Does Abstinence = Recovery?

One out of every ten American adults consider themselves to be in recovery from alcohol or drug problems.

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Yet, the definition of recovery differs among individuals as everyone’s recovery is unique.

  • Does it mean more than just not misusing drugs and alcohol?
  • When does it start?  Is it at the time at which you have a problem and seriously take steps to make a sobriety plan?
  • What if you have a relapse? How do you count those periods?

According to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), “recovery” is defined as a process of change through which people improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives and strive to reach their potential.” In other words, it involves more than forfeiting the drugs that lead to the addiction.  It includes healing mentally, physically, and emotionally from the causes of substance abuse.


You can abstain from drugs and be free from mind-altering substances, but unless you address the underlying issues, you are not really in “recovery.”  You have to be abstain from drugs and alcohol to begin the hard work of recovery.

According to the Betty Ford Institute Consensus Panel, there are three stages of abstinence:

  • Early 1-12 month of abstinence.
  • Sustained (1-5 years of abstinence).
  • Stable (more than five years of sobriety).

Many rehabs concentrate on the original drug of choice when the substance abuser is admitted for treatment, but then forget that the client could have consumed other drugs simultaneously.

A month of abstinence may test you at a rehab or after a self-imposed “Dry January.”  It will not delete addiction.  It may cleanse your body or lead to entertaining the thought that you could possibly stay sober for over thirty days.

Sober Vs. Clean

Andrew Finch, Ph.D., addiction expert at Vanderbilt University, makes the distinction between “sober” and “clean”: “sober tends to be associated with quitting alcohol whereas people who stop using drugs are “clean.”

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Some people regard “medication-assisted” drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine for opioid abuse as substituting one drug for another.  Consequently, they regard the people who take them as not in recovery as they are dependent on these life-saving drugs that can keep them off illicit drugs.  The Surgeon General, The American Society of Addiction Medication and The National Council of Behavioral Health all endorse methadone, buprenorphine, and Vivitrol (naloxone), prescribed under supervision as viable alternatives to “street drugs.”

Is my son really in recovery if he’s taking suboxone?

Recovery’s Criteria

  • Is he contributing to society in some way by attending school, volunteering or working?
  • How is his current lifestyle and habits in general?  Is he taking better care of himself?
  • Is he attending support group meetings or getting some form of ongoing support?

James Langabeer, Ph.D., Professor of Emergency Medicine, boils down the definition of sobriety to this: “recovery is a “discipline, focus, and a search for meaning, and what makes people better.”

What does being sober mean? The details on alcohol free living

Wesley Cullen Davidson

Wesley Cullen Davidson

Wesley Cullen Davidson is an award-winning freelance writer and journalist specializing in parenting. Currently, she is targeting her writing about recovery to parents whose children have substance abuse disorders.

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