Why Aftercare is Important in Recovery, and What to Look For

During the course of treatment for substance use disorders, it’s common to wonder if aftercare is truly necessary, especially as we begin to feel better sober. Through decades of experience, we’ve found that a good quality aftercare plan is perhaps the most important determinant of success in recovery over the long term.

A quality aftercare plan plays a pivotal role during the initial phases of substance abuse recovery. It enables individuals who have recently entered sobriety to apply the skills and tools they’ve learned during treatment, while providing ongoing support as they navigate the process of reintegrating into a daily routine.

In this article, we’ll discuss what happens in the treatment environment, the importance of aftercare treatment as a follow-up, and what happens during the aftercare process.

Aftercare is one-third of the treatment equation

There are several components of substance abuse treatment but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll lump them into three categories:

  • Intervention
  • Treatment
  • Aftercare

If one of these three categories is neglected, the success of the whole process is jeopardized. Each of these categories have a number of elements, all of which are important to an individual’s chances of staying sober.

  • An intervention requires the counselor to both recognize the critical issues creating the problem and the ability to communicate a viable course of action, establishing the need to go through substance abuse treatment and finding a program.
  • Treatment involves individual, group, and family counseling.
  • Aftercare is most important because this is the time when all other aspects come together to establish a sober way of life.

What happens in treatment?

In an outpatient program, the time a person spends in treatment is usually about 12 weeks. This sounds like a considerable amount of time, but in reality, there is a lot of information to pack in a short period.

Most people don’t come into treatment with a tremendous amount of self-awareness and breaking through denial is an arduous process. Ultimately, the point of treatment is to get through the pink cloud phase and establish a strong foundation for long-term recovery.

It is dangerous to expect a person with a drug/alcohol problem to be focused on issues outside of learning how to stay sober on a daily basis. A young person who is dependent on drugs and alcohol needs months of repetition to learn new and better coping mechanisms.

This doesn’t mean life has to come to a complete halt, but it does mean that expectations should be shifted. By the time someone is discharged from treatment there will be a clear plan of action on how to move forward in sobriety and in other areas of life.

In our programs, we often have to remind folks: it took you more than 30 days to walk into the woods, it will take you more than 30 days to walk out.

What happens in aftercare?

Aftercare is where the rubber meets the road for a person in early sobriety. Through the course of treatment, the recovering drug abuser has recognized the nature of his/her problem, become aware of the primary triggers that lead to using, and identified the relationships that have been harmed as the result of continuous drug and alcohol abuse.

It takes time to develop a serious drug and alcohol problem and the destruction can be far-reaching. It takes much longer to clean up the mess and move forward. Most people in early recovery need several months (sometimes years) to change what has become a default mode of coping.

In aftercare, the newly sober individual has a specific plan of action and a lot of emotional support. For instance, in our programs, the treatment aftercare and follow-up part of the program takes place over a two-year period.

Why aftercare is the most important part of the process

Remember that treatment usually lasts around 12 weeks. A person in aftercare continues individual counseling, support group meetings, and social functions while reintegrating into mainstream life while continuing to utilize emotional coping skills and develop their spirituality in recovery. The key is that this reintegration is as a sober person. This transition takes time.

Getting sober is like learning to play an instrument or a new sport – it’s hard, it requires baby steps, and it often feels impossible at first. However, we all know and understand that with proper guidance and practice, we will eventually become good at whatever we’re endeavoring to master.

Recovery is the same way. How good were we at playing baseball during our third month of little league? Probably not very good. In order for recovery to take hold over the long haul, a lot of refinement and repetition is necessary.

Without support, seemingly the tiniest of emotional bobbles can derail the entire process.

How long do drug and alcohol aftercare programs need to be?

Though the definition of “aftercare” can vary from program to program, it usually refers to some sort of formal follow-up sessions either weekly or bi-weekly, in conjunction with regular attendance at 12-step meetings and one-on-one appointments with counselors or therapists.

In our case, our formal aftercare process is a further 12 weeks after the initial IOP and/or residential program stay.

However, this is not the entirety of the aftercare process.

In 12-step recovery, it’s a commonly held belief that the phrase “early recovery” refers to the first few years of sobriety. We think this is a fair assessment:

  • The first 14-30 days are usually a “drying out” period where we’re clearing our bodies of chemicals and navigating the initial wave of emotions in sobriety
  • For the next 2-3 months afterward, we are learning and practicing the basic recovery tools of honesty, humility, service, etc.
  • During months 3-9, we’re practicing our use of the tools while reintegrating into a normal lifestyle that includes work, school, family relationships, managing friendships, etc.
  • For the following year or two after the first, we’re building upon the solid foundation of the first year and deepening our understanding of the things we’ve learned.

With this in mind, the aftercare process really should last for a couple of years.

How to find a good aftercare program

Aftercare tends to be the most neglected element of the treatment equation, which tends to lead to the “revolving door” effect we see in the drug and alcohol treatment world.

Finding a good aftercare program in your area may just be the thing that makes or breaks the early recovery process for you.

If you’re anywhere in the Southeast, it’s likely that one of our programs would be within driving distance for you. If you’re not, we recommend looking for “alternative peer groups” in your area. One good example that’s nation-wide is the FullCircle Program.

Alternative peer groups are a term used to refer to programs with a common set of core elements: counseling, meetings, sober social events, among others. These programs generally allow for at least a couple of years of membership and they directly cater to individuals who have recently left the treatment environment and need support.

If you’ve got any questions about what to look for or how to get connected to one of these programs, give us a call. We’ll gladly connect you with any contacts we have in your area, and discuss some good aftercare options with you.

About the Author

Clint Stonebraker, the executive director of the Insight Program.
Clint Stonebraker has worked in the substance abuse treatment field since 1987 and has been the owner of The Insight Program since 1993. Clint Stonebraker has overseen the expansion of Insight into Greensboro, Charlotte, and Raleigh North Carolina as well as growth in the Atlanta area. Clint is committed to providing quality care to individuals and families affected by substance abuse.

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