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Recovered Alcoholic vs Recovering Alcoholic | What Do They Mean?

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What’s the difference between being a recovered alcoholic and a recovering alcoholic?

We hear it all the time in AA.

I’m a recovered alcoholic or recovered addict.

I’m a recovering alcoholic or recovering addict.

But what does that mean?

Why do we say it?

Recovering Alcoholic vs Recovered Alcoholic — Recovered = No More Pain

Being recovered means that I don’t suffer anymore.

I no longer have the suffering of the mind.

I’m no longer obsessing about alcohol or drugs.

I’m no longer fighting that obsession.

This might sound close to being a recovering alcoholic, but it’s actually so different it might as well be two completely different words.

Let me give you a metaphor.

If I get cancer, and the cancer has gone away, I can say that I’ve recovered from the cancer.

Right?

If I’m still fighting the cancer, but the cancer is not gone, then I’m recovering.

But the cancer is still there.

Now if I’ve recovered, the cancer can still come back if I don’t do what the doctors tell me to do.

This is how it works for alcoholism and drug addiction.

Still Fighting? Or Free?

If I’m a recovering alcoholic, that means I’m still fighting.

I’m fighting that mental obsession.

I’m fighting the urge to drink.

The urge to get high.

If I’m recovered, that means the mental obsession has gone away.

It can still come back if I don’t do what I’m supposed to do.

It can still become a serious problem.

I can still relapse.

Just like the cancer can come back if I don’t do what the doctors tell me to do.

Being a recovered alcoholic means there’s no fight because the thing we fight is gone.

(Are you struggling with sobriety? This women’s alcohol recovery program can help you stay sober for a lifetime after recovering from alcoholism.)

Why Does It Matter If I Say I’m a Recovered Alcoholic or a Recovering Alcoholic?

Does it really matter if I say I’m a recovered alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic?

This is a critical distinction.

It matters a lot.

If I’m still recovering, it means I’m still fighting. I’m not free. I can’t be around alcohol or drugs at all. I can’t say if I’m going to stay sober today or not.

We hear all the time how we just need to stay sober for today.

If I could have just stayed sober one day at a time, I would have done that without ever going through the 12 steps.

I would have been recovered without doing anything.

And if I could do that, I probably wouldn’t be considered an alcoholic in the first place.

I can’t do that.

I don’t have the ability to do that.

I don’t have the ability to recover without doing something.

That something is the 12 steps.

The Steps Lead to Becoming a Recovered Alcoholic

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous talks about becoming a recovered alcoholic.

It says on the title page that this is the story of, “How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism.”

Recovered.

It doesn’t say anything about being a recovering alcoholic.

It says that this is not just how they got sober.

It’s how they recovered from the mental disease.

The way we become recovered alcoholics, the method by which we become recovered alcoholics, is the 12 steps.

It tells us in the Big Book exactly when that’s supposed to happen and what it looks like—it takes place right after step 9.

On pages 84–85, it says, “We have ceased fighting anything or anyone–even alcohol. For by this time sanity will have returned. We will seldom be interested in liquor. If tempted, we recoil from it as from a hot flame.

“We react sanely and normally, and we will find that this has happened automatically. We will see that our new attitude toward liquor has been given us without any thought or effort on our part. It just comes! That is the miracle of it. We are not fighting it, neither are we avoiding temptation.

“We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality–safe and protected. We have not even sworn off. Instead, the problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. We are neither cocky nor are we afraid. That is our experience. That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.”

That’s what it means to be a recovered alcoholic and not a recovering alcoholic.

We are safe and protected.

We no longer have the same reaction to alcohol and drugs that we once did.

Before, all we could do was think about it.

Now, it doesn’t even cross our minds.

That’s what it means to be a recovered alcoholic and not a recovering alcoholic.

Am I a Recovered Addict If I Take a Drug Like Suboxone?

This is a particularly important question because so many addicts take Suboxone to stay sober.

What’s interesting is that, in meetings, they will introduce themselves as recovered addicts or recovering addicts.

Though we’ve talked a lot about the difference between these two words, those differences fall away when we talk about something like Suboxone.

Suboxone is everywhere, and I think it’s foolish to say that Suboxone is a totally bad thing.

Anything that gets an IV heroin user (or just a snorter like me) off of heroin is a good thing.

Anything that keeps people from buying drugs on the streets and never knowing what they’re getting (spoiler alert — it’s usually Fentanyl these days) is a good thing.

But so often in the rooms of AA and NA, you’ll hear people say that you’re not sober or clean if you’re on Suboxone.

