Why a Change of Environment is an Important Tool in Maintaining Sobriety

Woman arriving from a rehab

Donna was a petite, dark-haired woman who graduated from a long-term rehab after methamphetamine addiction. Her family had picked a rehab far from home and, after graduation, she stayed in the new area, gradually building herself a productive, sober life. She got married and had a job she enjoyed. Then she was invited to her former home town for a wedding. Leaving her husband behind, she returned to the town where her family lived and where she had originally used drugs and become addicted.

It wasn’t long before Donna started to experience the effects of painful past bad experiences that were part of the reason she had begun to use drugs. Seeing the once familiar town and the people in it reminded her of the times she used. Before now, Donna was absolutely certain in her recovery, but now she wasn’t so sure.

Luckily this short trip allowed her to return home to the safe environment she had created, however, for some people returning home after going to rehab can result in relapse. Especially if the underlying issues which began the addiction have not been addressed.

What Happened to Her?

Donna had changed her environment after rehab, which had helped her maintain her new sobriety. She was in a new situation that didn’t present her with a steady diet of reminders of her past drug use, like places she used drugs or people she used drugs with.

In that former environment, every place she used drugs, every person she bought drugs from or used drugs with could be a too-strong reminder of the past. These reminders could be conscious or they could nag at her below her consciousness. It might not even be apparent why there was a sudden inclination to get high. If she drove past a place where she once bought drugs and there was a police car sitting outside, that could increase her stress just enough that she might want to blot it out by getting high. If she ran into a former abusive spouse or partner, she might get that old feeling that she needed drugs to ease the anxiety.

A Therapeutic Change of Environment

For many people, being removed from these grim reminders in the sensitive period after completing rehab can be highly therapeutic. It gives a person a chance to accumulate new, healthy experiences in their new environment. It’s almost like building up a savings account. Every healthy week or month of sobriety helps a person get stronger. This is the rationale behind sober living houses. A newly sober person has support while they accumulate sober living time.

But it is possible to engineer a supportive sober living environment for a person without their needing to stay in a sober living home. Families and friends can help create a similar environment for this newly-sober person.


  1. When choosing a rehab, be open to one that is far from home. This gives a person a little distance (or a lot) from their former drug-using friends, drug dealers and even the locations where they bought or used drugs or were arrested. Sadly, it’s common for a drug dealer to hang around a rehab housing a former customer.
  2. Support the individual if he or she decides to stay in a new area after completing rehab. If the person decides to come home, recognize that they may need extra support for a while as they create new sober milestones for themselves.
  3. A person who has never been addicted may not have a subjective grasp of the power of this phenomenon. It’s important to understand how these reminders can hijack a person’s feelings and thoughts. No, it’s not rational. But it can be overwhelming to a susceptible person. This must be kept in mind by anyone supporting the newly-sober person.
  4. If the person has a valid reason to talk to people or travel to places that were involved in past drug use, a friend or family member can and should volunteer to travel with them. Stay with them and let them know you are there to support them. Watch for signs of upset and be particularly alert if they begin to make excuses to go off by themselves.
  5. Finally, family and friends should realize that even after years of sober living, an intense loss or upset could suddenly spark the old feeling of needing to get high. It’s very smart for families to be alert at moments like these. If a person in recovery loses a loved one or suffers a severe setback, it could save their life if someone stays with them until the crisis passes. This might mean being with them around the clock. It's worth the temporary effort to protect their sobriety and their very life.
Happy woman, new environment

Whether a person goes home or stays in a new area after rehab is not actually the determining factor here of whether or not a person remains sober. Some people find it therapeutic to remain in a new area, and others benefit from the support of family, friends, and familiar surroundings. Either way, the ideal drug rehabilitation program would give a person the tools they need to stay sober, even in difficult situations, because we can't always control the places we need to go or the people we encounter.

For example, a good drug rehab program will equip you with the tools you need to address the following scenarios:

  • Knowing how to financially plan your money and resources to cover living expenses and bills. It's also very likely that you have financial debts to pay back to friends and family. This is not only sound advice, but having a definite plan of what you will use your money for when you get paid could help keep at bay any temptations from old habits when you would use everything you had to buy drugs or alcohol.
  • You should know what to do if you experience an emotional upset such as an argument or a hostile encounter.
  • Know who you can call for support or what you can do that makes you feel stronger. For some people, this means immediately finding a support meeting or calling a sponsor. Your rehab program or life skills training might offer other specific suggestions.

Of course, everyone is different. Some people complete rehab and never look back. Others are more sensitive and need this support while they gradually build new sober life patterns and experiences. For family and friends to recognize this need and provide this support is a true manifestation of love and caring.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.