What is Recovery?

A recent study has been published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs on what constitutes recovery.  This four year study was conducted by the Alcohol Research Group because:

There is currently no agreement about the definition of ‘recovery’ from alcohol and drug problems.

There is no truer statement than that.  As a profession, addiction medicine has no standard of recovery, no common agreement to approach, method, means, or outcome.  This study begins a ground breaking opportunity to engage in a much needed conversation.

I have been conducting workshops on Mindfulness in Recovery and Mindfulness and the 12 Steps for several years now.  One of the first things I talk about is: “What is Recovery?”  Since I am a bit of a nerd and love reading the dictionary (Oxford English) I discuss with my audience a critical starting point – the definition of recovery.

Recovery  n.  LatinMiddleEnglish.  (recoverie. f. recouvrer.)  1. Possibility or means of recovering or being restored to a former, usual, or correct state. 3. Restoration or return to a former, usual, or correct state or condition, as healthy, prosperity, stability, etc.,  b. The cure of an illness, wound, etc.

So, according to an accepted authority (the dictionary) recovery is being restored to our former/original selves.

That speaks volumes.

What was our former self, then?

It is my belief that we are born in a state of unconditional love, that we come into this world with innate basic goodness.  Dr. Richard Davidson has spent virtually his entire career working in this domain as a neuroscientist and psychiatrist. There are studies that prove we possess basic goodness, but that’s for another time.

The point is, even if we have a terrible childhood, a horrific experience growing up, trauma, abuse, etc., our original selves consist of basic goodness. Call it our spirit, call it our soul, call it what you will. It’s the inner “us” that makes us, us.  Or the inner “me” that makes me, me.  Or you.

Recovery is returning to that state of basic goodness that we hold deep within ourselves.

Here are some of the findings from that study:

  • Recovery is being honest with myself.
  • Recovery is being able to enjoy life without drinking or using drugs like I used to.
  • Recovery is living a life that contributes to society, to your family or to your betterment.
  • Recovery is being the kind of person that people can count on.
  • Recovery is about giving back.
  • Recovery is striving to be consistent with my beliefs & values in activities that take up the major part of my time & energy.

As you read through these and the rest of the results, it becomes evident that all the items deal with goodness.  Enjoying life, is goodness. Giving back is goodness. Living a life that contributes to society is goodness.

Using “recovery” as a starting point in working with clients, perhaps it would be wiser to ask them what their original state was, what their return to their original state would look like, rather than telling them what recovery is to be.

If self-determination is the cornerstone of the therapeutic model, then wouldn’t it make sense for the client to determine what their recovery should look like?

I can hear the vehement responses to this proposition:  They’re addicts, they don’t know what it should look like; they’re alcoholics, they’ve lost their ability to be rational or reasonable; their brains are compromised; once addicted, they have to be told what to do to get better; we are the professionals and we know what they should do and how it is to be done…..

But do we?

Do we really know what and how recovery should be done?

I think we can guide, offer a road map, an end goal – but I believe we need to re-frame how this profession approaches healing from addiction.  I think the starting point is to understand what recovery is for each individual, and use that definition as the basis of their own program.

Of course there is knowledge that we can share with clients, lots of it, that will help them to understand how addiction comes to be, and how it can end.

But in between, we need to be mindful of how the client is going to “recover.”

At the end of the day, isn’t it their journey, and not ours?





2 thoughts on “What is Recovery?

  1. Counselling, psychotherapy and talking treatments have always had the same issues as well haven’t they? The results or outcomes are a subjective experience 🙂

    I think it’s useful to have some common definitions for research purposes and comparative studies, especially with alcohol and drug problems.

    But at the end of the day, personal recovery is very simple for me…it’s about becoming the person I am most naturally meant to be. And that is most definitely an ongoing process, not an outcome!


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