Is that true?

I think that it is, and that’s based on my experience.

When I would take Suboxone, I would feel high.

I did drugs for 9 years, was addicted to OxyContin for 7 and heroin for 2, so I know what it feels like to be high off of opioids.

When I was on Suboxone, I still felt the acute depression that goes along with just about any addiction you can think of.

I still felt like I needed drugs in my body.

That need, that overwhelming need, was still there, along with the anxiety that was everpresent, the anxiety that I wouldn’t get enough to be able to stay well, to stop the dopesickness.

But really, it’s the feeling high part that matters.

Not to mention the fact that, when I came off Suboxone, I had withdrawals.

Suboxone has buprenorphine in it, which is just a low-quality opioid (low quality in that it doesn’t get you very high — not the emphasis on very).

When you stop taking it, you go through withdrawals.

But not just any withdrawals, because it’s possible to “withdraw” from nonaddictive drugs like Pristiq.

No, these are quite clearly opioid withdrawals — the lightning in the bones, the restless leg syndrome, the sweating, the nausea, the lack of energy, the inability to sleep — it’s all there.

So can you call yourself a recovered alcoholic or recovered addict if you’re taking Suboxone (and yes, you can take Suboxone for alcohol addiction)?

I think the answer is no for the reasons outlined above.

Recovered means you’re free.

If you’re on Suboxone, you’re not free — you’re still dependent on a substance to get through the day, a substance that gets you high.

Sure, you might say, “well, I don’t take enough to get high.”

Well by that reasoning, a heroin addict is sober as long as they don’t take enough heroin to get high.

Doesn’t make much sense.

However, what if you said that you’re a recovering alcoholic or recovering addict while taking Suboxone?

I think that would be appropriate based on what I’ve written above.

You’re still fighting the disease.

You’re still on a substance.

So yeah, you’re still recovering — you haven’t made it yet.

Does that mean Suboxone is bad?

No.

Absolutely not.

It’s a step in the right direction.

But it’s just that.

A step toward being a recovered alcoholic or recovered addict.

You’re still recovering.

And that’s okay for now.

If that keeps you from drinking or doing heroin, that’s great.

Just don’t get it in your head that this should be a long-term solution.

Recovered Alcoholic… Recovering Alcoholic… Does It Really Matter What I Say?

Earlier I wrote that the distinction between the two is important, but it’s also important to ask if it matters what you actually say.

I think it matters, especially in meetings.

If you’re in a meeting filled with newcomers, and you say that you’re a recovering alcoholic, that every day is a fight, that you’ll struggle your whole life with this disease, if you say all this, what kind of message are you giving the newcomers?

It doesn’t sound very enticing to me.

Will they even be interested in getting sober if they think that they’re going to be getting into a lifelong struggle to stay sober?

Today, I say that I’m a recovered alcoholic and a recovered drug addict, and I do that because it’s a message of hope.

When a newcomer walks into the room, they hear me say that the fight is over, that I’ve won, that I live a normal life, that I don’t spend every single day struggling to stay sober.

So I think it matters a lot.

It’s not a small question.

It’s a question of what kind of message AA and NA is carrying.

That message determines what a newcomer experiences when they walk in the room.

If the first thing they hear is that they’re going to fight the rest of their lives, they’re going to turn around, walk out that door, and die.

That’s my opinion.

But it’s also what I’ve heard people say.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “when I first came in and heard you all saying that you were recovered, it blew my mind, because I’d never heard that before, and it gave me hope.”

It may seem very small.

But it makes a very big difference.

What Do You Think?

I’m interested in hearing your opinions on this subject.

What do you think?

Let me know in the comments.

Do you call yourself a recovered addict / recovered alcoholic, or do you calling yourself a recovering addict / recovering alcoholic?

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Adam Fout

I'm an addiction / recovery / mental health blogger and a speculative fiction / nonfiction writer. I have a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Professional and Technical Communication. I'm a graduate of the 2020 Odyssey Writing Workshop. I'm a regular contributor to Recovery Today Magazine, and I've been featured on numerous recovery podcasts. I have personal experience with addiction and mental health. I have Substance Use Disorder (SUB), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Bipolar II, Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED), and Binge Eating Disorder (BED), among others. I have been in numerous drug rehabs, detoxes, and mental institutions, so I understand from personal experience how the mental health system works. I have been published in numerous literary magazines, including December, J Journal, and Flash Fiction Online, among others. I LOVE when readers reach out to me! Always feel free to send me an email at awfout at gmail dot com. I can't wait to hear from you!