Why You Should Manage Your Expectations for Addiction Recovery

Entering treatment is a time of hope for someone with a substance use disorder and for that person’s family. The family has perhaps watched in frustration as their loved one’s substance use spiraled out of control, affecting every part of their lives. The person with the substance use disorder has probably been aware for some time that their substance use has been a problem but they just didn’t feel like they could do anything about it. 

Entering a quality treatment program is a great opportunity to change course. A good treatment program can help someone break old habits and patterns, get away from negative influences, address co-occurring mental health issues, learn new ways of thinking and coping, create positive lifestyle changes, and connect with others who have been through some of the same trials. This, along with a well-managed transition back to regular life can help someone break free from substance use. Although this is a hopeful time, full of promise, it’s a good idea to keep your expectations realistic. Even with the right help, recovery from addiction is hard. Here are some reasons it’s better not to expect too much too soon.

It’s normal to have problems.

When you’re struggling with a substance use disorder, it’s easy to believe–or at least hope–that all your problems will be solved if and when you can get sober. While it’s true that many of your problems are caused by substance use and that life gets much better once you “stop digging,” getting sober won’t solve all your problems. Dealing with problems and challenges is just a normal part of life. In fact, when you get sober, you may become aware of a whole different set of problems you hadn’t noticed before because of your substance use. However, treatment and recovery will help you stop making unnecessary problems for yourself. 

The problems caused by addiction may take a while to fix.

Although sobriety will help you stop making new problems, it won’t automatically fix the problems caused by substance use. Many people find this frustrating. They go through all this work of getting sober, going through therapy, changing their habits, and making new friends and then they have to clean up messes that feel like they were made by a different person. They may have debts to pay or other financial issues. These might be considerable and take a long time to deal with. They may have to find a new job or a new place to live. They may have generally burned a lot of bridges. You may also have health problems as a result of substance use as well as the lingering effects of Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, which most people describe as emotional numbness and which can last a year or more. The good news is that you can deal with these problems much more effectively sober.

Recovery is not a straight line.

It would be nice if life just kept getting better starting the moment you decide to get sober, but it never works that way. Recovery is always up and down. You’ll have a great day followed by a terrible day. If you stick to your program and your recovery plan, you will continue to trend upward but the day to day progress is often hard to see. Typically, people see a lot of progress right at the beginning and over the first few months. Making the transition from inpatient treatment to regular life is especially chaotic and is a time when many people relapse. People who do make the transition may plateau after nine or 10 months of sobriety and start to feel complacent or disillusioned. This is another danger zone when people may start neglecting some or all of their recovery plan. Typically, recovery isn’t stable until about a year. One reason that long-term treatment is so effective is that it provides plenty of support through this erratic period.

There are many parts to a successful recovery.

Recovery from addiction is not just a matter of abstaining from drugs and alcohol. A lot of more fundamental changes have to support that overall goal. This includes addressing co-occurring mental health issues, learning coping skills, learning life skills, creating a strong social support system, making positive lifestyle changes, improving family relationships, and changing your thinking habits. Many of these changes require changing lifelong habits. 

One study found that changing a single habit and making the new behavior automatic can take between 18 and 254 days but the average was about 66 days. [https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.674] And it’s very difficult to change more than one habit at a time. So for example, if you have a habit of negative self-talk that contributes to your anxiety or depression, you can expect it to take at least two months of persistent effort to replace that negative self-talk with more realistic and supportive self-talk. Since you will probably have several major habits to change and plenty of minor ones as well, and since all of these changes progress at different rates, it’s reasonable to expect a stable recovery to take a year of guided effort. 

Relationships are slow to heal.

Strong relationships are essential to a strong recovery. It’s especially helpful to create new relationships with other sober people so you can support each other and hold each other accountable. Unfortunately, addiction is hard on relationships and you may have friends and family who are angry with you for things you did in active addiction. These breaks take a while to heal. It often feels unfair when you’ve been working hard on recovery and others treat you like the same person you were six months or a year ago. Rebuilding trust takes time. All you can really do is try to be trustworthy, be patient, and wait for others to come around. 

Frustration can lead to relapse.

The problem with expecting all these problems to be solved quickly or easily is that you may feel disillusioned, pessimistic, or cynical when recovery turns out to be much harder than you expected. It’s important to expect life to get better when you’re sober, else you won’t make the effort. On the other hand, expecting too much too soon might set you up for disappointment and failure. The first stage of relapse–emotional relapse–is typically characterized by negativity, lack of self-care, and isolation. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/] Expecting problems, taking one day at a time, and sticking to your recovery plan even when you don’t feel like you’re making progress are the keys to a successful recovery.


Burning Tree West is a transitional college program dedicated to helping adults between the ages of 18 and 29 recover from addiction. Our campus is located in Tucson, Arizona, near the campuses of the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. Our program is designed to help young adults overcome addiction, build foundational life skills, and pursue their educational and career goals. Contact us today for more information.