The Routine of Recovery

By Sarenka Smith

For individuals in recovery from alcohol addiction or substance use disorder, maintaining a consistent routine is invaluable.

I first heard of SAMHSA’s National Recovery Month, originally started in 1989, a couple years ago while I was in long-term treatment for a substance use disorder.

This year, to address the nation’s growing crisis of substance misuse and overdose deaths, SAMHSA launched initiatives to “promote and support new evidence-based treatment and recovery practices, the nation’s strong and proud recovery community, and the dedication of service providers and communities who make recovery in all its forms possible .”

On October 30, 2022, I’ll have half a decade clean and sober from alcohol and drugs. Unsurprisingly, I’ve had the opportunity to consider why I’ve been successful in recovery. In addition to a myriad of resources, loving friends, support networks, and undeniable privilege, I was recently struck by something different: the concept of a routine.

When I first got sober and embarked on a lifelong journey of recovery, I entered a sober living house with half a dozen other women. The idea of sober living houses is to help facilitate the challenges of early sobriety; rather than transitioning directly back into “real life.” Most clinicians recommend a continuum of care: a kind of step-down approach that, at each level, allows more responsibility and autonomy. So after a month of intensive residential treatment, I found myself back in South Florida, living in a tiny room with a twin bed, a roommate, and two drawers for all my belongings.

One of the first house rules was relayed to us upon arrival. Every morning – no matter what – we had to make our beds. If the house manager stopped by and our beds were unmade, we would automatically lose privileges. There were other house rules too, all of which (I realized much later) were meant to instill a daily routine. We all complained aggressively about the bed making rule. “What if we’re running late for work?” we asked. “What if we like our beds unmade?” we protested.

Our grumbles were met to no avail. “We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we know what works,” the house managers responded.

And so each day, I woke up at 7:30 a.m. on the dot and I made my bed. I was in the sober living house for almost half a year, and I never missed a day. By 7:35 a.m. my bed was made, my area was tidy; and my belongings were neatly folded in my drawers.

I’m not sure I realized the “why” behind the house rules until years later, when I was living on my own without any oversight or accountability other than my own. As I began to engage in extensive conversations with other people in recovery, in addition to clinicians and therapists, I increasingly began to realize that making our beds signified something much greater than a neat room.

For me, addiction is synonymous with absolute chaos and loss of control. As a prisoner of alcohol and drugs, my life was completely devoid of order or routine, other than the daily recurring theme of needing “more.” Perhaps others’ stories are different, but both my physical and emotional environment were in complete disorder and disarray. I remember feeling so embarrassed about the state of my apartment that I refused to have anyone over, fabricating some narrative about the plumbing not working and an unresponsive landlord. More damaging than my material surroundings was the mental mayhem. I was overwhelmed not only by the world itself, but also by my lack of contributions to the world. Toward the end, I felt that all I knew how to do was drink and use.

Five years later, I’m acutely aware of the value of a routine. Most addicts and alcoholics have a highly responsive nervous system, and a schedule provides them with a buffer of control; there is something that we have command over. Beyond the emotional implications of a routine, those house managers knew that we needed to reintegrate ourselves into adult life – and, for some of us, relearn what it was like to be a functioning human being. And even for people who are not in recovery, research has shown  that routines and schedules have the power to improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and boost cognitive function. We’re creatures of habit by nature, and routines help mitigate the anxiety associated with uncertainty [1].

While there are days I don’t make my bed, the lesson I learned all those years ago was that I need to have some kind of consistency in my recovery. In addition to therapy and participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, my first sponsor encouraged me to do something for my recovery each day. If I didn’t go to a meeting, I should get down on my knees and ask a Higher Power for guidance. If I didn’t engage in prayer, I should read a daily meditation. If I didn’t read a daily meditation, I should jot down a gratitude list.

This advice has kept me spiritually, emotionally, and mentally grounded for almost half a decade. Every day, I recommit to recovery and find some way to continuously support that recovery. Not one day goes by in which I don’t heed my sponsor’s guidance −knowing that I only get a daily reprieve from my alcoholism and addiction if I remain open minded, willing, honest, and – above all – consistent.

Written by

Sarenka Smith

Sarenka has been voraciously reading & writing since she was a small child. For the past half decade, she has worked in marketing & communications for healthcare-focused organizations and…