As a member of a 12-Step fellowship I’m aware of the ongoing debate in relation to using the terms “recovered” vs “recovering” alcoholic or addict. Ultimately, how someone describes themselves is a personal matter of preference and relates to their self-perception. I also think that how they interpret the above terms dictates their point of view to a large degree.
Part of my aim in writing this article is to explore the reasoning given by many ‘Big Book’ (BB) literalists for insisting that they are “recovered alcoholics”. In the UK, AA ‘Big Book’ literalism seems to have become increasing prevalent since the late 1990’s with the popularity of the ‘Back to Basics’ movement imported from the United States. The Joe McQ books and ‘Joe and Charlie’ tapes being examples of this type of philosophy. Big Book study groups are now a common format for AA meetings in the UK.
The point of view often given by Big Book literalists for preferring the term ‘recovered’, rather than ‘recovering’, is that it’s used in the forward to the first edition, and commonly, throughout the Big Book:
“WE, OF Alcoholics Anonymous, are more than one hundred men and women who have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. To show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered is the main purpose of this book.”
Apparently the term ‘recovering’ is only used on a couple of occasions throughout the book. This begs the question – what did the founders actually mean when using the term ‘recovered’? Any reasonable interpretation of AA literature will leave the reader in no doubt that the early members of the fellowship considered spiritual transformation, or ‘psychic change’, necessary for recovery from alcoholism. Mere abstinence was not enough to be fully recovered from what they considered was primarily a spiritual illness. Unless deep transformation of a spiritual nature was experienced the alcoholic mind (insane reasoning, denial etc) was still present within the sufferer and a return to drinking was eventually inevitable.
The Big Book, p.85, 3rd ed, also clearly suggests that ongoing recovery is dependent upon maintaining a ‘fit spiritual condition’, and that “we are not cured of alcoholism”. It’s also worth mentioning that the Big Book, in appendix 2, p. 569, 3rd ed, suggests that rather than an event, a ‘spiritual awakening’ is more often an educational process which happens “slowly over a period of time”. The following passage also suggests that recovery is an ongoing process and one that must be maintained and developed on a daily basis:
“AA is not a plan for recovery that can be finished and done with. It is a way of life, and the challenge contained in its principles is great enough to keep any human being striving for as long as he lives. We do not, cannot, outgrow this plan. As arrested alcoholics, we must have a program for living that allows for limitless expansion. Keeping one foot in front of the other is essential for maintaining our arrestment. Others may idle in a retrogressive groove without too much danger, but retrogression can spell death for us.”
Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd Edition, p. 311
These statements, and in particular the use of the word ‘arrested’, which is a synonym for being in ‘remission’, and can be partial or full in nature, seem to suggest that ongoing treatment of the condition is required in order stay free of the symptoms of alcoholism. This understanding seems to lend itself more to the term ‘recovering’ in my view, rather than ‘recovered’, which is often associated with being ‘cured’ from an illness and has a past tense meaning. The term ‘recovering’, according to the dictionary definition, is the process of regaining one’s health and well-being from an illness or disorder. In my experience, healing from the often complex and underlying issues (bio-psycho-social-spiritual in nature) that contribute to the development of addiction takes time, often many years of ongoing effort and treatment. However, the reasons why people develop problems with addiction varies, and, therefore, so does the time and effort required by each individual in order to fully recover.
According to AA archived historical documentation in relation to the ‘first 100 members’ (1) of the fellowship, many of them clearly didn’t maintain their ‘recovery’ from alcoholism. From the documents I’ve seen, a significant number failed in maintaining their sobriety. Bill Wilson, suggests in his writings, that 50% fully recovered, with a further 25% having problems, to one degree or another, with relapsing, and a further 25% not achieving recovery. This is where the statistic of a 75% recovery rate for early AA members comes from, often stated by BB literalists. (2)
The actual figure of ‘recovered’ alcoholics is certainly a lot less than the 100 examples stated in the forward to the first edition of the Big Book. Unless you consider relatively short periods of abstinence to mean ‘recovered’. Looking at the various lengths of sobriety of the first 100 members of AA, many of who literally only had several months of not drinking behind them, the evidence strongly suggests that Bill Wilson most probably meant ‘being currently abstinent’ in using the term ‘recovered’ throughout the BB. Most of the early members of AA were seriously alcoholic and maintaining any length of sobriety, even for few months, was nothing short of miraculous – hence the use of the term ‘recovered’ by Bill in relation to being abstinent.
