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What is recovery from addiction?

What is recovery & how important is it?

NOTE: Quotes are presented word for word apart from minor editing for readability and clarity. Identifying details have been removed. Square brackets show text that has been added, e.g. ‘I want to maintain [my current level of drug use]’. Ellipses within square brackets […] show where text has been removed, e.g. ‘Counselling was good but […] I would have liked more information about other treatment options’.

Recovery is commonly defined as the process of getting better from an illness or otherwise returning to a state of physical and mental health. In some alcohol and other drug treatment settings, the term ‘in recovery’ describes those participating in, or who’ve completed, an abstinence-based treatment program, or those who attend self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. People working in the alcohol and other drug field have different views about the idea of recovery and there is little agreement about what it means and involves or how to assess it. Some question the concept altogether, asking whether it’s a useful way of understanding the experiences of people with an alcohol or other drug addiction, dependence or habit.

The people interviewed for this website express a range of views about the idea of recovery. While many don’t use the term ‘recovery’ to describe their own experiences, most share the view that it usually refers to giving up alcohol and other drugs altogether (see also Changing patterns of consumption), with several adding that it’s a gradual, sometimes lifelong process that requires persistence.

Of those who use the term to describe their experiences, most say they’re still recovering with a few saying they’ve recovered. The challenges of stopping consumption is a common theme, with several highlighting the need for support from family, friends and health professionals. Others express enthusiasm about the prospect of recovery and say it involves returning to their ‘real self’. While some associate recovery with stopping, others take a different view, saying it involves reducing or moderating consumption and minimising the risks they see as related to it. Recovery doesn’t just refer to patterns of alcohol and other drug use but is, for some, also about regaining physical and mental health. It is described as a very personal process with individual goals that can differ from person to person, and some offer strategies such as setting goals, making new friends, gaining new skills and doing meaningful paid work. A few say it involves taking part in a treatment program such as residential rehabilitation treatment.

Although the term ‘recovery’ is widely used in healthcare settings to refer to overcoming sickness and disease, some question its relevance when applied to addiction or dependence. They point out that the idea of recovery implies that a person is sick or otherwise has a problem that needs to be addressed. They say that they don’t see their consumption in these terms, so the idea of recovery isn’t relevant to them. Instead they present their alcohol or other drug consumption as an important part of their lives with benefits as well as disadvantages.

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Recovery as abstinence

Most of the people we interviewed share the view that ‘recovery’ usually refers to giving up alcohol and other drugs altogether. This idea can be frightening for some, for example, people with experience of residential rehabilitation treatment (or ‘rehab’) say stopping consumption altogether is a daunting prospect and express concern about being able to remain abstinent after they leave rehab (see also Residential treatment).

Dawn (F, 38, works in manufacturing, alcohol) says she’s concerned about remaining abstinent when she leaves residential treatment but is looking forward to returning to being her ‘real’ self.

I’m afraid of [the idea of recovery] in the sense where, I’ve got to be honest, I really am going to miss alcohol. It’s been part of me for so long. Even though I felt like it was my friend, it really wasn’t, but on the other side of recovery, it’s great, I mean, just to be able to be sober and live my life without alcohol in my system and to be able to […] be real and be that person, be me without alcohol. Because that helped a lot too in social situations, the alcohol. I could come out and have the fake confidence. But yeah, that’ll be great, health wise, mentally, physically, but I really am scared to be without it.

[…]

I guess recovery starts with me as well in that aspect where it’s not going to work unless I get off my butt and really get involved with it. So I think it’s an individual thing, recovery. Everyone’s got their own time and how you think about it. I guess I’m still really negative about recovery. I’m all for it, I just don’t know if it’s going to work for me.

Ben (M, 29, works in hospitality, alcohol) defines recovery as ‘abstinence’ and plans to draw on the support of his friends when he leaves residential treatment to help him avoid drinking.

