What Can I Expect at a Drug and Alcohol Rehab Program?

You May Have Misconceptions About Residential Treatment

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What can you expect if you decide to go to a drug and alcohol rehab center? If you have never been to a residential treatment facility, you may have some misconceptions about what does and does not take place during rehab.

First, no locks are on the doors. You are free to leave at any time. Even if you have been adjudicated by the criminal justice system into the program, you can still walk out. You may face the consequences later, but you can choose to leave.

The reason there are no locks is because no rehab or treatment program is going to work unless you are willing. If you enter rehab knowing that you are going to drink or use drugs again, you are wasting your money and everyone's time.

If you decide to stay, here is what you can expect.

The First Stop - Detox

Some residential rehab facilities have their own in-house detoxification programs, but more centers today are requiring clients to complete detox prior to entering their facilities. In other words, you may need to get clean and sober before you can even enter rehab.

The trend today is to have you go through the withdrawal process at a facility that specializes in dealing with drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Typically, this done on a short-term, five to seven days, inpatient basis, although the time frame can vary.

    The Facilities

    Thousands of residential rehab facilities are in the United States today, and each one is different from the next as far as its physical facilities are concerned. They range from almost primitive camp-type settings -- usually for troubled teens -- to the most luxurious facilities imaginable and everything in between.

    Like most other things in life, you get what you pay for or what you or your insurance can afford. The type of physical facilities the program offers has little to do with how successful or effective their program might be in keeping you sober.


    Education is the core component of all treatment and rehab programs. It may vary from facility to facility, but generally, the process is aimed at getting you to look at your addiction honestly and realistically, and change your attitude about your drug and alcohol use.

    In the early stages of recovery, most alcoholics or addicts may still be holding on to some denial about the seriousness of their problem or may be ambivalent about quitting drugs and alcohol for good. Treatment programs try to break through that denial and ambivalence to try to get you to commit to a clean and sober lifestyle.

    Typically, you will learn about the nature of alcoholism and the dynamics of addiction, the effects drugs and alcohol have on your body and the consequences if you continue to use.

      Counseling and Group Therapy

      During your rehab, you will probably receive individual counseling with a trained addictions counselor and you will possibly participate daily in group therapy meetings with others at the facility.

      These sessions are designed to begin to teach you the skills that you will need to live life without drugs and alcohol. You will learn how to recognize situations in which you are most likely to drink or use drugs and how to avoid these circumstances if possible. You will learn new coping skills.

      The group sessions are designed to teach you the value of seeking support from others who are going through the same experiences and challenges that you are.

      In some facilities, these group sessions may be actual 12 step meetings. In other facilities, they may be facilitated by staff members.

      Family Meetings

      Many successful drug and alcohol rehab programs will include members of your family in your treatment program. Research has shown that including family and friends in the educational process significantly improves rehab outcomes. Some programs include family members and friends throughout the entire rehab process, from the initial assessment through continued follow-up aftercare.

      In the family meetings, your family members will learn about the dynamics of addiction, learn to identify strengths and resources to help encourage you in your recovery, discuss how they have been affected by your substance abuse and learn how they also can begin to heal their own wounds.

      Many rehab facilities require family members to attend Al-Anon meetings if they want to visit you while you are in treatment, to learn how they may have been enabling you and contributing to the problem with their actions and reactions to your substance abuse.

      Aftercare Program

      The typical residential drug and alcohol rehab program will last about 28 days, sometimes longer, during which you are in a structured environment where no drugs are alcohol are available. Then what? What happens when you have to leave the relative safety of the facility and go back into the real world?

      Successful rehab programs have a strong aftercare program plan designed to meet your individual needs. By now your counselor probably knows you well and will suggest the next steps based on where you are on your recovery journey.

      Your aftercare plan may include intensive outpatient treatment, residence at a halfway house, attendance at 12 step meetings, weekly check-ins with your counselor and other suggestions to help you avoid the situations and triggers that might cause you to relapse.

      For more information see: The Stages of Rehab Recovery


      National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research Based Guide (Second Edition)." Revised April 2009.

      National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Addiction: "Drugs, Brains, and Behavior - The Science of Addiction - Treatment and Recovery." March 2009.

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