Why Addiction Recovery is a Lifelong Journey
If you’re new to recovery, you may have heard the phrase recovery is a lifelong journey more than once.
Hearing this can feel intimidating, scary, and even overwhelming. Knowing exactly what this means will help you tremendously to shift into a mindset that will allow you to embrace recovery.
Shifting your mindset around recovery helps you view it as an opportunity for immeasurable growth and success in your own life.
Read on to learn more about exactly why addiction recovery is a lifelong journey, and how this can benefit you in all areas of your life.
Recovery: a journey without a destination
Recovery isn't just about stopping drug or alcohol use. In fact, that’s really just a fraction of what recovery encapsulates.
Recovery from addiction is about restoring and expanding yourself emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially.
This deep level of healing and growth doesn't happen overnight, and happens gradually over time.
A major part of recovery happens when we become tested through trials we face.
Unfortunately, life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. The inevitable challenges that will arise are a part of the human experience.
During the ongoing process of recovery, you’ll learn how to face your challenges and stressors without turning to destructive habits or substances.
You’ll learn how to let people in. You won't let your past hold you back from developing thriving relationships with others.
You’ll learn how to accept the bad while always being radically grateful for the good.
Additionally, you’ll learn how to forgive yourself, day in and day out.
The personal growth that you’ll experience along your journey will stretch you to places you didn’t even know existed within your mind, body, and soul.
Recovery is a journey that doesn’t have a destination, and simply continues on and shapeshifts as we move through life.
Addiction isn’t about drugs or alcohol
Many people think that they will come out of a treatment program “healed.”
For many reasons, this isn’t quite the case.
A major reason for this is because the recovery process isn't about the substance.
This means that your use was never about the substance itself. Rather, it provided a solution for you to turn to when your actual problem arose.
The actual problem can refer to the pain that you were trying to ignore. It can refer to the void that you were trying to fill.
Don't feel bad about this, as everyone uses coping mechanisms to manage their pain.
Some people have healthy coping mechanisms, and others have coping mechanisms that don't help them in the long run.
People turn to different things to ignore or forget painful emotions and memories.
There are many different ways that we teach ourselves to cope. The way you taught yourself involved a substance.
- throw themselves into sports
- distract themselves with work
- spend all their time with friends so they don't have to be alone and face their emotions.
Your substance use was a coping mechanism, albeit, an unhelpful one.
In the early stages of recovery, you learn that the actual problem you faced is what the recovery journey is all about.
It is about emotional, mental, and spiritual growth that happens as a result of doing the inner work.
The recovery journey is about retraining our mind to be on our side rather than filling us with negative thoughts.
Additionally, it's about fostering a deep sense of connection to ourselves and to others, after feeling isolated and alone for so long.
Relapse in the recovery journey
The element of relapse also contributes to why recovery is a lifelong journey.
You might have heard that relapse is part of recovery, and this is true, but it's also untrue.
The reason that this can go both ways is because recovery does not have an outline. There aren't any linear steps to recovery, as recovery is just an ongoing process rather than a set destination.
As we progress along our journies as human beings, there is a never point that we “recover”.
We are simply constantly recovering from the traumas and experiences that have negatively impacted us or held us back from thriving.
Growth is an ongoing process. Even after you attain goals, you will find that there are always new goals that you desire to reach.
Because recovery is so fluid, nonlinear, and unique to your own experiences and struggles, it looks vastly different for each person.
When relapse happens
Sometimes on the recovery journey, relapse happens.
When relapse does happen in recovery, it's viewed as being part of the process. This is because it is a sign there is greater healing and internal work that needs to be done.
When it does happen, it often isn't random or the result of an impulsive moments decision.
Rather, relapse in and of itself it is a process.
It begins with not thinking about using substances at all, but having struggles emotionally.
If you push your emotions down and try to suppress and ignore them, they don't go away. Instead, they build up inside of you.
Difficult feelings lead to unhelpful thoughts, and if we don't express these thoughts, we can ruminate and get consumed by them.
When we don't process our emotions and our thoughts, it can lead to engaging and unhelpful behaviors.
This is what can lead to relapse.
When relapse does happen it shows us that something was going on internally, on an emotional or mental level, that we didn't face.
We get to use the relapse to learn more about what was triggering us before we actually engaged in use.
When relapse doesn’t happen
When relapse does not happen, it’s typically because you are continuously engaged with how you’re feeling and what you're thinking.
This does not mean that you always feel great or you're always having great thoughts. You're still human, and that means part is experiencing normal human emotions like sadness, pain, anger, or fear.
Additionally, it means that you have a solid support system and people who you can turn to. It means you feel connected to yourself and feel a sense of purpose.