To me, in the long run [recovery means] full abstinence. I want to gain my sobriety. I want to work hard for it. It means not touching anything for the rest of my life. I can’t guarantee that I’m not going to use. I mean, I’m still young enough, there’s still plenty of time for anything to happen. But the way I’m looking at it now, it’s been […] sort of drilled into my head from meetings and from the [residential rehabilitation] program, is: don’t look too far into the future to fix yourself, just concentrate on the now. So that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m setting goals but they’re achievable goals. They’re small goals and I think that’s the best way to approach it at this point in time. Like, I’m not going to say I’m going to be clean sober as well as have a house in a short amount of time. It’s not going to happen. All I’m looking at is getting a job, staying clean for now. Just day by day, whatever it may be and getting my own place to be able to have the kids come and stay. That’s all I want […] I’m just trying to concentrate on [not drinking] by myself because especially […] my mum, she’s always questioning, ‘Are you ready? Are you ready? You know you can never drink again. You know you can never drink again. Are you ready?’ And that’s just pressuring so I just try and leave that [issue] alone. I need to brush it aside because that’s just breaking my concentration from what I know that I already need to do. I don’t need to be hounded about it. This is about me, not you.

But yeah, apart from that, a couple of really close mates, they’re not pressuring me, they’re supporting me. They’ve given me the time of day to go around there, to hang out without having any substance around and to see that it is possible to enjoy ourselves without anything, which has been a real big help so far.

Recovery as gradual

Recovery is seen by some as a gradual process that requires patience and persistence. Others highlight the need to recognise that each person’s experience is different and shaped by their particular circumstances.

For Melanie (F, 26, primary carer for her children, ice), recovery involves the support of others and learning to ‘connect with people without the use of drugs’. (Played by an actor)

I think recovery involves a lot of hard work […and] you need to have support […] Yeah, I think you need a good support network, people to call when you’re struggling.

[…]

So yeah, I think I’m recovering. I wouldn’t say I’m like fixed or anything […] I’ve still got a lot to learn, like, I’ve got a lot of behaviours that I need to change and it’s just baby steps I guess […I mean, for me, recovery means being] healthy […] and just being able to connect with people without the use of drugs, you know.

For Amy (F, 52, studying, heroin), it’s important to keep trying and acknowledge the progress made towards recovery, especially when faced with setbacks. (Note: strong language)

Part 1

Well I’d have to say rehab was helpful in that I was five months totally abstinent. I really, really gave it my all. And I remember thinking – because there were people there on their second, third, fourth time – like, ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ I was very judgmental. I was very critical. So I’ve always got it in my head that you only do these things once and you’re cured. It’s taken me years to get that it is a – what would you call it – a process? Like even my psychologist, she’s been telling me for a year or more that relapse is part of recovery, that I mustn’t whip myself over it. I must try to see it more as normal and to not be so devastated and to not give up on everything. It’s like, ‘Get up on that horse again, just keep going, just keep going’.

Part 2

Recovery […] for me is about responsibility. Self-responsibility and all that comes with that. And that scares the shit out of me: that I have to answer myself or challenge myself [and] want more for myself, without turning it into an unachievable, perfectionist, ridiculous goal that many people do anyway, even [people] who don’t take drugs.

Part 3

Recovery […] as I grow and learn, it changes. Like, there’s no way you could sum it up […] singularly. Maybe just be open to the fact that you may relapse […] I think the hardest thing for me has been going a little bit backwards, but not acknowledging how far forward I’m going […] All I know is you just have to keep trying.

According to Max (M, 20, studying, cannabis and party drugs), the process of recovery differs from person to person but usually involves reducing or stopping drug use. (Note: strong language)

Part 1

[Recovery is] different from person to person. Some people can do it without the books. Some people […] need the 12 steps and some people can just say, ‘Enough, I’m fucking done with this,’ and just stop. And those people, I respect the kind of willpower that that takes […] because it’s not easy. I’ve seen the recovery process as well and it’s hard. It’s a hard thing for someone to have to go through, doing that. What it does to their body and their mind […] it’s difficult.

Part 2

It depends on the situation. Personally, I believe we should have safe injecting sites because that would decrease not only the overdose deaths but disease transmission and those sort of deaths […] and that’s a perfectly acceptable way for someone to recover from drugs – by cutting down and stopping. That’s what I’m doing with ciggies, sort of smoking less and less until I don’t want it any more.

Looking after mental health & well-being

For some, recovery involves dealing with mental health and emotional issues, along with developing self-awareness (see also Looking after health & well-being and Living with a mental health condition). Others say it’s about reconnecting with people and a change of lifestyle.

Eva (F, 20, works in the entertainment industry, ice) says recovery doesn’t just relate to drug use but also involves processing emotional issues and ‘rebuilding yourself’. (Note: strong language)

[Recovery involves] time, patience. I don’t know, commitment.

[…]

It’s not as simple as just quitting drugs, you have to get to the root of the problem […] You have to be prepared to deal with a lot of shit that you’ve never dealt with before when you quit drugs as well. It’s like totally rebuilding yourself. Like I don’t even know who I am any more, like I’ve got no idea. I’m learning how to be a person again. I don’t even know what I like, you know? I don’t really know what I dislike. I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t know what interests me […] I have to learn all these things about myself that I never knew before and I wish I could just have an epiphany and it’d all be there but it doesn’t happen like that, you know?

[…]

It’s a recovery [from] a lot of things. If you’re taking drugs […] something’s wrong. Like if you are taking hard drugs every single day, something’s wrong, you know? And you can’t keep fucking running away from it, you have to fix it.

Lala (F, 35, works in health services, cannabis) offers a broad view of recovery as regaining ‘wholeness and wellness’. (Played by an actor)

I think […the idea of recovery] does resonate, but I don’t think it’s from drug use […] I think it’s recovery from the stuff underneath, and I think that’s what is really scary. I think I’m probably not just speaking for myself […] Maybe other people using drugs [who] want to change how they use [them] have the same feeling: […] knowing that it’s a lot more than just about stopping drug use. It’s about dealing with everything that’s underneath and finding a way to live without it and to live with all the pain […] And still function […] It’s recovering wholeness and wellness in a deep way. And yeah, it’s hard to know how to do that in a way that’s not too disruptive to my work, to my relationships, just to my sense that […] I’m coping and that I’ve got it. I don’t want everything to fall apart because I choose to stop smoking [cannabis]. Like, I’ve just got to work out […] which is the biggest threat and often it’s the stuff underneath, the behaviour that feels like the biggest threat.

Phoenix (M, 48, works in the media, alcohol and prescription painkillers) says recovery should involve ‘reconnecting people’ and adds that when he feels supported and respected, he doesn’t have a desire to drink heavily.

Rather than focusing on taking something away from people, I think recovery ought to be focused on reconnecting people. I know that in a situation where I feel loved and supported, heard, respected, whatever, I’m not as thirsty. But if I feel I have to fight for recognition, not happy about that, and I tend to drink more. Yeah, I think that pretty well sums it up.

Strategies to aid recovery

Participants identify different strategies for addressing (or as some put it, ‘recovering from’) what they consider problematic alcohol and other drug use. These strategies include setting goals, gaining new skills, volunteering and doing meaningful paid work (see also Work, study & making ends meet).

Annemarie (F, 59, works in marketing, prescription drugs) says gaining new skills through volunteer work and meeting new people has helped her recover from what she describes as an ‘addiction to benzodiazepines’.

I think that the one really important thing I did […to support my recovery] once I got home and I thought I went back to the same situation, which I didn’t want to but I didn’t have a choice. And I could have easily just resumed the same thing. Sitting in bed thinking, ‘What do I do with my life,’ sort of thing. I actually went and volunteered. It made me have to get up and do things, and meant that I’d have to get up, get dressed, look decent enough to go into a [professional] setting like that. It also gave me a chance to get skills because I hadn’t worked for so long. I was being trained to be a support volunteer so I had to do the training […] I had a person that was training me so I would also do all the office stuff, like all the admin things. So it was a way for me to get the skills and have that experience of working in an office, working all the photocopiers and the computers and everything. I’d never used a computer […] when I started there. I just went and I’d never used a computer before, and so that was a big thing.

To support her decision to stop drinking, Emma (F, 42, works in retail, alcohol) says she’s changed her lifestyle.

