Disclosure statement: I am not in recovery. I am in recovery. When I was in my late teens, I was a binge drinker. We didn’t call it that, nor did we know the possible effects of this kind of drinking, particularly at that age. This was part of my group’s culture and in my case, it didn’t last very long and never developed into anything else. I was lucky. I have no identifiable sequelae from that behaviour.

In 2010, Sarah A. Benton wrote an article in Psychology Today that contained this paragraph describing “recovery”:

“An alcoholic who is in “recovery” is essentially in remission from alcoholism. Their alcoholism is not cured, but is at bay in a way that allows them to be free of the cravings, mental obsession and they have treated their underlying issues (mental health, spiritual, physical) that led to or resulted from their drinking. These alcoholics have found a way to fill the void once satisfied by alcohol through spiritual, emotional and/or behavioral solutions that they have learned through treatment, therapy, medication management and/or mutual help groups (A.A., SMART Recovery). They have made significant changes that have allowed them to find peace in removing alcohol from their life and to have emotional stability.”

There are a number of assumptions that she makes in this article with which I disagree, and may be the subject of another blog, but that isn’t the point. I believe that many people would agree with her description of recovery. It follows closely the definition that is used in the 12-step programs as I understand it.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in the United States, has a different definition, with many overlaps. Their definition, Working Definition of Recovery, from 2011, goes like this:

“Recovery is a process of change whereby individuals work to improve their own health and wellness and to live a meaningful life in a community of their choice while striving to achieve their full potential.”1

Without taking anything away from the amazing journey that people who have abused substances in their lives make when they reclaim those lives and fill them up with purpose, community and decisions that support good health and welfare, my question is simply this: Many of us clinicians in the mental health field shy away from using diagnostic terms to define ourselves and our clients, wishing to differentiate the person from his/her diagnosis. What does the term “recovery” serve in a population already stigmatized by previous behaviours? Why wouldn’t we (and they) welcome them into the larger press of society that has embraced living wholeheartedly, flourishing, living fully? The descriptions of Martin Seligman’s authentic happiness, or flourishing seem similar (you can read more here ).

Must those in recovery remain forever a subset of our greater society because of past decisions about substance misuse and carry with them a social diagnosis of “alcoholic”? Consider them in comparison to folks who have experienced other types of trauma, those who have learned to ignore their feelings and go along with societal norms that promote materialism, hypersexualisation, etc., or those who have not learned how to cope with anxiety, hurt, etc., who seem, at some point, to acquire new ways to cope differently and rejoin society without the moniker of recovery? Are they really so different? And if so, what benefits do they receive for setting themselves apart? These groups of people seem very similar to me. I am not sure, and I mean this most humbly (and welcome your discussion and/or disagreement), that holding on to the past to define the future necessarily serves these courageous souls best.

What is the process of recovery but the process of flourishing for a particular population?


1 SAMHSA Principles of Recovery

Occurs via many pathways;
Is holistic;
Is supported by peers;
Is supported through relationships;
Is culturally-based and influenced;
Is supported by addressing trauma;
Involves individual, family, and community strengths and responsibility;
Is based on respect; and
Emerges from hope.

Four Major Domains That Support Recovery–SAMHSA’s Recovery Support Initiative:

Health: Overcoming or managing one’s disease(s) as well as living in a physically and emotionally healthy way;
Home: A stable and safe place to live that supports recovery;
Purpose: Meaningful daily activities, such as a job, school, volunteerism, family caretaking, or creative endeavors, and the independence, income and resources to participate in society; and
Community: Relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love, and hope.