Episode 270: What is Recovery?

Today, I want to talk about recovery. What is it anyway? To answer the question, I am borrowing heavily from the pamphlet “SAMHSA’s Working Definition of Recovery” published in 2012 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

I start each episode introducing Beyond Belief Sobriety as a podcast and community for people who are seeking or who have found a secular path to recovery from addictions of all kinds. I use the term “recovery” a lot on this podcast and in conversations I have with listeners and other friends. At least one person told me she doesn’t like to see herself as being “in recovery”, and I understand that. I don’t necessarily want to be in recovery for the rest of my life either. Just hearing the word makes one think there is still something wrong with us that we are trying to get over. At a certain point though, we should be at a stage in our lives where we have fully recovered, and we can move on with living balanced and meaningful lives.

SAMSHA Defines Recovery

When you consider recovery as defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the word takes on a different meaning, at least it does for me. In 2010, stakeholders in the recovery community consisting of leaders in the behavioral health field, people in recovery from mental health and substance abuse, and SAMHSA, met to come up with a unified definition of recovery to simplify the discussion around treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders. Building on that work, and in consultation with many other stakeholders, SAMHSA came up with the following standard working definition of recovery:

“Recovery is a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

I like this definition because it’s positive and describes a way of life that I think anyone would want to live regardless of whether they have experienced problems with substance abuse. You could just as easily define life this way. Life itself is a process of change, isn’t it? Since I’ve been sober, I have been fortunate to have a community and a roadmap to help me through life, through this process of change. I have worked at improving my mental and physical well-being, and I am regularly challenging myself to live to my fullest potential. If this is recovery, then that’s okay with me.

SAMHSA goes on to provide four major dimensions that support recovery, and ten guiding principles.

I like to think of the four dimensions as the pillars that support my recovery: health, home, purpose, and community. So, let’s look at each pillar to understand why it might be important to keep these in mind.

Four Dimensions of Recovery


SAMHSA describes this dimension as overcoming or managing one’s disease or symptoms. They provide an example of abstaining from alcohol or illicit drugs if one has an addiction problem, and for everyone in recovery to make informed healthy choices that support physical and emotional wellbeing. Remember, abstinence is not part of the definition of recovery, but in most cases, recovery hinges on abstinence to the substance that has become a problem. There are people though, who are in recovery who may not practice abstinence, but manage their problem-drinking through medications such as naltrexone. Their recovery is being supported by taking the medication prescribed to manage their symptoms. These people are engaged in a process of change and meet the definition of being in recovery.

In my case, if I weren’t abstinent from alcohol, then I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be fully engaged with life, or interested in changing, and striving to reach my full potential. My drinking became such a problem that any normal life was impossible. So, for me, abstinence from alcohol is essential to my health and wellness. It’s an important part of what supports my recovery, as is taking care of my mental, emotional, and physical wellness.

I wasn’t too focused on exercise and diet for the first decade of my sobriety, but these things become more important to me as I get older. I know that a good night’s sleep makes a huge difference in my attitude and helps me think more clearly during the day. Regular exercise helps me maintain healthy sleep patterns and I’m more attentive to what I put in my body as well. Not that I’ve been particularly consistent at this of late, but it’s a good idea for anyone in recovery to take a more holistic approach. Don’t forget regular doctor and dentist visits as well. Even if you don’t have insurance, there are resources available that can help.


Everyone deserves and needs a safe and stable place to live. This was a top priority for me when I was starting out because I lost my apartment from drinking, and I had no place to go. I stayed with my sister and her family for a few months, before I could get a job and my own place. Keeping a roof over my head and having enough to eat was a challenge during the first two years of my sobriety. It wasn’t anything I could take for granted, and I know other people have the same challenges. Those early days, weeks and months in recovery can be so difficult! There are resources available to help with shelter and there are some great sober houses that can provide a place to stay as you get on your feet.


It’s important to have a sense of purpose and the means to participate fully in society. I know when I was drinking, any interests and hobbies I had in my younger years, fell by the wayside, and my world became smaller and narrower as time passed and my addiction progressed. In my case, I enjoy having a creative outlet. This podcast obviously serves that purpose today. It provides me with a sense of joy, goals to set, new skills to learn, and people to meet. It provides me with an opportunity to fill my time with something positive, but it also teaches me to balance my other life priorities. I can’t spend all my time with the podcast and neglect my wife and family. Any sort of hobby can fill this need. When we stop engaging in our addiction or problem behavior, a lot of us find that we have more time on our hands. Filling this time with an activity you enjoy will serve to support you in your recovery.


The importance of community cannot be overstated. There have been studies that show adding people in your life who support you in your recovery goals, improve your chances of staying in recovery. Attending mutual aid groups like AA, LifeRing, or SMART Recovery are great for finding supportive communities. You can also find recovery groups on social media or even start your own.

