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What Exactly Is Recovery?

It's More Than Just Being Sober, Panel Says

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Updated February 09, 2014

People who have been successful in overcoming their dependence on alcohol and other drugs usually refer to their new lifestyle as being in "recovery." But a panel of experts convened by the Betty Ford Institute says there is more to recovery than just being sober.

The panel members -- researchers, treatment providers, advocates and policymakers -- believe that the fact that there has never really been a standard definition for the term "recovery" has hindered public understanding and research on measuring recovery efforts. They suggest that a standard definition could lead to more and better recovery-oriented interventions.

The Definition of Recovery

As a result, the panel came up with a working definition of recovery as a starting point to promote better communication, research and public understanding.

In their paper, published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, the panel defines recovery as "a voluntarily maintained lifestyle characterized by sobriety, personal health, and citizenship."

"Recovery may be the best word to summarize all the positive benefits to physical, mental, and social health that can happen when alcohol- and other drug-dependent individuals get the help they need," the expert panel wrote in their article.

There Is More To It Than Sobriety

According to the panel, sobriety -- complete abstinence from alcohol and all other nonprescribed drugs -- is a necessary part of recovery but not sufficient enough to consider someone in true recovery.

The panel also listed three levels of sobriety:

  • Early -- one to 12 months of abstinence
  • Sustained -- one to five years of abstinence
  • Stable -- more than five years of sobriety (these individuals are said to be at lower risk of relapse)

Giving Back to Society

The panel admits that the "personal health and citizenship" portion of their definition needs refining, but that both elements are key components of recovery.

Personal health refers not only to physical and mental health, but also to social health -- participation in family and social roles. Citizenship refers to "giving back" to the community and society.

Achieving Stable Recovery

Many people are able to quit drinking or taking drugs and feel that this is all that is required to achieve recovery. The Betty Ford panel of experts believe, however, more is required to achieve a sustained, stable recovery from alcohol or drugs.

Achieving the other components of recovery -- personal health and citizenship -- affects not only the person trying to recover, but his or her family, friends and society as a whole.

Source: The Betty Ford Institute Consensus Panel. "What is recovery? A working definition from the Betty Ford Institute" Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. 20 September 2007.

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