Abstinence and Recovery

To “abstain” from something means to forego from partaking of it.  One can abstain from just about any substance or behavior.

Abstaining is a central feature of many religious observances, for example fasting during religious holidays.  There is an important distinction to be made between abstinence and recovery when we talk about being addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Abstinence and recovery are different concepts because of the behaviour associated with each of these.  Even though in both cases the person will not be using drugs their behaviour will be greatly different.  People who simply stop using drugs or alcohol and don’t change their behaviour tend to remain miserable.  There’s an old joke that goes “if you sober up a drunken horse thief and you’ve just got a sober horse thief”.

Because abstinence from drugs and alcohol is a prerequisite for recovery it is apparent that abstinence and recovery work hand in hand.  It’s important to understand that abstinence doe not equal recovery.

If a person starts using drugs or alcohol (and so is no longer abstinent) then they clearly cannot be in recovery.  From this it follows that recovery can be seen as the condition of being abstinent AND working a program of change.  It is the program of change that brings about the benefits of sobriety.

Choosing between abstinence and recovery should be an easy decision.  Recovery has many personal benefits that abstinence simply cannot offer.  Because the recovering alcoholic or addict has changed his/her behaviour they will find that their lives improve.  The abstinent alcoholic or addict will still face many of the difficulties that they experienced while drunk or high.

You can tell the difference between abstinence and recovery by the state of that person’s serenity.  Abstinent people seldom exhibit the level of serenity that a person in healthy recovery enjoys.  They will frantically try to maintain control over everything in their lives and experience stress when they realise that something is not within their control.  They’ll be rude to people and never know why they are isolated.  The recovering addict will be evaluating his/her behaviour and adjusting it in accordance with a program of personal growth.

People coming into a drug or alcohol rehab centre are not aware of the differences between abstinence and recovery.  They may feel that they are just in rehab to quit their substance and then go home.

However it is very important that abstinence and recovery must not be confused – if a person who is merely abstinent and miserable thinks that they are in recovery they will never be motivated to properly work the program that could free them from the misery that is being abstinent.

Addicts and alcoholics are in the grip of compulsion (using drugs/alcohol compulsively) and obsession (focusing all of their attention on drugs/alcohol).  Abstinence and recovery are both life saving conditions but only recovery will help the addict to become free of the obsession around addiction and alcoholism.

The abstinent person will still want to use drugs/alcohol and obsessively daydream about it.  Every time something goes wrong their first impulse will be to pick up drugs and alcohol but they know that to do so is disaster.  This is a very unpleasant state to be in and is referred to as “white knuckling” because it is similar to holding onto something so tightly that your knuckles turn white.  Recovering addicts and alcoholics are freed from this obsession because they have made changes in their behaviours and attitudes.

We can see that choosing between abstinence and recovery should be an easy decision!  If you want to help a person with addiction to drugs or alcohol then counsellors at We Do Recover will be glad to provide you with expert advice.

Please contact us to discuss on:

SA: 081 444 7000 Normal Cell rates apply

Or UK: 0800 955 4357 UK addictions freephone.


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