Updated: Aug 9, 2022
When you’re finished changing, you’re finished. – Benjamin Franklin
While the term “recovery” can be applied to getting better or improving concerning a wide range of conditions, it is most commonly associated with overcoming addiction to alcohol and other drugs. Recovery is generally thought of as abstaining from these substances.
However, the process of recovery goes far beyond abstinence.
The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has defined recovery from substance use disorders and mental disorders as: “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”
Change that risks the unfamiliar is always complex. And, because any process of meaningful life change (such as recovery from addiction) necessitates going beyond our self-constructed containers of comfort and attachment, it tends to be incredibly arduous and anxiety-provoking. As hard as it can be for anyone stuck in a vicious circle of active addiction to stop using alcohol and other drugs, it is a much more formidable challenge to stay stopped.
Recovery from addiction is the process of sustaining abstinence and learning and practicing the awareness and skills necessary to live a whole, healthy, and healed life. These two elements reinforce one another: sustained abstinence creates the opportunities to build the skills that facilitate growth and healing, which is impossible during the unremitting entropy of active addiction. Conversely, learning and practicing such skills is instrumental to sustaining abstinence.
Beyond abstinence, recovery involves:
Participating in life activities that are healthy and meaningful, based on your needs, interests, and values;
Making changes in how you relate to your thoughts and emotions — especially those that are uncomfortable and painful;
Discovering and developing parts of yourself of which you had been unaware and rediscovering those parts of yourself that were buried beneath the rubble of active addiction;
They are developing new living patterns with conscious awareness and moving toward mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual balance.
SAMHSA published 10 Guiding Principles of Recovery to complement the above definition, two of which are highlighted here. Recovery occurs via many pathways, and it is not a one size fits all process — far from it. While people seeking recovery tend to share everyday experiences and needs, every individual has particular capacities, coping abilities, resources, strengths, interests, goals, culture, and background: these influence and help to determine the most effective pathway(s) of recovery for each person. Recovery pathways can include mutual-aid groups, professional clinical treatment; strategic use of medications; support from families and friends, and faith-based resources, among other approaches.
Peers and allies support recovery. By providing connection and support through mutual identification, the sharing of experiential knowledge and skills, mentoring, and social learning, mutual-aid groups — the most well-known and prevalent of which are the twelve-step programs — play an invaluable role in the process of recovery. Within such groups, those seeking recovery frequently find acceptance, a sense of belonging, the opportunity to develop healthy relationships, and an experience of community. A foundational principle of mutual-aid groups is that being of service to others is an essential vehicle through which people help themselves.
Addiction is a chronic, progressive, and potentially fatal disorder, similar to other chronic, life-threatening conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease. Like these other illnesses, there is no cure for addiction. However, it can be treated and managed successfully through the process of recovery, allowing those with it to live long, full, and healthy lives.
Life takes its toll on all of us, and everyone, whether or not they struggle with addiction, chronic pain, or any other serious condition, sustains a certain degree of damage along the way. Recovery provides a pathway to heal from that damage and become stronger, just as broken bones can become stronger after they heal than they were before.
Success is no accident. Although there are exceptions, people do not generally experience severe problems in living by accident or coincidence. Our choices and actions — both conscious and unconscious — contribute to the vast majority of the issues we experience, including those related to active addiction. In the same way, success is usually a result of the choices we make and the actions we take.
Big successes rarely occur all at once, and they are almost always built on a foundation of small achievements. There are plenty of stories of bands who play together for a decade, develop their style and work their asses off, drive their beat-up vehicles from a tiny, lousy-paying gig to another to play in front of audiences that begin as small but grow over time, who seem to achieve great success suddenly. Successful recovery is built similarly — staying clean one day at a time, and many people can accumulate many years in recovery. Tragically, in the media and mainstream society, we hear much more about the dramatic and fiery wreckage of active addiction and relapse than we do about quiet, inspired, and inspiring stories of long-term recovery.
The same dynamic operates in the recovery process — sometimes, things are unclear and confusing. Rather than getting twisted up because we are struggling and uncertain, if we hang in there and remain mindfully accepting, open to possibility, and patient — the mud will settle, and the water (and how to best proceed) will again become clear.
Assembling the pieces that sustain recovery and nurture a life of meaning, contentment, and value is a continuous process. It requires identifying and gathering the necessary components, seeing how they fit together, and often reconfiguring them — replacing some pieces with others and rearranging them to create the most functional and healthy fit. This fit is individualized; what fits beautifully for one person may not be an excellent fit for another, and vice-versa. Most often, when we put the pieces together, they work well.
“The Missing Link to Long-Term Recovery”
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Information Courtesy of Psychology Today