Being substance-free, we hear a lot of things about what recovery means—sick people getting better, rescue from a hopeless condition, restoration to sanity. We understand recovery as, essentially, our process of freeing ourselves from substances. But what’s the actual definition of the word “recovery?” The answers I found in the dictionary gave me hope, and opened my eyes to what recovery really means to me.
noun. (plural: recoveries)
1. restoration or return to health from sickness
The word “recovery” in from the mid-14th century from the Anglo-French word recoverie, which means a “return to health.” This is the traditional understanding of recovery—a process of healing.
Many of us have physical healing that needs to take place. When I first entered recovery, I was severely malnourished and underweight, I had given up on proper hygiene, and I was so weak that I had to learn how to walk again. In recovery, we need to take care of our bodies and return them to health. We may need to re-learn daily routines like showering and brushing our teeth, going grocery shopping, and getting some exercise. Some of us come into recovery with specific health concerns that will require us to make long-overdue doctor visits and take care of things that we neglected in our addiction.
Our brains also have healing to do in recovery, because substance abuse affects our brain chemistry. Usually, when we eat our favorite food or we hold someone we love, the rewards center of the brain lights up with dopamine, which makes us feel good. But, drugs and alcohol can release 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine as those natural rewards. When our brain is conditioned to expect huge dopamine surges because of our substance abuse, it becomes difficult to feel pleasure from other things.
For some of us, this change in our rewards center can lead us to feel depressed or worsen pre-existing depression. Part of our healing process may include therapy or medication. Fortunately, a study by the Journal of Neuroscience found that a substance abuser’s brain can recover its capacity for dopamine production and transportation in about 14 months if we stay abstinent. Early recovery can be an emotional rollercoaster, but there is hope as we begin to return our bodies and brains to health.
2. restoration to a former or better condition
The meaning of the word recovery has evolved with time—in the 1520s it began to describe the "act of righting oneself after a blunder, mishap, etc." There is more to recovery than simply healing our bodies, it’s also a process of improving ourselves and our lives.
I didn’t start my process of recovery just to return to my old, unhealthy behaviors. I wanted to find the best version of myself, discover the things in life that make me happy, and rebuild the relationships that I had damaged. For many recovering addicts and alcoholics, recovery meetings and support groups are important aspects of a new life. The well-known twelve-step programs provide a design for living, based on an individual spirituality and specific principles like honesty, integrity, and righting the wrongs of our past. There are many recovery support groups beyond these, though, like SMART Recovery meetings and Women for Sobriety groups, which focus on self-empowerment as a vehicle for recovery.
Many of these groups are great venues to get involved in a recovery community. Connecting with others provides much-needed support, and it can bring meaning to our lives by helping the next person who is suffering find their way. You don’t need to be a recovery guru or have decades of sobriety to help someone along in their journey. Build a sober support network and become a part of others’ networks. As fellow people in recovery, we have the best ability to listen to and understand one another.
In recovery, we restore ourselves to a better condition. We become a part of life again, we find meaning in our journey, we begin to believe in ourselves, and we gain a new perspective on life. Not only are we returning to health, but we are also evolving as human beings.
3. the regaining of something lost or taken away
This is my favorite definition of recovery, one that gives me chills all over my body. A football player recovers the ball after a fumble. A culture can recover its traditions. In a fit of emotion, we can recover our senses. When something is lost, there is the hope that it can be recovered.
Coming into recovery, I knew I needed to heal, I knew I needed to mature and evolve, but I had very little hope that I could regain what I had lost. I didn’t think I would be able to walk again. I didn’t think I could regain my sanity, that I would stop hearing voices and seeing things that other people couldn’t. I didn’t think my sister would want to speak to me again after all of the lies and phone calls I didn’t answer. I didn’t think I would find a job after I had to drop out of school. I didn’t think I would ever like myself, let alone love myself. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had loved myself.
These things can be recovered—our health, our mental wellness, our relationships, our careers, our identity. Addiction is a condition that goes deeper than the substances we abuse. Maybe we’re trying to avoid growing up and want to escape the responsibilities of life, maybe we feel we don’t belong, maybe we don’t like to feel our feelings, maybe we just like a state of altered consciousness more than we like this “normal” reality. In whatever case, choosing substances as the solution to any of these problems does not ultimately fix those problems. For most of us, addiction created more problems and took so much away from us.
We can recover what we’ve lost, or what our addiction has taken away from us. Choosing to temporarily solve my problems with drugs robbed me of the ability to find other, healthier solutions to my problems. I thought I had lost so much of my life, so much of my growing up, so much of my potential—but all of this can be recovered.