Recovery vs Abstinence: What’s the Difference?

People often confuse abstinence with recovery; while they are actually different, there is some overlap. Abstinence is the act of choosing to not engage in an addictive behavior. Many active addicts go through periods of abstinence attempting to prove to themselves and others that they are not addicts, or attempting to regain control of the addictive behavior. While abstinence by itself certainly reduces the consequences of active use, nothing else changes. Neurotransmitter depletion is not addressed, new coping skills are not developed, new ways of relaxing, having fun and socializing are not explored, and rarely does the social group change. Thus, the abstinent addict is “white knuckling” it, and typically is still experiencing spiritual, emotional and physical distress. At that point, many addicts “switch addictions”. They begin new addictive behaviors, or increase the current addiction. Thus, the abstinent opiate addict, or alcoholic will often tremendously increase their use of sugar or nicotine, and the stimulant addict will switch to 20 cups of coffee, iced tea or monster drinks per day. They then wonder why their “recovery” is lacking in “serenity” and are at high risk for relapse!

Recovery, on the other hand, is a process of progressive transformation of the entire person: body, mind,and spirit, emotions, and relationships. Because recovery comprises much more than just abstinence, it can actually begin prior to abstinence! In fact, some recovery may be necessary in order to be willing and able to attain abstinence from all addictive processes. Recovery is similar to the process people go through when they move from one country to a very different one. They have to learn a new language, new mores, new ways of eating and new ways of relating to others. This process takes time, effort and support, but ultimately becomes very comfortable. Recovery involves addressing all the underlying elements which drove the addiction: restoring neurotransmitter function, eating a pro-recovery diet, healing underlying emotional trauma, shame, guilt and resentment, learning news ways of dealing with stress and painful situations, learning how to have fun without addictive behaviors, and creating a healthier way of relating to self, others and God. It cannot be done in a vacuum, takes time and occurs in stages. Once this new way of living has become comfortable and is consistently maintained and supported, a return to addictive behavior is quite rare.

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