What Recovery Means to Me

By Olivia Pennelle 09/15/17

Recovery means living a life that is no longer impacted by old trauma and pain.

woman sitting by geese
Recovery can mean different things to different people but the core message seems entrenched in a sense of self control and self improvement.

I was recently asked what recovery means to me. Specifically, how do I distinguish between living a life that doesn’t involve drugs and alcohol—because that is now so far removed from my everyday life having been sober for over five years—and just living life. I guess what they were getting at is: why do I describe myself as in recovery. While my response was initially defensive, the more I thought about the question the more I began to ponder the answer. As September is National Recovery Month, I wrote about my perspective and I also asked the views of those in the online recovery community.

Life before recovery was one dominated by drugs and alcohol. My thought processes and actions were consumed with finding ways and means to consume as much as I could, as quickly as I could, with no concern for the consequences—anything that got between me and drugs had to go. That wasn’t a life—it was a mere existence, motivated entirely by active addiction.

When I got sober, I discovered that there was a life beyond the overwhelming obsession and compulsion to use. Once I was free from those behaviors, my perspective on life changed—I suddenly began to see life through a colored lens, rather than the grey lens of addiction. Life, and its prospects, became full and abundant. And that was a life that I wanted to participate in, rather than coast along in.

I called that time getting sober and finding recovery. Now, recovery—as opposed to being sober—is an entirely subjective term. On a very basic level, I take it to mean being sober and working on the trauma and pain that caused me to use in a way that was harmful to me and those around me. It meant finding a way to live with my pain, heal my wounds, and lead a life that is no longer dominated by addictive behaviors.

Having made that distinction, therefore, I class recovery as recovering from addiction and related behaviors. There are two schools of thought here: first, if you work on your trauma and addiction and overcome it, you are recovered. Alternatively, there are those that think recovery is entirely incumbent upon certain practices, which are likened to taking medicine for a disease, that you will always need to undertake on a daily basis; in other words, you never recover.

I haven’t formed a strong opinion one way or another. Initially I was swayed by the language of the second camp while I was recovering in AA. Now that I no longer go to 12-step fellowships, I have begun a process of challenging those early conceptions—including identifying myself as an addict—and finding what fits for me. Today, I choose to use language which provides freedom and doesn’t confine me to stereotypes or finite descriptions; and that means that it doesn’t matter to me whether I am recovering or recovered. What matters is how I live my life and how free and comfortable I feel in it without the use of drugs.

This leads me to my conception of recovery. Recovery means living a life that is no longer impacted by old trauma and pain. I know these memories will never leave, but I can be mindful of thoughts that are influenced by the past. In its most beautiful conception, it is that precious space between my thoughts, behavior, and actions. And the more space I gain, as my recovery practice deepens, the wiser and less harmful choices I make. That, in a nutshell, is my understanding of recovery.

I asked a group of friends in the online recovery community what recovery means to them. Here are their answers:

“When I was using and still drinking, I always thought that my life would be that way from then on—that I had really ‘made it’ and I could manage my anxiety, stress, boredom, or worries away chemically and magically. What I've discovered since I've embraced long-term recovery is that life's down times give me perspective and a sense of grace so that joy has been redefined. The ability to engage life—not on my terms, but on life's terms—is invaluable and I wouldn't trade it for anything." Daniel D Maurer

“For me it means living the kind of life where I am able to stay present through the good and the bad, and make mindful choices on things that feel stressful or difficult so that I can continue to live the kind of life where I don't need to turn to drinking to blot it all out every weekend. Last night I was watching a TV show and the cook offered this woman something stronger than tea to "soothe the soul" i.e. alcohol. And I thought, that's not going to soothe your soul, it's still going to be hell when you're done drinking it. And that thought means everything.” Helaina Hovitz

“Right now it means dealing with how hard life is while being completely present for it. It's exhausting both physically and emotionally. Sometimes I question sobriety, then I remind myself of the gifts that a sober lifestyle has given me.” Tawny Lara

“A process of returning to, and living in, the source of inherent dignity, wholeness, and connection with all beings.” Jesse Heffernan

“Being in recovery is the full expression of the mind-body-spirit connection, a connection that was once splintered and broken and which hindered me from realizing my authentic higher self. It's about making the changes in my life which overrides the default setting to self-medicate with alcohol. It's about freedom from self.” Paul Silva

“Recovery means I show up for the people in my life when they expect me to. And I just don’t drink or use, no matter what.” Mark Goodson

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including Recovery.org, Workit Health, Ravishly, Recovery Campus, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE. Find Liv on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Liv also co-hosts a podcast — Breaking Free: Your Recovery. Your Way. Listen here.