It can hit any of us in recovery, at any time.

“Early recovery” is a specific, time-related state. It may last longer for some than others, but it’s generally the first six months to a year of recovery, when the brain (and body) are still dealing with the physiological effects of drinking or using. Those can include sleep disorders and health problems and difficult, unpredictable mood swings, which all affect the outlook on life.

Sometimes we experience a “pink cloud” of exhilaration that we’ve managed to get this far—not drinking/using, yay! Everything’s better, no more hangovers or withdrawal, we’ve got it down, our problems are over, we can start telling everyone how much better we are. And then the backlog of problems and the challenges of re-establishing a healthy, rewarding life hit us and the pink cloud vanishes and we’re right back in iffy territory where a drink or a hit or a pill looks like the best strategy.

If we get past that, we may still be in early recovery, but we’re definitely making progress. With help from others who understand, with the tools we get from treatment, counselors, sponsors, and recovery support groups, it gets easier to stay sober, day by day, until we’ve gotten past the specific challenges of early recovery.

But if we stop there, we may be in a state I call “not-so-early recovery.” It can affect anyone in recovery, at any time. Most of us are familiar with it:  We’re sober, but we’re not exactly enjoying life. We’re not making much progress dealing with stress, or anxiety. Serenity comes and goes, and sometimes eludes us altogether, for long periods.

“I quit drinking, and started complaining.”

It’s true that by taking the complications of booze and drugs out of our lives, we’ve taken a big chunk out of our problem list. But no matter how difficult a challenge or how great a triumph it is for us to get from there to here, life’s still going to keep throwing more problems at us. Bad bosses, misunderstandings with kids, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a demand to relocate, a car accident, a cancer diagnosis—any of them can happen at any time.

And if we’re stuck in not-so-early recovery, our go-to strategy is likely to default to complaints. I stopped drinking, why should I have to put up with this? In not-so-early recovery, we can’t drink or get high at life’s speedbumps, so what’s left?

We’ve seen a few people live their entire lives in a state of not-so-early recovery:  They’re sober, alright, but they’re spending an awful lot of time angry or dissatisfied; they’re enjoying only small parts of their lives.

More of us, even most of us—drop into not-so-early recovery now and then. Sometimes a sudden hard knock pushes us there, sometimes it’s a subtle slide as we become “too busy” with other important priorities to keep working our recovery program. After all, our sobriety is well-established, we can get back to taking the time to go to meetings, or do our yoga exercises, or meditate, or keep up our journal or our recovery reading, later, right?  Just now, we’ve got to deal with the alligators.

You see what I did there?  It doesn’t matter that we know perfectly well that it’s the recovery work that makes it possible for us to handle the challenges gracefully and meet the knocks with serenity. Draining the swamp is a slow-motion process and we need to get those alligators away from the boat, now!

The good news is that it’s also true that we can, indeed, get back to working on our recovery, any time. We know how to do it: Go to a meeting. Talk to a sponsor or friend in recovery. Make a Twelfth-Step call or do some volunteer work. Make time to meditate. Pick up a good recovery book.  Start your journal again.

Once we do that, it becomes easier to step out of not-so-early recovery, and return to using the tools that have helped us deal with challenges in positive, recovery-enhancing ways. It might demand that we make some hard choices, grow a little. Give up a crutch, or change an unhealthy relationship.

But aren’t we worth the investment?