Recovery from a substance use disorder can be difficult, but hearing stories from others who are in recovery can help.
Substance use disorders can be challenging to treat or otherwise address. Many commonly used substances foster some level of physical dependency.
Additionally, substance use disorders can grow out of using substances to self-medicate a mental health condition. Treating any underlying mental health condition can increase the chances of recovery in these cases.
No matter the cause of your substance use disorder, treatment and recovery are possible.
Recovery from a substance use disorder can be an individual experience. Every person has a unique story — how they started using, why they use, and what fueled their recovery.
If you’re living with a substance use disorder, hearing other recovery stories may motivate and encourage you to complete or start your own recovery.
Substance use disorders can’t be cured. There’s a chance of recurrence, and many people with a substance use disorder will have one at some point.
But recovery is possible. Recovery can be categorized by two timelines:
- Early remission: absence of substance use disorder symptoms for at least 3 months but less than 12 months
- Sustained remission: absence of symptoms for 12 months and longer
Every journey to recovery is unique, and there are many approaches to long-term recovery. Some are meant to be used together with other resources, tools, or treatments. Others are intended as stand-alone paths to recovery.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people with substance use disorder have a 40%-60% chance of experiencing a recurrence at some point.
If you, or someone you know, experiences a recurrence, showing some compassion and understanding is crucial.
Life in recovery can be difficult. Some people in recovery experience significant difficulty or distress when they encounter certain triggers — which can be a behavior, place, person, or situation.
Identifying and learning how to cope with your triggers can aid in your recovery. Not everyone has trouble with the same triggers.
Some recovering from alcohol use disorder can sit in a bar and drink soda for hours, while others might have a panic attack at the thought of just driving by a bar. Whatever your situation, do what’s best for you.
The interviews for this article were edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. Interviewees’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Psych Central spoke with two people about their experience with recovery from a substance use disorder. Here are their stories.
Emily: A story of early remission
I spent the last, let’s see what the tracker says, 45 days not drinking. I’m 27 years old and I was drinking pretty heavily for the last few years.
There’s obviously a genetic component in my story. Both sides of my family have a history of alcohol use disorder. There was a lot of self-medicating for depression, anxiety, and sexual trauma.
My drinking got worse when I went to graduate school. There weren’t a lot of things to do near my school except drink. There’s a huge drinking culture there. Pretty much the entire social scene revolved around alcohol.
I was drinking socially before, but it sort of reached a darker tipping point when I was surrounded by it and away from my partner, a huge support system.
I was a writer and was surrounded by a lot of writers who were also living with mental health conditions and drinking a lot. That’s all we did. Then I continued to do it after I left. This led to me finding myself in some situations that, looking back the next day, were scary.
It was definitely a way to self-medicate, but it was also a go-to coping mechanism for every feeling I was having. It just became what I’d do.
And then it just sort of escalated and crept up on me without you realizing it. About one month and a half ago, one instance, in particular, made me take a step back and realize that maybe I should take a break and see how that went.
And it’s been going OK!
Now, I’ve learned to sit with my feelings, which is as unpleasant as I’ve always expected. But it’s also making me realize a lot of things about how my brain works.
Steve: A story of sustained remission
I’m a copywriter, mostly advertising. I’ve been sober for about 3-1/2-years. My substance of choice was alcohol but I did cocaine 4 nights a week for about 13 years. I stopped cocaine seemingly like overnight.
It was like ending a relationship. I moved out of my neighborhood and flushed what I had. I thought I was invincible.
I’d always had a problem drinking. I had a lot of hangovers, a lot of making life more difficult for myself, but no major events. Until I did.
I was working at a couple of agencies, then got a new job. I started working from home, so I did a lot of day drinking.
I’d start drinking in the morning after my girlfriend left for work. I woke up [physically] dependent [on alcohol] in the morning. I’d either pretend I was asleep until my girlfriend went to work or wake up before her and start taking shots.
Drinking became part of my daily routine. I started losing clients one by one. My work began to decline. I’d have to figure out where I stopped working the night before and how much catching up I had to do to make my deadlines for the day.
Mid-morning, I’d go out to buy beer to last me until the liquor store opened at noon.
I drank alcohol out of a coffee cup during meetings. In the evening, I’d pass out sitting up, fully clothed on the couch, and wake up in the early morning hours.
I could see that my girlfriend came home but didn’t remember exactly when. This went on for weeks or months.
I wasn’t present with my girlfriend (who I’m still with today). We’d have conversations where I realized she was bringing something up that we’d already talked about but I had no recollection of it.
I couldn’t pay the rent anymore, and her savings started dwindling.
I didn’t have any desire to be in bars anymore. I couldn’t drink quickly enough in a bar for the amount I needed, as quickly as I needed it, without raising the eyebrows of any responsible bartender.
My parents gave me a credit card to pay for therapy, but I was using it for everything else. One day, my doctor called to let me know that my liver was huge and my blood work showed that my kidneys were failing. Actually, she said that three organs were failing at the same time.
I went to see a specialist who told me that I’d be on the transplant list in a year and that I may not make it to even get the transplant.
I remember sitting there feeling relief. I wasn’t suicidal, but I was tired of it all. The doctor gave me a prescription and referrals to see other specialists but I still kept drinking.
Then, the intervention happened. They wanted to send me to rehab. And I was ready.
After researching several units and facilities, we found one that worked. I went, did my 2 weeks, met some amazing people, and made some close friends who set me straight.
It saved my life. I got into AA because hearing other people’s stories and how they made it was like hearing voices from beyond. I’m not as much into AA anymore because I’ll be honest, my life is fantastic. I understand how close I came to dying.
I’m aware every day of how lucky I am.
If you or someone you know is living with substance use disorder, it can be hard to know where to begin. Stopping the use of physically addictive substances can cause withdrawal symptoms, sometimes severe ones.
Withdrawing from alcohol or opioids such as heroin without medical supervision can be dangerous, sometimes lethal.
It’s impossible to know exactly how your body will cope with withdrawals until you experience them, so consider reaching out to a healthcare or mental health professional for help.
Here are some other resources you can check out:
- AA and NA. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are well-known 12-step groups for individuals recovering from alcohol or drug addiction.
- SMART Recovery: SMART stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. This is a global community that offers mutual-support meetings. These meetings are free and open to everyone seeking help.
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety: This organization provides recovery help for those seeking a more secular approach.
- SAMHSA. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services and Administration’s (SAMHSA) national helpline (1-800-662-4357) is a free and confidential 24-hour referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental health or substance use disorders.
- Double Trouble in Recovery. This is a 12-step fellowship for people managing both a mental illness and substance use disorder.
- Drugs and Me. Created by a group of scientists, educators, and analysts, the site Drugs and Me offers an extensive list of educational materials for various types of substance use.
- NHRC. The National Harm Reduction Coalition is an advocacy group for people with SUD.