I often get asked, what does “recovery” from addiction actually mean?

It may come as a surprise that attempts to define recovery from substance use issues are fairly recent. Just 15 years ago, stakeholders in attendance at the first National Recovery Summit took up the task of developing a definition of recovery along with associated principles. The definition they came up with is as follows:

“Recovery from alcohol and drug problems is a process of change through which an individual achieves abstinence and improved health, wellness and quality of life.”

In 2020, the website of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes recovery in similar, but slightly updated terms: “Recovery is a process of change through which people improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.”

The word “recovery” itself has a variety of meanings that can both illuminate and obscure the concept of addiction recovery. Examples include: rebounding after illness or surgery; regaining possession of something that has been lost or stolen; or a return to a previously desirable state.

Some people equate recovery exclusively with complete abstinence from alcohol and other drugs. Others leave some wiggle room for moderate use (minus any negative consequences) after a sustained period of sobriety. Others see recovery as a more complex, multi-faceted way of life that encompasses living in accordance with one’s values, maintaining healthy relationships, practicing self-care, and yes, replacing the space once occupied by drug and alcohol use with a sense of safety and satisfaction with life.  

It's clear that as our understanding of addiction evolves, so does our understanding of the concept of recovery. For the purposes of this article, let’s think of recovery in terms of four recovery signs listed by SAMHSA:
•    I can address problems as they happen, without using and without getting stressed out.
•    I have at least one person I can be completely honest with.
•    I have personal boundaries and know which issues are mine and which ones belong to other people.
•    I take the time to restore my physical and emotional energy when I am tired.
Taking guidance from the signs just listed, you might then say a person who is abstinent is still not in recovery if they a.) are unable or unwilling to negotiate life’s normal ups and downs b.) remain isolated and keep only their own counsel c.) blame others for their own problems d.) fail to nurture and care for themselves in mind and body.

The idea that addressing and correcting these four issues is central to the work of recovery may seem to some as off the mark—especially those who are new to the concept of recovery. But most addiction experts (and those who are moving forward successfully in recovery) understand that once the symptoms associated with withdrawal, poor nutrition, and other addiction-related health issues have passed, recovery is about much, much more than simply not drinking or taking drugs. It’s about learning to live.

In this sense, recovery truly is both a journey and a destination. It’s a sort of paradox that while you can certainly arrive, you also never actually get there. Rather, you keep going. That’s because recovery, like life, is a process. And it’s not over until it’s over.

Dr. Louis Josephson is the President and CEO of the Brattleboro Retreat

This commentary piece was published in the Vermont Business Magazine on October 1, 2020.