When you have a substance use disorder and you’re no longer actively using drugs or alcohol, this is when your life in recovery begins. What life in recovery looks like can vary for every person, but we’ll often hear from people who wonder if they can ever move past the recovery label. Can you ever get to a point where you’re healed or cured of addiction?
There’s no simple answer to that question that will apply to everyone.
Substance use disorders are highly individual, as are the evidence-based models we follow to understand and treat them.
The conventional thought process is that addiction is a chronic disease. We talk more about that below. As with other chronic diseases, there isn’t necessarily a cure. However, you can successfully treat and manage the symptoms of chronic disease, putting it into remission. The recovery process is like remission from the disease of addiction.
How you define your path to recovery is ultimately up to you. There may be a time when you feel comfortable describing yourself as healed from addiction rather than being in recovery.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic diseases are a broad set of conditions.
- A chronic disease or chronic pain lasts for a year or more and requires ongoing medical care.
- Chronic conditions may also limit daily living and function.
- Diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are the leading causes of disability and death in the U.S.
- Chronic diseases are associated with particular lifestyle and behavioral factors. For example, poor nutrition, alcohol and tobacco use, and a lack of physical activity leads to chronic illnesses.
By definition, doctors can’t cure a chronic disease even with medication and lifestyle changes. Instead, the model is to manage these illnesses. When chronic disorders are appropriately managed, it can prevent them from getting worse, improve daily quality of life and functioning, and reduce symptoms.
In chronic disease management, a holistic approach can be helpful. Holistic treatments address the whole person, including physical, mental, and spiritual health. In holistic medicine, there’s a focus on dealing with the root causes of illness.
For example, you could have a co-occurring mental health condition like depression because of your chronic physical illness. Getting mental health treatment along with physical medical care can improve your outcomes.
We discuss this because it applies to addiction and long-term recovery from addiction.
Addiction as a Chronic Disease
As mentioned, addiction is a chronic disease. A combination of lifestyle elements, like the initial decision to use drugs or alcohol, and other factors, such as the environment and genetics, contribute to addiction.
Someone with an addiction to drugs or alcohol sees changes in their brain and behavior. Addiction also impacts physical health and leads to changes in the structure and function of the brain.
Using certain substances triggers a reward response in the brain. When the reward cycle goes through activation, the brain compels you to seek out drugs or alcohol. That activation and compulsion are defining features of addiction.
To start the road to recovery, you require treatment. Like other chronic diseases and mental disorders, addiction treatment needs to be evidence-based.
Effective treatment also needs to treat the whole person.
The goals of addiction treatment aren’t just to help you stop using substances. They are also to remain drug-free and become a productive, thriving part of your family and society.
Treatment approaches for addiction can include one or a combination of:
- Behavioral counseling like cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Treatment for co-occurring mental illnesses like anxiety and depression
- Long-term follow-up and relapse prevention planning
Effective treatment should include individualized plans for each person. Addiction treatment should consist of any mental health or physical health services you may need.
What Does It Mean to Be In Recovery?
While we do have scientific evidence on the best ways to treat addiction, there’s less guidance on what recovery is. Different organizations tend to have varying ways to define the recovery model. Your recovery journey is very personal to you.
- In 12-step programs, the idea is that you are always an addict. No matter how far along you are in your recovery, the reality is that you still have the chronic disease of addiction. In this model, your addiction is in remission during recovery.
- According to SAMHSA, recovery is a process of change. During this process of change, you are improving your mental and physical health and wellness. You’re living a self-directed life that you are in control of, and you’re working to reach your full potential. There are four elements supporting life in recovery– health, home, purpose, and community.
- When you abuse substances, it changes the pathways in your brain. These changes leave you vulnerable to relapse for a period after you stop using. You may experience cravings for years after your final use of drugs or alcohol.
- Too often, people will declare they’re cured of addiction, and then they’ll relapse. It’s incredibly discouraging to think you’re cured of a disease, only for it to become active again.
- You don’t want to avoid the vulnerabilities that exist in your recovery. You need to recognize them to deal with them, which is why it’s best not to decide you’re cured.
This can sound hopeless, but in reality, it’s not. There’s so much hope to find in recovery, no matter what point of the process you’re in.
Your Life in Recovery
The longer you’re able to maintain your recovery, the closer you might get to a time when you can say you’re cured of addiction. The most considerable risk to declaring a cure comes in the earliest days, months, and even years after you receive treatment. Those times are when you’re at the most significant risk of once again experiencing the symptoms of addiction.
For example, intense cravings are a symptom of addiction. After treatment, you may still experience them. Years later, you may not have cravings anymore, so that’s a symptom of drug or alcohol addiction you no longer participate in.
How Does A Holistic Approach Help?
A holistic approach to mental health recovery and addiction treatment is one of the best ways to get on a path to a fulfilling life in recovery.
When you receive holistic treatment, it’s better to prepare you for the challenges you face. You’re more likely to have a successful, sustained recovery.
The concept is similar to the chronic diseases we talk about above. Holistic treatment doesn’t just deal with your substance use. Addiction is so much more complex than just using drugs or alcohol.
With holistic, evidence-based treatment, you’re getting down to the root of the problem. You’re also receiving treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders. That whole-person approach is going to better prepare you for life without drugs and alcohol. For example, you can learn more about healthy relationships and stress management and engage in holistic therapies like music and art therapy.
Other elements of holistic treatment include the practice of mindfulness meditations or engaging in yoga practice.
Whether or not you’re healed from your addiction may be something that’s up to you to put a label on. For now, we encourage you to call 800-630-1218 to explore treatment programs like The Right Time Recovery that take a holistic approach to mental health services and addiction treatment. The phrase taking it one day at a time really does apply to your life in recovery and how you view it.