Managing Expectations in Early Recovery


When it comes to the addiction recovery process, several unrealistic expectations can occur early on. People in early recovery often go through the “honeymoon stage” where everything seems great, and life will always be incredible now, etc. This phase usually occurs after the withdrawal “existential crisis phase,” where everything seems terrible, and they think they will never have fun again, and life has lost all meaning. Some people will very often go through both stages several times, and it is all very normal.

It is important to remember that early recovery is often going to be a roller coaster of emotions. When a person is making any significant life changes, there is likely to be a wide range of feelings. When a person is doing something as life-changing as getting sober, the contrast of emotions becomes even more significant.

So what is a person to do? First, I think it is essential that we learn to manage our expectations of early recovery. Managing expectations is especially important for people going through recovery themselves and those who have loved ones going through the process. When we realize that certain things are to be expected and are typical to go through, we can deal with them effectively.

1. There will be great days, and there will be terrible days.

When I first got sober, I had days where I would wake up feeling on top of the world, and everything seemed bright and new. Then there would be days where I woke up feeling full of dread and anxiety. There are some days where I felt both ways on the same day. It takes a lot of balancing out to get through the early stages of sobriety because we are learning to live life on life’s terms. Without having drugs and alcohol to cope with things, we must deal with the emotions as they come, which can be scary. While the ups and downs may feel exhausting, they will level out over time.

2. It is normal to have second thoughts and question your decision.

Doubt in recovery

It is common for someone to be ready to get sober and receive treatment one day and then change their mind the next day. Second-guessing often occurs because cravings are intense and change is scary. I felt this myself, and most people I worked with had some form of doubts early on that later subsided. This flip-flopping is normal, and it is also okay. Just because a person questions their decision to get sober doesn’t mean that they will be unable to get sober. The important thing is that they work through these feelings because they usually do pass. Residential treatment is an effective option for helping a person work through early doubts.

3. Not everything is going to be perfect.

Sometimes people think that once they get sober, all of their problems will go away. While it is true that sobriety helps a person stop creating unnecessary problems in their life, this is where cleaning up the mess begins. Just because you get sober doesn’t mean everything is going to be better right away. There is a lot of damage that will need repairing for your life to get better. While the task may seem daunting, the only way to get it done is to work through it.

Happy woman in recovery cooks healthy food

4. Not everything is going to be terrible.

On the other hand, many people think that once they stop drinking, they will never have fun again and all of life will be awful, which isn’t true. It will take a while to adjust to living a life without drugs and alcohol and learn new ways of having fun. But, often, people will find that their life becomes more enjoyable when they are no longer sabotaging themselves with drugs.

5. It will take a while to find a new normal.

Getting sober is a significant life change. By the time a person goes to rehab, they have usually been drinking or using drugs for a while. It will be hard to adjust initially, but over time, things will begin to feel normal. I used to wonder how I would get through life without ever drinking again. Nine years later, I hardly ever think about alcohol, and the thought of returning to my previous lifestyle is so repulsive it makes me never want to drink again.

6. Emotions can feel very overwhelming at first.

When we have spent years numbing our emotions with drugs, it can be challenging to adjust to feeling them again. Rediscovering emotions can be an overwhelming experience, but over time we learn to feel our feelings truly. I remember being so overwhelmed with feelings of both sadness and happiness. The longer we are sober, the more everything begins to balance out, and the better we become with dealing with our emotions.

7. There will be many changes that will have to take place.

To stay sober, you can’t just stop drinking or using drugs. Many other changes will need to take place as well. For example, if you continue to hang out with people who are using, it will be harder to stay sober. If you continue going to bars, the chances of relapse are high. If you don’t figure out a healthy coping mechanism, life’s problems will feel too overwhelming. Getting sober isn’t just not drinking or using; it is a complete lifestyle change.

Angry woman boxing hard

8. It’s okay not always to feel okay.

Difficult emotions can be hard to deal with because, honestly, no one likes feeling sad or upset. Learning that it’s okay to experience these emotions is a huge step in understanding the damaging effects of constantly running away from discomfort. It’s okay to have bad days; you don’t need to fake being happy or act like everything is going great. It’s okay to be authentic with people who will support you, and those terrible days won’t last forever.

9. Not everyone is going to understand or be supportive.

The sad thing about getting sober is that not everyone is going to be supportive of your decision. Some people will question you and try to say you weren’t that bad, or they don’t want to hang out with you anymore. It’s essential to separate yourself from people who will not support you on this journey because it will be challenging enough without people trying to hold you back. Part of starting sober is learning how to cut ties with the people who bring you down.

10. It will all be worth it.

Woman happy and sober

It isn’t easy. No one said it would be. It will require a lot of self-reflection, courage, and perseverance, but it will all be worth it to be free from your addiction.

Addiction recovery may be a crazy roller coaster of a ride initially and may not feel like it is worth all of the hassle to push through the hard times, but it will all be worth it in the end. Learning to manage your expectation of the process will make the whole thing that much easier to get through.

Reviewed by Matt Hawk, BS, CADC-II, ICADC



After overcoming her own addiction in 2012 Julie went on to become certified as an addiction counselor in order to help others achieve a life of recovery. She worked in the addiction field for 8 years and now uses both her personal and professional experiences with addiction as an influence for her writing.