How Do You Define Recovery?

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If recovery is self-defined, why do we so often consider abstinence the only definition of recovery?

I’ve been in recovery for over six years. During that time, I’ve seen the concept of what recovery looks like change drastically. The landscape has evolved; we have seen a shift from what we thought was the ultimate goal of recovery—abstinence—to being more open-minded to the possibility that there are a range of pathways to recover. But we still have much work to do.

When I first got sober—and for several years afterwards—I thought recovery meant abstinence. Plain and simple. If you weren’t abstinent then you weren’t in recovery. That wasn’t my view of course, it was the view I’d assumed in a 12-step fellowship because that is what I’d been conditioned to believe.

“I was told that anything less than abstinence meant that the person simply wasn’t trying hard enough.”

Little did I know that believing that abstinence was the ultimate recovery outcome, I was complicit in the excluding and shaming others. I was also supporting the belief that there is a recovery hierarchy. I was told that anything less than abstinence meant that the person simply wasn’t trying hard enough—that they were constitutionally incapable.

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates.” Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, Chapter 5.

Today that is not a belief that I hold—quite the opposite in fact. It brings tears to my eyes to imagine those people, who are striving to improve their lives but may not be able to achieve abstinence, end up walking away being shamed into believing they aren’t good enough. If we take a minute to consider what that means: they may end up returning to harmful use when there are so many other achievable options out there. They could potentially die, when we could’ve offered them a range of other options.

Over the last few years, I’ve interviewed over 80 people in recovery, and I’ve written over 500 articles on the topics of addiction and recovery. What I have learned is that recovery is defined by the individual, not by a group of people who shame others into believing there is only one way.

“What I have learned is that recovery is defined by the individual.”

What writing, and research has taught me is to open my eyes, to ask questions, to look at how people are living fulfilling and happy lives, and to take a moment to understand their concept of recovery. You see, recovery isn’t defined by AA, or anyone else for that matter. Recovery is self-defined; someone is in recovery if they say they are. There is no hierarchy. There is no one defined path to thriving. We have to try and see what works for us.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration define recovery 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.”

Once we realize the simple truth that it is not our right to define others recovery, and begin to respect others’ pathways, we start to reduce stigma, we stop shame, and we start to see that we are all striving for the same goal.

“There are endless pathways to recovery and no one pathway is superior to another. ”

I understand there are many pathways to reduce harm, including: medication-assisted recovery, abstinence, a variety mutual-aid groups, moderation management, natural recovery, people stopping using opioids with the use of marijuana, others who stop taking drugs and drink moderately.

There are endless pathways to recovery and no one pathway is superior to another. There’s enough space for us all so let’s stop tearing each other down because they don’t meet our conception of recovery. Instead let’s acknowledge and respect each other’s path.


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Olivia Pennelle is a writer, journalist, and recovery activist. Her work has appeared in STAT News, Insider, Filter Magazine, Ravishly, The Temper, and Shondaland. She is the founder of popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen. She lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter

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