Stages of Healing: How to Recover From Alcoholism

Last Updated: August 8, 2019

happy famile of three recovered from alcoholism

When a person begins recovering from alcoholism, they start a journey through six specific stages of alcohol recovery as they learn to lead a life without alcohol. Deciding to quit drinking is not easy, but with a firm resolve and adequate social and emotional support, the chances of a positive outcome are much higher. The six steps to alcohol recovery described here are based on an approach developed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Definition of Alcohol Recovery

Recovering alcoholics know what the process of healing means to them and how crucial it is in their lives. For this reason, they don’t need a dictionary definition. However, recovery from alcoholism is not always clear to the general public and researchers developing policies about abuse and addiction. Essentially, healing is a dynamic and complex process incorporating all the advantages to mental, physical, and social health that can happen when someone who is addicted to alcohol gets the help they need. Alcohol addiction recovery is a lifelong process.

According to th Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), “Recovery from alcohol problems is a process of change through which an individual achieves abstinence and improved health, wellness, and quality of life.”

Guiding Principles of Recovery

According to SAMHSA, recovery from alcohol addiction should take place according to twelve guiding principles. These are listed below. The terms “recovery,” “recovering” and “healing” are to be taken as synonyms.

  1. Recovery is empowering and self-directed.
  2. There are many roads to becoming healthy again.
  3. Recovery is holistic.
  4. Recovery involves recognizing a need for transformation.
  5. Recovery takes place on a continuum of improved wellness and health.
  6. Recovery has cultural dimensions.
  7. Recovery emerges from gratitude and hope.
  8. Recovery presupposes social support.
  9. Recovering involves self-redefinition.
  10. Recovery involves overcoming shame from drinking and addressing discrimination.
  11. Healing is real. It can, does, and will happen.
  12. Getting sober long-term involves building and joining a life in the community.

happy woman smiling with blue sunny sky on background

Stage One: Pre-Initiation

Symptoms of a drinking problem might include relationship struggles because of the substance, financial issues caused by buying alcohol, legal issues, and using alcohol to deal with stress. Some physically manifested signs include restlessness, nausea, insomnia, shakiness, and sweating. During the pre-initiation stage, a person is feeling these effects of alcoholism, but they do not typically want to alter their habits. They are likely to act defensively when the topic is brought up and deny being an alcohol addict. This is the first of the alcoholism recovery stages and the most difficult one.

Stage Two: Initiation

In this stage, a person will consider or enter rehab for alcoholics. They will typically experience some ambivalence about quitting drinking for good and might be convinced that their alcohol abuse problem is “not that bad.” Common questions such as “can alcoholics recover,” “how long does it take to get sober,” and “how long does it take to recover from alcoholism” arise at this stage. A trained substance abuse counselor can help put one’s mind at ease, teaching them some important coping skills. Denial and ambivalence can have a very adverse effect in the early days of the recovery process.

The Initiation stage is comprised of two sub-stages, the above-described questioning stage and the stage of early abstinence. It can be hard to cope with because of temptations, physical cravings for alcohol, continued withdrawal symptoms, and psychological dependence.

Stage Three: Training

According to experts, the third stage can be seen as the first real step toward recovery, as it’s when the recovering alcoholic has made a firm commitment to stop. It pays off to invest in specialized guidance, as jumping into the process without understanding what it involves can make a recovery from alcohol and its effects harder than it has to be. This stage can be seen as training for life without drinking because there are quite a few complicated emotions to work through. Losing the support alcohol gives can cause one to spiral into grief, a process characterized by denial, depression, and anger.

Stage Four: Acting

This part begins with committing the body to recovery. The person recovering from alcohol and its long-term effects will seek support actively at this time. Detox or detoxification can be a key part of this stage. It’s what medical treatment of alcoholism starts with. Some people choose to go through detox alone. If this is the case, it is recommended they get a friend or relative to monitor them and be ready to call for emergency medical help if they begin experiencing hallucinations, seizures, or other grave symptoms.

Alcohol detox programs can play a pivotal role. Of all substances, alcohol is abused the most, but it is also the most treated addiction type according to a 2017 survey from Recovery Brands. Almost 70% of respondents received treatment for abuse or addiction to alcohol.  At a rehab facility, detox involves three key processes: assessment, stabilization, and conversion.

