The road from addiction to recovery is a journey of 5 important steps

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There are dozens of reasons a person makes a conscious decision to treat their addiction. It could be due to a legal issue, an ultimatum from a loved one, a medical issue, or something else entirely. Whatever the cause, the stages of change are an important part of recovery from addiction.

Often people indulge in substance use as a coping ability. Typically, they are unable to deal effectively with anything that is happening in their life, so they turn to substances.

Unfortunately, substance use ends up compounding an individual’s original problem and creates additional problems. However, mental health providers can help when someone wants to make changes.

Stages of change

The Stages of Change were first introduced by addiction experts in the early 1980s. They realized that there was no one specific, single time when healing happened – healing from addiction looked like rather to a journey including these stages:

  1. precontemplation — Individuals are not yet thinking about changing their behavior and do not see their behavior (drinking or using other substances) as a problem.
  2. Contemplation — Individuals are willing to consider the possibility of having a problem and are ambivalent about change. Ambivalence is a painful state of feeling two ways about a problem.
  3. Preparation/Determination — Individuals have decided to change and engage in exploring their options. They will develop a plan to make a change by researching rehabilitation programs, outpatient and inpatient programs, self-help meetings (such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery), and other avenues of treatment.
  4. Stock — The individuals decided to carry out the plan they prepared. People at this stage are in treatment and usually publicly commit to ending their unhelpful behavior, such as sharing their choice to stop using substances or drinking with their support system.
  5. Maintenance — Individuals develop a new pattern of behavior and coping skills. They adapt to this behavior over days, months and years. Individuals have a variety of relapse prevention techniques and are more confident of not participating in substance abuse.

Relapse is part of the journey

Within the stages of change there is also the termination stage, which involves individuals resuming their daily life routines. We intentionally left pregnancy termination out of the list of primary stages because we believe patients need to continually maintain the changes they have made.

Additionally, individuals move in and out of stages in no particular order, and relapse can be part of the recovery process.

When a patient relapses, it does not mean that he has returned to the precontemplation stage. Rather, it means that they have slipped back into an old coping ability and can make the choice to do something different now and resume their recovery.

Relapses are an opportunity to learn what was missing from someone’s original plan. We see relapses as “a hole in your jeans”. Now that we know the hole is there, we can work to create a plan to fill that hole with additional coping skills. For many, this can lead to increased confidence in their recovery and ability to stay sober.

The importance of a support system

Patients do better in the recovery process when they have a support system, including support groups and professional support. Groups made up of sober individuals allow for encouragement and belonging, and professional care can provide both assistance and constructive challenges.

Including care partners, such as the patient’s loved ones, is also extremely helpful when in treatment, as we know that addiction doesn’t just affect the person who is addicted. Also, spending time with sober people while developing new hobbies can be helpful.

Finally, it is important that family members and friends supporting a loved one with addiction take care of themselves during what can be a very difficult time. They can participate in their own support groups, such as Al-Anon, and establish healthy boundaries within the relationship.

Shelby Espiritu is a Senior Therapist in the Dual Intensive Outpatient Program at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital.

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