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Recovery from alcohol or substance use


by Roger Whittler, LPC, Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program Clinician

Based on my experience working alongside lawyers, the ability to thoroughly describe something in concise terms is a virtue. As a clinician, even I sometimes struggle with describing recovery. I meet people who are performing at the highest level, and I am caught off guard when they tell me they are in recovery. Many treatment programs encourage participants to be open about their recovery, thereby reaffirming the commitment to abstinence from drugs or alcohol. Clearly the word recovery can mean different things to different people. I listed three definitions of recovery below, although there are many more definitions that are used in a variety of disciplines.

  1. Recovery is a state of sustained abstinence from a drug or category of drugs to which one previously met the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder (White, 2007, p. 231).
  2. Recovery 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 (SAMHSA, 2012).
  3. Recovery is an ongoing process, and its maintenance requires specific strategies to manage day-to-day challenges (Wiebe, Cleveland, & Dean, 2010).

One of these definitions describes a “state” of recovery, and the other two describe a “process” of recovery. It is an important distinction when we consider how to support someone who is trying to stop using. If we approach recovery as a state, then we assume the person is going to continue in recovery without relapses. If we approach recovery as a process – then we assume there may be relapses. My training has taught me that relapses are more than likely to occur, and when they do, they serve as a “training ground” to prevent further relapses. By using the term “training ground” to refer to relapses, it becomes an opportunity to examine why the relapse occurred. For example:

  • Why did this person relapse on Thursday?
  • What was the weather like on Thursday?
  • What happened at work on Thursday?
  • What happened on Wednesday or just prior to Thursday?

Being in recovery is a minority status that is often associated with a negative stigma. Such stigma can deter help seeking, increase criminalization, and reduce overall positive opportunities in life. There are many barriers to successful recovery that include feeling socially isolated because many social events revolve around alcohol. Many social activities occur in abstinence-hostile environments, or those places where everyone expects drinking or drug usage. The most frequent difficulty with recovery is how to find pleasure again without drinking or using, and managing countless hours waiting for the temptations to cease. The good news? If a relapse occurs, recovery is still possible, and support is available. The euphoria of being sober is a great reward – it is re-claiming ourselves from the grip of substances and redefining our lives as one of overcoming adversity, freedom and clarity. My personal description of recovery is “the process of re-claiming what belongs to us – from the hands of alcohol or substance use.” This will strengthen our ability to serve others as legal professionals.

If you need support in your efforts to sustain recovery, the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program is here to help. Call toll free 1-800-688-7859.


Iarussi, Melanie M. (2018). The Experiences of College Students in Recovery from Substance Use Disorders Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling • April 2018 • Volume 39.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). SAMHSA’s working definition of recovery. Retrieved from https://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content//PEP12-RECDEF/ PEP12-RECDEF.pdf.

White, W. L. (2009). The mobilization of community resources to support long-term addiction recovery. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 36,146–158 doi: 10.1016/j.jsat.2008.10.006.

Wiebe, R. P., Cleveland, H. H., & Harris, K. S. (2010). The need for college recovery services. In H. H. Cleveland, K. S. Harris, & R. P. Wiebe (Eds.), Substance abuse recovery in college: Community supported abstinence (pp. 1–8). New York, NY: Springer.