young adults in substance use aftercare

Why Aftercare is So Important for Substance Use Recovery

02-19-2024Recovery Tools

As a no-cost support group, not everyone we work with has gone through some kind of formal substance abuse treatment. However, among those who do, we see the success rates go up dramatically among those who recognize the importance of aftercare.

Aftercare is one of the most important elements of substance use recovery because it provides ongoing support and guidance after completing a treatment program. It helps individuals maintain sobriety, prevent relapse, and navigate the challenges of daily life without turning to substances.

We’ve come to believe that the importance of aftercare in substance use recovery is likely as important as the treatment itself. By participating in aftercare programs, individuals can build a strong support network, learn valuable coping skills, and stay motivated on their journey to long-term recovery.

What is aftercare and why is it important?

An aftercare program is a structured support system provided to individuals following the completion of a primary treatment program, such as substance abuse rehabilitation. It typically includes ongoing counseling, support group meetings, and relapse prevention strategies aimed at helping individuals maintain their recovery, manage their fears, and prevent relapse over the long term.

In general, we're feeling better without drugs and alcohol, but there's still work to be done during this transitional phase.

Aftercare programs offer continued guidance, accountability, and resources to support individuals as they navigate the challenges of reintegrating into their daily lives post-treatment.

Formalized aftercare vs ongoing support group participation

One question that often comes up in discussions about aftercare is the question of whether regular attendance at support group meetings, such as 12-step meetings, can substitute for aftercare. While meeting attendance and participation in the 12-step process absolutely should be part of the process, it’s not the entire process.

Ideally, aftercare should also include ongoing family support, some sort of social element, and regular check-ins with professionals regarding progress and to help navigate new hurdles as they arise.

It’s typical for this type of aftercare program to continue for at least 3-6 months after the regular substance abuse treatment process ends, for recovering individuals to be given the chance to fully integrate into their new way of life while navigating the challenges of everyday life outside the treatment center.

Aftercare should not be an afterthought

It’s common in the recovery world to assume that the substance use treatment itself accomplishes the “heavy lifting” to help a person get sober. While it’s true that early recovery is a very sensitive time in the recovery process, the bulk of the recovery process happens after that initial few weeks.

Our goal in the recovery world is to help people live functional, happy lives over the long haul. What this means is that most of the challenges we’ll have in recovery will occur after the initial treatment process is completed.

How many times have we met someone or heard of someone who’s recovery journey involved three, five, or even 10 stays in a residential facility or IOP program? The breakdown isn’t that the person wasn’t aware that they needed to sober up; usually it’s quite the opposite.

Whatever issue this person is encountering is happening after they’ve left the relative safety and protection of a residential program, or the 10-20 hours per week of counseling they would receive in IOP.

Don’t get us wrong – we’re absolutely in support of drug and alcohol treatment when it’s necessary. However, there’s a reason for the saying in the 12-step recovery world: “Treatment starts when we get out of treatment.”

Staying sober requires practice, and practice takes time

When we’re going through our first month or two of sobriety, we’re going through a lot. We’re dealing with years of pent-up emotions while simultaneously learning coping skills for life and digesting huge chunks of truth about our lives.

Think of a young athlete learning to grip a basketball for the first time, or a new guitarist learning where to place their fingers on the fretboard. Just learning these initial skills is a tall order, and they require a lot of repetition to master.

However, winning a basketball game or playing a masterpiece in a concert hall takes years of continuing effort, learning, and repeating the basics.

The same goes in recovery. The truth is that when we get out of rehab, we’ve essentially gotten a 30-45 day crash course in the “basics” of staying sober. Refining those emotional coping skills and making them automatic will require a much greater, sustained effort to utilize recovery tools one day at a time.

Benefits of Aftercare: Getting sober vs staying sober

Transitioning into a sober life in the real world

As mentioned above, one of the most overlooked elements of substance abuse recovery is the transition back into everyday life. In reality, staying sober in a 30-day residential program isn’t nearly as difficult as staying sober for 30 days while dealing with the stresses of everyday life, work, school, finances, and relationships.

