September is National Recovery Month. Recovery Month is a national observance held every September to educate Americans that substance use treatment and mental health services can help those dealing with a substance use disorder or mental health issue to live a health and rewarding life. The month celebrates the successes of those in recovery and combats the stigma of those struggling with these issues.
But what is recovery? A primary care doctor might say that it is giving the body time to heal after an illness, injury, or surgery. If you are a behavioral health care provider, person struggling with drug or alcohol use, or love someone who does your response will likely have more to do with the substances used and the behaviors related to them. You may even include mental health disorders and the impact on the family. If an individual just completed an inpatient treatment program, a primary counselor might say that it is what you do to “stay clean.” A discharge planner might say that recovery is not using drugs or alcohol and going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Some might include going to an intensive outpatient treatment program or sober living house. The individual’s response will be influenced by the treatment program. Family members’ definition may be affected by what they read on the internet. Those who participate in mutual support meetings usually define recovery through abstinence from the substances that rendered them powerless.
Many dealing with a drug or alcohol issue believe that recovery means abstinence from the substance they were using. As a result, most treatments are designed to get people to stop using drugs and alcohol. Those who continue using or return to using a chemical are often seen as a failure. What if I told you that recovery has little to do with drugs or alcohol?
In 2011, The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced its definition of recovery:
A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.
Have you noticed what is missing?
The 2016 Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health says that there are numerous definitions of recovery in relation to substance use disorders. The report states:
“All agree that recovery goes beyond remission of symptoms… ‘abstinence’ though often necessary, is not always sufficient to define recovery.”
Abstinence from alcohol or drugs is not required to be in recovery! While it may be necessary for some to completely stop their use of all substances, the majority of people do not. It is more important to understand why a person is drinking or using drugs. Often, once that person identifies it, makes lifestyle changes, and develops alternative coping skills they are able to live a balanced life. All without complete abstinence.
Studies have shown that one the main reasons people do not enter treatment is that they are not ready to give up their use of alcohol drugs. When programs require total abstinence, they are essentially refusing to give any type of help. Doctors don’t say that their patients must be free of their symptoms in order to receive treatment, so why do we require this of drug and alcohol users?
Thankfully, there is a shift occurring for substance use disorders. As we recognize that recovery has more do to with overall health and wellness than abstinence, harm reduction methods are becoming way to help those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and mental health issues. Harm Reduction Psychotherapy seeks to reduce the consequences of behaviors. It involves education, allows the client to choose the goals, and views any reduction of harm as success. This approach encourages people to build on their achievements rather than punish them for an unhealthy choice. In this way, more people are willing get the help they need.
Cyndi Turner, LCSW, LSATP, MAC is a nationally recognized trainer on the harm reduction method called alcohol moderation. She is the author of Can I Keep Drinking: How You Can Decide When Enough is Enough. Her newest books The Clinician’s Guide to Alcohol Moderation: Alternative Methods and Management Techniques and Practicing Alcohol Moderation: A Comprehensive Workbook will be available 3/20/20. For more information go to www.insightactiontherapy.com.