The First 90-days


The first 90-days is truly a majestical feat for many people in recovery. Its powers can be utterly elusive, seemingly part of an exclusive club whose members are rewarded at least in Narcotics Anonymous with a beautiful red chip.

Sometimes this chip is shiny; other times, the chip can be a deep matted red colour, almost the colour of blood ever reminding us of mortality and our so desperate need for that emergency transfusion of addiction recovery.

The fact that the colour of the chip is red produces that automated response in our brains to instinctively be on alert or at the very least to certainly notice it when another member of Narcotics Anonymous has it hanging on their keyring.

It is not uncommon for members to have two or three of these chips on their keys rings, sometimes even four or five.

It is the most sort after milestone for people in addiction recovery. Whether they be in rehab, on drug replacement, on blocking medications, attending mutual-aid groups or commencing a natural recovery without the assistance of anything at all, 90-days clean or 90-days clean and sober has a resounding ring of achievement.

It is a proven commitment to something which previously had seemed almost unimaginable.

In many mutual-aid groups, it can potentially mean serious responsibility for individuals. They are suddenly catapulted into a position of having the most clean time attending a particular meeting and being viewed by others as having a qualification and addiction recovery experience. At this stage of their recovery, a mutual-aid group member will become a person other members or new members might seek for advice. This can potentially evolve into sponsorship for other members or even a service position within the group.

Perhaps it is also significant because ninety days roughly represents three months or because it is so close to the number one hundred, which holds historical hints of perfection in our notational decimal system for counting.

A 90-day commitment to a particularly difficult or almost impossible task is something to be truly admired.

While 90-days represents a fantastic achievement for many, it can also mean catastrophe for many other people in recovery.

Sometimes discouragingly referred to as the ’90-day relapses’.

These people get to 90-days clean in a mutual-aid group or through a treatment service and then inevitably find themselves in a destructive pattern of chronic cyclical relapse back into addiction.

This can happen on day ninety-one or day ninety-two or the following day after exiting a residential treatment program.

This can occur for many reasons: 1. the overwhelming sensation of making it to 90-days clean. 2. complacency can creep in because of the success and the idea that the addiction was not that bad in the first place. 3. a person might begin to believe they can do this again if they need to.

Or a combination of all of the above or any other unforeseen circumstances.

A type of transformation certainly takes place during this period, and a steady but slow awakening to reality accompanies it also for most people.

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I do not remember much about my first twelve months in recovery.

Still, for some reason, particular times and events during my first ninety days are completely vivid, like they happened yesterday.

I still remember sitting in a meeting and being roughly forty-odd days clean, which was about the most I had achieved in eight or nine years.

A young man was sitting at the back of the meeting, and he said, “I am 68 days clean today, and I’ve been asleep for the last two days”, and then everybody clapped.

I was furious and astounded all at once.

My first thought was this was some deception or cheating. I thought, how the hell could you sleep for two days when I hadn’t been able to get any sleep for weeks?

My head and body were disconnected entirely.

My body felt like Jim Carrey in full flight having a seizure, and the best I could do was try and control uncontrollable physical spasms in public. (1)

My head felt like a wind tunnel with no exits, and my brain was a ping pong ball just bouncing around indiscriminately from all sides.

At the time, the best I could manage was sitting in a mutual-aid group, trying to prevent myself from laughing or crying uncontrollably at inappropriate times.

I remember looking at that ninety-day key tag and thinking it had foreboding powers. I believe that many people felt the same way.

I remember very clearly when I reached the 90-day clean and sober day.

It felt like an enormous achievement. Although it was only three months in length, the process had taken years, and the three months themselves felt more like an eternity.

Many emotions, thoughts had culminated together to reach the milestone.

I first thought that because I didn’t believe I would make it to 90-days clean, my heartache and pain were over, and I had done enough.

I imagine for many people it can mark the beginning of the end of a recovery journey.

It was no fluke or accident.

Although my brain was a twisted mess of insanity, and I was incapable of coherent conversation or physical congruence or even understood what other people were saying or suggesting what I should be doing, deep down inside somewhere, I knew something was working.

I was attending meetings every day, sometimes twice a day and on weekends, sometimes three times a day, even four.

I read The Basic Text, The twelve by twelve, The green and gold working guide and answered all the questions.

I read and researched and watch anything I could find out about addiction and recovery.

In the early 2000s, there was not much of ‘online anything’, but I did manage to find a chat room online for people with mental illness, mainly from the United States, and I would chat with them all night till the early hours of the morning. Many of them had co-morbidity with alcohol and other drugs, and they made me feel very welcome.

Shortly after reaching my 90-day milestone free from alcohol and drugs, I had what can only be described as an epiphany on the concept of what 90-days meant.

It was partly delusional but, at the time, seemed very real.

Every time I turn on the TV, listen to the radio and saw a billboard, it seemed everything I observed, listened to, or heard had some 90-day themed proposition.

