Do you know Recovery?

Justice Potter when trying to define obscenity in a case before the Supreme Court said in essence,”I can’t explain or define it but I know it when I see it.”  I’ve often found recovery to be the same way.  The Recovery Research Institute listed definitions of recovery from various experts on addiction and recovery.  Some of these experts described it as a process while others used the words voluntary and sustained.

With the experts not agreeing on one specific definition how does someone understand recovery?  I have heard many recovering people who attend Alcoholics Anonymous say, “Be careful how you act you may be the only Big Book anyone sees.”  The implication in this statement relies on how recovering people behave and how their behavior is perceived by others.  Some of the Recovery Research definitions imply the same thing.  Phrases like, “citizenship” or “productive member of society” are among these definitions.  Again the implication how someone is behaving.

Cambridge Dictionary Online uses synonyms for recovery from illness as recuperate, correct, cure, rehabilitative, and remission.  Even on Dictionary.com it defines recover as, “to get back or regain,” and “to make up for or make good (loss, damage, etc., to oneself). ” “to regain the strength, composure, balance, or the like, of (oneself).”  So my question is why do we try to define recovery by behavior?

First of all, it’s been the standard for the past 80 years.  People in AA started with abstinence as the standard because at the outset the members were mainly chronic alcoholics who would likely die if they didn’t quit altogether.  When treatment centers started to open they used the 12 step model which used abstinence as the measuring stick. For too long relapse has been looked at as failure.  People have immense shame for relapsing and sometimes do not return to recovery due to that shame.  It has only been in the last 20 years has the understanding of addiction’s impact on the brain have we been able to improve treatments for addiction.  

Secondly, many of use still believe addiction is willful.  If anyone questions this statement next time you hear people in recovery say to someone who can’t remain abstinent, “you have to be willing, you have to be honest with yourself,” then tell me even in recovery we don’t hold on to that ideal.  No one would say anything like this to someone with cancer who can’t rid themselves of cancer.  Yet, we hear that constantly today from recovering individuals and even professionals.  Ironically, we have one of the few illnesses where we can change behavior and recovery. That’s not willful, that’s fortunate.

So do I have the definition of recovery.  No.  I am not that bright.  What I believe is that recovery is a self-evident proposition-one that is known to be true by understanding its meaning without proof. In other words I know it when I see it!

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