There are many positive aspects to being in recovery, suggests a new survey of people who are experiencing recovery from alcohol or drug problems. The findings of the national survey of more than 9,000 people will help both people in recovery, and those who treat them, according to the researchers.
Currently there is no agreement about the definition of recovery, says lead researcher Lee Ann Kaskutas, DrPH, of the Public Health Institute’s Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, California. Many people believe it requires total abstinence from drugs and alcohol, while others do not. “Most of what we know about the definition of recovery has come from scientists and expert panels, not from people in recovery,” she says.
The goal of the “What Is Recovery?” project was to develop a way of defining recovery based on how it is experienced by those who actually live it. The researchers did a tremendous amount of outreach to find people in recovery, including ads on Craigslist and announcements on radio programs. “People in recovery are a hidden population,” Dr. Kaskutas said. “There is a serious stigma attached to addiction. These elements that define recovery demonstrate to those going through it, as well as the general public and policymakers, that it is not something to be ashamed of.”
Survey respondents were most likely to say recovery is:
- Being honest with myself.
- Being able to enjoy life without drinking or using drugs like I used to.
- Living a life that contributes to society, to my family or to my betterment.
- Being the kind of person that people can count on.
- About giving back.
- Striving to be consistent with my beliefs and values in activities that take up the major part of my time and energy.
Dr. Kaskutas says people in recovery can use the findings to explain to family and friends what they are going through. “They can say, ‘When I say I’m in recovery, I mean that it’s an ongoing process, and I’m actually trying to live a life that’s contributing to society,’” she says. “Recovery doesn’t just (or always) mean abstinence—it can also mean you have a positive way of being that you didn’t have before.”
She said it is significant that almost all respondents said recovery is about giving back and helping other people. She noted that some people are reluctant to attend recovery programs because they think the programs will be religious or spiritual. “The survey shows that being spiritual can really just mean you’re giving back and helping others—and it’s not necessarily about religion either.”
Helping others and giving back can be as simple as reading to your child at night, doing the dishes for your wife when she comes home tired from work, or talking to someone else in recovery, Dr. Kaskutas notes. “When you help others, you are helping yourself,” she says. “It makes you feel better. Helping others may be the combustion engine of recovery.”
Professionals treating those in recovery can also use the findings, Dr. Kaskutas says. “The findings point to specific, tangible topics that people can use in service delivery,” she notes. “It helps define what they should be concerned about, and what they should be helping people to achieve.” For instance, providers might add or suggest sober fun activities and opportunities for volunteering, and emphasize contributing to society.
To conduct the study, the researchers started by interviewing dozens of people in recovery. Some were in 12-step groups or other support groups, while others were treatment program alumni, or doing it on their own. They ended up with 167 potential items that define recovery, which were whittled down to 47 based on a survey with more than 200 recovering individuals and more than 50 additional interviews. The researchers then asked 9,341 people in recovery nationwide whether these items belonged in a definition of recovery. The final definition of recovery included 39 of these items.
The findings are published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Dr. Kaskutas says she hopes to keep in touch with more than 1,000 survey respondents who said they were interested in staying involved in future studies on recovery, to track their progress over time.