Recovering from Alcohol & Drug Misuse: A Good News, Success Stories Series

This piece is the first in a series on recovery and the good news that comes when people change their relationship with alcohol and substances. 

The Good News: The Ongoing Positive Impact of Changing Your Drinking or Drug Use

New research published by our colleagues at the Recovery Research Institute (RRI) has documented sustained improvements in many aspects of peoples’ lives when they stop excessive drinking or substance abuse. Dr. David Eddie, Dr. John Kelly, and their colleagues conducted a national survey of over 2,000 men and women who said they had resolved their alcohol consumption or drug use issues. The survey asked them about certain areas of their lives with respect to their self-improvement, their interactions with family members, and their economic and civic engagement. They found that 80% reported improvements in at least one of these areas after changing their drug or alcohol intake. More importantly, perhaps, these achievements grew over time in recovery. And the good news continues. These improvements in their lives are coupled with increased self-esteem, quality of life, and happiness (Eddie et al., 2021).

The Good News: Benefits Apply to Everyone Making a Change

Now just reading this summary, one might conclude that receiving treatment for a substance or alcohol use disorder by itself results in these improvements. That would be a reasonable assumption except that this was a nationally representative survey, not one drawn just from individuals who’ve been in treatment programs or attended mutual support groups. To clarify, this means that the data found is more broadly applicable to most people who resolve their alcohol abuse or drug problems without ever going to treatment or mutual support groups. There is an entire field of research in the last several decades called “natural recovery” that has documented this reality. Natural recovery will be the topic of our second post where we’ll dive into more detail about the way people moderate alcohol consumption or drug use without formal treatment. 

Early Stages of Recovery Can Be Challenging

Unfortunately, the journey of recovery is not all smooth sailing. Dr. John Kelly and colleagues at RRI ran the initial survey that looked at recovery over a 40-year time span. They found that well-being actually decreased in the first year of limiting intake before rebounding and increasing from that point. We also know that the first few months of recovery are when a person is at highest risk for relapse. This increased risk gradually declines with time. Meaning, for most people, the first 90 days after stopping drinking alcohol or using drugs are the most challenging. 

Getting Help Getting Started

If you’re in the early stages of recovery, it can be helpful to impose drug or alcohol limits systematically with a “guided self-change” program that has scientific evidence of effectiveness. We’re referring here to our CheckUp and Choices online program that analyzes your drinking habits, like how much alcohol you consume, when you usually drink alcohol, and where you might change your alcohol use. Having the support of others in your efforts is also helpful. Family, friends, your local minister, and online mutual support groups like SMART Recovery and Moderation Management can provide the emotional support that many people find beneficial. 

Most People Need to Make Several Attempts

Another reality is that most people make a number of attempts to moderate drinking or drug use before finally achieving their desired level of success. In a recent study by Dr. Kelly and colleagues, people reported making an average of five serious attempts before resolving their alcohol abuse or drug use. There are several reasons why it often takes a few tries. 

First, most people don’t learn how to effectively cope with all the triggers that have developed over the years that affect their binge drinking or drug use. 

Second, breaking an old habit and, more importantly, starting new habits that support your recovery take time and effort. 

Third, people can get down on themselves when they have a lapse or a relapse and those kinds of bad feelings increase the chances of subsequent lapses or relapses. Guilting yourself for mistakes can easily backfire and make the lapse or relapse longer. Instead, think of a lapse as a mistake you can learn from, not a complete failure. That, in turn, can make it less likely to happen again. 

Yes, changing your relationship with alcohol or drugs can be challenging and will take time and effort. Most people find it is worth it in the long run. If at first you don’t succeed (entirely), try, try again. 

The Takeaway

Taken all together, this is good news for people who are thinking of changing their levels of alcohol consumption or drug use and for people who are in recovery. If you’re in the early months of recovery, you can be hopeful that keeping at it – even if you stumble with a lapse or relapse – will pay off with health benefits and improved well-being. If you can learn from your mistakes, a lapse or relapse will be less likely to happen the next time that you encounter a “trigger”.

As time goes on, it does get easier to keep going because natural reinforcers will develop as you start to feel better about yourself and your life.

Natural reinforcers will be the topic of a third blog piece in this series.