Maintaining mindfulness one day at a time
When relapse doesn’t happen, it means you’ve learned how to face the difficult emotions. You allow yourself to feel these emotions and manage them in a healthy way rather than pushing them down.
This requires being mindful daily, and being constantly vigilant of how you’re feeling and what kind of thoughts you’re having.
Without being mindful and aware, it can be so easy to slip into old thought patterns and negative emotional states. Managing your emotions and the thoughts that come with them are a major factor in preventing relapse on your journey through recovery.
How addiction changes the brain
Another reason that recovery is a lifelong journey is that addiction changes the brain itself.
When drug or alcohol use ends, this doesn't mean the brain instantly restores itself to how it was prior to substance abuse.
Among other regions of the brain, drug and alcohol use negatively affects the…
- basal ganglia
- extended amygdala
- prefrontal cortex
Some of the changes that happen during active addiction take months or even years to shift back.
According to The Recovery Research Institute, the effects of addiction on the brain can be likened to the effects of heart disease on the heart.
They are both identified as chronic illnesses that are preventable, treatable, change biology, and last a lifetime if not treated.
Imaging technology used to measure the functioning of the brain and the heart has displayed similarities in the difference between a healthy heart versus an unhealthy heart, and a healthy brain versus a brain affected by addiction.
Fortunately, research indicates that the changes to the brain aren’t necessarily permanent, and can improve over time.
Below are just a few of the ways in which addiction affects and changes the brain:
Dopamine levels become hijacked
During active addiction, the brain’s dopamine levels become compromised. Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter and is naturally released when we are exposed to pleasure-inducing stimulants. This can range from eating a delicious piece of chocolate or getting a hug from someone we love. However, when ingesting an addictive substance, we are hit with an intense surge of this neurotransmitter, and it floods our brain. Studies show that addictive substances release 2 to 10 times more dopamine than natural sources of pleasure.
Over time, the brain becomes accustomed to getting such a huge influx of dopamine that it starts requiring more dopamine in order to feel good. This is one of the reasons that drug addiction goes from wanting a substance to needing a substance. It becomes less about taking a substance in order to feel the effects of being high, and more about taking a substance just to stabilize.
When getting off a substance and entering early recovery, you may find that you struggle to feel good, and this is because your dopamine levels became hijacked during use. The brain becomes so accustomed to getting a large influx of dopamine that it decreased the amount of dopamine it was producing on its own. This is one of the major reasons why it is so important to find other ways of making yourself feel good in recovery. This change need not be permanent, you can re-learn healthier means of reinstating natural dopamine production.
Synapse activity decreases
In conjunction with the last point, the brain tries to adapt to the influx of dopamine by decreasing the number of dopamine set receptors that it has in the synapse. The synapse is the space between two cells where messages are essentially passed, so that neurons can commnicate.
Also, the neurons send out more dopamine transporters which clear dopamine itself from the brain more quickly in order to try and regulate the amount of dopamine in the brain. This also makes your brain less responsive to the effects of the substance, contributing to increased tolerance.
Brain connections are rewired
The reward centers of the brain aren't the only parts of the brain that get affected by ongoing substance use.
Areas of the brain that control our decision-making skills, our memory, our ability to learn new things, and even our judgment, become compromised and physically change during active addiction.
When our neural pathways change in this way, it causes us to become literally hardwired in these new behaviors. Some parts of the brain experience a decrease in connections between neurons. In other parts of the brain, more connections between neurons form. Many of these changes are what cause addiction to become habitual. Ongoing use leads us to a point where we are literally wired to seek out drugs or alcohol.
Check out this great 10-minute video on how addiction affects the brain:
The recovery journey is a new chance
If the phrase recovery is a lifelong journey still makes you sweat a little, rest assured that this is completely normal.
The truth is, recovery really serves as an incredible opportunity for growth.
Your substance use has taken you to a place where you are forced to face yourself if you want to live and heal. Many people don't push themselves to heal and grow in their lifetime, and as a result, they say stuck in the same place for the rest of their lives.
Because of everything you went through, you're now in a place where you are essentially being forced to look at yourself, your vulnerabilities, your experiences, and how they have affected the person you are today.
Looking at all of this, understanding it, and working through it gives you such a leg up as it allows you to really understand yourself and understand how to grow so that you can thrive in this lifetime.
Recovery is an incredible opportunity to face every new day with hope.
Recovery is a daily test and daily choice.
It’s a choice to always be honest with others and yourself every day.
It’s an opportunity to do the next right thing, one moment at a time.
Every hour, minute, and second of recovery offers you a new chance to gain insight into yourself and to grow into an incredible version of yourself.
Though you may have lost a lot during active addiction, you can gain so much in recovery.
Author - Thurga