90-day weightloss, 90-day workouts, 90-day financing, 90-day repayments, 90-day memberships, 90-day visas, 90-day holidays, 90-day refunds, 90-day repayments, 90-day rehabilitation, 90-day reporting, 90-courses, 90-day interest-free loans. 

Everything I saw for that period was related to 90-days, and I started to believe that the world worked through a 90-day lens, and it was the precise period to begin something or end it.

I also had enough awareness to know that although I was experiencing this great cathartic moment, it was probably only me, so I would only ever hesitantly draw anyone else into my experience in a modified way.

I knew there was something unusual about what 90-days meant in the application of any behaviour.

It was not just coincidental three-month school terms or quarterly financial reporting I believed I was experiencing, so a kind of revelation or awakening or what The Highlander describes as the “Quickening”.

I began to believe I had a unique insight into the way the world operated. This extreme emotional and cognitive experience are pretty standard in early recovery. (2)

I began to feel some relief and more enjoyment from actually reaching 100-days, and the 90-day euphoria had quickly wanned.

This also leads me to believe that 90-days could be some ruse or deliberate diversion from all the potential historical associated impacts of reaching 100-days clean and sober, which emotionally has a more significant impact without the fanfare—basically taking the sting out of the tail of reaching that magnificent number, 100, by celebrating the 90-day mark.

Whatever it was or is, there is luck involved in making it to 90-days, but even more, luck reaching the 100-day mark clean and sober.

On the day I reach 100-days clean and sober, I telephoned my father, whom I greatly admired and respected and would turn to for advice or support whenever I had achieved anything of significance in my life. At 28 years of age and telling my dad that I had the achievement of reaching 100-days clean and sober was indeed the most significant thing I had accomplished in my adult life.

He was always very supportive of whatever I was doing, no matter how foolish or ridiculous. He was overwhelmed and filled with pride, and, naturally, congratulated me and said, ‘this is a fantastic achievement’. He then went on to say that perhaps I should get a beer with him to celebrate.

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I paused and contemplated this generous request which did come from a place of love and guidance.

I had been down that road before, many times.

Although I was not a big drinker, I can best describe my drinking life as a non-functioning alcoholic when I was not using drugs and, in the grand tradition of the lost soul, singing poetry into the bottom of a bottle with no one else around.

Although at times, I would put on a show for people and pretend to drink like a normal person might, (whatever that means in Australia) however the only social drinking I enjoyed was called ‘Drunk’ with no one else around.

I could also throw in verbal violence, aggression, jumping through glass windows, rolling out of moving cars, and indiscriminate stripping naked in public places whilst intoxicated. There are good reason why it is referred to as young and stupid.

Simply put, in the end, when I would purchase alcohol from a bottle shop, it genuinely felt like I was in a pharmacy buying my pharmacotherapy for medicating my drug problem.

I quickly told my dad that I appreciated his support, but I should try and stay off the booze, and he quickly retracted the offer and told me he was giving up drinking for a while in support of my efforts.

He lasted ten days, but I, in turn, was very proud of him and felt privileged that he would be so supportive.

Not long after that conversation, I began attending AA meetings also, which instantly quadrupled the number of meetings I could attend on any given day and exposed me to many more people in recovery.

This also meant that when my resentments accumulated in any given meeting, I had options abound to attended a different meeting far away with different people whenever I desired.

From my 90-day milestone to my 120-day milestone, something began to shift. Instead of feeling like I was on the edge of a cliff trying to climb a mountain made from quicksand, it slowly felt like I was coming down the other side slowly. I could not take the breaks off, but I could ease off the accelerator going at five times the speed limit. (This was not just a metaphor because I lost my license for speeding twice during these first few months also) 

Things just started to get more comfortable. 

Opportunities arose, and for the first time in a very long time, positive opportunities began to present themselves in my life. 

I could almost pretend to be some functional human being with something positive to offer society. (3) 

Probably the next most dangerous and precarious state for a person in early recovery after a milestone or exiting a residential treatment is when they begin to feel physically and mentally recuperated.

After any early milestone or stay in residential treatment, the day after is the most precarious and vulnerable proposition for anybody in early recovery. 90-days bring happiness, reward, satisfaction, hope and the seeds of self-belief. It can also bring complacency, exhilaration, triggers, temptations from support networks and a feeling of completion.

There is one thing I have always told clients when they reach this point or millstones very similar to this. It is that it is not a time for any self-indulgence or complacency. Complacency is the killer.

It is, in fact, a time to “Double Down” on your current recovery capital.

Which will mean different thing to different people. Doing more meetings or taking up a service position and engaging with positive mentors or sponsors more regularly. Finally, make that appointment with your counsellor or psychologist and get truly honest with those around you who still love and support you. Helping others as best you can who might still struggle to get one day clean and to do some volunteer work. (4) Contacting your employer and getting honest as legally possible about your situation. 

