What Exactly Is Recovery?

While the term “recovery” can be applied to getting better or improving with regard to a wide range of problematic conditions, it is most commonly associated with overcoming addiction to alcohol and other drugs.

The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has defined recovery from both substance use disorders (addiction) and mental disorders as:

“A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

Recovery consists of two basic parts:

  1. Getting clean/sober: discontinuing using, becoming abstinent, and stopping the vicious circle of active addiction.
  2. Staying clean/sober: finding pathways to living without using and learning how to live a whole, healthy, and healed life.

Recovery from addiction generally starts with becoming abstinent from alcohol and other substances. However, recovery is a process that goes far beyond abstinence, and it is a myth that by deciding to quit a habit, you can automatically stop or change your behavior. It requires ongoing attention, effort, and action.

Stepping Stones Through Recovery

While some roads to recovery are more common, it is far from a one size fits all process. Although people seeking recovery tend to share certain common experiences and needs, every individual has particular abilities, resources, strengths, interests, culture, and background.

These influences help to determine the most effective pathways of recovery for each person. Recovery pathways can include professional clinical treatment with or without medication, mutual-support program participation, support from families and friends, and faith-based resources, among other approaches.

Professional Treatment

There are multiple levels of professional clinical treatment for addiction. They include:

The type and length of treatment needed is based on the type of substance(s) used, the length and intensity of use, and the risks related to withdrawal as well as relapse.

When people cannot achieve or maintain recovery at one level of care, generally, a more intensive level of care is indicated.

Explore These Featured Addiction Treatment Centers

Step One: Initial Screening

The first steps to seeking treatment involve identifying appropriate resources online (where there is a tremendous amount of information available on addiction treatment and specific programs) or through personal contacts/recommendations, followed by an online chat and/or phone call with the treatment resource selected for initial screening and consultation.

During this initial contact, someone from the program will be able to answer questions about the types of treatment provided.

It’s important to ask questions and gather information that can help you determine if the program meets your needs. During screening and consultation, you can also expect to be asked questions that will help the facility understand your treatment needs, as well as your insurance and financial status. In some cases, a different type or level of treatment may be recommended.

To start the process and learn about available treatment options, contact a treatment provider today.

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Step Two: Admission And Intake

After screening and consultation, the next step is to schedule an in-person appointment for admission and intake.

This consists of reviewing and completing the paperwork and administrative tasks necessary to begin treatment, including the program’s terms and conditions and patients’ legal rights regarding who has access to their medical information.

Step Three: Assessment And Treatment Planning

After admission is completed, assessment and treatment planning take place with a licensed clinician.

A comprehensive assessment covers many areas of a person’s life and history, including substances used, importantly how much, how often, and for how long. The clinician will also want to know the effects substance use has had on your life, health, relationships, work, school, etc.

The information gathered is used to verify your diagnosis, confirm the appropriate level of care, and make informed recommendations for your treatment. This assessment leads to an individualized treatment plan that defines specific objectives and goals and is used to continuously assess your progress and make adjustments to the treatment process as needed.

Co-occurring Conditions

Since mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ADHD, and other conditions frequently co-occur with addiction, these should be included in the screening and assessment process and addressed as part of the treatment plan at all of the following levels of care. The same is true of significant co-occurring medical conditions linked to a person’s addiction.


Detoxification is the level of care designed to treat acute withdrawal from alcohol or other drugs where symptoms are managed by medical professionals. Detox is necessary when someone has used large amounts of a substance for an extended period of time and requires medical supervision and care.

It involves progressively tapering the body from the effects of acute withdrawal and using medications to treat uncomfortable and potentially severe health complications.

Withdrawal from alcohol and benzodiazepines (such as Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin) can be fatal. Detox is most commonly utilized for these two substances, as well as opioids, and has a duration of several days to two weeks. Detoxification is only the first stage of addiction treatment and by itself does little to change long-term addiction.

Inpatient/Residential Treatment

Inpatient, or residential, treatment is sometimes referred to as “rehab” and provides a controlled, structured setting where people can avoid the distractions and temptations of their home and community environments.

This can be a step-down level of care after detox or as a first step in the treatment/recovery process. Those receiving this level of care reside at a treatment facility and receive intensive group and individual therapy, along with family therapy, support (often 12-step) meetings, attention to nutrition, medications, and other modalities that may include attention to trauma.

Inpatient treatment usually lasts anywhere from one week to 30 days and is recommended for people who need increasing amounts of a substance to achieve the desired effects (tolerance) or have been unable to discontinue using at lower levels of care.

Partial Hospitalization Programs

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP) are often, but not always, a step down from inpatient treatment. Often, participants go from detox to PHP or begin treatment at this level of care.

Typically, PHP involves four to six hours per day of treatment, five days per week. The activities at this level of care are similar to inpatient or residential treatment, but people reside either at home or in a sober living home; a substance-free, recovery-supportive group home that may have a house manager.

Intensive Outpatient Treatment

During Intensive Outpatient Treatment (IOP), participants remain in their home environments, which provides opportunities to practice newly learned skills and behaviors.

Outpatient treatment most often involves group therapy sessions three hours per day for one or two days per week and can last 12-24 weeks.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT), sometimes referred to as opioid replacement therapy, is specific for those struggling with opioid use disorder. This includes addictions to heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioid pain medications.

Currently, the medication most used for this purpose is Suboxone®, which works to relieve withdrawal symptoms and decrease cravings for opioids that can lead to relapse or overdose.

Suboxone® is classified as a partial opioid that has less misuse/abuse potential than methadone (the original opioid replacement), along with fewer cognitive side effects.

MAT is a form of harm reduction that can be integrated into any level of care or used as a stand-alone modality combined with individual therapy. It can be utilized as a long-term therapy or a bridge to help people transition from active addiction to abstinence.

Whatever levels of care a person participates in, research clearly demonstrates that positive outcomes depend on adequate treatment length. Generally, treatment participation of fewer than 90 days total is of limited effectiveness, and treatment lasting considerably longer is recommended for maintaining positive recovery outcomes.

Mutual Support/12-Step Programs

The support of peers and allies is essential because it can be a great challenge for people in recovery to build relationships disconnected from the use of alcohol and other drugs.

Mutual-support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), can play an invaluable role in the process of recovery by providing deep understanding and support through mutual identification, shared life experiences, mentoring, and social learning.

Within these types of support groups, those seeking recovery frequently find acceptance and a sense of belonging, gain a community based on shared values and goals, and have the opportunity to develop new relationships and significantly improve the ones they already have.

Research and anecdotal evidence show that a combination of professional addiction treatment and participation in 12-step programs is often the most effective route to recovery. While professional treatment is always of limited duration, recovery is a never-ending process of learning, growth, and healing.

Find Support For Addiction Recovery

Beyond abstinence, recovery involves:

  • Participating in activities that are healthy and meaningful based on your needs, interests, and values.
  • Making choices and taking actions that bring you ever closer to the person you want to be and the kind of life you want to live.
  • Becoming more consciously aware of your thoughts and emotions and shifting how you relate to them, especially those that are uncomfortable and painful, so they do not control or paralyze you.
  • Paying attention to proper nutrition/diet, hydration, and sleep.
  • Learning and practicing meditation and other forms of mindfulness for self-calming, nervous system resetting, and present moment awareness.

Recovery from addiction can be a massive undertaking, yet, many people succeed at it every day. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse and is looking for a place to start, take the first step today by contacting a treatment provider. Together, you can explore your rehab options and discuss the intake process.