All the time, people want treatment for addiction to "fix" their problem or the problem that's tearing apart the addict or alcoholic they love. And always I remind them that there is no "fix" or cure for addiction — at least not yet. But there is a solution: recovery from it.
So what is recovery? What does it look like?
The experts don't agree, though for decades they've tried to come up with unambiguous benchmarks to measure successful treatment and define what it means to recover for the rest of a lifetime. There have been a lot of good benchmarks. It's just that not everybody agrees about what they are or should be.
First things first: Recovery from addiction is about getting better. For a body ravaged by substances, it means healing. For impaired drivers, it's about no longer driving under the influence. For people locked up, it is not going back to a cell after the sentence is served. For the homeless, it's a place to live. For broken families, it's togetherness again. For a war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, it's about meeting the challenge of invisible wounds without getting stoned or drunk or suicidal. For the mentally ill, it is about taking meds without mixing in other substances.
Oh, yeah, and then there's "abstinence" and "sobriety," too. They're similar terms, confusingly so, because often they're used interchangeably by people who may not be living those terms in their own lives yet expect others to live them in theirs.
For example, I know a man who stopped drinking in the 1960s and hasn't touched alcohol since. He's an icon in recovery meetings in my community. Yet he smokes products with nicotine, a drug. Is he really abstinent?
There is another man with a propensity to visit crack houses. Finally, he's managed to avoid them, and the other day, he was rewarded with a one-year medallion. Still, he physically abuses his wife. Is he in recovery?
A woman is anorexic, and another is 150 pounds overweight because she eats too much. Both count their "sober date" in decades. Are they really sober?
Finally, there's a man who openly admits he struggles with pain meds. "Do you have a new sobriety date?" his girlfriend asks innocently. But who is to say he hasn't been "in recovery" since the day he stopped drinking and smoking cocaine a long time ago? After all, he is successful as a father, pays his taxes, shows up to work on time and is a steady neighbor despite the meds he's given for pain, both real and imagined.
Without a doubt, the foundation to overcome drug dependence or alcoholism is laid on a goal of freedom from the bondage of those substances. Freedom is abstinence, for sure. But abstinence isn't all there is to recovery. Or is it? If a man is free from crack cocaine but still beats his wife, he's hardly well. If a woman struggles with borderline personality disorder and relapses over and over again with an eating disorder yet still manages not to drink 25 years after her last treatment for alcoholism, surely her treatment succeeded in putting her on the road of recovery.
Then there's Bill Wilson. In 1934, he stopped drinking a day at a time for the rest of his life and co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous for millions of people like him. Yet he died from smoking too much in 1971 and along the way experimented with LSD (when it was still legal), committed adultery and struggled with debilitating bouts of severe depression. His was a complicated post-drinking life, testing the very tenets of how some define successful recovery. There's no doubt, though, that as an alcoholic who never drank again, he inspired many others to reclaim their lives, too.
A big moment looms for addiction as the public health problem that it is. Soon experts, pundits, naysayers and the rest of us will be asked to weigh in about success or failure in treatment, abstinence versus sobriety, and how it all adds up to a definition of recovery that counts. Silence won't count. And shame, silence and anonymity shouldn't, either.
William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoir. His newest book is "Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery." Please send your questions to William Moyers at [email protected] To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.