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Defining Recovery Beyond Sobriety

A note before I begin: recovery is a personal and loaded concept. This essay isn’t intended to be a definite decision or the end of the conversation. You’re welcome to define recovery as you please, and I won’t hold it against you if you disagree with me. I simply feel that my own understanding of this matter is worth sharing because it might help someone else.

Chicago Recovery Alliance’s Dan Biggs defined recovery as “any positive change as a person defines it for him or herself.” I used to find this framing extremely helpful, but recently begun to see it as vague and needing expanding. That’s not to say I don’t understand his point. For far too long, recovery has been defined in strict 12-step terms, excluding the vast majority of people who are not helped by this method. I don’t believe that abstinence from all recreational substances aside from tobacco and caffeine is a marker of anything aside from abstinence. I don’t care how many days of sobriety you’ve got – I care about what kind of person you are.

I’m not saying that quitting drugs isn’t difficult for people with addictions; I just don’t see the point of viewing sobriety itself as the goal, as some kind of marker of success or a life well lived. Sure, some people do well with sobriety as defined by 12-step programmes, but many others find the recreational use of substances they never used problematically to be helpful in maintaining stability and balance. Medications such as methadone and buprenorphine are considered the gold standard in the treatment of opioid use disorders. Quitting these medications, often encouraged by 12-step groups, can increase the risk of death. There’s also the fact that Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT) programs have been proven to save and stabilise lives. Contingency management shows promise for the treatment of stimulant use disorders. Denying people the use of the word “recovery” because they couldn’t succeed in achieving the strict abstinence-based terms that 12-step programmes enforce isn’t practical.


I don’t care how many days of sobriety you’ve got – I care about what kind of person you are.


What is recovery but the elimination of a problem? If someone still uses drugs but no longer does so problematically, or if they take medication which has led to a return to health and stability, how can we rightly deny them the right to call themselves “recovered”? Why should we pathologize something that isn’t an issue? The tendency to deny all kinds of recovery that don’t conform to 12-step standards smacks of dogmatism, not science. Defining recovery as abstinence also leads to the assumption that drug use itself is the issue, rather than harmful and compulsive patterns of use. I’ve detailed various issues with this perspective elsewhere.


How can we better define recovery?

Rejecting the abstinence-focused 12-step framing is an important first step. But where do we go from there? I would argue that recovery is the process of regaining whatever health, stability, and functionality one lost due to compulsive patterns of drug use. Pursuing an education, seeking treatment for underlying issues, acquiring stable employment, and taking up fulfilling hobbies can all be parts of this process. Even simple changes, such as switching to safer methods of consumption or learning to moderate use, could count as steps towards recovery. It’s less about spending time in rehab and more about putting your life back together. The end goal should not be sobriety, but stability and health.

Similarly, a return to compulsive or problematic patterns of drug use should be considered a minor setback rather than the end of the world. Binary attitudes towards such occurrences only worsen relapses and intensify harms. A brief period of mistakes doesn’t negate everything you already built or erase the lessons you learned in the meantime. You certainly aren’t starting over. Prepare yourself for the possibility of a return to compulsive patterns by accepting that it may occur and acknowledging that you can move past it. Self-betterment isn’t always a linear process. Resist the urge to give up simply because you’ve fallen back.

On a related note, if a person never loses control over their drug use and remains as functional as ever, I don’t think we can logically and accurately say they suffer from addiction. This is why I don’t call myself recovered or in recovery in respect to my opioid use – how does one recover when they never had a problem to recover from?

I also object to the phrasing “in recovery” to describe someone who has reached stability. as it implies an ongoing state of struggle. If you’ve regained whatever functionality you lost, celebrate that achievement by calling yourself recovered. That’s how I talk about my disordered eating. I no longer restrict for a week then binge, so I’ve recovered. I was recovering during the stage in which I learned to eat normally after years of not being able to do so. I still struggle with urges to skip meals, but thoughts are just thoughts – I can and do resist them. Continuing to refer to myself as “in recovery” would downplay what I’ve accomplished in regard to my health. Why shouldn’t someone who once struggled with addiction but now lives a healthy, stable life not frame their struggles similarly?


The endless limbo of being in recovery rather than recovered can prevent one from moving on and really living.


I have heard people in 12-step programmes argue that they are intended to keep people humble and watchful, but I think obsessively worrying about relapse is counterproductive. Instead of ruminating on the past, it’s better to fill your days with bright new hobbies and passions. After all, finding purpose in your life both helps recovery and prevents addiction in the first place. The endless limbo of being in recovery rather than recovered can prevent one from moving on and really living. Defining my identity in terms of my eating disorder or my history of opioid use would prevent me from seeing myself as anything else, which in turn would keep me trapped. I’m not a junkie or an anorexic; I’m a writer and student who loves ancient languages, old books, and good music. You aren’t “just an addict,” no matter how damaging your patterns of use might be at the moment. Rather, you’re a multifaceted human being who happens to be currently struggling with their drug use.

I don’t think endlessly self-flagellating is a productive or healthy use of one’s time. This is why I object to the way 12-step groups insist members identify as “addicts” forever. In fact, self-loathing and shame often lead people to seek comfort in drugs, which has a higher risk of becoming compulsive. Using drugs to feel okay on a daily basis, as opposed to merely for pleasure or occasional release, is more dangerous. Being kind to yourself isn’t hippie nonsense, it is necessary to prevent a return to unhealthy patterns.

So call yourself recovered, even if your recovery doesn’t conform to 12-step doctrine. Be proud of the life you have built for yourself. Stop counting days sober and focus on what really matters – your overall well-being.

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