What is Recovery?

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People who have experienced and successfully resolved addiction from alcohol or drugs often refer to their new sober and productive lifestyle as “recovery.” Although widely used, the lack of a standard definition for this term has hindered public understanding and research on the topic that might lead to more and better recovery-oriented interventions (The Betty Ford Institute Consensus Panel, 2007).

People who are “in recovery” do not need a formal definition because they know what recovery means to them and how important it is in their life. However, recovery is not clear to the public, to those who research and evaluate addiction treatments, and to those who make policies about addiction. Below we have presented two working definitions of the term “recovery” and its associated principles:


(1.) According to the Betty Ford Institute Consensus Panel: ​


“Recovery from [addiction] is a voluntarily maintained lifestyle characterized by sobriety, personal health, and citizenship.”


Sobriety refers to abstinence from alcohol and all other non-prescribed drugs.


  • Early Sobriety = 1–11 months
  • Sustained Sobriety = 1–5 years
  • Stable Sobriety = 5+ years


Personal Health refers to improved quality of personal life.


Citizenship refers to living with regard and respect for those around you.

Although sobriety is considered to be necessary for recovery, it is not considered as sufficient. Recovery is recognized universally as being multidimensional, involving more than simply the elimination of substance use. The additional health and social aspects of recovery are potentially quite important to the prevention of relapse and may be the most attractive aspects of recovery to affected individuals, their families, and society as a whole.


Furthermore, personal health and citizenship are often achieved and sustained through community-based peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)/Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and practices consistent with the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. However, full and active participation in AA/NA and 12-step activities is by no means the only way to attain recovery. In fact, even the founders of AA recognized that there were many paths to the same position and did not suggest that their specific methods were the only means to attain the overall goal.



​(2.) According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:


“Recovery from substance use disorders and/or mental disorders is a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”