Whether you get clean on your own, attend a support group, or live in a sober living home, you’re probably familiar with this discussion. Do addicts ever recover completely or are they always recovering? The truth is that there are many people who go to treatment or get sober on their own, never to step foot further in any support groups or meetings. On the other hand, some people attend twelve-step groups their whole lives as it is what keeps them healthy and recovering.
Our purpose here is to offer an experiential understanding of these two different viewpoints. In the name of transparency, I’d like to offer that I am not a twelve-stepper myself. I attended meetings regularly for my first few years of recovery, then dove into Refuge Recovery, a different recovery program. In my personal opinion, we are neither 100% recovered or recovering, which inspired me to write this post.
This is the view that seems to be most often held to in twelve-step groups. We are in a continual state of recovering, and must work to continue doing so. This is fueled by things like the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, relapse rates, and the fact that many experts agree addiction can be managed, not cured.
“What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”
~ Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 85
There are many lines in twelve-step literature that suggest recovery takes continual maintenance, and many of us in recovery are familiar with these principles. Many of us know somebody (perhaps ourselves) who stopped taking care of themselves with meetings, connecting with other sober people, going to therapy, or whatever is included in their self-care regimen. The person may relapse, and I’ve seen it many times among my friends.
Perhaps most importantly, this perspective has some strong scientific backing. Sources like the National Institute on Drug Abuse point out that addiction is a manageable disease but not a curable one. Much like diabetes, addiction can be treated and we can go into remission, but we aren’t actually cured. Whether you like the disease model of addiction or not, it’s easy to see that addiction can be managed but not cured in many people.
One of the more practical upsides of this viewpoint is that it encourages us to continue growing. Whether or not we go to support groups regularly, this perspective encourages us to keep up with our self-care. Viewing ourselves as recovering means continually taking care to manage our addiction. We have to remain vigilant and work to protect and honor our recovery. It also gives us some permission to make mistakes and continue learning.
Another benefit to holding this belief is that we aren’t going to try to use substances like a “normal person.” That is, if we’re managing our addiction, part of managing it is that we don’t ingest drugs or alcohol. Basic logic tells us that if we are managing a disease, we don’t do the thing that triggers a relapse of the disease. For example, if peanuts cause an allergic reaction, we don’t eat peanuts. As long as we don’t eat peanuts, we’re managing the peanut allergy. It’s the same with substances; when we don’t take the first drink or use the first drug, we’re able to manage our addiction. Of course, guarding against the first substance use means we have to take care of ourselves!
One of the risks in taking this viewpoint is that we build an identity largely based on our addiction. In twelve-step meetings, you begin speaking by identifying as an alcoholic or addict. As we continually identify as a recovering addict, we engrain the idea in our minds that we are bound by our addiction. Although this may be useful for the reasons described above, it also can hold us back.
A good example of this is the excuse that we behaved in a certain way because we’re addicts. I’ve heard this repeatedly in meetings. Someone shares about something harmful they did or some unhealthy way in which they behaved, ending with the statement, “because I’m an addict and that’s what addicts do.” Is this really true? In my personal opinion, we can view ourselves as recovering without identifying solely as an addict or alcoholic, but it takes some work to change how we see ourselves.
Furthermore, when we build our identity as perpetually recovering, we may not really be seeing ourselves clearly. For example, I used drugs and alcohol from about 12 to 19, or about seven years total. I had a period of about a year of sobriety in there. My addiction led me to psychiatric holds, incarceration, causing emotional and physical harm to others, and homelessness. On the other hand, I’ve been clean and sober longer than the entire time I used. In my recovery, I’ve built beautiful relationships, gotten married, started a company which sold, completed school, and spent many hours volunteering with various groups and organizations.
Given this situation, at what point is it healthy for me to identify with my life as I live it today and stop identifying as an addict? I find that I am so much more than a recovering addict, and that fact holds very little importance in my life as I live it. The downside of holding to the view that we’re perpetually in recovery is that we may not open ourselves up to new ways to grow (outside of recovery-related support groups), new healthy identities, and ways to approach life.
