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Recovery Is a Process of Learning, Growth, and Healing

The challenges of recovery from addiction are many, yet people do it every day.

CC0 public Domain / FAQ
Source: CC0 public Domain / FAQ

When you’re finished changing, you’re finished. – Benjamin Franklin

September is National Recovery Month. While the term “recovery” can be applied to getting better or improving with regard to a wide range of conditions, it is 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, the process of recovery goes far beyond abstinence.

The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), has defined recovery from both substance use disorders and mental disorders as: “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

Change that risks the unfamiliar is always hard. And, because any process of meaningful life change (such as recovery from addiction) necessitates going beyond the boundaries of our self-constructed containers of comfort and attachment, it tends to be especially arduous, as well as anxiety-provoking. As hard as it can be for anyone stuck in a vicious circle of active addiction to stop using alcohol and other drugs, it is a much more formidable challenge to stay stopped.

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 build the skills that facilitate growth and healing, which is not possible during the unremitting entropy of active addiction. Conversely, learning and practicing such skills is instrumental to sustaining abstinence.

Beyond abstinence, recovery involves:

  • Participating in life activities that are healthy 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 and developing 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.

To complement the above definition, SAMHSA published 10 Guiding Principles of Recovery, two of which I’ll highlight here. Recovery occurs via many pathways. It is not a one size fits all process—far from it, in fact. While people seeking recovery tend to share certain common experiences and needs, every individual has particular capacities, coping abilities, resources, strengths, interests, goals, culture, and background. These influence and help to determine the most effective pathway(s) of recovery for each person. Recovery pathways can include mutual-aid groups; professional clinical treatment; strategic use of medications; support from families and friends, and faith-based resources, among other approaches.

Recovery is supported by peers and allies. By providing connection and support through mutual identification, the sharing of experiential knowledge and skills, mentoring, and social learning, mutual-aid groups—the most well known and prevalent of which are the twelve-step programs—play an invaluable role in the process of recovery. Within such groups, those seeking recovery frequently find acceptance, a sense of belonging, the opportunity to develop healthy relationships, and an experience of community. A foundational principle of mutual-aid groups is that being of service to others is an important vehicle through which people help themselves. To paraphrase Ram Dass, I work on myself to help others, and I help others to work on myself.

Addiction is a chronic, progressive, and potentially fatal disorder, similar to other chronic life-threatening conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease. Like these other illnesses, there is no cure for addiction. However, it can be treated and managed successfully through the process of recovery, allowing those with it to live long, full, and healthy lives.

Life takes its toll on all of us, and everyone, whether or not they struggle with addiction, chronic pain, or any other serious condition, sustains a certain degree of damage along the way. Recovery provides a pathway to heal from that damage and become stronger, just as broken bones can become stronger after they heal than they were before.

Success is no accident. Although, obviously there are exceptions, people do not generally experience serious problems in living by accident or coincidence. Our choices and actions—both conscious and unconscious—contribute to the vast majority of the problems we experience, including those related to active addiction. In the same way, success is usually a result of the choices we make and the actions we take.

In Verse 63, Tao Te Ching states, “accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.” Big successes rarely occur all at once. They are almost always built on a foundation of small successes. There are plenty of stories of bands who play together for a decade, develop their style and work their asses off, drive their own beat-up vehicles from one small, lousy-paying gig to another to play in front of audiences that begin as tiny but grow over time, who seem to suddenly achieve great success. Successful recovery is built similarly—by staying clean one day at a time, many people are able to accumulate many years in recovery. Tragically, in the media and mainstream society we hear much more about the dramatic and fiery wreckage of active addiction and relapse than we do about quiet, inspired, and inspiring stories of long-term recovery.

Early in my clinical training, I was surprised to hear even extremely experienced and skilled therapists say straightforwardly that there were times when they had no clear idea “what was happening in the room.” In other words, in those moments they were confused and unsure about what was going on in their therapy with a given client. However, if they hung in there, exercising patience while continuing to be present-centered and emotionally available, the issues would clarify and they would find their way back to being in sync with the therapeutic process.

The same dynamic operates in the process of recovery—sometimes things are unclear and confused and confusing. Rather than getting twisted up because we are struggling and uncertain, if we hang in there and remain mindfully accepting, open to possibility, and patient—the mud will settle and the water (and how to best proceed) will again become clear.

Assembling the pieces that sustain recovery and nurture a life of meaning, contentment, and value is a continuous process. It requires identifying and gathering the necessary pieces, seeing how they fit together, and often reconfiguring them—replacing some pieces with others and rearranging them to create the most functional and healthy fit. This fit is individualized; what fits beautifully for one person may not be a great fit for another, and vice-versa. Sometimes we put the pieces together and they work well for a time. After being in place for a while they may not work so well, and we need to seek out new pieces or a different configuration that fits and works better for us.

When I was the clinical director of a hospital-based addiction treatment program in Rockland County, NY, for five years during the 1990s, I worked closely with the program’s medical director. He was a psychiatrist who was in recovery for quite a few years through a twelve-step program, although he rarely made mention of it.

At one of the many professional conferences on addiction that I attended, he gave a talk that focused on his personal recovery experience. During a powerful and moving presentation, he described being grateful to be an alcoholic. He went on to say that, in contrast to most people who operate more or less on automatic pilot and effectively sleepwalk through life, embarking on a process of recovery had given him the awareness to live life much more intentionally. As a result, he took little for granted and appreciated much. Although his reasoning made sense, it was difficult for me to wrap my mind (never mind my heart) around the idea of having such profound gratitude for being an addict . . . until I found the way to my own recovery.

In honor of National Recovery Month, my book, Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain, is available for 25% off at

Copyright 2016 Dan Mager, MSW

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