The Tara Treatment Center Blog

Detoxification vs. Treatment vs. Recovery: What’s the Difference?

Jennifer Parker, BSW, LAC, ACRPS, has been with Tara Treatment Center since 1997. She became Clinical Supervisor in 2018.

Treatment. Recovery. Therapy. Counseling. Detoxification. Rehabilitation.

The process of overcoming and healing from addiction has many parts, but the terms we use to describe each part aren’t always explained clearly. This can make recovery seem confusing and mysterious, and in the worst cases, it could result in a person receiving incomplete treatment for their addiction.

Jennifer Parker is the Clinical Supervisor at Tara Treatment Center. She has more than 20 years of experience in addiction treatment, which means she’s very good at teaching people what each stage of addiction recovery does and does not include.

With Jennifer’s help, this post will walk you through the three main stages of the addiction recovery process: detoxification, treatment and recovery. This should help you better understand the steps you or a loved one must take to beat addiction.

Detoxification: Flushing the System

Long-term substance use changes a person’s brain, making them chemically dependent on the substance. For this reason, people typically experience withdrawal when they stop using a substance after a period of extended use.

Detoxification is the appropriate first step of treatment for people who are chemically dependent on a substance. In essence, detoxification (or “detox”) is the process of purging all addictive substances from the body. “Detox is the physical stabilization period of a person’s recovery,” Jennifer explains.

Unfortunately, detoxification can be an extremely unpleasant process, and there is even potential for death if it isn’t carried out correctly. For this reason, detox should always be supervised by medical professionals who can monitor the patient’s condition and intervene if their life is in danger.

One more thing that’s important to know about detoxification: although it eliminates a person’s biological need to use a substance (and the associated “cravings”), it does little to change long-term usage behaviors. Detox is NOT treatment, and a person who ONLY receives detox is likely to resume their substance use habits in the future.

Treatment: Addressing the Real Issues

Once detoxification is complete, a recovering substance user should immediately begin treatment. This stage addresses the psychological component of addiction by helping people change their behaviors and attitudes toward substance use.

“I consider treatment to consist of evidence-based practices like group and individual therapy, psychoeducation, 12-step facilitation, relapse prevention, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and Gestalt therapy. and other evidence-based practices where those are being put into work. Treatment also includes a daily structured schedule, responsibility for chores, written assignments and emotional work,” Jennifer says.

Some other common behavioral therapies that may be administerd during this phase include:

  • Contingency management, which rewards patients for healthy behaviors like abstaining from substances and participating in support groups.
  • Motivational enhancement therapy, which encourages and reinforces a patient’s desire to change their behaviors.
  • Family therapy, which seeks to improve relationships within a patient’s family.

Residential (or inpatient) programs, in which patients live at the treatment facility for 30 days or longer, are a very common and effective model of addiction treatment. Outpatient programs and services are effective for substance users with less severe addictions who do not require 24-hour supervision.

Recovery: In It for the Long Haul

Sadly, a person who has finished a treatment program is not “cured” of addiction. Addiction is a chronic illness that cannot be completely eradicated, but it can be managed effectively. Recovery is the lifelong process of managing addiction and choosing to live in sobriety.

Jennifer is quick to point out that being “clean” is not the same as being in recovery. “Someone in recovery is actively working toward change. They are implementing lifestyle changes, attending 12-step meetings, engaging with a sponsor, doing 12-step work with that sponsor, and getting to a point where they begin to help other people in recovery. All of that entails a good, solid recovery program,” she says.

The risk of relapse is present throughout the recovery process, but the occurrence of a relapse does NOT mean treatment has failed. In fact, relapse rates for substance use disorders are relatively high and comparable to relapse rates of other chronic illnesses. If relapse occurs, this is merely an indicator that the person should resume treatment or try a different type of treatment.

However, the ultimate goal of recovery is to avoid relapse, especially since it can be very dangerous with some substances. This is why every recovering substance user needs to be armed with effective relapse prevention strategies.

Detoxification, treatment and recovery: three steps, one journey toward a happy, substance-free life.

For more on addiction treatment and recovery, check out some of our other posts!

AA Big Book in Focus: The Desperation of the First Drink
Relapse Reframed: Real Reason is Trauma, Trust