What is Early Recovery? And When Do I Graduate?

plant bud to symbolize early recovery

I was hiking with a group of people who are new to recovery. And out of the blue, one of them asked, “What’s early recovery?”


Before I could answer, someone else said, “Yeah. What is early recovery and how do I get out of it?”


Still a third said, “I have a friend who’s been sober for a while and she’s always giving advice because she says I’m still in ‘early recovery’. So what exactly is it?”


What is Early Recovery?

I felt their pain. And the underlying need for closure. The closest thing I could liken it to was being a “red cap” as a kid at camp, the one and only time I went to camp. Because I was grouped with those who could not swim from the dock to the swim platform in the frigid, moss-choked lake that was the hub of our camp’s entertainment. The red cap was a stigma. Its counterpart, the exalted “blue cap” for those who could swim, was my only goal.


Being new to recovery does make you feel like a child again in many ways. And the questions about when recovery goes from early to advanced is a tricky one to answer. Every person is different. The rules aren’t as clear-cut as the criteria for a blue swimming cap. And the healing from addiction is lifelong – not a single goal (or even goals) to be reached.


My walking mates could relate to my childhood story. But they were seeking answers. Especially because the term “early recovery” sounds so tenuous. So, I went to Sanford and asked the therapists how they would answer the question.


Asking the Experts at Sanford … What is Early Recovery?

Rae Rabideau, MS, Manager of Clinical Operations

Early Recovery is a loaded phrase. It is the period of time, typically within the first year, after a person discontinues use of their drug of choice (DOC) or all mind-altering substances. The role of family is important at this time. Because of this, family psycho-education sessions are a valuable resource offered at Sanford. Relatives and support persons of individuals who enter treatment can sometimes have expectations about what their loved one will be like when treatment is over. But living this new life takes practice, dedication, support, and a lot of patience.


Many people in the early stages experience what’s called the “pink cloud.” The pink cloud refers to a temporary feeling of increased motivation, energy, and progress forward. It includes some euphoria and achievement of goals. In early recovery, practicing coping skills isn’t second nature, and neither is practicing healthy communication skills.


Even telling the truth consistently takes practice. The brain is still working to undo the rewiring that has taken place over the course of months, or more often times years.


Rebuilding life after active addiction takes time, and it involves practicing recovery skills on a daily basis. I encourage loved ones of individuals in early recovery to seek information about the disease of addiction. Also to learn about relapse warning signs, the overall process, stages of change, and supportive resources. Additionally, I always recommend that loved ones get the support they need and deserve (e.g. therapy, support groups). Because addiction is a family disease, and recovery is a family process.


water lilies represent early recovery


Rae Green, JD, LPC, CAADC, Sanford Founder & President

Recovery is a developmental process, with early recovery being the period immediately following stabilization of disease symptoms. The brain doesn’t “fix” automatically when a person stops using. And this period can last from 90 days to up to a year.


Getting sober is only the first step. Early recovery includes accepting that addiction is a chronic medical condition. It also includes disease education and lifestyle changes that support sobriety.


It includes managing expectations, being watchful of over-scheduling, avoiding isolation, and putting support systems in place. From an emotional standpoint, it is perhaps best described by First Lady Betty Ford in her book A Glad Awakening. She writes, “That first year of recovery was confusing…there was joy…there was terror…and there was denial; sometimes I’d go through all of them in a few hours.”


Leah Mayotte, LPC, CAADC, EMDR, Clinical Manager Sanford House at John Street

Recovery is a process. And early recovery takes place after someone has stabilized and has accepted the fact that they struggle with addiction/alcoholism. Terence Gorski explains it best with his developmental model in his book Staying Sober. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in learning about addiction and the recovery process.


Gorski talks about five characteristics that need to take place:

  • “full conscious recognition of addictive disease
  • full acceptance and integration of the addiction
  • learning non-chemical coping skills
  • short-term social stabilization
  • and developing a sobriety centered value system”


Also, the amount of time someone is in the early phase will vary depending on the person’s progress and individual needs.


Ali Kitchin, MSW, Clinical Therapist

The period of early recovery can be viewed as coinciding with Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS). PAWS initiates after any physiological withdrawal (such as detox). And it can be experienced for up to two years, with symptoms lessening throughout the duration. PAWS symptoms include memory issues and emotional episodes that require individuals to plan ahead and create schedules that lean into their intrinsic strengths, while bolstering their internal resilience against any triggers and/or cravings to use substances.


This period of time may be marked as a sort of psychological “warfare”. But it can also be viewed as an opportunity for more personal growth in a short span than most people experience in a lifetime.  A strengths-based view of early recovery would be the opportunity to build up support systems. And to engage in a community of like-minded people, do meaningful and purposeful work, allow space for processing difficult emotions, and focusing on obtaining quality rest.



Ellen Sork, LLMSW, Clinical Therapist

Recovery is a process with varying stages and developments. Early recovery consists of the period of time, after stabilization, when an individual has accepted their addiction and made the decision to work a program of recovery. Early recovery can last from 6 months to 1 year. This is based on how the person is managing and adapting to a life of recovery, as well as the Trans Theoretical Model and what stage of change they present in. Early recovery is marked by a number of biological, physical, emotional, and social markers and changes which allow individuals in this stage to reestablish their goals, expectations, and values in a manner that lines up with the life they are rebuilding in recovery.

Lynnel Brewster, RN, LPC, LLMFT, CCTP, AcuDetox Specialist, Clinical Manager Sanford House at Cherry Street

There is probably no set time period, but early recovery typically refers to the first year. This includes the first ninety days, when the person in recovery is at high risk of lapse/relapse. It is also a period of vulnerability, with PAWS symptoms, ranging from irritability to intermittent anxiety/depression to name a few.

This is the time when the person in recovery requires a lot of support from family and others who have committed to their sobriety. In the book, Out of the Woods, the author recommends, from the beginning of recovery, to ask yourself the question; “Who has what I want?” It is still possible to have years in sobriety and be miserable and filled with resentments and anger. And longevity does not always equate with quality of life-changing recovery.
In conclusion, Marty Mann, was an early female member of Alcoholics Anonymous. And author of the chapter ‘Women Suffer Too,’ in the 2nd through 4th editions of the Big Book of AA. Marty was credited with first expressing the notion:

It’s the quality of your recovery that counts, not the length of it.

Going the distance …

And what an excellent quote on which to end. As human beings, we cannot help wanting to get better/best faster. To be the ones to give the advice. To doff the red cap. After all, it’s a push button world and we are programmed to expect the quick fix.


But the Sanford therapists all stressed the fact that recovery is a life-long process, not a contest. And in the early days the process is a going to take some healing and adjustments, some practice and planning for the future. And my friends, it is going to take time …


after marilyn head shot bio

Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.