SAMHSA Defines What "Recovery" Means for Addiction

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After five months of discussion the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has come up with a working definition of what it means to be in recovery. This follows a blog post back in August that tried to pin down a meaning acceptable to the treatment community.

Make no mistake, definitions matter. In the extreme case, one label will get someone ruled not guilty by reason of insanity and without it, life in prison. And “recovery” does need some clarification. We hear the term bandied about so much the concept is lost. “He’s in recovery.” “I’m a recovering alcoholic.”

The original blog entry received more than 250 comments. It’s worth reading. Some of the comments didn’t make the final cut. For instance, there’s nothing about spirituality in the SAMHSA definition, although that is mentioned in AA literature and by respondents to the blog posting:
”Recovery is spiritual. Meditation, prayer, yoga are some sources to help one heal his/her mind and find balance. If one has faith or a belief in a Higher Power, it gives people a reason to achieve the goal of remaining drug/alcohol free.”

What SAMHSA ended up with was this – “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.

That’s a much higher standard than just abstinence, one that the never-addicted community could adopt. In fact, a close reading could have someone still using and labeled “in recovery.” And it still leaves a lot of wiggle room. What, for instance does “strive to reach their full potential” really mean in that?

Part of the problem is the nature of addiction. Any addict can tell you that getting better isn’t necessarily a straight-line process. Instead of constant and continuous improvement, it is more likely to be a series of forward and backward steps. We try. We fail and we try again. Perhaps that is captured in the “process of change” part, but sometimes the change isn’t very clear, nor does it seem at times like much progress at all.

But here is where it stands for now. Addicts and alcoholics can now receive the official label, the label that might get them probation instead of jail, a job instead of no work, and access to resources instead of a brusque dismissal.

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