I once told someone in my addiction recovery network about a guy who would brag about the length of his clean time, but always seemed angry. My friend’s reply was, “I actually know who you’re talking about. He may be abstinent, but that’s not the same as recovery.”
I’ve seen over the years just how true this saying is: “Abstinence does not equal recovery.” And one of the first insights I arrived at came when my 12 Steps sponsor asked me to look up the definitions of both words:
abstinence/abstain: to choose not to do or have something : to refrain deliberately, and often with an effort of self-denial, from an action or practice
recover(y): to get back; regain; to bring back to normal position or condition
Simply put, I realized there is no sense of ‘joy’ or ‘freedom’ in the first definition (abstinence); whereas in the second (recovery), both are implied – that is, my ‘normal’ condition of “happy, joyous and free” is regained or restored when I recover from the disease of addiction.
This distinction is an important one, given I grew up in a family of seven alcoholics and addicts. I witnessed firsthand how my dad “white-knuckled” his way from the time I was born until I left home for college; abstinent from alcohol and drugs (he was a commercial airline pilot), yet not recovering from alcoholism. In hindsight, it seems to me he was not just out of touch with any emotions but anger, frustration, rage and feeling ignored, he also was not doing anything noticeable in the way of healing past trauma in his life or resolving old attitudinal and behavioral patterns. This resulted in his acting out in a wide range of ways, including extreme self-centeredness, self-righteousness and even violence toward his wife and five children.
My father’s “case” is just one example of the countless incidents I’ve seen in recovery, where people don’t commit and follow through on a daily basis to a program of recovery (via addiction treatment, an impaired professionals program, a 12 Steps program, whatever). The bottom line? They’re abstaining without “getting better.”
A person might ask, “If addiction to alcohol or drugs is the problem, why isn’t abstinence sufficient? What is it that recovery provides that abstinence alone doesn’t?”
First of all, make no mistake: abstinence from alcohol or drugs is essential, if a person wants to gain freedom from active addiction, i.e., the obsession and compulsion to drink or use. But simple abstinence does not produce healing, positive change or personal transformation—therefore, the person will, by and large, continue thinking, feeling and doing what they’d previously done; hence, they’ll likely continue experiencing the same sort of struggles, but without imbibing and its effects.
The definition of recovery mentioned above implies change is required. Restoring the original condition of anything (especially a person) or regaining one’s ‘normal’ sense of self (including a healthy body, mind and spirit) necessitates some action, some effort and some time.
For a person recovering from substance abuse disorder (alcohol or drug addiction), the best results—a new life free from the ravages of addiction—have been found to come from their receiving the needed guidance to move toward the requisite personal and lifestyle changes, i.e., physical, mental, emotional and spiritual transformation. This is what ‘recovery’ provides that ‘abstinence: does not.
With appropriate levels of care, help and resources, such as professional treatment staff support, therapeutic guidance, learning and practicing of spiritual principles, and developing and interaction with a healthy network of others in recovery, along with a commitment to abstinence, a person can change from a miserable addict (abstinent or not) to someone living a recovered life, “happy, joyous and free,” one day at a time.