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How is recovery from addiction defined?

Although not everyone embraces the term “recovery,” it is often used to refer to the process of overcoming addiction. In 2007, a panel affiliated with the Betty Ford Institute proposed defining recovery from substance dependence as “a voluntarily maintained lifestyle characterized by sobriety, personal health, and citizenship.” But its definition of sobriety as “abstinence from alcohol and all other nonprescribed drugs” felt too restrictive for some people—for instance, excluding anyone who quit using drugs but occasionally drinks.

The U.S. government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines recovery more broadly as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.” The U.K. Drug Policy Commission specifically addresses non-problematic substance use, describing the process of recovery as “voluntarily-sustained control over substance use which maximises health and wellbeing and participation in the rights, roles and responsibilities of society.”

While having these shared visions of recovery can be helpful, one U.S. survey found that just under half of those who say they once had a drug or alcohol problem identify as being “in recovery.” Some people prefer terms like “drug-free” or “sober,” and others consider their problem resolved, illustrating one of many challenges around defining a process people experience in many different ways.

How long does recovery take?

There’s still some debate about how long recovery takes or when someone could be considered “recovered,” but some addiction researchers have identified three stages of recovery: early recovery (up to 1 year), sustained recovery (1-5 years), and stable recovery (more than 5 years). After this point, there’s evidence that a person’s odds of returning to active addiction drop below 15%. That’s similar to the concept of remission from cancer: after five years with no signs or symptoms of the disease, there’s a chance it may recur but it is generally considered successfully managed.

Although these time frames can vary depending on the length and severity of someone’s addiction and the treatment and support they receive (sometimes referred to as “recovery capital”), most people agree that it’s a process that takes years—not months or 28 days. Those who have overcome addiction often describe changes over time, peaks and valleys that bring different rewards and challenges. And friends and family members can have their own recovery timeline, repairing relationships and rebuilding trust through a process that takes time to heal.


Thank you to William L. White for his generosity and dedication to studying the recovery process and helping others understand an experience that many people navigate with little guidance. His archive of interviews, papers, and blog posts is arguably the most comprehensive resource available online addressing just about every facet of recovery from addiction, including 260 posts from 2013-2018.

The Recovery Research Institute, affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, is another helpful resource, publishing articles summarizing the latest research about addiction treatment and recovery.

More questions and answers and additional resources will be added throughout the exhibition.


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