I had an interesting conversation the other day during lunch that orbited around the idea that language is representative.  We talked about a table and how the word, “table,” represents something with which we’re commonly familiar, but isn’t the table itself.  Pretty much everything we say and write represents something and there’s an underlying social contract about those representations.  It was one of the more fun conversations I’ve had in a ling time.

It got me thinking, though.  Since language is in fact representative, then what does “recovery” mean?  In general, I think when it comes to substance abuse, “recovery” means a state of freedom from the substance of abuse.  But, I really want to understand recovery, so I looked it up in a few dictionaries.  According to those dictionaries, “recovery” means two things:

  1. To return to a state of normal health
  2. To regain possession of something that was lost

I have no doubt that both of those definitions apply to recovery from substance abuse.  The challenge, though, is that what do those definitions really mean?

You see, meaning applies on various levels one of which is behavioral.  This behavioral level of meaning is called the “pragmatic” level (the dictionary meaning level is known as the “semantic” level of meaning).  Therefore, from a pragmatic level of meaning, it seems that in order to really understand recovery from a substance abuse disorder, we need to understand the outcome of each person’s substance abuse.  In general, substances have different physical outcomes; that is, opiates wreak havoc on a person’s respiratory system; alcohol wrecks the liver, while cocaine weakens a person’s heart.  But those are just the high-level and general physical impacts.  Diet is often compromised while actively abusing substances and there are always associated risks of developing other physical pathologies such as Hep C (from needles) or diabetes (associated with alcohol abuse).   If a person’s physical health has deteriorated during active substance abuse, then returning to a “normal” state of health may be wrought with diagnosable ailments.  Basically, it means that abstaining from substances of abuse may not be the only issue in a return to physical health.

What’s more striking to me is the “regaining what was lost” definition of recovery.  All too often, so much is lost to a substance abuse disorder that it can be a challenge just to identify what was lost.  In general, relationships with self, others, and community are gone while abusing substances.  For example, while there are “functional” substance abusers, several do not have steady work which means that they cannot participate economically with the world around them.  This lack of participation means that a substance abuser operates more in a “shadow economy” and does not have a relationship with the economy in which most participate.  Substance abusers tend to have very few relationships with friends and family; most relate mainly with their “connect” (for those who don’t know, the connect is the person from whom a substance abuser acquires his or her substance of abuse) and don’t have any legitimate attachments to anything other then the substance of abuse.

I could go on, but I think it’s becoming more and more commonly known that substance abuse is a physically debilitating and socially isolating disease.  Recovery, then, is not a simple matter of abstaining from a substance of abuse.  As is the case with most problems, recovery requires awareness of what each person needs to regain some semblance of physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  Meaning can be tricky, but I do think that in order to really “recover” from a substance abuse disorder, a person must answer three questions:

  1. What have you lost to your substance?
  2. How do you want your life to look in one year ?
  3. What can you do right now that will help you get there (must be answered every day)?

These two questions are a place to start defining what recovery really means.  If people would write down their responses to those questions, I think they’d find a roadmap to their recovery.