What is the Definition of Recovery?
Of all the words you’ll here in the addiction field, few have been more mysterious that “recovered,” “recovery” and “being in recovery.” What constitutes a full recovery? Is full recovery considered cure? How long is one supposed to be “in recovery” before he or she is considered cured?
The harsh reality is that “being in recovery” means a person is progressing on a journey toward achieving or maintaining sobriety. In essence, it’s more accurately defined as “being in remission.” This phrase is much more accurate because it suggests that relapse is a distinct possibility. That’s certainly true just as it is with someone who might be “in recovery” from cancer.
To others, recovery might mean being “on the path to a definite cure” — as in being in recovery after a surgical procedure. That’s a bit of a risky classification, but a little less so if you understand what is meant.
When we talk about substance abuse and addiction however, the definition of recovery as utilized in the 12-step programs a is bit different. There, it is commonplace for people to refer to themselves as “in recovery,” no matter how long they have been free from relapse and no matter how successful in life they’ve become.
We’ve all met someone who seems so put together and so successful that you could possibly imagine them when they were abusing substances. These people are not cured of their addiction, they’re still in recovery –– just ask them and they’ll tell you as much. In some cases, battling addiction is only half of the problem –– some people are battling co-occurring mental health disorders, post injury trauma, medical issues or clinical depression issues.
People in Recovery are still in danger of Relapse
Whether or compare recovery to remission, it’s important to understand that there’s a very real danger of relapse, even years or decades down the road. As such, part of the healing process of addicts in recovery is the self-admission that they are indeed at risk if they do not control their triggers for relapse. The same is true if they forget their teachings as to how to deal with these triggers.
When a recovering addict tells you that they are “in recovery,” they’re acknowledging this danger both to themselves and to you.
By the same token, if an addict relapses or drops out of 12-step program, they are no longer “working the program” adequately and by most definitions, they are no longer in recovery. In plain English, they’re not cured and instead, they’re naked against the temptations and triggers. This is a dangerous condition and relapse is much more likely.
People suffering from any form of addiction shouldn’t focus on the semantics of others who have difficulty comprehending the difference between “recovering” or “recovered.” These onlookers should view addiction as behavioral condition that requires vigilance to manage.
Exposing a recovering addict to triggers intentionally brings with it inherent risks. In a weakened emotional state, there is a serious risk of succumbing to old habits. For this reason, addictive behavior is never “cured,” it can only be managed.
Re-training the brain takes time –– often years –– so that the individual can learn new ways to manage stress. Addiction was previously seen as a solution to life’s problems, but with treatment, addicts learn to find new ways to deal with these emotions. This requires constant vigilance and support which is why recovering addicts continue to reinforce their learning through support groups. In fact, it’s not uncommon for addicts who have been sober for 20 years to still be attending group meetings or 12-step sessions.
Addiction is a terrible symptom, but it is not who you are, and once you understand how it works emotionally in you so it doesn’t sneak up on you, there is no reason to dwell on what words you use.
Just as there are different types of alcoholics, there are different stages of recovery.
Understanding the Stages of Recovery
Every recovery journey begins with rehab or detox. One must be purged of the substances in order to even begin to suppress the urges. Detox/rehab is a program whereby patients are medically supervised as the substances are purged from their bodies. The process takes 3-7 days to get clean and is quickly followed up by a month or two of residential treatment.
From here, patients move on to either Intensive Outpatient (IOP) or Outpatient (OP)Treatment. Both of these are residential programs with a clinical element attached. In IOP, patients are strictly supervised, have curfews and mandatory daily counseling sessions. The goal of these programs is to to address and resolve the underlying issues to a point where the patient can move back into society armed with the resources and skills to manage life’s daily challenges. Knowing which to choose requires a bit of an honest self-assessment.
The longer they stay, the better their chances at recovery. Studies suggest 6-9 months at a minimum is necessary to give patients the treatment needed and to re-train their brains. Addiction doesn’t happen overnight, nor does recovery.
After a sustained period of sobriety, patients will re-enter society. This means they will start a new life of sobriety. Big changes typically happen during this period. Recovering addicts often relocate to another city or state, they take up new activities and hang around a whole different group of people. This is all part of the popular 12-step program, and no matter how the individual interprets it, the focus is on changing the people, places and things that helped to fuel the addiction.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Commission (SAMHSA) defines recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives and strive to reach their full potential.” SAMHSA lists four signs that let individuals know they are in recovery, including:
- 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 energy — physical and emotional — when I am tired.
No matter your definition, it should be noted that recovery is a process that takes on many forms throughout one’s journey. Some say you’re never cured of addiction but you’re instead, always in recovery. This more than any anything else truly means that vigilance is necessary to maintain sobriety and to deal with the stressors that can trigger a relapse.
It’s one of the reason that addicts in recovery for decades still have their sponsor on speed-dial –– one can never let their guard down if they’re serious about their sobriety.
In short, while everyone’s definition of recovery might be different, the spirit of the term means more about living a sober lifestyle rather than achieving some artificial milestone. It’s a day by day struggle and an addict in recovery knows this all too well.