Ten Guiding Principles of Recovery

In addition to the four dimensions, SAMHSA also came up with ten guiding principles of recovery. I’ll go through those briefly now and come back to them later in another video. The ten principles of recovery are: hope, person-driven, many pathways, holistic, peer support, relational, culture, addresses trauma, strengths/responsibility, and respect. Let’s go through each briefly.

  1. Recovery emerges from hope and SAMHSA considers hope to be the catalyst of the recovery process. Hope is the belief that we can overcome our challenges and is the motivating force behind what makes us work toward a better future. Without hope, it would seem pointless to even try. Though hope arises from within an individual; peers, family, allies, treatment providers, and others can help light the spark from which hope will spring. I know in my case; hope continued to build over time. I had the smallest glimmer of hope after I first reached out for help, then after attending a mutual aid group (AA), both my hope and motivation to change grew stronger. My peers were instrumental in providing me with a sense of hope that my life would improve. If you find yourself feeling hopeless, please don’t despair. You’re listening to this podcast, so you must have even a small amount of hope. This will grow as you continue to interact with others in recovery.
  2. Recovery is person driven. Your recovery is your own. It’s your journey, unique to you. It is your opportunity to plan the life you want to live, to become the person you want to be. You decide on your recovery goals, and you create your own path to reach them. This doesn’t mean you do it alone. You are free to choose the support and services to assist you. This support will give you the power to build on your strengths and regain control over your life.
  3. Recovery occurs via many pathways. I sometimes say that recovery isn’t an ideology. There aren’t any strict must-follow rules to be in recovery. There are many paths and new pathways opening all the time. There are more options to support recovery today than ever before, and if you have an Internet connection, access has never been easier.

We all have our own unique needs, strengths, backgrounds, and goals that will shape the pathways we choose for our own individual recovery. Your recovery is built on your strengths, abilities, talents, and resources. A good pathway to recovery is tailored specifically to your needs.

Your pathway will have plenty of ups and downs as well. Recovery isn’t a linear process, but it is essentially a process of continual growth with some setbacks. This is a natural part of the recovery process. Relapse, though not inevitable, may occur and if it does, it becomes part of the learning and growing process.

  1. Recovery is holistic. Every aspect of your life is included as part of your recovery. This may but is not limited to self-care, housing needs, family, employment, education, therapy, doctor and dental visits, and participation in mutual aid groups. Recovery encompasses an individual’s whole life, including mind, body, spirit, and community. It will be important that you have access to or information about the various services available to support every aspect of your health and wellbeing.
  2. Recovery is supported by peers and allies. Mutual aid groups like Women for Sobriety, LifeRing, SMART Recovery, and Alcoholics Anonymous support recovery by providing encouragement and shared experience. Participating in these groups helps connect you to the greater community and provides a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Through helping others, we help ourselves.
  3. Recovery is supported through relationship and social networks. It is important to support your recovery by including people in our life who support and encourage you in your recovery. You will replace unhealthy relationships with healthy ones. This will provide you with a sense of belonging and stability that will make your recovery that much easier.
  4. Recovery is culturally based and influenced. Any service that supports recovery needs to be sensitive to diverse cultures and be respectful of various traditions, values, and beliefs. You do not need to conform to someone else’s cultural norms to be in recovery.
  5. Recovery is supported by addressing trauma. Any service that supports your recovery should be trauma informed. Much as been written about trauma. Nearly every person alive has experienced some trauma to some degree, and your addiction could very well have been your way of coping with your trauma. All of us in the recovery community should have some understanding of trauma and how it relates to addiction.
  6. Recovery involves individual, family, and community strengths and responsibility. You have a personal responsibility for your own self-care and should be supported in speaking for yourself. Families and loved ones also have responsibilities to be supportive. Communities have a responsibility to provide resources and to encourage a culture of inclusion. People in recovery also have a social responsibility to join with peers to speak collectively about recovery.
  7. Recovery is based on respect. As a person in recovery, you will develop a positive sense of identity, and any resource you access should acknowledge that taking steps toward recovery requires courage. Nobody should ever be discriminated against for being in recovery or for having any other mental health challenge.


I will be creating more videos in the coming weeks and months that will take a deeper dive into each of the four dimensions of recovery and the ten principles. I will invite guests to appear on future episodes to talk about these as well, because I think it’s important to understand the recovery process to give it form, so that it’s not mysterious and to eliminate any stigma one may associate with being in recovery. Recovery is nothing more than a process of change, to become you best self. Isn’t that something everyone should be doing anyway?


“SAMHSA’s Working Definition of Recovery” 

Many thanks to Soberlink for sponsoring this episode of Beyond Belief Sobriety. Visit https://soberlink.com/bbs for more information.