Being abstinent does not mean you are in recovery
By Bob Snyder, BA, CADC II, NCAC I

During my last 25 years of working as a treatment provider, the topic of what it means to be in recovery has often been debated. A very common misconception is that if someone is not using drugs or alcohol then they are “in recovery”. If someone is just not using, then they are considered abstinent. It only indicates that someone is not using at the moment. It is sometimes as far as some folks want to go. They are satisfied with the quality of life that not using allows.

While initially there is often obvious benefit to no longer using drugs and drinking, the person often experiences significant distress. This is caused from the brain chemistry that has been altered due to the use of mind and mood altering substances over a long period of time. Once the active using has stopped they experience a collection of symptoms related to being clean. We refer to this as Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome.

It takes the brain chemistry approximately 6 to 18 months after last use to return to a more normal state. The symptoms involve:

  • Cravings
  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Memory problems
  • Low stress tolerance

Being in recovery means being abstinent is just the critical first step. Being in recovery means that in addition to not using, that they are doing things to learn how to manage their chronic and progressive illness. Just as a diabetic learns how to manage the symptoms of their disease, we are allowed to do the same. We do this by doing most of the following:

  • Attend treatment where we are given accurate information about the disease of addiction and how it affects the brain chemistry
  • Attend 12 step meetings
  • Obtain sponsor and complete written step work with them
  • Avoid using people/places/things
  • Become transparent with our health care providers that we are in recovery
  • Obtain a private therapist

We are an immediate gratification population that is not keen on doing something that is difficult or provides us with immediate results. Recovery is a long term process and involves a great deal of change in order to be successful. Just as the overweight individual often will lose weight while they are doing a diet or exercise program, they often do not make the needed changes internally that are required to truly keep the weight off and to completely change everything about themselves in order to be successful.

When we combine being abstinent with the actual activities of recovery that will allow us to learn how to live a calm and rewarding life. One of the things often said is that people went to any lengths to get loaded. Why would we expect that recovery would be anything less than going to any lengths to get better?

Bob Snyder, BA, CADC II, NCAC I
Adult and Adolescent Intensive Services Manager for PSCS
Program Director Deschutes County Outpatient
Best Care Treatment Services



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