fixed,” recalls Shante, an Ideal Option patient, now 38.

Eventually — after relapses, jail stints, and, finally, the birth of her youngest daughter — Shante discovered otherwise: recovery isn’t an event, a chapter in your life. It’s not something you do for 30 days or 90 days and then check off your list. It’s a work in progress, a process that continually evolves.

Recovery in the first month feels a whole lot different from recovery a year later and two years later.

“At first, you’re just trying to get through the day while your body tries to regulate itself,” recalls Shante, now two years into recovery. “I was tossing and turning at night and felt so much anxiety. Then I got over that hump, and learned to create simple, attainable goals. Then, I learned to make plans.”

Though you’re always “in recovery,” you move through different stages, gradually feeling, as Shante did, more comfortable, more grounded. At each stage, you’re able to do more, feel more, reach higher.

The boundaries between stages can be fuzzy; there’s no graduation from one stage to another. But experts in addiction recognize distinct phases.

“With the majority of my patients, I see a similar thought process,” says Geoff Godfrey, addiction medicine specialist. “You watch patients develop more clarity of thought. They start reaching out and expanding their boundaries, and they’re more accepting of themselves.”

Geoff divides the recovery process into three stages.

•First, with the help of medication assisted treatment (MAT), you establish new routines and find your balance. “It’s like water skiing: All the sudden, you’re up on your two skis and feeling stable,” says Geoff.

•Next, you start to repair relationships, resolve legal troubles, give of yourself to others. “You can feel yourself starting to heal,” says Geoff.

•Then, and forever, you continue to expand your horizons. “Life gets better and more beautiful,” says Geoff. “You’re learning who you’re going to be and working toward that.”

Along the way, you may not realize you’ve shifted from one stage to the next or realize how far you’ve come — well, until one day you do.

For Shante, the enormity of her leap forward didn’t fully register until, in a short span, she earned her A.A. degree and completed her training as a substance use disorder counselor.

“I’m amazed,” she says. “I got into addiction at such a young age that I didn’t have time to even know myself. A whole decade was missed. Now I have a professional license and a career. You can Google my credentials. It feels so different being on the other side.”

Here’s a closer look at what each stage of recovery feels like, from the perspective of Shante and other Ideal Option patients. But first: a glimpse into the difficult period leading up to the start of treatment.

Getting to Stage 1: “You have to get to your rock bottom.”

Committing to recovery can itself be a lengthy process, says Geoff. “You have to ask yourself: Am I really ready for this? Is recovery what I actually want?

It took Shante a good while to think, yes. “I was tired of my addiction for 5 or 6 years before I knew how to stop using,” she says. “I had so much shame and guilt and just didn’t know how to get myself on track. It was easier to get high and not think about it.”

When Shante learned she was pregnant, her mindset shifted. Suddenly, she wanted a different life, not to prove a point to her family but to better herself.

Amber, another Ideal Option patient, spent a year struggling with ambivalence. “Admitting you have a problem and going to a clinic is petrifying,” says Amber, 37, who was spending thousands each month on opioid pills. “For me, it was like admitting defeat. Like you are a failure and you’ve really screwed up your life.”

She called Ideal Option after her husband told her: “It’s me or the pills. You choose.”

Robert, 38, who enrolled in Ideal Option with his wife, committed to recovery when he realized how much the two of them had lost. “We used to dress really nice, and that stopped. We sold everything – our cars, our TVs, our clothes, my gym set.”

For all that, Robert wasn’t even able to get high anymore. “I needed the drugs just to feel normal enough to go to the grocery store.” He was tired of waking up in a sweat looking for items he could pawn.

To want recovery, Robert says, “You have to get yourself to rock bottom.”

Recovery Stage 1: “The only thing on your mind is: Take your medication, and don’t use.”

In the beginning, patients say, recovery is all about finding your footing. The three must-haves: medication, support, and a way to stay busy.

“Suboxone is huge,” says Amber. “When you’re sick from withdrawal, you literally can’t move, but with Suboxone in my system, I could think clearly. I could get in the shower and get ready for the day.”

Amber found her support in an Ideal Option Facebook group. “If you’re all alone in this, you’ll run back to what you knew,” she says. She cut ties with everyone she’d associated with while using — even her father, who was mired in his own addiction.

“He was angry at me for getting sober and dragging me down,” she says.

Having a daily plan helped, too. Amber started taking walks on the beach, painting, and exploring her feelings in a journal.

“I had been numb for so long that I didn’t know how to handle all these new emotions,” she recalls. “By journaling, I wasn’t holding everything in and exploding. If someone cut me off while I was driving or my teenagers were being mouthy, I’d stop what I was doing and let it out in writing.”

Amber also kept busy at her job in production at a thrift store. The early days were exhausting.

“I’d run my body down for years,” she says. “I was lucky to have bosses who’d let me have a break.”

