What is recovery from drug and alcohol addiction?

Recovery can mean lots of things to lots of people. Read here about a new study that wants YOUR FEEDBACK about recovery. The survey takes between 12-20 minutes to complete, and is anonymous.

minute read
Dr. Meenakshi Subbaraman

Want to define “recovery”?  Feel free to leave your responses or feedback about drug and alcohol recovery below or to take the survey at WHAT IS RECOVERY [dot] ORG.  We respond to all comments personally and promptly.

What is “recovery”?

Just as psychiatrists have difficulty when trying to identify addiction, the term “recovery” can be elusive and convoluted.  We hear the term often, yet it’s difficult to define. Some studies estimate that 10% of Americans are in recovery. And yet we don’t even know what “recovery” means! Many former problem drinkers and other substance users who are now trying to pursue an improved way of living say that they are “in recovery.” Yet with its frequent use, we have no agreed-upon definition of the term recovery. For instance:

Can someone be “in recovery” if they are still drinking or using?

Is recovery more than just being clean and sober? If so, how is that defined?

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Are relationships in recovery different than those while on drugs or alcohol?

Yet despite the numerous studies devoted to understanding the problem of addiction, few have focused on the solution, or the flipside of substance dependence: “recovery.” Furthermore, no study has reached as many folks who define themselves are in recovery (or “recovered,” or “used to have drug/alcohol problem, but not anymore”) as we are attempting to do.

Our What is Recovery? project team at the Alcohol Research Group is developing a definition of recovery that comes from the real experts: those in recovery. We need help from people who used to have a problem with alcohol or drugs–an experience some call being in recovery, while others may refer to themselves as “recovered” or “used to have a drinking/drug problem, but not anymore.”

Specifically, our What is Recovery? project team is trying to reach 12,000 people from all walks of life and paths to recovery. We hope that from our large sample – so far, the largest of its kind – we will be able to not only define “recovery,” but also see how the definition might differ according to factors such as drug of choice, self-help group affiliation, or participation in formal treatment. For example, do those who attended formal treatment include abstinence in their definition while those who did not go to treatment don’t include abstinence? Is abstinence from tobacco necessary for recovery? Do people in 12-step groups have the same definition of recovery? We hope to answer these questions and others.

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The stigma of drug addiction and alcoholism

An enormous amount of time and resources have gone into understanding alcoholism and drug addiction. How to help a drug addict get help (or an alcoholic) has become more accessible and mainstream.  In the past century, we’ve seen how the general public’s view of these issues has gone from defining addictions as a problem of willpower to more of a disease model. This work has dispelled much stigma, as well as paved the way for better treatment.

However, being in recovery is still stigmatized in some circles. Others remember the negative things that people did when they were drinking or using drugs, but they do not know about the positive things that happen when you get into recovery. Unlike those in recovery from other chronic disorders, such as cancer, many people in recovery – including people that may be decision-making judges and policy makers – hide their recovery statuses for fear of stigmatization at work or from society in general. Their families may be ashamed too.

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Thus our goal is to develop a way of measuring recovery that illustrates the constructive personal and social ways of being that are associated with recovery. Perhaps this way we can lessen the stigma so people can be more open and celebrate their statuses.

Medical definitions of “recovery”

The Betty Ford Institute defines recovery from substance dependence as “a voluntarily maintained lifestyle characterized by sobriety, personal health, and citizenship.” On the other hand, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) working definition does not include abstinence, and calls recovery, “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

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These definitions are wonderful beginnings for a working definition of recovery. Yet in addition to their slight inconsistencies, they come mainly from expert panels of scientists and policymakers, not from those who are in recovery themselves.

What can be expected during alcohol and drug addiction “recovery”?

Many people do not really know what recovery represents. This includes not only somebody’s friends and family, but also employers and other decision makers such as judges, doctors, and policy makers. The What is Recovery? project results will provide a framework for educating the public and policymakers about what can realistically be expected when former drinkers and drug users get into recovery.

People in recovery know what recovery is, but not everyone else does. We hope to define recovery from the perspective of people living it. If you are in recovery, or used to have a problem with alcohol or drugs, then you know what recovery is. Your experiences can provide valuable information to help people with similar problems. How do you define recovery? One benefit to taking our “What is Recovery?” survey is that your view of recovery can be taken into account. Our hope is that the definition of recovery can represent many different experiences and voices, including yours. To read more about the project, and for a link to the on-line survey, go to: http://www.whatisrecovery.org/

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.


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  1. Recovery is being back in control of your life and abstaining from what you feel is problematic substance use working a programme personal or otherwise !!

  2. Recovery is when someone who has previously used a substance or behavior detrimental to their well-being chooses to no longer ingest that substance or enact that behavior.

  3. Dr. Subbaraman this is a great question! Most likely that anyone who has abused substances and has contemplated change has probably asked this very question. I would hazard a guess that if this question were to be researched–as you seem to be doing, we might find that the definition is most often tied more to things like methodologies rather than to any real definitive meaning. After looking at several dictionary sources (e.g., English, legal, and medical), each of these sources suggests that recovery is a restoration of something lost, taken, or given away.

    My own observations have been–as it concerns AOD abuse, that a great many people (including some in recovery), that there is a tendency to define recovery with abstinence. While there is no doubt some truth in this idea, I know an individual who has not taken a drink in more than two decades. This individual has also confided that while he no longer has many of the problems he experienced when he was drinking, he often feels that his life is not as rewarding or satisfying as it should be. The point here is that abstinence is not the sole criteria “of” (not to be confused with “for” recovery).

    As to the questions that you posed at the outset of your article: (a) “Can someone be “in recovery” if they are still drinking or using?”, and (b), “Is recovery more than just being clean and sober? If so, how is that defined?”, the definition and anecdote offered above would tend to indicate that recovery is “more than just being clean and sober”.

    As to your fist question, my answer would be yes. While I know that such an answer is unpopular with many people who are rigid believers in AA and NA (believing that the use of any mind altering substance negates recovery), there is something to be said for harm reduction AOD treatment modalities that have led to complete abstinence, even if such instances are statistically small and/or infrequent.

  4. Most people really find it difficult to leave drugs and live with sobriety. I believe halfway houses are the best way to get addicts into “recovery” and start to get recovered from their addiction.

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