Important figures in the early history and formation of AA, who’d supposedly undergone a spiritual conversion experience and recovered from a ‘hopeless state of mind and body’, and yet still had problems with relapsing, were Rowland Hazard (member of the Oxford Group, but not AA) Edwin ‘Ebby’ Thatcher, Hank Parkhurst (although, a non-believer) and the first female member of AA, Florence Rankin. Parkhurst and Rankin both returned to drinking again not long after their stories were published in the first edition of the Big Book, never regaining their sobriety.
In mentioning the above historical facts my intention is not to discredit 12-Step recovery. Though, by no means perfect recovery rates, they are still impressive for what was often considered by the medical community of the time as a terminal condition. My point is to question the dogmatic statements of those who are very literal in relation to the language used in the Big Book. There seems to be many contradictory assertions within the book and often the reasoning is far from perfect. As with any literature, particularly of a spiritual nature, the onus is upon the reader to interpret what is meant by the author, as well as to accept or reject the points of view that are offered within the text. “Take what you like and leave the rest” was often the pragmatic suggestion made to me as a newcomer to AA in the early 1990’s before the dominance of Big Book absolutism. The fellowship of AA was founded upon liberal principles and “does not demand than you believe anything”. (3)
The Big Book was also written in ignorance of current research into addiction and recovery, and well before the invention of modern day technology, which has greatly increased our understanding of the addiction and recovery process. I’m not saying that the book doesn’t include helpful insights, experience and suggestions, as in my opinion it does. However, the views expressed in the BB shouldn’t just be accepted without questioning either.
Types and Styles of Recovery
I believe that there are different types and styles of recovery, all valid depending upon the differing capacities, goals, and needs of the individual. Substance misuse and addiction exists upon a wide spectrum, and often includes co-occurring disorders that require addressing for successful recovery to occur.
12-Step recovery is a process of holistic healing and change and is fundamentally spiritual in nature, as originally conceived by its founders. If this process is committed to fully, and maintained, wholesale change and growth can and does occur in people. I have experienced ongoing change to a significant degree myself through this method, but still have plenty work to do and for me it seems very much a developmental process. Do I think people in 12-Step recovery can be ‘recovered’, or are they in the process of ‘recovering’? Only the individual concerned can really answer this question for themselves, and I don’t want to speak for others in recovery – but where I’m concerned, I prefer the term ‘recovering’. Even though I cannot envisage myself drinking alcohol or abusing drugs again, and feel free from any desire to do so, recovery for me is more than just being abstinent. I consider myself to still be in the process of healing, and possibly will always be so, from the underlying issues that led to my addiction.
However, I also know people who say they have ‘recovered’, and some of them have changed dramatically and are now leading fully functioning, happy and purposeful lives with a large degree of contentment, and absolutely no desire whatsoever to drink or ‘use’ drugs. Who am I to disagree with their description of themselves or to judge their internal state of ‘being’. The truth is we are all different and capable of different things and ways of being, and each of us experiences recovery uniquely. “To each his own” and “To thine own self be true”, are wise maxims that I choose to follow.
It’s important that as individuals we feel comfortable with our own identity, whether it be a ‘recovered’ person or someone who’s always ‘recovering’. In the end the choice is yours – ‘whatever works for you’.
For me, the above debate is a paradoxical issue. In one respect I’m a ‘recovered’ alcoholic/addict, in that I’m free from the obsession and compulsion to drink alcohol or misuse other drugs – “a hopeless state of mind and body”. I don’t have a problem with drinking or misusing other drugs any longer. In this medical sense I’m a ‘recovered’ alcoholic/addict.
On a deeper level, the bio-psycho-social-spiritual pre-determining factors that led to my addiction will, to a certain degree, and for some more than others, still be present. These factors require ongoing work/treatment in order to prevent a return to ‘active’ addiction. In this sense I’m in ‘recovery’ – the ongoing process of healing, growth, and ‘recovering’.