Abstinence vs Recovery

Many people confuse Abstinence with Recovery when referring to drug or alcohol dependency and addiction. Abstinence takes place at the beginning when an addict chooses to stop abusing a substance and Recovery requires many important complex steps that at times may be complicated but necessary to not only be physically recovered but emotionally and Spiritually Recovered.

A familiar story among 12-step program members and within the alcohol/drug abuse treatment community is of an AA newcomer who approached an old timer and said, “You know, I’m starting to connect with these ideas and with you people, but there’s one thing that I’m just not getting. What’s this ‘spiritual’ part of the program that y’all keep talking about?”

The old timer scratched his head, thought for a moment, and then responded, “Well, I guess I could explain the spiritual part if you could tell me what the other part is.

Of course, there is no other part. Recovery is a spiritual process. But understanding that concept is not always easy, even for people who have been around recovery for some time. It is often not understood by helping professionals outside of the alcohol/drug abuse field, and even occasionally by some within the field. People, both those in or around recovery and those not, often mistake abstinence for recovery.

Abstinence begins when an alcoholic/addict quits consuming alcohol and drugs. It occurs at a point in time, as an event. Recovery, on the other hand, begins when an abstinent alcoholic/addict starts growing and changing in positive ways. It occurs over a period of time, as a process. Abstinence requires a decision; recovery requires time and effort.

It has been suggested that chemical dependency is a four-fold disorder—one that affects its victims physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. If that’s true, then for recovery to be real and lasting, it must occur on all of these levels—that is, in all areas of one’s life.

Physical Recovery

Physical recovery is the least complex of the four, even though it is often the most immediate. Physical recovery happens primarily as the result of abstinence alone. The body has an amazing ability to repair itself, especially when combined with medical attention.

Mental Recovery

Mental recovery is more complex because it includes not only issues associated with brain function and brain chemistry but also with issues of attitudes, belief systems, and rational, abstract thought.

Emotional Recovery

24 hour addiction helplineEmotional recovery is more complex yet. It involves not only attitudes, belief systems, and rational thought, but also thought’s first cousin—feelings. Emotional recovery involves learning to deal with feelings openly, honestly, and responsibly. It includes learning to express and resolve feelings in appropriate and effective ways. For most people in recovery, emotional recovery takes years.
Aabstinence alone seldom, if ever, encourages recovery on mental and emotional levels. Indeed, some individuals find abstinence alone to be a hindrance to mental and emotional recovery. This notion brings to mind the familiar “dry drunk” individual who is more “restless, irritable, and discontented” dry and clean than he/she is wet and using.

Spiritual Recovery

Spiritual recovery is the most complex of all because it involves all of the following:

  • It incorporates aspects of the other three life areas;
  • It occurs on a deeper human level that the others;
  • It takes a lifetime and is never completed; and
  • It is rather abstract and illusive in nature.

If a dozen spiritual “professionals” were asked to define spirituality and spiritual recovery, they would surely produce a dozen different definitions. Therefore, it may be useful to discuss spirituality and spiritual recovery as broad, generic concepts which incorporate several or perhaps many components.
In its broadest sense, spiritually is a way of life. It is an attitude toward life. And this attitude toward life is demonstrated through one’s values, beliefs, and personal characteristics. If asked to list positive spiritual qualities, most people would include at least some of the following: Serenity, peace of mind, peace of conscience, goodness, honesty, genuineness, integrity, humility, kindness, generosity, courage, faith, tolerance, acceptance, discipline, etc.
Of course, each of these positive spiritual qualities has a negative counterpart. Hence, the not-so-obvious fact that spirituality has a dark side as well as a bright one, with negative spiritual qualities being the opposites of the positive ones. If spirituality is a way of life and an attitude toward life, then, negative spirituality might be exemplified by the attitude “Life’s a bitch and then you die” and by personal qualities demonstrating that attitude.
These personal qualities—both positive and negative—all have something in common. They run very deep. Indeed, they are the essence of one’s “being.” Personal spirituality resides, and therefore spiritual recovery occurs, at that very deep level—at the alcoholic/addict’s core.
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Deep and profound alterations in one’s “internal being” might take the form of the following transformations: From a place of fear to one of faith; from pride to humility; self-pity to gratitude; resentment to acceptance; dishonesty to honesty; cynicism to trust; isolation to connectedness; and from reliance on self-will to reliance on God’s will.
Profound internal changes such as these typically occur quite subtly over extended periods of time. That’s the way recovery works.
Iinternal changes don’t stay hidden internally. They become visible externally. They manifest in behavior, which in the final analysis is the outward expression of what is within. They show up especially in the quality of one’s relationships. Those relationships include all of the following:

  • The one with oneself, in terms of self-esteem, self-acceptance, and one’s sense of meaning & purpose in life;
  • The ones with other people, in terms of openness, genuineness, and depth; and
  • The ones with Higher Power, in terms of faith, trust, and connectedness.

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Fortunately, help with the process of spiritual growth and change—with recovery—is very readily available. The availability of help is fortunate because help is an essential ingredient in the process. Spiritually weak or spiritually bankrupt individuals don’t recover just on the basis of will power alone. In fact, strong will power impedes spiritual growth more than it helps.
Structured treatment programs, substance abuse counseling, and 12-Step programs do help. They are not the only sources of help, but they are the most consistently effective, especially when combined in some systematic, consistent fashion.
Treatment and counseling provide structure, support, and intervention, encouraging insight and movement through denial, which blocks recognition of the need for both abstinence and recovery. Treatment and counseling facilitate trust by creating a supportive and accepting environment.
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Twelve-Step programs, such as AA, NA, CA, Al-Anon, and Alateen, provide powerful blueprints for spiritual growth and change, which when followed, lead to a positive spiritual way of life. Furthermore, support groups offer fellowship and opportunities for service to others with similar problems.
Recovery is said to be simple but not easy. Simple, because spiritual concepts are simple. Truth is truth. Not easy, because work is work. Recovery requires effort and patience and then more effort and patience and then more…. It’s worth the effort, though.
Recovery breeds greater recovery; growth and change open doors for more growth and change. Finally, as recovery deepens, abstinence simply becomes another of its many wonderful by-products.