It goes without saying that being abstinent is a prerequisite for recovery. But is that all it is? Is abstinence the same as being in recovery?
In a short answer, no. In my 5 years of sobriety, there have been times when I have considered myself “in recovery” and times that I have simply abstained from drugs and alcohol. They might look similar on the surface, but let me tell you from experience – they are in actuality very, very different.
What is Abstinence?
Abstinence is defined as “the fact or practice of restraining oneself from indulging in something, typically alcohol.” Therefore anyone who does not indulge in alcohol (or other mind altering substances) can be considered abstinent.
What is Recovery?
Recovery is defined as “a return to a normal state of health, mind or strength.” Judging by definition alone, abstinence and recovery are not one and the same. A person can be abstinent from alcohol without a return to a normal state of health, mind or strength.
Now Understanding the Difference Between Abstinence and Recovery…
Alcoholism is an extremely complex disease. It is a disease of the body – an allergy – and in order to heal the body, complete abstinence from mind-altering substances is necessary. But alcoholism is also a disease of the mind and of the spirit. And that’s where recovery comes in. Abstaining from drugs and alcohol takes care of the physical, but recovery takes care of the emotional and the spiritual.
If an alcoholic practices only abstinence, then the only part of their being to heal will be the physical body. It takes a dedication to recovery to truly begin healing the mind and the spirit (or to return to a normal state of health, mind and strength).
Recovery is about taking care of all aspects of one’s self – physical, emotional, spiritual. It is about making a sincere effort to live with honesty and integrity. It is about admitting when one is wrong and taking the necessary steps to make things right. It is about being of service to others and letting go of self-obsession. It is about taking steps every day to become a better version of one’s self. And yes, it is also abstaining from drugs and alcohol.
If alcoholism were strictly a physical issue, then abstaining from drugs and alcohol would be sufficient treatment. But alcoholism is not a just a physical issue. It is a physical, emotional and spiritual issue. And simply abstaining from substances is not enough – in order to have a life worth living, a life to be proud of, we need to do more than abstain. We need to recover.