Abstinence predicts sustained recovery…


The graphic I’ve shared today (taken from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA)) tells an important story about the relationship between abstinence from abusing substances and sustained recovery.  As the graphic illustrates:

  • 36% of those who abstain for 1-12 months will achieve sustained recovery
  • 66% who abstain for 1 to 3 years will achieve sustained recovery
  • 86% of those what abstain for 3 or more years will probably achieve sustained recovery

While I see this data as good news, it does bring to mind a question for me: Does recovery mean abstinence?

The challenge I have with any single measure is that those measures tend to oversimplify a complex situation.  Because I feel strongly that most drug use is symptomatic of a deeper issue, I fear that we as a community will continue to see drug and alcohol (and process) addictions as binaries: If someone uses, he or she isn’t ok, while if he or she doesn’t use, he or she is ok.  This either/or approach, to me, doesn’t address the truth about addiction, which is that it is a disease that impacts humanity on spiritual, emotional, and physical levels.  If we approach addiction on one variable alone, there’s a really good chance we will forget other areas of life that need attention.

Don’t get me wrong, I think abusing drugs/alcohol/processes clouds reason and distracts from the deeper issues a person faces.  I don’t believe someone can become holistically healthy while actively using because the entire point of life becomes abuse of the drug/alcohol/process.  I just caution against defining recovery as not using.  Basically, what I take from the graphic is that the longer a person goes without using drugs/alcohol, the higher the likelihood that the person won’t use ever again.

Because substance and process use disorders are complex and layered, I think we should seek a treatment protocol that looks at the entire person and then defines recovery from that perspective.  But, I do think that studies that demonstrate the impact that abstinence does have provide good data.  I just caution about it being the only set of data to use.  Abstinence is a good goal and measure and of recovery, but I think we should find other ones, too….