The Importance of the Word “Recovery”

For the latest information on Recovery Month 2021 visit our Recovery Month webpage.

  • September is Recovery Month
  • Recovery Month started life in the USA back in 1989
  • The word “recovery” means different things
  • There is a lack of awareness about recovery from addiction
  • The terms ‘Recovery’ and ‘AA’
  • What’s the problem?
  • Ireland’s Drinking Problem
  • Recognising the word “recovery”

You would be forgiven for not knowing that September is Recovery Month — not just in Ireland but all over the world.

Part of the problem is that the word “recovery” means different things: to those of us in the rehab sector it means “recovery from addiction”, but if you’ve had an operation in hospital you’ll go through a period of physical “recovery”; and if you break down at the side of the road a “recovery” vehicle will (hopefully) come and sort you out.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic, one of the most famous rehab clinics in the world, describe our version of the word as follows:  “Recovery from substance dependence is a voluntarily maintained lifestyle characterized by sobriety, personal health, and citizenship.”

National Recovery Month started life in the USA back in 1989 and, today, its official aim is to “celebrate the people who recover” from addiction.

Recovery goes hand-in-hand with the twelve-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a network of community support groups that helps people recover from every type of addiction. The twelve steps are also used in some residential addiction treatment, or rehab, clinics. Everyone who is abstinent and “working the steps” is said to be “in recovery”.

The problem is that most people don’t understand these terms. Those people who know about AA were probably informed by films, or conversations in the pub, rather than anything presented in schools, at medical clinics or even on television.

There is a chronic lack of awareness about recovery from addiction, about the terms we use (I work for an addiction treatment clinic in County Louth), and about the fact that many people are currently “in recovery”. This is a serious problem as many people with an addiction don’t know the availability of this abstinence-based source of help.

Confusion about the terms recovery and AA

If you do a Google search for “recovery AA Ireland” you won’t find any results on the first page that mentions recovery from addiction, rehab or AA groups (but Alcoholics Anonymous Ireland do make an appearance on the second page of results).

What you’ll find instead is lots of links to The Automobile Association — a huge British outfit that boasts 15 million members and offers “recovery” as its primary service.

So, is it any surprise that the man on the street would assume that the words recovery and AA are about recovering cars from the side of the road?

Another reason why our side of the story isn’t getting out there is because the addiction treatment, or rehab, sector is relatively small in Ireland and we simply don’t have the budget to be able to promote concepts like “recovery” on a national scale.

But Alcoholics Anonymous is big. A quick search online show that it has two million members worldwide and surely that would translate into a chunky PR and marketing budget? No. The AA don’t do PR or marketing as it goes against their philosophy of “attraction not promotion” (i.e. they teach by example).

The most they do is hand out leaflets and give talks. This is admirable in many ways but it doesn’t cut much ice when communicating with a population that is already inundated with sexy ads for online games, cool media programmes with beautifully made ads by powerful gambling companies and endless social network chatter.

What’s the problem?

You could say that these terms are just insider jargon for a particular service. The health service, military and every branch of industry all have their own set of jargon that people on the inside know and use as a form of shorthand — and they’re not making a fuss about others not understanding them.

But the term “recovery” is much more than just a word that describes the process of recovery from addiction. It’s a way of life that can, quite literally, save people from an early death (this may sound like some quack-religious-cult pitch but it’s not — twelve step groups are totally free, don’t require membership and aren’t associated with a religion).

I’ve interviewed scores of people “in recovery” and many of them say they would be dead if they hadn’t found this way of staying abstinent. This may sound dramatic but when you hear about the industrial quantities of alcohol or drugs they consumed I often wondered how they woke up the next day, let alone carried on for year after year.

One of the things people learn in twelve step groups is how to tell their story and these tend to follow a three part structure: finding oblivion through drink, drugs or a behavioural addiction like gambling; being dragged into a twelve step group or rehab clinic, often against their will; finally they find peace and can say they are now “in recovery.”

The health service ignores the opportunity that “recovery” offers

This “recovery” approach to addiction treatment (residential, long term, psychological) is more or less ignored by government and the medical profession – even though it really works. But don’t take my word for it, if you’re interested in “outcomes” (i.e. results of treatment) look at Project Match, an 8 year study in the USA that cost $27 million.

I have spoken to many doctors, psychiatrists and medical students and they all confirmed a fact that I still find hard to believe: they only get “a few hours” of training in addiction and recovery during their medical training. This makes no sense when the cost of addiction in terms of accidents and related illnesses costs so much (according to this report, the cost of addiction in Northern Ireland alone is almost £1 billion a year).

The fact is that the HSE more or less ignores the twelve steps and the whole recovery movement, even though it is essentially free (conspiracy theorists would say “because it’s free! There’s no money in it for the drugs companies”). The same can be said about the NHS in the UK and in many other European countries for that matter.

If you go to your doctor in Ireland for help with your addiction the only options are an official supply of a highly addictive drug, such as methadone, or a detox in a general hospital. The problem with a detox is that it’s only the first stage of addiction treatment and without the “talking therapies” to start addressing the underlying issues the chances of it working are very low.

Also, there is a real capacity problem of detox beds in Ireland — there are only about 30 “detox beds” in the public health service according to one expert I spoke to.

Ireland has a drinking problem

A 2015 report by the Irish Medical Organisation on Addiction and Dependency described the situation in Ireland as very serious indeed: “Per capita, Ireland’s alcohol consumption remains one of the highest amongst the world’s developed states…This figure is all the more troubling when it is considered that approximately 21% of all Irish adults report abstaining from alcohol entirely.”

This same report also describes the equally catastrophic situation regarding drug addiction and gambling and states that “no centralised strategy exists for the treatment of substance abuse in Ireland, and significant gaps in services exist. Despite the substantial prevalence of alcohol dependence amongst adults in Ireland, relatively few are treated.”

As a result of this policy failure, most addicts don’t get access to the kind of treatment that could really help them to recover.

Educating the health service is the solution

One line of argument against spending government money on addiction treatment areis public sector cuts and the oft-quoted misconception that addicts have chosen this addictive lifestyle and just have to get a grip and stop. These arguments would fall apart if you applied them to any other illness — and there’s the rub; those of in the recovery movement treat addiction as an illness but the health service doesn’t, thus giving them an excuse to ignore it.

If the Irish health service were to take seriously the recovery movement, and the twelve step groups, it would be able to work with them and promote these services to all those who need it. Rather than assign the twelve steps as an “alternative” and unproven method, why not embrace it?

If the Irish health service were to take the recovery movement more seriously, and the twelve step groups, it would be able to work with them and systematically promote these services to all those who need it. Rather than assign the twelve steps as an “alternative” and unproven method, why not embrace it?

A starting point is to recognise the word “recovery”

If the HSE were to consider this opportunity the first thing they should do is promote the word recovery as something that is open to all, and free.

They might like to look at this study by America’s Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic which proposed a standard definition of the word “recovery” as a useful stepping stone for improving public health.

The report states that “Individuals who are ‘in recovery’ know what it means to them and how important it is in their life. They do not need a formal definition. However, recovery is not clear to the public, to those who research and evaluate addiction treatments, and to those who make policies about addiction.”

The report also said that a “commonly accepted and operationally defined measure of recovery could lead to improved research and understanding in the addiction field.

“We have little to tell families, employers, schools, payers, and policymakers about how they can support and extend the recovery process…Without a consensus definition of recovery that will permit systematic measurement, there will likely be no research to inform these issues.”

In other words, if the term were adopted by the HSE it would lead onto more services being made available and a lot more people being offered help.

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