What Does It Mean To Be “In Recovery”?

I am in recovery. Before I got into recovery I had one idea of what that meant, what that looked like. Who the people in recovery were. Now that I am in recovery, I have a whole different perspective. It’s not quite what you may think.

I’m in recovery because of my alcoholism. There are a couple of other things for which I might need to be in recovery as well, and I’ve been exploring different groups. Going into recovery is basically what you do when you admit that a problem has you licked, whether that problem be drinking or over-eating or sex or the way you relate to other people. You’ve tried a lot of different ways to fix this thing, and you’ve failed every other time.

But here’s the thing about recovery, as I understand it – you don’t get fixed. You just keep working on it. In my group we say that we claim progress, not perfection. I am a recovering alcoholic, not a recovered alcoholic. This is vital to understand, and it is for sure NOT something I understood when I first got sober. I met people who had a lot of years sober and they were still working a program and I was like, “What the hell – you haven’t touched a drink in 30 years. You’re cured!”

But nobody is cured. We have ways of thinking and reacting that have been conditioned into us by many things – genes, experiences, trauma – and if we’re not mindful of those modes of thinking and reacting, we can easily slip back into them. Even with 30 sober years.

As such, recovery is an ongoing process. Many forms of recovery take the shape of 12 step programs, but the 12 steps aren’t a thing you do one time and then call it a day. When you finish the 12 steps you go right back to the start and do it again. I mean, you can take a couple of weeks or whatever, but the point isn’t to check off the steps and then never think about them again.

Doing the 12 steps again is vital because each time through you learn more about yourself. You uncover more things from your own history. You change the way you think, and that guy you hated and swore didn’t deserve an amends? The second time around you might realize you actually owe that dude a big amends. You keep doing the work and digging deeper, always looking to figure out where you were at fault in the past and as such learning how to not make that mistake again in the future.

I have seen this in action in my own recovery. There are people who, a few months ago, I would never have apologized to. But I’ve been working and thinking and listening and I’ve come to the conclusion that yeah, I do owe those people apologies. And I’m glad to make them, even if they won’t be well received.

Recovery is a process, and it’s one that goes on forever. I guess if you become enlightened, achieve nirvana, you’ll be fully recovered. But since most of us will never know that fulfillment we just have to keep doing the work. It’s a daily thing, a thing you have to come back to again and again. It’s like getting a haircut – that great cut will eventually grow out, and you will have to get it touched up. It will require daily maintenance. It’s like going to the gym, but for your mind and soul – you can make gains, but you can also lose them even faster than you made them.

I’m grateful to have found a way of life that allows me to actively work to become better. I know that tomorrow I may be better than I am today, but that I will never be perfect. But knowing that isn’t an obstacle from striving. It actually helps me strive – I know that there is no perfect end state towards which I am journeying. I’m just trying to get better every day.

By the way: I don’t want to talk too much about recovery on this blog. People in the programs are – rightly – concerned about maintaining a low profile. In my fellowship we don’t seek out people, we try to attract people who need help by modeling our own recovery. I also don’t speak for recovery, and I don’t want to create a situation where, if I relapse, it looks like recovery failed me. That said, I am always happy to answer any questions, especially privately.