What is addiction recovery?

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Recovery is a process of breaking one’s addiction to an abusive substance, behavior, or other compulsion. Recovery involves maintaining abstinence from that addiction through behavior change and active effort. Recovery is not a single event but is a process of change and a new, sober way of living. Recovery takes practice, effort, and focus on daily living with support from health professionals, counselors, community members, and peer groups.
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Methods and Goals

The goal of sober living is not out of reach for any addict who can admit that his or her addiction has become a chronic illness. Recovery is intended to treat the illness of addiction and to break the habitual behaviors and viewpoints that fostered chronic abuse. Recovery is not a straightforward process for anyone; treatment plans differ for each addict, and the steps involved vary for each person.

Recovery typically involves long-term health care planning. Treatment might encompass substance detoxification and medication to reduce symptoms of drug withdrawal, integrated treatment of mental health issues by psychologists or addiction counselors, and development of a self-care routine with general practitioners to bolster physical health. New behavior skills and extended support systems that act as positive influences for a sober life also are frequently set in place during this treatment and recovery process.

Recovery often can involve a drastic change of life skills and beliefs from those expressed during addiction. For example, friendships, work settings, and homes that do not foster positive support of sobriety are not helpful and should be avoided during recovery. These components of the old lifestyle are best replaced with stable, sober living settings.

Recovery groups, such as twelve-step programs , help recovering addicts to identify a new set of colleagues and peers. Twelve-step and other recovery programs teach supportive behavior therapy, introduce new traditions for living, encourage reevaluation of ethics and fault, and identify risk behaviors or situations to avoid, all with a supportive sponsor and a community of peers with shared experiences.

Participation in social programs within the community boosts independence and expands sober relationships. Common populations that support societal involvement during recovery include neighborhood associations, lay counselors, clergy at religious institutions, physicians, and recovered peers within twelve-step programs or transitional living environments. Sober family members also provide crucial encouragement of sober living and recovery.

Temptations for substance use exist in society. Recovery depends upon minimizing and countering inevitable stressors, such as social events that involve alcohol or cigarettes. Balancing the temptation for substance abuse and triggers of cravings with sober alternatives, such as gum chewing, is a constant goal of recovery.

Psychological counseling can strengthen an addict’s resolve to maintain abstinence during recovery, especially in early recovery periods in which withdrawal and cravings remain especially strong. Trust in the relationships and social system built during recovery care, rather than in those from addiction living, is essential to maintaining abstinence and fully experiencing sober society.

Developing new interests and hobbies not only expands recovery options by introducing new people into a support network; it also provides skills and commitments that can distract from inevitable temptations. For example, enrollment in a team sport or community center class provides a recovered addict a safe setting to mentally redirect anxiety, focus on positive skills, and interact with peers. Recovery is possible only with a commitment to some or all of these behavior-change and counseling methods.

By integrating positive habits and involvement with work, family, and neighborhood groups, a recovering addict develops coping skills and a solid network to minimize the inevitable stresses that increase the likelihood of relapse. The varied treatment and support programs offer different benefits to different people, but all options include goals of renewed commitment to physical and psychological health and to social and community participation. Long-term follow-through and continued development of reinforcements of sober living are crucial, ongoing goals of maintained recovery.

Recovery as a Process

A person begins to use a particular substance voluntarily, but the physical and psychological changes that result from substances of abuse formulate an addiction (which is nonvoluntary) that becomes a chronic disease. Like numerous other chronic diseases, addiction may never be fully cured. Instead, recovery is a prolonged arc that involves daily choices, decisions, and actions to minimize compulsions.

Successes alternate with challenges in an evolving process of growth. Multiple transitions are necessary to achieve sobriety. First, recovering addicts need to admit their problem and evaluate the choices that led to addiction; then, they need to address the problem with active medical treatment; finally, they need to learn to live without the substance or compulsive behavior to reenter society.

Recovered addicts must become focused and functional because they are constantly managing high levels of temptations, stress, and cravings. Repeated care during recovery is often required to prevent relapse. Relapse is the recurrence of addiction symptoms (for example, drug use and compulsive behaviors) after recovery has begun.

Typically, a recovered addict will experience multiple phases of relapse when his or her coping skills or other psychosocial supports falter. Thus, recovery is not a singular, one-time goal but instead comprises progressive struggles and achievements. By acknowledging recovery attempts and learning from past relapse experiences, future recovery goals are more likely to be achieved. Relapse is not failure or a sign of weakness. It is a common occurrence for many recovering addicts, and it frequently becomes a learning experience and an educational tool.

Advocacy and Support

Because recovery is a process continuing throughout the addict's life, not a static goal, and because recovered addicts are fully immersed in conventional society, support for sustained recovery is beneficial to public health and the wider community. Stigmas associated with substance abuse and addiction treatments can impede full involvement in work and community settings. Addiction and treatments are financial burdens to the recovered addict also.

Advocacy and support from government and private organizations improve public awareness of addiction as a disease and encourage public support for successful recovery and sobriety. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Recovery Support Strategic Initiative, for example, educates recovered addicts and the public about four major dimensions of life in recovery: health, home, purpose, and community.

Recovered addicts not only overcome a disease; they also focus on living in a physically and emotionally healthy way. Their sobriety is best supported by a stable, safe living environment and by purposeful daily activities, such as work, school, family, and volunteer endeavors. Finally, through building new social networks and relationships in a positive community, a recovered addict experiences hope and support that foster daily recovery.


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Coombs, Robert H., ed. Addiction Recovery Tools: A Practical Handbook. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2001. Print.

Galanter, Marc, Herbert D. Kleber, and Kathleen T. Brady. The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Substance Abuse Treatment. 5th ed. Washington, DC: Amer. Psychiatric Assn., 2015. Print.

Kelly, John F., and William L. White, eds. Addiction Recovery Management: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Humana, 2011. Print.

Mignon, Sylvia I. Substance Abuse Treatment: Options, Challenges, and Effectiveness. New York: Springer, 2015. Print.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Bethesda: NIDA, 2010. Print.

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