Doing some research, reading information about addiction and treatment, reading 12-step literature, and setting up some goals, journaling, sleep diary, and emotions diary and recognising potential relapse environments and people and creating safety plans around this. Attend a SMART recovery meeting, online recovery forums or engage in non- 12-step support networks.

(Although it is difficult to prove, anecdotal experience from clients and fellow members of mutual-aid groups and people in recovery has informed me that the first few days post-treatment are the most dangerous time for potential relapse)

The reality is that while 90-days is a brilliant achievement, in the course of a lifetime or a drug and alcohol addiction, it is a relatively short period.

Vigilance is the key. 

Doubling Down on the aspect of your recovery that provides positive support and letting go of the elements that do not.

Many countries and cities worldwide appeared as though they had subdued the virus into some kind of remission, not dissimilar to the way people might feel after the first 90-days clean and sober.

Like today in Melbourne, Israel and many other places, they experience a second wave of community transmission at much higher levels than first uncounted.

There is little doubt that complacency had settled in, and people began to believe they had beaten the virus.

Relapse can quickly become a self-perpetuating, cyclical and brutal experience. Like in recovery, knowledge and experience re-enforces and builds upon itself; relapse can also re-enforce itself cementing inescapable misery.

However, a relapse does not have to define your recovery because it is what you do following a relapse that will come to define your recovery.

The first day out of residential treatment or reaching that 90-day milestone no matter how you have achieved it and with whatever support is a time for a solid pat on the back, but, much more so, it is a time for Doubling Down on recovery and moving forward, onward and upward.

Many old-timers in 12-step will often say to anyone going through a rough period, or having continuous drinking or using dreams or if they have just moved to a new town city or country, they need to do their 90 for 90 to steady that recovery ship.

This can also mean it is time to Double Down on Recovery Capital for those not involved in 12-step.

Complacency kills, both with Covid-19 and early recovery. (5) 

(1) Drug and alcohol addiction cessation after three months can produce a wide variety of new symptoms for numerous other disorders and biological health problems.

(2) Post-acute Withdrawal Syndrome

(3) Between 4 to 6 months after cessation from drug and alcohol addiction the majority of people tend to stabilise both physically and mentally. However this will also be determined by the amount of drugs or alcohol that were consumed, frequency of  drug use, duration of the addiction and any underlining health problems. Crystal meth amphetamine addiction takes a  considerably longer time period for people to experience the same level of stabilisation.

(4) A disproportion of people involved in charity work and volunteer work are in some type of  recovery. Over 50% of people engage in volunteer work are in recovery from either biological  health problems, mental health problems or  genetic disorders.

(5) Recovery Capital

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1 thought on “The First 90-days”

  1. Once again a great article. The early days of recovery are just so important. Even if an addict/alcoholic has had multiple relapses on their way to recovery, eventually there needs to come the time when it’s a choice, conscious or revealing itself through awareness to be a life and death matter.

    Absolutely there is no room for complacency. 90 days must seem like an eternity, and then what’s next?

    For me, as I was in a long term rehab and not in a twelve step program I was protected from the daily trauma of having to get myself to meetings.
    However once out of the rehab where I’d been introduced to 12 Step and told not to expect any long term recovery unless I used one, I was confronted with having to discipline myself to go to meetings on my own reconnaissance.

    Fortunately I had good experiences in AA through the rehab and believed I could go about my recovery in a more “true to myself” way – without the pressure in rehab. Mind you there was plenty of pressure from within myself to do this as I learned to live in the real world. I wanted my recovery, I wanted a life!

    The most daunting thing I heard in an AA meeting was that there was no guarantee that I would necessarily stay sober and clean. This threw me, I thought “all this work and no guarantee?”. My next thought after digesting this was that I would “count myself in”, this I have been doing ever since. I think it’s just as much or more about my inner resolve than anything else but definitely assisted by meetings and learning of the pitfalls that we addicts can fall for and into along the way.

    I thank AA very much for the insight that my illness is terminal and I’m only given a reprieve contingent on my continued commitment to my recovery. It’s not contingent on how many years or days I have up, it’s still just a one day at a time thing.

    When I was told by a therapist and friend recently that I’d graduated from a need to attend AA I was very tempted to believe her. Somehow though, contemplating that this might be possible, I began to let the seeds of doubt set in. I saw this as both dangerous and a blessing to experience this uncomfortable awareness. I became aware that the 12 Step Fellowship which I had definitely had mixed feelings about over the years had definitely sustained me and would continue to. I wanted to be part of this community and to continue to grow and give back to it in ways that will continue I hope to be revealed to me.

    My sponsor (now deceased) used to say, “I come to get and I come to give”.

    Certainly my comment has escaped from the first 90-100 days which because they are formative are probably the most vital – however I concur that there is no room for complacency, and when the seeds of doubt enter our consciousness it’s time as was said to double down on our efforts.

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