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Defining Recovery

It can mean very different things to different people.

Because it can be applied to many different contexts, the meaning of recovery can be ambiguous and, in turns, confusing. Dictionary definitions include: the act or process of becoming healthy after an illness or injury; the act or process of returning to a normal state after a period of difficulty; the return of something that has been lost, stolen, etc. Media outlets provide updates on the status of the economic recovery in the US. News reports of disasters involving loss of life characterize the process of retrieving bodies as recovery efforts.

The term “recovery” is increasingly used in connection with healing from mental illness, but it is perhaps most commonly associated with overcoming addiction to alcohol and other drugs. In this context, recovery is generally thought of as becoming abstinent from these substances; however, it is much more than that.

Recovery from addiction is the process of sustaining abstinence and learning and practicing the awareness and skills necessary to live a whole, healthy, and healed life. These two elements reinforce one another: sustained abstinence creates the opportunities to learn and practice the skills that facilitate growth and healing, which is not possible during the unremitting entropy of active addiction. Conversely, learning and practicing the skills that facilitate growth and healing is instrumental to sustaining abstinence.

Beyond abstinence, recovery involves:
• participating in life activities that are healthy, mutually-supportive, and meaningful, based on your needs, interests, and values;
• making changes in how you relate to your thoughts and emotions—especially those that are uncomfortable and painful;
• discovering parts of yourself of which you had been unaware, and rediscovering those parts of yourself that were buried beneath the rubble of active addiction;
• developing new patterns of living with conscious awareness, and moving toward mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual balance.

In the field of addiction treatment, the topic of relapse prevention receives considerable attention at all levels of care. However, the rubric of relapse prevention may not be the most therapeutic way to frame the life-affirming value of moving further away from active addiction and toward recovery. We instinctively hear “positive” messages as to what to do more readily than “negative” messages admonishing us what not to do. It’s more helpful to emphasize what to embrace as opposed to what to avoid.

The key to preventing relapse is the maintenance of one’s recovery. Such maintenance is not an every-once-in-a-while episode; it is an ongoing, daily process. Recovery maintenance is a lot like tending a garden. If we want healthy results, it requires consistent attention and concerted effort—tilling the soil, careful planting, checking for and pulling weeds, and regular watering—in short, continuing attention, care, and feeding. This process requires making adjustments in the care we provide in response to changing conditions, such as episodic shifts and seasonal fluctuations in rainfall, temperature, etc. If we want something/anything to last, we need to take good care of it. This process is artfully detailed (albeit using a different metaphor) in that classic piece of 1970’s literature, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Contrary to popular misconception, relapse doesn’t begin with a return to substance use—using is the culmination of a process that usually starts long before that happens. The seeds for a return to using are sown during a gradual reversion to the same kinds of thinking, attitudes, ways of dealing (or not dealing) with feelings, and behaviors that pervaded active addiction.

One of the very few constants in life is change. Because change is generally perceived as arduous, it becomes anxiety-provoking and there is a natural human tendency to resist it. Recovery is a process of ongoing change that necessitates going beyond the boundaries of the containers of comfort and attachment that we have constructed for ourselves.

At its core, recovery is about reclaiming one’s humanity and reconnecting with one’s true self. For British pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott, the “false self” that evolves unconsciously in earliest childhood to accommodate the demands of one’s family environment, especially primary caregivers, is contrasted with the “true self.” The true self is the instinctive essence of our persona; the innate capacity to know and operationalize our natural individual needs for self-expression and self-fulfillment. The true self is the self at its most genuine, opening the door to true intimacy with others, as well as congruence between who we are on the inside and how we act on the outside, and across different areas of our lives, from one setting to another.

The concept of the true self fits with what Carl Rogers described as the built-in motivation present in every organism to develop its potential to the fullest extent possible—an “actualizing tendency.” This actualizing tendency grows people’s capacity to lead lives that are authentic and ingenuous. I believe that in every circumstance, people do the best they can, based on their current capacity. Through the process of recovery a person can expand his or her capacity, enhancing conscious access to internal strengths and resources, thus making more options and possibilities available to him or her. Recovery unchains our actualizing tendency, unearthing the rediscovery of true self.

Gabor Mate is a physician who specializes in addiction treatment and works with the most down-and-out hardcore drug addicts in Vancouver, British Columbia. He describes active addiction as the antithesis of peace, a disconnection from the self that creates great internal unrest. For Dr. Mate, healing means to become whole and recovery is the process of finding oneself. He notes the commonality between the Hebrew words for wholeness—shalem and peace—shalom, to conclude that when we find ourselves and become whole, we can find peace.

Recovery from addiction is a never-ending undertaking that involves coming to terms with ourselves as we are, and accepting life on its own terms with its full range of pain and pleasure. It is about developing the awareness and practicing the skills to act consciously rather than react habitually and reflexively. This is an incredibly challenging undertaking, and most people struggle mightily in their attempts at it. And yet, people do it everyday.

Copyright 2014 Dan Mager, MSW
Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain

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