When evaluating the patient, doctors will carry out blood tests and other tests to assess the type and extent of damage, which alcohol addiction has inflicted. The person may be given medicine to alleviate withdrawal symptoms and asked to go on a special diet to fight malnutrition. He or she will also learn what to expect throughout the stages of alcoholic recovery. Once stabilized, they will transition from detoxification from alcohol to treatment for alcoholism.

It is recommended that alcohol abuse recovery take place at an inpatient facility in more serious cases. Whatever the choice of treatment, some patients will embrace their new lives after being done with drinking. They’ll rediscover past hobbies and pleasant pastime or pick up new ones. They’ll find new friends. Others will accept life without alcohol, but won’t pursue any other changes. Without the assistance of a qualified alcohol abuse counselor, these people will end up stuck in their old habits, without the alcohol that helped them cope. It is hard to see the benefits of not drinking in this case, and the person may struggle with relapse unless they become able to bring about some real change.

group AA session people talking to a therapist with a clipboard

Stage Five: Sustaining Abstinence

This stage begins after approximately three months of not drinking alcohol. It is also known as “maintaining abstinence.” If the person started in an inpatient alcoholism treatment program, they would now move to an outpatient one. This choice depends on a few factors, including the cost of alcohol rehab – inpatient facilities are more expensive. In this stage, a person suffering from alcoholism learns relapse warning signs and how to put the tools learned in previous stages, so their life of sobriety continues. People discover the extent, to which using alcohol has compromised their quality of life. They learn to manage anger and build healthy relationships and acquire employment skills.

Of all stages of alcoholism recovery, this one is the longest – studies show it can last up to five years. Despite their efforts, some people go back to drinking in this period, but this shouldn’t be seen as a setback. A recovered alcoholic who returns to use does so with a new perspective. He or she may find and realize that they set unrealistic goals, implemented ineffective strategies, or were living in an unsafe environment promoting alcoholism. This deeper insight makes them better equipped to try again, and this time succeed. Religious or non-religious alcohol support groups can offer some much-needed assistance to affirm one’s resolve to quit drinking for good.

At this stage, the focus will shift from alcoholism to other, more important underlying issues, such as low self-esteem, trauma, feelings of guilt or shame, and relationship problems. A very high rate of alcohol abuse occurs among people who have survived sexual or physical abuse. As a trained professional helps one work to resolve the internalized pain of the past, they will become able to start handling conflict without the destructive effect of alcohol. If underlying issues are left unresolved, however, one faces a higher risk of forms of compulsive behavior other than compulsive drinking, such as gambling, excessive sport, excessive sexual activity, or compulsive eating.

Stage Six: Full Recovery

Some experts maintain that there are only five steps of recovery, but most organizations include this one as the sixth and last stage. As a rule, a person who reaches it no longer needs their former way of life. Alcoholic recovery is now complete, and the pain of the process seems very distant. According to one Harvard study, this stage can be expected after not drinking alcohol for at least five years, but we find it’s different for everyone. At any rate, the outcome is the same – people can refrain from drinking, become healthier, become better parents, partners, neighbors, and citizens, and overall productive members of society. There’s more to getting and staying clean than just not drinking – it’s about attaining a satisfactory quality of life.

Get Help to Recover from Drinking

We hope this introduction to the main alcoholic recovery stages has been helpful. There is now a convincing answer to the question of “can you recover from alcoholism.” It is much easier to beat alcoholism with the help of trained professionals at a rehab center. An inpatient rehab center’s program of recovery for alcoholics involves therapy and intensive counseling to help find positive ways of coping with the issues that led them to start abusing alcohol, to begin with. Treatment begins as soon as the patient has undergone detox. Treatment programs last for a minimum of 30 days and can go on for one year. Ideally, one should choose a facility located in a quiet and peaceful area, where it is easier to focus on getting better. A person recovering from alcoholism is encouraged to transition to outpatient treatment after completing his or her residential stay.


Gregory Okhifun

Dr. Gregory Okhifun

Medical Reviewer

Dr. Okhifun is a passionate medical doctor, with over five years’ experience as a general practitioner. His passion for medical education led to his journey in medical writing. He has a wealth of experience writing for hospitals and medical centers, health organizations, telemedicine platforms, wellness organizations, medical tourism publications, addiction websites, and websites focused on nutrition and nutraceuticals.
He also serves as medical coordinator and content writer for Gerocare Solutions, for which he also volunteers as a health advisor/consultant for the elderly.
Dr. Okhifun enjoys traveling, meditation, and reading.

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