Recovery Expectations vs Reality – I’m Sober, What Now?


We have a nasty habit of glamorizing “getting well.” Our recovery expectations envision peak health… how our lives will look (perfect) and bodies will feel (also perfect)… The thoughts we’ll have and the ones we won’t. Sometimes, we use the idealized and far-off future to excuse our behavior. Once I’m not using, then I’ll tackle my debt and overspending. Or as a magic fix-all. My poor relationship with Mom won’t be an issue once I’m sober. Or it’s tempting to think, after COVID-19, my recovery will be a breeze! The fallacy here is that recovery is a lifelong thing, a lifestyle thing, a process.


And although we reach milestones along the way, and deserve to celebrate them, any person in recovery will tell you problems don’t disappear in recovery. They simply change shape.


Recovery Expectations and Identity

Misguided expectations are dangerous. Perhaps they’re built on a foundation of “should’s. Or based on someone else’s opinion of us. Perhaps we’ve placed incredible weight on the “product” of recovery, expecting it to unfold swiftly and wash away our transgressions. Regardless, misguided expectations in early recovery can set us up for disappointment. And relapse. So, how are we to proceed with caution? Which expectations help us reach our goals, and which hold us back? When are over-inflated expectations our downfall?


I struggled immensely with self-imposed expectations after graduation. Because I loved school – I really loved school. I thrived in such a highly structured and competitive environment. Clear correct and incorrect answers. I had a focus. Every day felt stimulating, everything felt easy. My identity was that of a passive cog, cozying up to professors, postulating and memorizing and spending hours in Starbucks. And because I was such an ardent student, I expected to excel in the workplace.


Turns out, the real world is nothing like school. And my entire identity crumbled.


recovery expectations woman in bleak landscape

But we’re wise to question, whose expectations are these?

What are “Normal” Recovery Expectations?

An important aspect of the addiction treatment process is psychoeducation. At Sanford, residents learn how to plan for relapse, manage post acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), and how addiction affects the brain. We also provide  education to loved ones, to minimize unrealistic expectations for the newly sober upon discharge. (Our talented team of therapists facilitate family therapy sessions and The Family Program. It’s important to know what to expect in early recovery. It’s important to be prepared, and it’s important to set goals.


But we’re wise to question, whose expectations are these? And where did they come from? Are these expectations I have for myself, based on my objective knowledge of the situation? Do they stem from messages I received in childhood? Or my tightly held (and limiting) beliefs?


Am I comparing my recovery to someone else’s?


Has someone crafted these expectations for me? Or am I placing them onto someone else? Because I assume they expect X?


What happens if I don’t meet them? What happens if I do?


Worshiping the God of Approval

If we expect our sober selves to feel healthier, sharper, more energetic, kinder, wiser, more grateful, then what happens when we’re slammed with a bought of PAWS? Or an ignorant remark from a coworker? After putting so much stock into getting well, and energy engaging in treatment, we may expect things will be “all better” at discharge. Or, in the very least, better than they were.


And in truth, Sanford has a Recovery Oriented System of Care which includes extensive aftercare planning. But early recovery is hard work. Uncharted territory. It requires us to get our hands dirty.


Maybe a parent has certain expectations of our sobriety. Or a spouse. Or a young child. How am I to manage feelings of defeat, disappointment, bewilderment, and intense sadness?


“What if nothing feels better once I’m sober?”


recovery expectations man in the rain

We may be even more aware of life’s messiness with a sober mind.


I encourage you to shift your perspective. Perhaps things didn’t fall into place as expected after treatment. In fact, we may be even more aware of life’s messiness with a sober mind. (And our responsibility to tackle it.) But I challenge the thought that things haven’t improved. Because a bad sober day will always outweigh the damage and pain of another day trapped in the cycle of active addiction.


Recovery Expectations and Self Worth

The trick is not to let expectations control our behavior. Dictate our mood. Decide whether we’ve “succeeded.” Because, as the old adage says, if we’ve tried our best we’ve done enough. Some days, staying sober is all we can manage. Especially during a pandemic. And at the end of the day… amidst a dirty house and crying children and un-filed paperwork and a sodium dense meal… if we’ve accomplished nothing more than not picking up, who’s to say that isn’t enough?


To meet my self imposed expectations does not determine my self-worth.


To meet your unfairly imposed expectations does not prove my worthiness.


One may argue maintaining sobriety amidst all that chaos is even more admirable and takes greater strength than to do so when things are running smoothly.


A Difficult and Valiant Fight

There are days I’ve needed to take minute by minute, in order to endure. There are moments (and recently, there have been many) when I walk myself through very basic steps out loud.


“Unlock the front door.”


“Take off your mask.”


“Take off your left shoe.”


“Take off your right.”


There’s nothing wrong with having moments, or days, like these. Because in these moments, you’re moving forward and not sideways. You’re rerouting your brain paths and proving to yourself you can survive and you’re capable and willing to make good choices. Even when it appears like everyone else is more active in their AA community. Or more charming in their family portraits. Or living more blissfully and making more money while they’re doing it.


We simply cannot be ruled by expectations. To do so leads to ungratefulness, feeds our resentment, and bolsters our shame.


I’ve worked too hard not to acknowledge my strengths or relish in my accomplishments, however small or large. I choose to manage my expectations realistically, by questioning who they belong to and the ramifications of not meeting them.


And I’ll try not to overlook what I have accomplished. I’ll remember to savor the moments when things go just right or I do well by my own standards.


I choose not to focus on what “should have been” because it isn’t real. It isn’t reality. The present, right now, is reality and self imposed (or other-imposed) recovery expectations only exist in the ether.




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.