It’s often said that recovery is a lifelong process. Yet some might argue that if you’ve beaten an addiction, then by definition it should be beaten.
For the sake of making an analogy, if you gained far too much weight in college and worked your way to a normal bodyweight, you wouldn’t say you’re recovering from obesity, nor would you assume that you still should worry about becoming overweight again.
Except that this is blatantly false. We’ve all heard the stories of people struggling with obesity, working their way to a healthy weight only to regain much of it. Yet, research has identified what caused that specific phenomenon – it wasn’t that relapsing into obesity was par for the course due to the nature of the problem, but rather that it was due to a faulty solution.
Obesity Isn’t Addiction
In the case of obesity, the body actively combats attempts to reduce body size beyond a certain point – because as you lose weight, your metabolism slows. This is because it takes a lot of energy to keep your body in the state that it is when you’re heavy – and that means the habits that have lead you to gain weight aren’t only related to an innately large appetite, but one that continues to grow.
This isn’t just a matter of food cravings. Yes, in order to maintain weight loss, you have to rethink your relationship with food entirely – it can’t be a form of stress relief, and portion control may be a lot easier and simpler than constantly counting calories – but even then, research shows that your body quite simply forces you to up your intake by roughly 100 calories a day for every 2 pounds lost.
Of course, obesity isn’t addiction. Addiction isn’t obesity. While some cases of obesity are the result of food addiction, it’s not really the norm. And unlike obesity, the “appetite” for what causes an addiction to continue is reversible, and can be countered both physically and psychologically.
Addiction is Chronic
For those who begin an addiction – not a food addiction, in this case – the more you use a drug, the more you want to use it. It becomes more than just an activity you like to do occasionally – it turns into something to unwind with, then it becomes a coping mechanism for stressful days, and eventually it turns into a self-sustaining cycle.
When you quit an addiction, your brain continues to associate the substance with pleasure. Your “appetite” is still there.
For those struggling to put off the weight, one tip is to build more muscle – this works much better for men than it does for women, but using calories to build and sustain high-maintenance muscle fiber may mean helping your appetite contribute not to your belly, but to your squat PR.
Recovery Doesn’t End – But It Can Be Renamed
You’ll always be in recovery. But don’t confuse that with a condemnation or damning that you’ll always be doomed to having a high potential relapse. There’s a reason drug use drops drastically with age, and it isn’t because most people suffering from addiction are dying off in their 20s and 30s.
As you get older, it’s generally less likely that you’ll relapse. And the longer you’re sober, you’re less likely to relapse.
There are exceptions to every rule – tragic personal stories and recent scandals come to mind – but the research shows that drug addiction is at its highest likelihood in teenagers and people in their 20s. Once they make the decision to seek treatment or get better while simultaneously gaining importance and sense of self in their real life, relapses become rarer and rarer.
The emphasis there lies in the simultaneous acquiring of new responsibilities. Quite simply, many quit drugs and seek treatment to find normalcy, because they have others counting on them.
This isn’t the case in every addiction, and many people still suffer later into their life – yet the percentage of those that do drops drastically. A relapse is most likely within the first year of sobriety. After five years, this drops to 15%. There’s no definitive research on how the trend continues, but we can assume that for most people, it does.
Does that mean you’re ever in the clear? No. Some people remember the happiness and the feeling of a high more clearly than others. Some people relapse after several decades, and must start over. Others remember their “wild days” because of their youth, and have never again picked up a needle or popped a pill despite being truly addicted back then.
The Early Years are the Hardest
Treatment matters, but it’s about more than working with the most reputable rehab clinic. It’s about eliminating the role addiction plays in your life, step by step.
Outpatient programs help prevent common first-year relapses, by taking the edge off the drastic difference between life in a residential treatment facility and out in the real world. Having a solid support system is important as well. It provides the validation and affirmation needed to stay hopeful and on the right track.
While the first year is the hardest, that doesn’t mean addiction doesn’t remain a threat. It’s important to develop methods for when those stray urges come along.
When things get rough and you feel the need to light a cig, call someone. Eat a piece of fruit. Have some coffee. Go over your personal mantra or whatever routine you’ve prepared.
And when that fails – remember that you haven’t failed yet. Failure isn’t relapsing – failure is giving up on sobriety completely.