On the other hand, we have the view that we have recovered. There are lines in twelve-step literature that have suggested this, as do programs like SMART. Furthermore, many psychologists believe that addicts can fully recover. In the twelve-step perspective, we may recover when we address our spiritual malady and mental obsession. In a more scientific sense, we may be seen as “recovered” after doing the work and no longer craving drugs or alcohol.
“We, of Alcoholics Anonymous, are more than one hundred men and women who have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.”
~ Alcoholics Anonymous, p. xiii
Like believing that we are always in recovery, this perspective has pros and cons. We may benefit from holding this belief, but we may put ourselves at risk as well. As for the quote above from Alcoholics Anonymous that’s often cited by those who strongly believe in full recovery, I think it’s important to read the entire quote. It doesn’t say we are fully recovered. It says they have recovered from “a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.” It doesn’t say we can ingest substances healthily.
The upside with this view is essentially the same and the risks of the previous view. When we view ourselves as recovered from addiction, we open ourselves up to new ways to grow. In my own life, I found that twelve-step wasn’t serving my particular needs in the moment. I dove into work with my therapist, a meditation practice, and nutrition and exercise. This isn’t to say we can’t investigate these things if we’re still recovering. However, when we focus all of our “self-help” energy on recovery, we may close ourselves off to other possibilities for growth.
Another benefit of this belief is that it offers a sense of hope. Perhaps we shouldn’t strive to become “recovered,” but it does offer us the potential to beat our addiction. Again, this comes from my experience with myself and those I work with. When we have the hope that we can recover from our addiction, it gives us something toward which we can work.
Furthermore, we can notice when we’ve hit this point. When do the physical cravings stop? When do we stop mentally obsessing about drugs and alcohol? I’ve heard people in meetings say that they’ve been sober for years and think about drinking and using regularly and have had these thoughts consistently for years. I don’t know why that is, but I do know that I don’t have thoughts about drinking or using and haven’t for many years. We can notice and appreciate this form of recovery.
It goes back to the quote about the seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. There were days in recovery (and of course before recovery) where I felt hopelessly obsessed with drugs or alcohol, or was just driven to use without a conscious awareness of my craving. If we see how we have recovered, we can see how this state of mind and body has changed.
Of course this perspective has some dangerous risks as well! If we believe we are fully recovered, what exactly does this mean? I believed this once myself after a year of clean time, and thought I could drink and use like a “normie” when I went to college. My experience showed me very clearly that I was not able to in that moment. I picked up very quickly where I left off and went downhill.
When we believe we’re cured or fully recovered, we may be opening ourselves up to a false confidence. We can recognize that “recovered” in this sense does not mean we can necessarily use drugs or drink in a healthy fashion. However, the danger here is that when we believe we are recovered, we may stop seeking growth and may not pay attention to our needs and mental state.
This risk is huge. If we believe we are recovered and pick up our substance of choice again, there’s a chance we’ll go right back down the same path. This can cause a great amount of harm to ourselves and those around us. When we believe we are recovered, we can “forget” about our past addiction, the nature of it, the harm it caused, and the pain we experienced.
It’s worth repeating that these are just a few opinions of mine based on my experience, and are not meant to be any kind of medical or psychological diagnosis of your recovery! I do believe that neither of these fixed views really serve us completely without investigation, and we have to find our own understanding of our addiction. For some, this means believing one or the other. For others, it may mean holding a view somewhere in the middle. Whether you’re trying to quit Adderall, getting clean off heroin, or quitting drinking, you have to find the right answer for yourself.
Personally, I find that I have recovered from the “seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.” I also believe that taking a substance triggers my addiction, and of course relapse ends with a drink. We have to take care of ourselves and the state of mind and body so that we aren’t tempted to use, and in doing so we keep ourselves recovered or in remission.
Who Wrote This?
This post was written by one of our staff writers at Addiction Rehab Blog!
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