We know you may not really enjoy your time in treatment. It may be the hardest, loneliest, most challenging period in your life. Maybe you’re counting down the days until your discharge. Maybe you’re even counting down the hours, minutes, seconds, nanoseconds, and picoseconds.
To that we say, where’d you get such a fancy watch?
You’re counting down.
You see the light at the end of the tunnel and all you can think about is crossing that finish line.
To you, right now, that finish line represents freedom. Freedom from therapy, counseling, process groups, AA/NA meetings, and mindfulness workshops. The freedom to have your phone back. Freedom to come and go as you please, online and IRL. Freedom to live life on your terms, on your own schedule, doing the things you choose to do in the way you choose to do them.
Then you walk into a meeting with your therapist one day and hear the word Aftercare.
That’s when you face a hard truth about rehab: your discharge date is a finish line of sorts, but it’s not the finish line. Your discharge date is actually a starting line. Then you realize something else – probably before your therapist tells you.
There is no finish line.
Not really. Not where long-term sobriety is concerned.
Aftercare, Relapse, and Life After Treatment
TBH, we can sum this post up in one sentence:
Aftercare matters because it helps you stay sober.
Okay! You’re done. No need to read any further: if you want to stay sober, aftercare increases your chances.
Now get out of here and have a nice life!
Wait – that can’t be all, can it?
Nope, that’s not all. Aftercare matters – check. It helps you stay sober – check.
What more do you need to know?
Tons. Actual metric tons of information.
Because if you’ve learned anything at all during your time in rehab, you know things are never simple. You’ve learned to dive beneath the surface of things and find out what’s really going on. So now you’re curious about how and why aftercare works.
We’ll take those questions one at a time.
How does aftercare work?
The main way aftercare works is by creating an Aftercare Plan. Your aftercare plan should include the following elements:
- Social Support. Your plan should include dates, times, and locations for AA, NA, SMART Recovery, or other addiction support meetings. You need these before you leave rehab.
- Professional Support. Your plan should include appointments with your primary care physician and outpatient therapist. You need to have doctors and therapists lined up before you leave rehab.
- Medication Management. If you’re on medication, you need to have a plan to monitor your meds and adjust them if needed.
- Personal Wellness. Your plan needs to include an individualized approach to healthy eating, regular exercise, and a list of hobbies and/or sober activities to keep yourself busy, especially during the critical first few weeks after discharge.
- Contingency Management. Your plan needs to include strategies you can deploy immediately when you’re triggered or teetering on the verge of relapse. These should be strategies you know work. They should be things you practiced during treatment. They need to be in your back pocket, ready at a moment’s notice.
If your Aftercare Plan doesn’t include these elements, get together with your therapists and counselors and cover these bases.
Why Does Aftercare Work?
Research shows that if you add just one abstinent (sober) friend to your life, you increase your chances of staying sober by 25%.
So there’s that: make sober friends and you have a better chance of staying sober. And sober friends are implied in any good aftercare plan – see “social support” above. Having sober friends means you can talk to people about what you’re going through. But not just any people: you talk people who are going through the same thing themselves.
Aftercare also works because it keeps you in the game. It keeps your mind focused on staying sober. Your therapist – the one you’re totally open and honest with – can warn you when they think you’re veering off track. If you’re dealing with co-occurring disorders, your therapist helps you manage those. If you’re on meds, your doctors monitor and adjust them as needed.
Finally, aftercare works because maintaining long-term sobriety is hard. It requires patience, diligence, and discipline – but it does not require that you do it alone. Here’s another statistic: the longer you stay in treatment, the smaller your chances of relapse. When you look at it that way, aftercare is like staying in rehab without actually being in rehab. When you create and follow a good aftercare plan, you’re never alone. You always have someone to talk to, something to do, and somewhere to go that supports your sobriety – just like when you were in treatment.
Except you’re not in treatment: you’re out in the world, proving you can live the life you want, free of alcohol and drugs. Which, of course, is the whole goal of treatment in the first place.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.