For those suffering from addiction, the consequences can be devastating. People lose their jobs, damage their relationships with friends and family, and face financial hardship. It becomes cyclical; substance abuse creates these personal difficulties and in turn, they can cause stress and trigger the individual to use more frequently. In other words, abusing substances becomes the individuals primary means of coping with life’s difficulties. When this happens, the environment becomes so toxic that admission into a residential addiction treatment center may be necessary to give the individual a chance at recovery.
Residential treatment offers a safe environment to begin to repair the damage caused by addiction. At this stage, people are very vulnerable and treatment provides a safe place away from triggering situations in which they might relapse. They can focus on healing and recovery. Clients are taught more constructive coping strategies, relapse prevention and grounding techniques. They can then begin to practice and refine these skills without the outside pressure of their environmental stressors.
While residential treatment is a necessary first step, recovery really consists of using coping, grounding and communication tools in “real life” situations. Without prior experience practicing these newly acquired tools, the recovering addict is susceptible to return to past behaviours and may relapse. Therefore, early recovery is a time of transition and one where aftercare support becomes vital to long term behaviour change. Continuing care is an active way the individual can build on the foundation of recovery that he/she has established in residential treatment.
There are many support systems available to individuals in early recovery. Aftercare supports can consist of self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, individual counselling, or outpatient groups run by addiction treatment organizations. Furthermore, these meetings take place throughout the day and into the evening, making them easier to attend. Also, with the latest technology trends there a variety of aftercare meetings available online.
Attending aftercare benefits the participants by giving them the ability to share their experiences using active coping skills in real life situations. Individuals may receive feedback on how they can improve these skills going forward or receive reinforcement that they are progressing well. Another benefit is the opportunity for the individual to belong to a community that they can relate to – one that is supportive, but will also hold each other accountable when needed. For example, aftercare can help individuals come to a realization that they may be on a risky path of returning to their previous behaviours. These groups also provide members with the opportunity to pass knowledge onto others who are beginning their journey of recovery. Imparting knowledge and experiences onto newcomers can help reinforce an individual’s commitment to abstinence and a life of wellness.
Research has also demonstrated the importance of aftercare. Studies have found that regular aftercare participation is one of the best predictors of success following treatment. For example, a long-term follow-up study spanning 40-years, found that those who were able to maintain longer periods of abstinence were attending 20 times as many meetings as those who were not able to maintain abstinence. Bellwood’s own outcome research has demonstrated that 83% of those who engaged in two or more regular aftercare supports were high recovery (continuously abstinent or achieved at least 95% reduction in substance use) at six-months follow-up from residential treatment.
There are many different forms of aftercare, but it is important to remember that attending any form of aftercare is an improvement over leaving the treatment center overconfident. Recovery requires continuous work on the skills learned in treatment and is a lifelong process. As the Chinese philosopher Laozi once said ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’ and each week of successful engagement in support, is a successful step on the road of recovery and lifelong wellness.