Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

The Criticality of a Thoughtful Aftercare Plan

By Brad Waldo, Recovery Counselor

When I was 17, I was admitted to an adolescent drug and alcohol treatment in Orange County. After several days, I thoroughly opened up to the help offered to me and dove headfirst into the program. I became “house leader” and was on fire for recovery. On my forty-fifth day in treatment, I took another client’s medication and lost my sacred sobriety date. I kept it a secret for a week or two, but in community meeting, my peer brought it up and I got caught. I was devastated by my lack of control after so desperately wanting and needing to stop using.

One more time, I was a newcomer. One more time, I let myself and my parents down. I thought: If I can’t stay sober while at an in-patient treatment center, how in the world am I ever going to be able to maintain my sobriety outside of the safe confines of treatment and outside of the excellent care of a loving and supportive staff?

That is the nature of alcoholism and drug addiction. Despite wanting or needing to stop, I repeatedly failed to successfully control my intake of drugs when I relied solely on myself. Because of this startling wake-up call, I became willing to take the suggestions offered to me by the staff: go to sober living, wait to get my car back, and wipe my phone clean of old numbers. Eventually, I graduated the program and headed off to sober living. The fear that I wouldn’t be able to stay clean and sober, especially outside of treatment, fiercely remained. I’m out of treatment, but now what?

Well, a change of environment was the key. Subtle or substantial changes in my external environment were to be crucially important, but continuous change to my internal landscape has been the key to long-term success after treatment. Concentrated self-reflection in individual and group settings in treatment are a very important time. But, now that safety net of treatment was over. Leaving the treatment setting and integrating back into “normal life,” full of the stresses of work and school, commitments with family and friends, and managing downtime—all without drugs and alcohol to fill the time—was a disorienting change.

I remember the first day I was out of treatment: I took a walk and had a sort of sensory overload with all the stimuli I was removed from while in treatment. I don’t think I could have mentally prepared myself for these sorts of things. Luckily, there were a number of things that the treatment team, my family, and I put together that worked really well in structuring the early days of my recovery outside of treatment.

First was living in sober living for three months, which happened to be incredibly helpful in my maturation as a young man. My stay there was shorter than most, but in addition to attending intensive outpatient four days a week for the first couple of months, I was well supported and surrounded by helpful staff, mentors, and fellow clients. I continued the outpatient program for the entire year, was attending 12-Step meetings, was working the 12-Steps with a sponsor, and getting involved in the local young people’s groups in my surrounding area.

Despite all the support available to me, I struggled a lot from month three to month six. This seems to be a common time frame to experience difficulty in the long-term transition out of treatment.

I was discontent with my internal landscape, which manifested in a sudden discontent with my external environment. I suddenly wanted to move out of sober living, cease going to meetings, and reconnect with my old group of friends. In hindsight, it is clear that my internal dissatisfaction was the catalyst for these shifts, but in my discontent and rationalizing thinking, I reasoned—er, justified—that if I wanted to relapse so badly, a medical marijuana card would make that decision better somehow; more official, less reprehensible, less of a bad choice.

Long story short, I eventually sat down with my parents to discuss this decision and talk about moving home to their house. Their response to my plans equally baffled me and disarmed me. What they said was this:

“Okay, that’s fine with us. You’re an adult. You’re free to do what you want. We support you either way.”

I was shocked; my parents were agreeing to my decision to relapse. This may seem counter-intuitive and worrisome to you, but what they followed with was this: “There are just a few conditions. You can’t stay at our house, you can’t keep driving our car, and you need to give us back the phone we pay for. We will still talk to you and love you, we just won’t support you financially if that is the decision you are going to make.”

In this, I felt no judgement, no condemnation, and no shaming—they simply and clearly set firm boundaries backed with love, understanding, and fairness.

This was an important turning point in my recovery. No longer was I abstaining from drugs and alcohol because of rules set by others. I was no longer trapped by the thought, “I cannot use or drink.” Instead, largely because of this simple action taken by my parents, I realized that my quality of life is better when I am clean and sober; first, materially (the car, the phone, the home to stay in), and then, emotional and personally.

I am now making the choice to continue my sobriety one day at a time and have committed to do what is necessary to remain comfortable and happy in recovery.

After three months in sober living and this experience with my parents, I moved back home and attended community college for three years before I recently moved north to go to school at Cal.

I often remember this vital role my parents had in the shift of my recovery turning from the wants and requirements of others to being something I valued and protected for myself.

So, what is key upon leaving treatment? These four things: continued work on self; new and progressive relationships with friends and family; physical, emotional, and mental health; and feeling useful at either school or work.

My parents and I weren’t perfect. We made mistakes. We did some things right, and we did some things wrong. We did the best we could and luckily adapted well along the way. Realizing that one’s recovery is one’s own and being usefully whole is the way I’ve found to have long-term, content, happy sobriety. Upon leaving treatment, focusing on these things may help your loved one get in touch with themselves, others, and a new meaningful and purposeful life full of love, health, and freedom.