It’s common for newly sober individuals to overestimate their ability to cope with these challenges and for recovery to lose its priority over time. What this means is that ongoing support is going to be critical during the first 3-6 months outside of the treatment environment.

Continuing relationships

When we’re in a traditional treatment center environment, we’re developing relationships with new 12-step sponsors, sober peers, counselors, and rebuilding relationships with family. However, deep and effective relationships don’t form overnight.

The aftercare process allows us crucial ongoing support during the time where we’re most vulnerable to isolating, returning to our old patterns of behavior, and embarking on the slippery slope towards a relapse.

Having some structured accountability during this time allows us some wiggle room to make and learn from mistakes before we get so far “off the beam” that we’re at risk abandoning our recovery altogether.

Dealing with challenges at various stages

We’ve got numerous articles on our site detailing the various challenges at different stages of recovery. Anyone who has stayed sober knows that the issues they’re dealing with at 9 months sober are very different than the ones they dealt with at 30 days of sobriety.

For instance, learning the very basics of living one day at a time are different than trying to live one day at a time while reintegrating into the workplace or school environment. It’s also much easier to lose our sense of urgency in recovery with 6 months sober than it is with two weeks sober, when the memories of our past are still very fresh.

Elements of an effective aftercare program

We are big believers in the alternative peer group (APG) model, and find this approach to work very well for substance abuse recovery aftercare. As such, we’ll mention some of the elements below that we have seen work very well for individuals recovering from substance use disorders.

The most effective aftercare plans should include:

Support group meetings

It should go without saying that support group meeting attendance and participation are hugely beneficial to the newly sober individual who is leaving the substance use treatment or rehab environment.

Regular attendance at meetings provides easy access to peer accountability, fellowship, and deepening understanding of recovery concepts.

Counseling, life coaching, or therapy

Some form of regular check-in with professionals will be a boon to the newly sober individual trying to maintain their recovery. There are numerous approaches to this based on the needs and preferences of the individual, and therefore we’ve left the headline somewhat vague.

Whether professional counseling, an aftercare group session in a treatment center, or therapy, it’s extremely helpful to get some kind of objective professional opinion at regular intervals during the aftercare process. These professionals can often help us see our own blind spots and help us be honest with ourselves about how our recovery is going.

Family support

Keeping the family involved in the recovery process is one element that can dramatically improve the odds of success in substance use recovery. The oft repeated saying that “addiction is a family disease” simply means that the entire family will go through some dramatic changes as the recovery process unfolds.

Just like the recovering person will need some time to allow their new behaviors to become an ingrained part of their life, families need the same thing. Family support groups or counseling goes a long way in this regard.

Social activities or functions

We are huge believers in the importance of having fun in recovery for multiple reasons – developing solid friendships with other recovering individuals, provides a break from the serious discussions that often take place in meetings, and allows us to blow off steam and get out of ourselves.

Every aftercare plan should involve some type of social element, whether through our regular support groups, church groups we may be a part of, or otherwise.

How to find (and vet) a good aftercare program

If you’re getting sober now or you’ve just achieved your first 30 days of recovery, it can be overwhelming to think about the entire process in advance. However, developing at least a loose idea of what the aftercare process will look like can be an advantage on the front end.

Substance abuse aftercare programs can be tougher to find than traditional inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation programs. That said, it’s common for whatever treatment program you’re attending (or planning to attend) to have some kind of aftercare program included in their list of services. A great place to start is by simply asking your existing counselors how their version of an aftercare program works.

If you don’t have a current option in place for your aftercare program, it’s possible to work with your counselors to put together an effective aftercare program as part of your discharge plan.

With a counselor or coach, research what alternative peer groups are in your area, have a plan for what 12-step meetings you’ll attend, and decide when and how you’ll get in touch with 12-step peers and sponsors. It would also be beneficial to decide how often you’ll meet with your counselor, and commit to attending any group sessions.

By recognizing the importance of aftercare and actively engaging in post-treatment support programs, you can significantly enhance your chances of achieving lasting recovery and enjoying all the benefits that a sober life has to offer.