How to Achieve Long-Term Recovery from Substance Use

Man sitting in field of flowers on mountaintop, admiring the viewRecovery from substance abuse is a long and complicated process. While much of the literature focuses on early recovery—a fragile and critical time—there are thousands of folks in long-term remission from substance use. The issues we face in long-term recovery are just as critical to our progress, relapse prevention, and ongoing health.

A person is considered in long-term recovery or remission when they have stopped or moderated their substance use and improved their quality of life for at least five years. The early stages of crisis stabilization are past, the damage drug use has inflicted is undergoing repair, and a “normal” life is being built. The critical issues of early recovery—staying clean, finding safe housing and employment, confronting legal consequences, and making new, sober friends—often feel more manageable by the time we enter long-term recovery.

At this point, a lot of us think we’re in the clear. We can breathe a little easier and begin to trust ourselves again. But we can’t make the mistake of thinking we’re done with recovery. With this false sense of complacency, we’re increasing our risk of relapse.

The truth is, long-term recovery has its own set of obstacles to overcome. It’s critical that we stay vigilant about our personal growth to increase our long-term chances of success. This can be done through self-study or by working with a counselor. Below are four tips to ensure success in long-term recovery.

4 Keys to Success in Long-Term Recovery

1. Healthy Relationship Skills

Many folks who struggle with substance use also struggle with finding and maintaining healthy relationships. Interpersonal struggles can wreak havoc on all areas of our lives, so it’s critical that we learn the skills to keep our relationships healthy. Whether our struggles are due to developmental trauma, unhealthy family relationships, or past hurt or abuse, developing healthy interpersonal skills is essential to continued success in recovery, stress management, and overall health.

Early recovery is often fraught with interpersonal difficulties that should stabilize as our lives and emotions do. However, intimate relationships can remain difficult at best. If this is the case, it’s important to engage in the work of building values, beliefs, and habits that support healthy, harmonious relationships.

Many of us with past substance use issues also struggle with a dichotomous personality. We feel there are two people living inside us: the person we were when we were using, and the person we are now.

2. Identity Integration

Many of us with past substance use issues also struggle with a dichotomous personality. We feel there are two people living inside us: the person we were when we were using, and the person we are now. The devil and angel sitting on each of our shoulders, both personalities try to pull us to their side.

It’s normal to want to push down our dark side in early recovery. We are scared of this other person living inside us and the damage they are capable of inflicting. Eventually we must integrate these two opposites and invite that dark side in. We must make peace with the person we were when we were using and become one whole human being.

3. Confronting the Wreckage of the Past

Bad decisions are one of the elements of substance use. These decisions can range from embarrassing to criminal. It’s normal to begin cleaning up that damage in early recovery, whether it’s completing jail sentences and probation, apologizing to loved ones, or living down a bad reputation.

But the impact of our past can last years into recovery, especially if our drug problems involved the legal system. This can be a source of great shame, stress, and embarrassment and can derail an otherwise strong recovery program if not managed appropriately.

4. A Balanced, Healthy Life

As many people in recovery know, stopping problematic substance use does not equal a healthy, happy life. In fact, early on we can be more miserable than ever as we learn to deal with stress while sober. Often, we are unhealthy people in general, not just in our relationship with drugs or alcohol, and we need to work on our physical, emotional, spiritual, and social health.

Developing and maintaining a balanced and healthy life is a critical piece of long-term recovery. This can include things such as exercise, mindfulness meditation, new relationships, eating healthier, or changing thought patterns.

Long-term substance use remission is a great achievement, but it is not a panacea for all our issues. In fact, this stage of the journey involves transitioning to different issues that must be addressed, including developing healthy relationships, integrating our dual identities, dealing with our troubled past, and establishing balanced lives.

Long-term recovery is a great time to review progress and set new goals for personal and professional development. As someone once told me, recovery is like going up a down escalator. You’re either moving forward or moving backward. The key is to keep going!

I would love to hear from those of you with five or more years of recovery. What are you dealing with? What should other folks entering this stage look out for?

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