In the recovery world one often hears the phrase “good sobriety.” We believe this is something of a misnomer, one that confuses the all-important distinction between sobriety and recovery. Too often, terms like recovery, sobriety, or even addiction are used without being clearly defined. Sobriety simply means physical abstinence. It is often used as a quantitative measure in the treatment world. Recovery involves identifying, addressing, and resolving the issues that drive (e.g., stress, trauma, resentment) the addictive behavior. It is difficult work that makes many demands of client and provider alike.
Recovery does not follow from mere sobriety. Addicts want to believe that recovery is a function of getting clean, of getting past the pain and discomfort of withdrawal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sobriety is but a prerequisite to the hard work of recovery. Abusing drugs and alcohol is symptomatic of a much deeper constellation of problems. And those issues can only be dealt with when the addict is sober. She must put down one coping skill before she can learn another.
Unfortunately, many addicts only find sobriety. That is, they never effectively address the issues that drove them to drink. Many of them relapse, while others succumb to what are known as “process addictions” (e.g., gambling, shopping, digital gaming). This can be very confusing (and unappealing) to newcomers; they are chagrined to see addicts in long term sobriety struggling to find purpose, meaning, or a measure of contentment.
For many of us, recovery was a life-or-death struggle. Misery and relapse were our constant companions until we were shown how to deal with the demons that drove our addiction. We learned that many of those demons only grew stronger with the passage of time. Therefore it is so important to make a sharp distinction between abstinence and recovery. Otherwise, we will labor under the false assumption that one will recover through the passage of time. The bad news is that recovery is hard work; the good news is that recovery is hard work. It is valued because it is earned.