What is Recovery? Recovery From What?

Photograph by Suzanne Lorenz

I’ve heard from many people over the last month telling me they were recovering from bad colds and flu. The conversations contained a sense of relief and a small bit of disappointment when they were done with the illness and ready to begin their normal life routines again. When I was also “under the weather” with a cold I understood as well that though I felt miserable being sick, there was some amount of guilty pleasure in knowing I had to stay in bed and sleep, watch television or read, and some reluctance and excitement being well again.

The recovery from a cold or flu, a broken bone or a broken heart pales when it comes to recovery from addiction or a process addiction. ( i.e. overeating, gambling or compulsive spending). Even the dictionary’s traditional definition of recovery is a puzzlement when it comes to substance or process addictions.
“1) A return to a normal state of health, mind or strength. 2) The action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.”

Keys Lost or Found?
Photograph by Suzanne Lorenz

These make sense if we think of a short term physical illness or lost keys. And yet, what I know about human beings who are in recovery from addiction is that they are not returning to a “normal state of health, mind or strength.” They never had normal in the first place. And the second definition; “regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost” is equally puzzling. What was lost? And anyone who has tried to change these kinds of conditions, knows “possession and control” are the last things that help to recover their original voice or their authentic self.

Even the definition from the National Counsel On Alcoholism and Drug Dependence seems vague” “Recovery from alcohol and drug problems is a process of change through which an individual achieves abstinence and improved health, wellness and quality of life.” Most of these characteristics are foreign to people who suffer from addictions and who struggle to understand what normal is. What was and is normal?

Shoe Tree
Photograph by Suzanne Lorenz

As a psychotherapist for over 20 years, I always had questions about the word “normal” mental health. I came to the conclusion that normal meant balanced, functional, and having the ability to feel joy. I believed normal was the individuals balance between what they valued and how they behaved. The closer those two things were, the more balanced and “normal” their life was. I used this as a criteria for good mental health. Generally though, normal is based on correcting a cluster of symptoms defined in a diagnostic manual. This may or may not be achievable without recognizing our learned physical and emotional makeup and the environment that influenced us as children and adults. This is especially true in the addictions field.

Before the mid 1950s being addicted to a substance meant you were a loser, weak willed, a bum and labeled as hopeless or even worse, a drug addict. Alcoholics Anonymous was created in 1935 by two men who believed it was a disease with a solution. Their experience was that the life and family destruction from substance abuse could be arrested by joining with similar people and begin a process of “recovery” using 12 steps and tools. Twenty-one years later, in 1956 the American Medical Association agreed and declared alcoholism an illness, not a sign of bad character. When the AMA declared it a medical condition or illness, more people began to believe you could recover from it.

In the 1980s the substance abuse treatment field began to gain prominence, and the concept of recovery began to be used for those who identified being addicted to drugs or alcohol. Up until then, recovery was only used by a small group of people in Alcoholics anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous who met to recover from the disease of addiction.
So what’s the significance of this stroll through the history of addiction? Let me go back to the original definition of recovery:

A return to a normal state of health, mind or strength. The action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.

Lost Child
Photograph by Suzanne Lorenz

When a human child is born on this earth, they emerge with all the physiological predispositions of their genetic programing. The environment and human nurture then begin to have its effects; both in the womb and for many, many years afterward. If a child is born into a family where trauma is inflicted and pervasive, is that normal? How the child adapts or survives the abuse or trauma shapes who they are. Is this a normal state? As they mature to adulthood, do they regain possession of something lost?
When I was a growing up I was taught that children were born with original sin and that unless they were baptized and saved they would go to hell. I have since learned to think differently about this. I believe that when a child is born, they are a holy spirit from the beginning, and this is the normal state. Abuse and trauma done to a child or experienced by the child in the family steals the knowledge of that “normal” state. With this in mind I think the original definition is accurate. Trauma steals our normal state of health, mind and strength and recovery is the action and process of regaining that which was lost. I know of no addict, whether from a substance or a process addiction that has not been affected by trauma as a child. I think research also bears that out.
I asked my life partner, Sam (who is also a certified Substance Abuse Counselor) what his experience was in this area and he said, “People in recovery may not be returning to a ‘normal’ they remember. The trauma may have erased all but a glimmer of it. For many, recovery is the experience of being introduced to normal for the first time. It’s like getting a new roommate you’ve never met, then trying to figure out how to have them be your best friend forever.” So, what is recovery?

For me recovery is all the things I need to do as a human being to remember who I am and be able to access my original connection with the spirit within and outside of myself, and see and follow that light which is in all of us.
Amazing Light
Photograph by Suzanne Lorenz
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost and now I’m found, was blind and now I see.” John Newton 1772

2 thoughts on “What is Recovery? Recovery From What?”

  1. Thank you for this clear, eloquent explanation! If ‘normal’ includes the ability to feel joy, I’m on my way to normal, and that brings me joy!

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