The way you think about addiction will effect the way you behave in regard to addiction – because our thoughts drive our behavior. If you believe that failure is inevitable, that you will always be an addict – then you will fail and always be an addict. It is with this principle in mind that I take on another loaded word in the the lexicon of the addiction recovery and treatment culture: Recovery.

The Basic Meaning Of Recovery

The dictionary defines recovery as: a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength. I like that definition. The word is also used in regard to making a financial recovery, and has been prominently used in the news recently in regard to our nation’s economic troubles, businesses seek to recover financial losses, the nation seeks to recover lost jobs, etc. But the word is most often used in a medical context “my father just got out of the hospital and is expected to make a full recovery”, is a good example. To recover is to regain something that was lost, to return to a better state after a period of going through an undesirable state. For this reason, recovery could be a great word to use in regard to substance use problems. You go through a period of problematically using drugs and/or alcohol, and then you come to your senses and make a recovery – and you return to non-problematic moderate use or abstinence.

The Wacky Version of Recovery

Unfortunately, the recovery culture will not allow the word to be used in this way. To them, recovery from addiction and substance use problems is a never-ending lifelong process, and they make this clear at treatment centers and self-help group meetings. In many 12-step and treatment settings you would be chastised for indicating that you are recovered.  To them, you never recover, you simply enter an open ended state called recovery. This state can include much more than simply ending a problematic substance use habit. The Betty Ford Center put a panel together to define recovery back in 2007 and even published an absurd piece on it in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, where they defined it as so:

Recovery from substance dependence is a voluntarily maintained lifestyle characterized by sobriety, personal health, and citizenship.

Citizenship?  So to be recovered means to be a good samaritan?  Or is it your legal status?  I jest though, we know what they mean, but what if you get sick, what if you come down with some medical problems and your health is actually worse than before – you’re no longer in recovery from your substance use problem at that point?  Well either way, what is clear is that they’re not talking about actually solving the problem of substance use that much – they’re prescribing a lifestyle, and contrary to their protestations, they’re advocating an AA lifestyle as the definition of “recovery” – they make no allowance for moderate use when they clarify that:

Sobriety refers to abstinence from alcohol and all other nonprescribed drugs.

But if somebody was drinking 5 drinks every night of the week and it interfered with their work and home life, but then they change their habit to have a few drinks only on special occasions, wouldn’t you say that they’ve recovered from their former state?  More than half of formerly alcohol dependent individuals do return to moderate levels of use, but under this definition they would have never even initiated recovery, to say nothing of the fact that their definition never allows anyone to become recovered, because they see it as a lifelong process, as the language in the next passage strongly implies:

Despite their importance, these models do not all share the same measures or even the same underlying concepts of what they all refer to as “recovery.” Thus, we have little to tell families, employers, schools, payers, and policymakers about how they can support and extend the recovery process. Also, despite the many successes within the treatment field in helping addicted individuals initiate recovery, it is presently not possible to tell treatment providers the best ways to foster recovery

Notice how they distinguish between initiating recovery and fostering, supporting, and extending recovery.  It is never-ending in their view, and extending the process is of the utmost importance to them – they think it is the responsibility of families, employers, schools, and policy makers – an opinion which further reveals their attitude that the substance user isn’t responsible for their own life.

Getting away from Betty Ford’s bureaucratic madness though, the term recovery, when used in regard to addiction is inextricably tied to the false disease model of addiction.  Because the recovery culture has so controlled the language, recovery can only imply disease at this point – and the fact is that there is no disease of addiction or alcoholism.  If there is no disease, then there should be no recovery or cure – there is only behavior, or habit, so there is only change from or quitting of the habit.  The tie to the disease concept is crystal clear when you hear recovery slogans like “relapse is a part of recovery”.  When you sign on to being “in recovery”, you’re taking on a lifestyle where lifelong struggle is expected, you view yourself as diseased, and occasional returns to problematic substance use is expected and accepted.  So my recommendation is simply to stay away from the term.  Now I’ll offer some alternatives.

Alternatives To The Language of Recovery

Rather than referring to yourself as being “in recovery” or even “recovered” say or think something like the following phrases:

  • I’m changing my life
  • I’m changing my lifestyle
  • I’ve changed my life
  • I’ve changed my habit
  • I’ve quit my habit
  • I’m growing, or have grown out of that lifestyle
  • I’m going to end (or solve) my substance use problem
  • I’ve ended my substance use problem
  • I’ve matured
  • I’ve entered a new phase of life

If you think or speak in these phrases when referring to your substance use problems you will internalize a feeling and understanding that you are responsible for both the problem and the solution.  These phrases will remove the implication that an uncontrollable lifelong disease is involved in your troubles, and keep the ball on your side of the court.  Clear thinking will lead you to better results.

What do you think?  Got any ideas on how to replace this term?  Please share your comments below.


What is recovery? A working definition from the Betty Ford Institute, The Betty Ford Institute Consensus Panel, Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 33 (2007) 221 – 228

The Freedom Model For Addictions
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*In cases of physical withdrawal, medical treatment and/or medical detoxification services may be necessary. Consult with a licensed physician..
The Freedom Model and the Freedom Model Retreats, divisions of Baldwin Research Institute, Inc., do not provide any services that require certification by New York State’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. The information in this book is designed to provide information and education on the subject of substance use and human behavior. This book is not meant to be used, nor should it be used, to diagnose or treat any associated condition. The publisher and authors are not responsible for any consequences from any treatment, action, application, or preparation, by any person or to any person reading or following the information in this book. The publisher has put forth its best efforts in preparing and arranging this. The information provided herein is provided “as is” and you read and use this information at your own risk. The publisher and authors disclaim any liabilities for any loss of profit or commercial or personal damages resulting from the use of the information contained in this book.


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