Recovery: Iterative, or Instant

It’s National Recovery Month

September is National Recovery Month. So, I thought for this week’s blog post I’d share a little about my experience and philosophy about recovery. 

For many, recovery is a dynamic process, not an instant conversion. In my clinical groups, I frequently bring up expectations, and how it can really affect one’s recovery journey. How many times do people expect to go through treatment? Well, when it’s their first time…the answer is often one. This is not always the case. To change any behavior, it often takes incremental gains. Sometimes, a transformational event can kickstart the change or enhance it. That’s the “Hollywood version” of recovery. For many of us, recovery includes relapse. 

Thank God we don’t learn to walk as adults. Can you imagine? After the 15th time we fell over…the conversation…

“This is too hard!”

“Walking just doesn’t work!”

“Walking just isn’t meant for me.”

“This must be a sign.”

We never keep score of how many times a toddler falls over on their way to walking. Is the toddler less motivated to walk because we don’t keep score, or don’t pressure them that if they fall again…that’s it…they’re out of our house!?  That would be absurd, of course.

Yet how are we about ourselves or someone we love when we/they keep slipping back into that old behavior? What if something is changing along the way? There are three metrics we can actually look at along the way to measure true progress on the road. 

Now, I’m fully expecting that this model is going to ruffle some serious feathers. Before I get into it, I’ll say that it’s not a panacea. However, it’s a lot more organic than hoping someone just quits their behavior cold turkey. If someone finds they “can’t seem to quit,” here are three ways to ween.

Frequency, Intensity, and Duration.


Frequency relates to how often someone reverts back to the old behavior. Said in a different way, how many hours/days/weeks/months of abstinence from their old behavior have they been putting together between relapses?

I worked on this with a client and her compulsive behavior. When I met her, it was a daily behavior. We got her to start taking “days off” from the behavior. She could wrap her brain around that and buy into it. Then, she started taking “weekdays off” from the behavior. This worked too. If you have a destructive habit that you are engaging in seven days a week, and then within a couple of weeks have it down to only one or two days….that is a significant reduction in frequency. 

Next, we tackled the idea of two days a month, then one. By that point, she was at one day out of 30. Do you know what happens at this point? The person can physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually begin to see little rays of light. They can see the difference between engaging 30 days out of 30, versus one day out of 30. This is an incremental change.


Intensity relates to how much of a behavior the person engages in while relapsing. If they drink but cut their consumption from a 12-pack to a six-pack, and then the next time they find they have to drink, they limit it to three beers. If they’re now drinking three beers once a day instead of 12, and they can’t seem to take a day off, they can work on limiting their intake (intensity).


Duration relates to how long we fall off the wagon before hopping back on the abstinence train. I know one way in which my own addiction messed with me was when I would relapse, I lost my “time” which is the amount of time I had been abstinent. Since I no longer had any time to lose, I’d say, “F@#K it!” and keep using for a period of time before getting sick of feeling sick and recommitting myself.

What if when you relapse, you went off on a month-long binge? What if next time you cut it to a week? Then, next time, it’s a weekend? Then a day? Each time, the duration decreases. That in and of itself is progress.

All Or Nothing?

I fear that the “all or nothing” rules of abstinence-based treatment or abstinence-based recovery don’t leave a place for those who can’t seem to make the permanent shift in their behavior. How do we support that person?

How do I know if that person exists? 

I was that person. 

So, if you or someone you know or love is struggling with kicking a habit, behavior, or substance that path to sobriety might not be as linear as you want it to be. It’s important to be gentle with yourself and to be gentle, but firm, with others. Shame and punishment won’t get a response. As my friend and addiction expert, Joe Polish says, “You can’t punish the pain out of someone.” So be gentle with yourself and with others who are struggling with addiction. Put the focus on healing, not enforcing.

If you enjoyed this post and would like additional tools to help you or someone you know with their recovery, check out the Music in Recovery Guide for tips on how to use music to stay sober. I originally developed this with health care workers in mind but the tips inside are really for anyone looking for new tools to strengthen their recovery.

Join the Conversation


  1. Philip Chap says:

    Love it, Tim! This totally resonates, even for the small things, like reaching for that boursin cheese and Milton’s sea salt chips for lunch.

  2. I agree with Phillip; very applicable to many things, I was thinking about food choices. Crazy how hard we are on ourselves when we fall back to old undesirable habits. You made me think Tim.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *