I’m Uneasy With Two ‘Official’ Definitions Of Recovery

officialLast week I wrote about my personal definition of recovery. Today I was poking around and found two  semi-official defintions over on Buddy T’s site at About.com in a post called Working Definition of Recovery Developed.

SAMHSA & Betty Ford

According to the post the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) spent over a year developing a working definition of recovery.

It’s not a simple definition and the title of the page is SAMHSA’s Working Definition of Recovery from Mental Disorders and/or Substance Use Disorders sort of prepared me. That’s a mouthful!

Buddy T. managed to find the paragraph that provides an overview. It’s:

A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.

If you want to read the whole definition you’ll find it here.

Buddy then compares it to the  Betty Ford definition of recovery which includes:

A voluntarily maintained lifestyle characterized by sobriety, personal health, and citizenship.

All these words make my head swim.

Frankly this makes me uneasy

Neither definition makes abstaining a bottom line, although Ford does include sobriety which might be taken as one. But both definitions make me uneasy.

They make me uneasy because both seem to be trying to include people who are not abstinent but are trying.

Maybe I’m projecting, but I tried to quit smoking for years and years and continued to smoke. Oh, I got more conscious of it all. First I quit throwing butts on the ground, then I learned to make sure my smoke wasn’t blowing over someone. Eventually I began to hide my smoking, not understanding that non-smokers could smell me coming.

But the truth was I didn’t stop smoking until I stopped smoking. That’s when my recovery from nicotine addiction began. I will also say that since I haven’t had a drink since my first meeting, my struggle with tobacco did give me more understanding of people who slip, but until I put the nicotine in all its forms down, that recovery did not begin for me.

I was talking with someone last week who hasn’t decided if he’s alcoholic or not – or if he needs to quit drinking. I suspect he’d love either of these definitions. After all most of experience some change in lifestyle beneficial, and healthy living is a great idea. But sobriety? Well, I remember when I worked very hard trying to prove to I don’t know who my drinking wasn’t a problem. I told that story to my friend and he understood exactly what I was saying.

Of course, what isn’t really clear to me is why these two organizations came up with definitions that left being abstinent in question. In my experience, recovery from addiction to a substance begins when I quit using that substance. That clears the deck so all the good stuff can happen.

What about…

Of course again, that absolutist attitude of mine doesn’t address addictions to food or to behaviors like debting and underearning. In all three of those examples, abstaining completely doesn’t work. We’ve got to eat and we’ve got to have some dealings with money. Defining abstinence in these Programs, and programs like CODA and Al-Anon gets squishy.

In her talk yesterday, Anne Seisen Saunders, Roshi, Abbot of the Sweetwater Zen Center talked about the need to not give ourselves any decision opportunities when it comes to making a commitment to meditate. She pointed out that as soon as I give myself any wiggle room about sitting the chances are I won’t. On the other hand, when I make a habit of it, when I’m clear that I’ll sit every day at whatever time for however long I’m much more likely to do it.

Recovery is much the same I think. That’s what our Third Step says… “made a decision…” That attitude seems to work even with programs like Debtors Anonymous. I don’t incur any unsecured debt one day at a time. That’s the same quality of decision I made around alcohol and drugs and eventually nicotine. It seems to be the quality of decision that works.

What do you think? Do definitions of recovery that don’t insist on abstinence as a bottom line make sense to you?

You’ll get a free ebook when you subscribe to the newsletter – over there, on the right. And, if you like this post, share it with your network.

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by topgold


Mellissa R May 21, 2013 at 5:16 am

Hi Anne
Have to agree with you – on many counts. Quitting smoking was far harder than quitting drinking (although I slipped and slid with both for a while). Your point about abstinence is very much a “bottom line” for me. I had the same feeling after attending many meetings of other 12-step programs. It seems to me that we in AA are lucky: it’s pretty damn clear we have to give booze up completely or die. I don’t think Al-Anon, OA or ACOA (to name but a few) have the same clarity around the choices they make.
Thanks for your sharing.
(3 typos to note: “at least semi-official defintions over on Buddy T’s site”, “All these works make my head swim.” and”insist on abstinence as a bottom like make sense”)

annew May 21, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Love the agreement, Mellissa, and thanks for letting me know about the typos

Karen Negrete May 24, 2013 at 12:57 am

I’m a member of CoDA with codependence being my only “addiction”. I found the SAMHSA quote to work for me. I’m of the belief that I will more than likely remain codependent for the rest of my life. In the program, I’m learning how to manage it with the door wide open for my HP to work in whatever way he/she/it has chosen for my path. I know that I won’t stop being codependent unless I’m given grace by my HP. For us codependents, I think the definition needs to be squishy lest we start feeling shame that we aren’t doing something exactly right.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to once again revisit and confirm my personal recovery beliefs. :o)


annew May 30, 2013 at 1:21 pm

And thank you, Karen, for sharing your experience, strength and hope… glad to have you here and hope you come back.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: