The Other One Percent: How Definitions of Recovery Skew Statistics

By Tracey Helton Mitchell 03/12/18

Recovery is not a term reserved only for those who choose and maintain the path of complete abstinence.

A group of young men smiling and greeting each other.
The “one size fits all” definition no longer has a place in modern society.

Inside a theatre, a stark visual appears:

Each year, only 1% of addicts are able to kick heroin and stay clean.

This quickly cuts to images of my former self deliberately counting syringes at the needle exchange site. I see a shadow I recognize as myself in active addiction. I can barely discern my gender, my clothing keenly styled to blend into the streets that I called home. As the lights in the theatre go on, I shift uncomfortably in my seat.

“Is that true?” my friend asks, offering me the last bit of whatever candy has melted to the bottom of the box.

“Is what true?” My mind starts spinning with whatever embarrassing section of the film I will now have to explain in great detail.

He points at the screen where the credits are finally reaching an end point. “That statistic that only one percent of heroin users get and stay clean. Is that true?” He looks genuinely concerned for me. I shrug. I accept his hand up from my seat now that the crowd has dissipated. “I don’t actually know. I mean, I don’t think so.” I didn’t have the answer.

That “statistic” stuck with me. What does that say about my chances? Many times in my 20 years of recovery, I have heard “facts” that were later revealed to be fallacies. It was extremely disheartening; with only a little over a year under my belt, what were the actual chances that I would be in that one percent?

Before I became what some call “clean” and others call “sober,” I had never known a person who effectively quit opioids. This had, in many ways, made me think such a thing was completely impossible. If there were effective ways to quit, I would surely know someone who had stopped according to my logic. However, as the weeks turned into months and months turned into years, more had been revealed to me. It was not that people did not quit, I just never saw them. It made perfect sense that any rational person who was trying to stay off the drugs was wise to avoid me while I was in active addiction. My life revolved around acquiring and injecting drugs with little room for socialization. No hobbies, no real friends, no family, no desire for anything outside of what I could fit inside a syringe.

When I began to critically examine the myths that were thrown around as facts in the recovery community, I quickly started to noticed that this “one percent” idea did not ring true. With a quick glance, I saw that the community I lived in was filled with people who had survived years of active addiction only to return to normal lives. In the initial phases of recovery, I saw those former comrades of the traveling spoon in roles such as drug counselor, the service industry, and front desk positions at halfway houses. As the years progressed, I have witnessed using buddies in a variety of professions: three nurses, one therapist, one bus driver, one phlebotomist, an IT executive, a chef, a few case managers, and one director of services for ex-offenders. How is this possible, I asked myself. There is no way this is just “one percent” of us. What does this say about our peer group? Are we just the lucky ones or is something in this “statistic” entirely flawed?

The myths that are passed around in the media as facts create a deficit of hope in people trying to enter our ranks on the other side of active addiction. Opioid users—particularly heroin users—are repeatedly given messages that they are inherently worse off than other people who use drugs. While the introduction of fentanyl to the drug supply has upped the risk, the majority of those who survive opioid overdose will go on to what can be called recovery. Recovery is not a term reserved only for those who choose and maintain the path of complete abstinence. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA),the agency within the U.S. government that works to improve behavioral health, defines recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” Recovery is a personal experience. Each individual has their own process, their own goals, and their own challenges and strengths. The “one size fits all” definition no longer has a place in modern society. To combat the idea that there is only one way—abstinence—is to support the idea that any positive change should be celebrated until an individual gets to a point where drug use isn’t the focal point of their existence. This does not devalue the idea of a life completely devoid of drugs and alcohol. It merely opens up the doors for everyone to improve their health and physical wellbeing.

Within this framework, many of us so-called “success stories” are encouraged to remain silent. The concept of anonymity is a powerful one, allowing the 12-step group to become more important than the ego. But where does it leave our fellows currently struggling in the trenches? Are they to be left clinging to the antiquated idea that drug and alcohol dependency are a death sentence? My newsfeed is filled on a daily basis with stories of death and despair with no end in sight. Perhaps it is time that more of us open up about our stories of recovery.

Today, I choose to remain available rather than anonymous while recognizing that this may not be a luxury all of us can afford due to our life circumstances. But now more than ever we need a spotlight on all forms of recovery. Whether it is 12 step, MAT, “clean and green,” psychedelics, outpatient, coaching, religion, or something else, your story is valuable and your contribution is needed. It doesn’t need to be at a public level but certainly at a personal one. If recovery is a marathon, not a sprint, we need your voice cheering from the sidelines. That support and that empathy is the real attraction of recovery. If the opposite of addiction is connection, there is someone in need who can benefit from your experience right now. I encourage you to consider how you can contribute today, here, now, in the midst of the deadliest overdose crisis in history. We are a nation desperately in need of a new narrative.

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Tracey Helton Mitchell is a harm reduction advocate living in the SF Bay Area. She is author of The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin and presents nationally on issues related to the opioid crisis. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.