During her first year in recovery, Amber didn’t look too far ahead. “The only thing on my mind was: take your medication, and don’t use.”

Amber says it took her a year to feel stable. “I thought it would never come. I kept thinking: What’s wrong with me? But eventually I was able to feel my feelings and have a normal life.”

Mary, 31, another Ideal Option patient, describes the first stage of recovery as “doing a lot of hard rewiring.”

“You’re like a baby: everything’s brand new. Your emotional maturity level is so low. You have to dare to get to know yourself and get vulnerable. It’s kind of scary.”

With the help of Suboxone and her provider, Mary established small daily routines, like meditating and reading positive quotes on Pinterest. “Suboxone isn’t a miracle drug — you still have to do the work of recovery yourself, but the medication puts you in that position.”

Like Amber, Mary and her husband cut ties with their old lives. “We moved to a different city, changed our phone numbers, made new friends. I never thought I’d get to the point of normalcy, where I could live sober and feel peace and happiness.”

Shante went through a similar progression. She moved to a new city, unfriended acquaintances on Facebook, and kept busy with support groups and a job at an agency that offered services to pregnant women in need.

“Boredom is an addict’s worst enemy,” Shante says. “My job helped me have a steady pace. I’d bring my daughter to daycare and go to work.”

Eventually, she found herself ready for more. “You can’t help the next person until you help yourself. In the beginning, I didn’t have anything to give. But once I was able to keep myself together, I could deal with the damage I had done and start helping others.”

She had entered stage 2.

Stage 2: “If I can feel this good right now, I bet I can move on up and feel even better.”

If stage 1 is about finding stable footing, stage 2 is about forward motion.

“A lot of patients still have self-doubt, the fear that maybe this isn’t going to work,” says Geoff. “You might have a bunch of re-starts in this stage, but eventually something will stick.”

This is when patients start reconnecting with family and mending relationships, tasks that feel daunting at first.

“I thought: I’m a big tangled ball of string. How will I ever undo this?” recalls Suzy, 47, an Ideal Option patient. “I just didn’t know how to start repairing any of this. Before, I had repaired everything with lies.”

Suzy found herself in a heap of legal trouble, stemming from a dozen theft charges, and she’d alienated her family after decades of deception. She’d embezzled $30,000 from her father, who suffered from dementia. She’d stolen her daughter’s ATM card to buy drugs — while her daughter was in surgery, no less.

Suzy says she’d lost so much trust that when she told her family she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, they assumed she was lying.

“It wasn’t until my daughter saw me bald with no breasts that she finally believed I really did have cancer.”

But Suzy pressed on, mustering the courage to call a sister she hadn’t seen in 30 years.

“I had to get brutally honest with myself. I had to sit down and say: Look at the harm you’ve caused.”

Her honesty paid off, and her sister came around. “She said, ‘You’ve owned everything.’ And I really have.”

Suzy started to forgive herself, too. “Before, I hated looking in the mirror. All the stealing and lying — it ate my soul away. But I finally realized: I was never a bad person trying to get good. I was a sick person trying to get well.”

For Amber, a big part of stage 2 was making amends to her children. “I was brutally honest with them. I said, ‘Your mom is a drug addict.’ They’ve seen my mug shot. I showed them the homeless people on the street and said, ‘That’s what I looked like.’”

Rather than make a list of people she’d hurt, Amber made amends spontaneously. “I’d run into someone and think, ‘I probably owe them an apology.’ Or, I’d see someone on Facebook and I’d write, ‘I’m sorry. When I was using, I was not a good person, and I apologize.’”

She could feel herself gaining momentum in recovery.

“I started feeling like: If I can feel this good right now, I bet I can move on up and feel even better.

Robert, too, came clean to his kids, both teenagers. Now, the whole family dynamic has changed. “On the weekends, we do something together, like play basketball, watch movies, or go jogging. Before, everybody was in their own world.”

Robert started giving free haircuts to kids and offering free car detailing, all in the name of karma. “That’s me paying a tithe,” he says.

Achieving stability changes everything, Robert says. “You think: Where am I going to go from here? Every day is like waking up in Beverly Hills in a mansion. You feel like life is going to be great.”

Stage 3: “Quite literally, I am figuring out who I am.”

Stage 3 is when you start realizing that greatness.

For Amber, that means having her kids back, for starters. “I get to be Mom — to help them with homework and make their meals and do laundry. That’s huge. If I can go from living on the streets to being a mom and owning a home and creating a garden, anyone can.”

Shante, with her newly minted associate’s degree and counselor’s license, is starting her career while pursuing her bachelor’s degree. She has enlisted her sister, whose fashion sense she admires, to help her shop for work clothes. When they head to the stores, Shante will be doing a lot more than picking out skirts or pants or tops. She’ll be choosing a style, a look — a whole new way of defining herself.

“Quite literally,” she says, “I am figuring out who I am.”

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