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  What is Recovery?
What recovery is not - and what it is
Floyd P. Garrett, M.D.

An alcoholic with some years of successful sobriety behind him once remarked that when he was still drinking, his notion of recovery was that it must be like he felt after waking up on Sunday morning and realizing that he had run out of booze. Recovery, as he saw it at the time through the lens of his active alcoholism, really meant deprivation, indeed, life-long deprivation. He envisioned year after year of desperately wanting but being unable to drink. It was therefore not surprising that he recoiled with horror and disgust from such a dire and wretched prospect - and kept on drinking for many additional years as though thereby to flee a fate worse than death itself, recovery(which for him meant only: prolonged deprivation and withdrawal).

Because individuals in the grip of addiction characteristically imagine recovery to be a state of perpetual and ultimately futile self-denial and deprivation with no gain except the questionable(to them) satisfaction of doing the right thing(and perhaps staying out of trouble with those around them!), they are seldom attracted, but are far more commonly repelled, by the prospect of a life without the gratification of their addiction(s). The mere mention of the word recovery to an active addict may result in the same kind of snarling, shrinking-back and fending-off that movie vampires display at the sign of the Cross.

And if recovery from addiction indeed means no more than giving up the addiction and thereafter existing indefinitely in what amounts to a state of chronic, unmitigated and fundamentally unrecompensed withdrawal, in a kind of reduced, constricted and hedonically emasculated pseudo-existence, then it ought not to surprise anyone that addicted individuals thinking this way, i.e. the majority of addicted individuals, quite commonly choose to pass up the chance to embrace it. Thanks - but no thanks! is the common reply to suggestions that they thenceforth live a life that seems to them both boring and painful.

Alcoholics in treatment(actually in pre-treatment, before they stop drinking) not infrequently exclaim: 'I'd rather be dead than go to rehab or to AA!' In part this is an aversion to the embarrassment and humiliation they associate with such a course; but the deeper dread is that of an existence deprived of alcohol. Life, they reason, is already hard enough - even with alcohol. The prospect of living without what seems to them their sole comfort, protector and enhancer, alcohol, is more than they can or will imagine. And so they continue to drink, often well aware of at least a substantial portion of the harm their drinking is doing to them. For bad as things are for them while drinking, the alternative, i.e. recovery, seems unquestionably worse - in fact, unendurable. And anyone who proposes such a course to the active alcoholic risks being regarded as an ignorant, even a sadistic fool who does not even begin to understand the implications of what he is so flippantly suggesting: a life without alcohol.

Therefore, the first step in answering the question, "What is recovery?' is to specify clearly and unmistakably what recovery is not:

Recovery is not a state of permanent wretchedness and deprivation more appropriate to a self-abnegating sacrificial religious mystic of the hair shirt variety than to an ordinary individual seeking to be set free from the coils of addiction. For if recovery were indeed such an affair of loss, suffering and perpetual struggle, who but saints, heroes, masochists or madmen could possibly desire or hope to succeed(if success is the right word for such a horrific enterprise) at it?

There is of course much more that recovery is not(but which pre-recovering addicted individuals typically believe that it is). For example:

Recovery is not a false, hypocritical, smarmy and nauseating ongoing Sunday School lesson of the worst possible type, in which the addicted individual, formerly(as he sees it) free and independent, is horribly transformed(brainwashed?) into a dependent and unthinking zombie-conformist reduced to chanting banal bumper-sticker slogans to console him for his loss not only of his addiction but of his very self.

What then can recovery be said to be in a truly positive sense? If we shuck away all of the misleading and instantly repellent things that recovery is not(but is commonly thought to be by those regarding it from afar with mingled contempt and horror), what then is left?

Recovery at its simplest and indeed in its essence is about nothing more or less than the recovery of life itself. It is about getting back something of value(life), not merely giving up something that is strongly desired(addiction). For addiction, which seems to be the friend and even the enhancer of life, is in reality its deadliest and most incorrigible adversary. Addiction by its very nature is a form of bondage, even slavery (L. addictere, to be bound to another). Recovery is the recovery of life and of freedom.

Recovery, in other words, is about increase, addition, augmentation, expansion, health and growth - not, as it invariably seems to the addicted individual, about subtraction, diminution, decrease and even a form of living death(life lacking any meaning once the addiction is taken away, &etc.). It is about liberation and freedom from the progressively totalitarian and constricting demands of addiction(see "Getting Away With Addiction?" for more information).

Yet it seems that this simple and amply confirmed knowledge is seldom effectively communicable to those who most need it, those for whom indeed in some cases it is literally a matter of life or death. For it is as though not merely their eyes and their ears have been stopped and obstructed by the unwillingness of their addiction to hear the truth that threatens its continued dominance over them - but their very judgment and intelligence themselves have become so infiltrated and corrupted by the *agent provocateurs* of the addiction that, like the brainwashed citizens of a closely censored totalitarian tyranny, they are willfully impervious to everything that seems to contradict the Party, i.e. the addiction line.

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Original Papers

The Addict's Dilemna

Addiction, Lies and Relationships

Addiction and the Mechanisms of Defense

Alcohol Addiction

Drug Therapy of Alcohol Dependence

Excuses Alcoholics Make

The Female Partner of the Male Alcoholic

Getting Away With Addiction? 

Intervention for Alcohol and Drug Dependence

Obstacles to Recovery from Addiction

Prescription Drug Abuse

Prolegomenon to the Metaphysics of Recovery

What is Recovery?

Why is Recovery So Hard?

Worried Sick About His Drinking?

Your First AA Meeting: An Unofficial Guide for the Perplexed