Are you in recovery? Recovering? Or are you recovered? What is the difference?

According to, a concordance of the Big Book of Alcholics Anonymous, the word “recovered” appears twenty times in the first 164 pages, the heart of the book that remains unchanged since 1935 and the section that is treated by adherents as gospel. However most people, myself included, use the term “in recovery”. This is one of the oldest debates in the recovery community. Many will dismiss it as semantics; and perhaps at the end of the day it is; however the concepts behind it are worth examining.

There are many compelling arguments on both sides of this debate. Paradoxical as ever, the Big Book goes on to say on page 85 that “We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.” And this idea of being cured seems to be central. If one is recovered, or cured, does that mean he can drink or use normally? An old AA joke goes, “If I could drink normally, I would get drunk every day.” We have constructed lofty and elaborate definitions of recovery, designed to be all-inclusive and inspiring. The basic definition, however is simply “a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength“. The word “normal” is loaded and problematic in the world of recovery, as is the word cured. Pax Prentiss of Passages Malibu, who disavows his previous status as “addict” and promotes the Passages “cure” is the subject of ridicule in many recovery circles. Why is his claim so audacious, and why does it draw such vitriol? Upon reading his book, The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure: A Holistic Approach to Total Recovery, one discovers that the “cured” person still can’t drink or use, and still works on the same things that other people in recovery work on (albeit in a more luxurious setting). The difference is simply the language that is used. The Passages program has chosen to remove one more aspect of stigma from their depiction of recovery. Sure, Pax relapsed, but so did millions of others. He is reviled because he dares to claim the prize that we all covet!

One person I had this discussion with said that she could recover from a bullet wound, but that would not mean she was bullet proof. My answer is that she never was bullet proof. Why does being recovered have to mean that we are superhuman, impervious to drugs and alcohol? The idea that being “cured” or “normal” means being able to use without consequence is perhaps a fanciful and revealing error in thinking on the part of former addicts.

Many of us view ourselves as less, or different, because of that one little thing: we can’t get high. Is the ability to get high a requirement for personhood? We are simply another variety in the vast spectrum of human diversity. Defining humanity itself by the ability to use mind-altering substances successfully, assigning drugs and alcohol that significance, is a vestige of our distorted view of our own existence. When we recover, we try to put things back into perspective. Wearing the label of recovery is no different from wearing the label of disability. This can be a double-edged sword; a source of pride as well as an excuse for impaired functioning. Just as with many other “minority” communities, a sense of fraternity and belonging exists alongside a defiant sense of identity; we demand equality, but we don’t really want to be like everyone else. We assert our competency, but we do not always exercise it fully. Some recovery programs are characterized by a crippling caution; a distrust of outsiders. Some recovery jargon refers to those not in recovery as “earthlings” or “normies”. When we insist on thinking of ourselves as characteristically different from other people because of our addiction, we are the ones who create this false ideal and imply that there is such a thing as “normal”. If we get so far into our programs that we cannot relate to other people, is that recovery in the true sense of the word?

We do not have to give up our identities in order to function normally; similarly, we do not have to label ourselves as “sick” or “addictive” in order to preserve our recovery status. Many of us have a superstitious prohibition on the past tense recovered because, after all, what happens if we relapse? No one wants to have to explain that. So, just in case, we leave open the possibility, and instead describe recovery as a lifelong process, a struggle, a fleeting and fragile state. We sell ourselves short to avoid embarrassment. We are taught that, as soon as we think we’ve got it, we are the closest to losing it. What a mindf#ck! Unfortunately, some do relapse; but imposing this self-fulfilling prophecy on every person in recovery creates second-guessing and self-doubt that many are better off without. When the legion of Narcotics Anonymous, the original outcasts of recovery, exclaim, “We Do Recover” and then the newcomer learns that it is Just For Today, what message does that send? Do we recover or not? Can recovery be lasting, or is a sisyphean ordeal?

No one is bulletproof. No one is impervious. And, as we in recovery are so fond of pointing out, no one is normal. We are all people; nothing more, and I maintain, certainly nothing less. Whether one defines recovery in terms of spiritual enlightenment or simply a return to normal functioning; a restoration of sanity or a new brand of eccentricity; whether recovery for you means abstinence, maintenance, or harm reduction: the assertion that you must live forever in a purgatorial state of recovery is stigma at work. Recovery can be fully attainable; it can be claimed, and owned, without strings attached. Just like any prize, it can also be lost; but perhaps if we could possess it, even for a short while, its allure would hold us longer.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour. -William Blake





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