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Straight Talk: 'Recovery' can have many different meanings, applications

Published: Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017 5:30 a.m. CDT

I have been doing a little research lately because I got to thinking about the term “recovery” and how the longer I’m around, the broader the definition becomes.

From what I can determine, the term originally was used by the 12-step community (AA) to imply someone who was abstinent from alcohol and “working a program.” The term, it seems, was co-opted from our medical friends. The term now seems to include any and all behavioral health issues, from panic attacks to eating disorders, drug problems to gambling addiction, bi-polar disorder to kleptomania. I have no problem with that; let’s have all the recovery we can get.

I think, after all the dust settles, I would say recovery is a state of mind that implies surrender and a commitment to ongoing self-improvement, continued self-awareness, willingness to ask for help and open acknowledgment of the problem. Although these components are common and can be found in lots of places, they are found in a well-packaged and orderly way in the 12 steps, which is why they are so widely used and so effective.

I also have been thinking about how much people want to measure this recovery, and I worry sometimes people who stop drinking and are abstinent but otherwise unchanged are considered by the measurement experts as “recovering,” and those that meet the other less measurable criterion but who have relapsed and returned are considered failures. It gets pretty confusing.

For mental health issues, we might use a level of functioning scale and say recovery means a person who has a debilitating diagnosis is functioning at a level that is now, with treatment and possibly medication, arbitrarily considered “normal.” I’ve met many folks who have had debilitating depression that no longer suffer from the depth or length of their previous depressive episodes. The same applies to people with many diagnoses learning to live more functional lives, less ruled by their illnesses. The key word with mental health issues is function.

When it comes to addiction, there is a two-stage process that starts with abstinence. There are those, however, who believe some addicts will continue to use but can do so in a less harmful way. This model is called Harm Reduction, and success would be measured in similar fashion to mental health.

Most treatment for addiction, however, is abstinence-based, with the idea that those presenting issues other than the addictive ingestion of substances will subside and even disappear with abstinence and the application of the principles of the program. Those principles are, in part, the very things that define recovery; surrender and a commitment to self-improvement, self-awareness, willingness and openness.

I’m assured we can measure abstinence with some certainty, but we would be hard-pressed to measure the principles of recovery. If we only use abstinence as a benchmark, I’m afraid we’re missing the boat. I think to measure recovery from addiction we have to take into consideration all parts of the equation, including both abstinence and function.

Beware when you ask a treatment program for their recovery rate. Make sure you ask them to define recovery.

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He hosts the weekly radio show Straight Stuff on Addictions at He can reached by email at

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