I’m not putting myself in [certain] situations. I’m not a ‘yes’ person any more. I was always the one [saying], ‘Yeah, let’s have a barbecue on Sunday afternoon. Yeah, we’ll have it at my house.’ Or you know, ‘Yeah, yeah, let’s go out for dinner on Friday night’ and I’m just not doing [that any more]. I don’t think I ever really liked doing those things but I think because I was so scared of being on my own […] I just kept going out all the time […] I’ve always been a social butterfly, you know and I was always so scared of not having friends. That was my biggest fear was ‘Oh my God, what if I don’t have any friends?’ And now I look at the handful of friends I’ve got and there’s not that many but I don’t have any angst towards the people I don’t see any more […] I don’t have any fear that they don’t like me or, ‘Oh my God,’ that whole comparing yourself. Like, they all go out for dinner and I want that […] So I was trying to get that but I was doing it all the wrong way […] Like Friday night some girls were going out for one of their thirtieth birthdays and I was happy to go. I knew I’d be okay, I wouldn’t drink. I wouldn’t go out to the hip hop club afterwards but […] that’s a bit too much for my age! But at the end I thought it’s not because […] I was scared I was going to drink, I just didn’t want to go.

[…]

I think that’s how my lifestyle’s changed. I’m happy to stay at home on a Friday and Saturday night […] It took me a long time to get out of that […] whole, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m home,’ even though I’ve got two young children, it still just didn’t sink in that most people do stay at home on a Saturday night. I always thought that was abnormal […] And if my husband and I ever do go out, if he ever organises anything, he doesn’t drink, so we just end up walking around. He likes taking photos of street art and we go see some of his friends at coffee shops, but we do things during the day rather than at night.

Recovery as moderating consumption

While recovery is often associated with stopping consumption, some say it can involve reducing or moderating consumption, and minimising the risks they see as related to it.

Zac (M, 53, works in health services, party drugs) says that recovery can involve taking a break rather than stopping drug use altogether. (Played by an actor)

Well, there’s short-term recovery so you party for a weekend and then you […] recover [… Like] your recovery is the period of [getting] through the comedown, and starting to feel better, and eating, and going back to the gym [… But, like] I suppose [you could say] I’ve been in periods of recovery, like, where […] I didn’t use [crystal] for the first five months when I [moved] here. Now that, I suppose, is recovery, but I did it on my own and I’ve had lots of periods like that.

But […] I haven’t yet turned around and said, ‘I’ll never [use it] again’ […because] what comes with it is a type of sex that I really like to have sometimes, [and] that I can’t […] experience [when I’m not on it] And I’m not willing to give that up yet […] But I might just get to a stage in a couple years where I feel like [stopping]. You know, I might get in a relationship or I might just lose interest in it.

Jason (M, 34, studying, ice) says he prefers the term ‘maintenance’ to ‘recovery’ as it doesn’t imply he should stop taking drugs within a set time frame. (Note: strong language)

For me, recovery and clean time is all – I suppose I use those words in order to gain access or to sound familiar within the NA/AA environment. So what would I use instead? […] ‘Being in recovery’ means not using [which] I suppose is why I like [the term] ‘maintenance’. Yeah, I’m in maintenance, so still using but with the intention of stopping eventually, but there’s no set time or no set expectation around that […] I suppose recovery is the only term that’s coming into my mind that sort of fits that. There’s no other term that I can sort of think of that is relevant.

I look back on a few of the reasons why I was using drugs. I was even thinking about tobacco because I stopped [smoking]. I started to give up about a month ago but then I found a pouch of tobacco and thought, ‘Oh fuck, what am I doing? I want a cigarette but I don’t want a cigarette’. I was going through the whole process of what I would have done if I had crystal in the house and so I thought, ‘Put it away in the drawer, in the cupboard, lock it away for an hour and come back’. So I did. It was enough to make two big cigarettes but it made three. I stretched it out and I thought, ‘You know what, I’m just going to have them. I’m not going to get caught up in that shame of using them or having or smoking them […] This is it, I’m going to have those.’ So I see that addictive behaviour with both tobacco and crystal and I suppose I’m in recovery for tobacco as well. I’m on maintenance at the moment: I’m still smoking.

