man standing alone

The Difference Between Abstinence and Recovery


Sober Recovery Expert Author

man standing alone

Jason hasn’t had a drink in over five years. He attends 12-Step meetings and offers some pretty good advice at times. He even gets asked to share his story at recovery group meetings. On the outside, Jason looks like he’s got himself together. He has this whole sobriety thing down.

Meanwhile, at home and at work Jason is a completely different man. Sure, he’s sober, but just ask his coworkers and his wife to describe him and you’ll hear them say things like the following:

Recovery involves more than just putting down drugs or alcohol.
  • “He’s not a very nice guy. He’s controlling, short-fused and egotistical. He walks around like he’s God’s gift to earth and doesn’t give a lick about anyone but himself.”
  • “All he does is talk about himself. He lies. He does whatever it takes to get ahead.”
  • “I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him.”
  • “He’s emotionally absent. He won’t help me with the kids and God forbid I ask him to take the trash out.”

Why do you think this is? Why can Jason be looked upon so favorably at his 12-Step meetings but so miserably by others outside of them?

The Cold, Hard Truth About Abstinence

The answer to the question lies in the difference between abstinence and recovery. Abstinence means to no longer do something. In Jason’s case, this would be drinking. He put down the booze five years ago and he attends meetings regularly. However, he has yet to really embrace a life of “recovery.”

Recovery is more than simply putting down the drink or drug—rather, it’s embarking on an inner path of personal and spiritual growth. While abstinence is the necessary foundation for starting this journey, true recovery is taking time and actions toward grooming your mental, emotional and spiritual aspect of being.

Think of a flower, for instance. You start with a seed but in order for it to grow, you’ve got to plant it and water it regularly. To use this as a metaphor, abstinence is the seed, planting it is the decision to get on the path to recovery and the act of watering symbolizes taking actual action toward growth. In the end, the result in your life will be as rewarding and beautiful as a blooming rose.

The Journey to Recovery

If we go back to Jason’s story, we see that he never embraced inner change. He simply stopped drinking. Some people call that a “dry drunk.” Why? Because he refused to do “inner work.” He never took action to really make himself a better person. Instead, he simply played the part while at meetings. Recovery is much more than not picking up a drink. It’s even more than just attending a meeting. Recovery is applying techniques and tools to foster inner awareness and growth.

Here are just some of the ways you can do this:

  • Contend with some of the root reasons why you have seething anger deep down inside.
  • Commit to a season of counseling in order to dig deep for personal change.
  • Get through life’s problems using healthy coping skills.
  • “Recover” from anything in you that you’re not happy with (other addictions, depression, anxiety, rage, etc.)
  • Humble yourself to reach out for help when you need it.
  • Believe that you can become a better person and add value to humanity.
  • Reach out to others who need help.

If you’re sober, take some time to really think about whether you’re “recovering” or not. Are you doing “the work” or simply abstaining from the drink? How would your coworkers, spouse, family members, and friends describe you?

Recovery is a highly individualistic path and there are various avenues you can take to succeed. Some choose to attend 12-Step meetings, counseling sessions or seminars; others read books, take the spiritual route and so on. Why not see what works for you? And as you take steps towards your journey, remember that abstaining from drugs and alcohol is a wonderful thing, along with recovery.

If you or someone you know is seeking help from substance addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 800-772-8219 to start the path to recovery today.

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