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Life after rehab is both a critical and vulnerable time in recovery. Rates of drug and alcohol relapse are highest in the first year after detox but drop significantly after one year of sobriety.
That makes a plan of aftercare imperative for anyone leaving rehab. A good aftercare plan should contain key recovery goals that can also serve as helpful benchmarks for success. But what kind of goals in recovery need prioritization?
Director of Patient Experience at FHE Health Art Jacob is an expert at answering this question. Jacob has helped many patients successfully prepare for life after rehab, by guiding them in the goal-setting process and teaching them the steps to long-term success in addiction recovery.
In a recent interview, Jacob shared a quick list of helpful goals to set after rehab. He also offered tips for how to make these recovery goals more manageable and for how to view the times when you might fall short of these goals.
5 Rehab and Recovery Goals to Prioritize After Treatment
When a person is nearing the end of rehab, they receive an aftercare plan that “is going to have a list of goals,” according to Jacob; and these goals, when fulfilled, are also benchmarks of success in recovery. What goal is at the top of the list?
Goal #1 – Get a Sponsor in AA or NA.
“The first thing that needs to happen when [a person] gets out of rehab is they need to get a sponsor,” Jacob said. “The sponsor will take them through the 12 Steps and help them create a foundation in recovery.”
The 12 Steps are a highly effective, spiritual program for recovery that has been around for almost a century and helped millions of people successfully get sober. A study in 2020 by Harvard and Stanford researchers concluded that 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are better at helping people achieve long-term recovery than even certain evidence-based therapies for treating addiction.
Goal #2 – “90 Meetings in 90 Days”
That easy-to-remember slogan is one of many that Jacob uses to help “keep it simple” for people in early recovery. While attending AA or NA meetings on a daily basis for the first 90 days after rehab sounds like a big commitment, it is also another important step toward solidifying the spiritual habits that underlie successful recovery.
Jacob likes to say that recovery for those new to it is “like walking up a down escalator.” It’s an action program, so if you stop moving your feet then you go back down.” Attending AA or NA meetings for the first 90 days of recovery provides that necessary daily reinforcement that can help make sobriety a habit and way of life.
Why 90 days? Any new healthy practice takes time—usually in the ballpark of months, as opposed to days—to become a habit. In the case of drug or alcohol addiction, the research suggests that hitting 90 days (or three months) of sobriety can improve your prospects of long-term recovery.
Goal #3 – Find a weekly home group to serve and participate in.
Jacob recommended choosing an AA or NA group “that you like” and where you can feel comfortable as a member.
Another crucial part of this commitment is getting active in the home group: “Take a service commitment at the home group,” Jacob said. He gave some examples like making coffee, serving as a greeter, chairing the meeting, finding speakers for the meetings, or setting up the chairs.
Participation and service in a home group provide a sense of accountability, Jacob explained. “If you don’t attend one week, you’re held accountable.”
Goal #4 – Commit to a balanced life of prayer/meditation.
Jacob defined prayer or meditation as a daily “check-in with your Higher Power.” He suggested a short morning, mid-day and bedtime routine. The idea is to “ask God for direction and during the day look for defects (selfishness, dishonesty, fear, etc.).” This is a way to evaluate how the day is going and ask for help, where needed, from one’s Higher Power.
If one of these check-ins reveals some “serious stuff,” then it may be time to call someone (like a sponsor or accountability friend).
Goal #5 – Get a recovery-friendly job.
Whether they lost a job because of addiction, are up to their neck in debt, or have become dependent on family for money, many people need to find a job after rehab. On this point, Jacob emphasized that the job, while important, should take second priority to recovery and in this sense should be as low-stress as possible.
“Easy does it,” Jacob said, invoking another recovery slogan. Of course, everyone has to pay the bills, he acknowledged, but recovery requires a major paradigm shift about work:
The first “job” is recovery, which is what brings me the satisfaction, peace, and happiness that are a byproduct of recovery and a priceless gift … The goals shift from making a ton of money and buying a whole bunch of stuff to being at peace and happy, having true relationships, and being able to give love and joy.
The problem with taking a high-stress job in early recovery (and working long hours to earn a big salary) is that “money becomes your Higher Power.” From there, it’s not a long walk to relapse.
Think of the above goals as a foundation for recovery. “Once we’re on track and have a foundation, we can start some medium long-term goals—but we have to be solid in recovery,” Jacob said. “It’s about emotional sobriety and striking a balance, not thinking about becoming an executive.”
How to Make Manageable Addiction Recovery Goals
Jacob was quick to point out that not everyone’s situation is the same coming out of rehab. Some people may have a harder time meeting one or more of the above goals, purely on the basis of their circumstances.
Take, for example, the goal of “90 meetings in 90 days.” Jacob usually encourages people to plan their workday around that daily meeting, so that the meeting (and recovery!) is the #1 priority each day.
But if you are a first responder and are returning to a very stressful job, irregular work hours and the need to be on call, it may be impossible to physically attend a meeting every day. In that case, Jacob suggested finding the next best alternative, such as attending a Zoom meeting or listening to a speaker in recovery.
In other words, “How can we get creative to fill in some time for recovery?” is a good question to be asking.
Examples of Goal Setting in Recovery and Adapting When Necessary
If goal setting in recovery entails universal standards, it also has to be able to flex and adapt to personal circumstances. Jacob used the example of goal #3, the weekly home group:
If your boss insists that you stay late to finish a deadline and you cannot attend home group, try to find an alternative activity that can take the place of home group that night. For example, you might try reading recovery literature or talking to another alcoholic. These are just two examples, but they illustrate how goal setting can accommodate contingencies while remaining intentional about recovery.
How to View the Situation When You Fall Short of a Goal
But what if you miss a meeting or a couple meetings and don’t achieve a goal? Is there a healthy way to view the situation? Here was Jacob’s response:
Sometimes we fall short of our goals, so does that mean that if I miss a meeting I will relapse? Meetings are just one area of my recovery. Now if I consistently miss a meeting and then miss the next day and the next, that could be an indicator of me moving towards a drink; but just missing a meeting here or there? It’s going to happen … You don’t want to beat yourself up if you miss a meeting or have to cancel a meeting with your sponsor. You might get the flu. Life happens.
What is most important is that recovery is getting first place on that list of life priorities, according to Jacob.
“If sobriety loses its priority, the relapse rate increases,” Jacob said. He noted that relapse is a process that begins to happen well before the person in recovery picks up drugs or alcohol again. “If we can recognize it and have people who hold us accountable, then relapse doesn’t have to happen.”
When those foundational goals are in place and we have made recovery the #1 priority, “we can get back up on that beam with support.”