Questioning the concept of recovery

Several people question the usefulness of the term ‘recovery’ when applied to alcohol and other drug consumption. They see it as too negative, implying an illness that needs to be treated (see also What is addiction or dependence?). As Jacob (M, 33, works in hospitality, cannabis) puts it, ‘I think it goes back to the whole treatment thing. Like, if I don’t see [my cannabis use] as a main problem, then I’m not going to get it fixed so I won’t be able to recover from it. So I don’t know if [recovery is] very relevant’. People like Jacob offer alternative accounts of drugs as an important part of their lives and explain the reasons they take them (see also Consumption in everyday life).

For Rachel (F, 50, works in the health sector, heroin), the idea of recovery implies that drug use is a ‘disease’ to be treated. She says that this doesn’t fit with her experience. (Played by an actor)

If you’re recovering, it implies there’s something wrong with you to start with. Right, you are recovering from something. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with drug use, I really don’t. There’s never been any proof that there’s this disease. The disease is a metaphor, it’s not a real thing. And somewhere along the line […] a metaphor of the disease that came out of AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] has turned into this fact, that it’s an actual sickness and it’s become medicalised, you know. And […] there’s no evidence for that […] I know the neurologists are trying very hard [to find evidence] but I mean the fact is that pleasure is about repetition […] If you like something you do it […] I believe that I use [drugs…because] sometimes it’s just fun. Sometimes you just want to relax. Sometimes it feels really nice […] I really like it.

Harry (M, 52, works in the arts, heroin) questions the idea of recovery because it implies that regular drug consumption is a ‘disease’ and he prefers to characterise his consumption as a ‘lifestyle choice’. (Note: strong language)

So if I was to say I had a contract, a binding contract with heroin, what would I do about breaking that contract? I think that I could, given the right circumstances, I could live a productive life, pay my taxes, do my work, have my relationships, and use heroin until the day I die […] There are so many things to recover from in life. I would actually rate heroin probably down the list a bit, like at recovering from relationships, recovering from fucking financial turmoil.

[…]

The other thing too is that, again, it plays to the whole, ‘it’s a disease’ argument that […] I object to […Drug consumption], as I’ve said, it’s a lifestyle choice as far as I’m concerned. It’s the decision that I’ve made […] I would recover from that […] when I decide that I wanted to make a different decision. It wouldn’t be someone coming up and saying, ‘Here’s a book, read this’, or ‘Here’s a pill, take that’. It would be like coming up and saying, ‘Oh, you voted Labor last time, here’s a pill and you’ll vote Liberal now’. So it’s an attitude thing.

[…]

As I’ve said, I’d be a lot richer if I didn’t use heroin. Well not a lot richer, I wouldn’t [be], but I would maybe have a car or a telly if I didn’t use heroin or hadn’t used heroin, but I don’t see an immediate need for recovery […] My arrangement is such that I can have […] my cake and eat it too. But obviously with the added bit that I’m not as social as I’d like to be. And, again, that’s because of its prohibition and my lack of money. But then also there’s my earning capacity, which at the moment is down, and that’s not any fault of the drug. And […] not seeing people as much as I’d like to, which, again, is a money thing. But you know, I don’t see recovery in there. I see that as me changing my lifestyle. You see, I could be a person who loves going overseas and so I’d spend most of my money going overseas, so I don’t see my friends, so I don’t have a telly, so I don’t have a car. Do I need recovery from travelling overseas?

Jim (M, 21, studying, cannabis) says that the concept of ‘recovery’ isn’t relevant to his experience as he doesn’t want to stop consumption altogether. (Played by an actor)

Yeah [it’s possible] to recover from addiction I suppose. But yeah […] I wouldn’t say I need to recover from my weed use. Yeah, there are times where I think, ‘Man, I smoke too much weed and I need to stop’ but that’s purely for my lungs. Like, if I develop a cough, I’m like, well I just need to get a vaporiser. I need to save up and get a vaporiser, so I’m not affecting my lungs […] I don’t think I would ever completely stop smoking weed because, I don’t know, I enjoy it. It’s something that I enjoy doing and I always will, probably, until I get to a stage where I really don’t like it. But at this stage, at the moment, that’s the reason why I do it. I do it because I do enjoy it. I’m not doing it at the moment because I physically need to, or anything. I simply do it because I enjoy it and more often than not, I have access to it, so why wouldn’t I enjoy myself?

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