Reflections on Long-Term Recovery

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Addiction recovery is far more than the removal of drugs from an otherwise unchanged life. Recent definitions of recovery transcend radical changes in the person-drug relationship and encompass enhanced global health and social functioning. The authors have carried on a decades-long interest in what has been christened full recovery or amplified recovery—a state of enhanced quality of life and personal character in long-term recovery. We each know individuals we believe have achieved such status and have asked ourselves what unique characteristics distinguish such persons. Here are some of our initial reflections on this question, offered here as an expression of gratitude to such people who have enriched our own lives.       

They have been freed from the daily physical cravings (that insatiable itch) and distorted thinking that are at the heart of the addiction experience and that in the past rendered them uncomfortable within their own skin. The necessity to live life drug free has shifted from a perceived curse to a gift that one wears comfortably and humbly. Their recovery is no longer a struggle, but a set of favorite old clothes worn comfortably like a second skin. 

 They are not in the grip of non-substance cross-addictions such as gambling, sex, food, money, and control. (They also embrace smoking cessation and other acts of self-care within their personal understanding of recovery.) They may have tangled with one or more of these addictions earlier in their recovery career but typically somewhere between 10 and 15 years they were able to shake them. Some experience periodic temptation but they move through these periods, not through an assertion of will but by talking to other people about managing these shadow dimensions of personal character. 

 They are capable of achieving stable and emotionally rich relationships with partners, family members, friends, and colleagues. Their history of past relationships may be harrowing but they have now tamed the disruptive and self-destructive patterns of behavior that previously complicated their relations with others. Rifts in family relationships have been healed to the extent possible. 

Regardless of whether they have pursued a secular, spiritual, or religious pathway of recovery, they continue to work an active program of recovery that includes self-inventory, honest acknowledgement of misdeeds, personal amends, and acts of service to others. In addition, they address with equal determination issues of resentment and the forgiveness of others who have harmed them. 

Most reflect in their lives four qualities that are fundamental to a life of spiritual substance- humility, compassion, honesty, and gratitude. 

They laugh regularly and deeply with rather than at people. They find joy and humor in the simple incongruities and absurdities encountered in daily life. The can offer healing laughter and a twinkle in the eyes as a balm to those in early recovery whose daily emotional dramas seem unceasing. Theirs is a healing laughter. 

They are open-minded and inquisitive. They acknowledge that their own views and convictions may be mistaken or limited. They are thus eager to learn about the experiences and opinions of others and to expand their knowledge of the world. They have fully relinquished the distorted belief that the universe revolves around them. They listen more than they speak. 

They give service to the community outside of their immediate recovery support network, usually on a volunteer basis. In addition, they are aware of the value to the larger society of maintaining a personal posture of openness, civility, and compassion. They view this posture as an act of needed service that, through its infectiousness, counter the poisonous tone of current social and political discourse. 

They have worked through childhood traumas, one of the most tenacious causes of addiction recurrence. Working through does not mean putting it behind them (negating the suffering) but rather integrating the trauma experience in a manner that transmutes their suffering into compassion for themselves and others. It remains fresh, but not disabling, so that they can draw from it in helping others. In our observations, most of this trauma work occurs after five years of stable recovery. 

For those achieving amplified recovery within a 12-Step program, most maintain meeting attendance of at least once a week. They usually have a sponsor and sponsor others. They periodically brush up on the steps, sometimes by facilitating step studies. At the same time, however, they are non-dogmatic about the program and take ample advantage of other aids to recovery such as psychodynamic therapy, CBT, yoga, meditation, the Buddhist grounded program of Refuge Recovery, and energy healing. 

They recovered through living narratively—what some call living out loud. In the beginning, they told the story of their past, affirming that they did not want to return to their former way of life. Next, they began to contrast the present and past as they sought to construct a new identity centered in a new set of values. They became at ease talking about their experiences and their feelings—literally talking their way into a new more transparent existence, leaving behind their former duplicitous, self-absorbed, self-contained personage. 

In the process of constructing a new identity, they faced the challenge of shame that is typically rooted in the past and revitalized by present events and relationships. Shame is the most potent impediment to recovery—the whisper that we are not worthy of recovery and the fruits it can bring. In tackling their shame, they discovered what Brene Brown found through her grounded theory research – shame is defeated by vulnerability, by developing exactly the wide-open stance toward the world that shame warns us against. 

They have developed the capacity to listen closely and effectively to other people, and particularly to their pain. They are “wounded healers” who use their own survival to help others facing similar threats and opportunities. From a deep plunge into their own depths of agony, they emerged with new capacities for hope and love. 

They have found meaning and purpose in their lives beyond themselves, one that evolves through an epiphany at the intersection of transcendence and communion. The nature of this transcendence varies greatly from formal religious faith to the sense that the universe vibrates with either love or hate, depending on what we humans project into it through our thoughts and deeds. They have committed themselves to healing themselves, their families, their communities, and, to the extent possible, the world, knowing that they will pursue this effort imperfectly but relentlessly and that profound meaning lies within that pursuit. 

We have met some wonderful people through our recovery journeys—people who have lived full meaningful lives in recovery and exhibited exemplary qualities of character and styles of daily living. In closing, we should also note that we have met others not in recovery who shared these traits and lifestyles but who had survived their own “dark night of the soul” and had emerged as different and quite remarkable people. Surviving life-threatening events or conditions have the potential to be life-transforming—taking people beyond survival and healing to the status of healers in their own right. We hope your life has been similarly blessed by your encounters with such people. 

About the Authors

Galen T., lead editor of AA Beyond Belief, lives in New Jersey.

William White, a distinguished author on alcoholism, drug addiction, and recovery is the author of Slaying the DragonHe is Emeritus Senior Research Consultant, Chestnut Health Systems. The Selected Papers of William White, including his blog, can be found at


The image featured in this post is a painting titled Winding Trail, and is the work of artist Paul Kratter.

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  1. Jack B April 29, 2019 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    Addiction is a condition triggered by a chemical imbalance within the brain. Science and medicine say that the condition can be brought under control by the controlled use of other therapeutic chemicals. Psychotherapy may be useful for some and group support works for others as well,

    Any notion that states that the condition is incurable is utterly false. Several treatments and some cures exist and are available to all.

    It has been my unfortunate and unfortunately frequent experience that many who enjoy some relief from addiction then fall into the deadly trap of thinking that their therapy will work for all. This has never been true and all too frequently can result in disaster for some people who are new to therapies.

    Some find relief in religion but it must always be remembered that, as science and medicine continue to examine and learn about the phenomenon of addiction, religious beliefs must never be allowed to supplant rational, science based medicine and up-to-date psychotherapies.

    On a personal note, I well remember my early days, months, and years in a well known 12 step group. While some of the people are memorable and have become friends, much of the “program”, as it is called, became less about sensible recovery and more about fear mongering and dogma. Which, in a nutshell, is why I withdrew from that organization. A similar but separate secular brand of that organization has come into existence and is where I go if so inclined.

    It must be said clearly and, if necessary, LOUDLY! that addiction and recovery are not the province of any one organization, agenda, or modality. The years of church basements and hocus-pocus of bearded sky-pilots and winged horses are ALL decades behind us. In view of the current opioid nightmare, addiction itself is this generations disease-war to fight and win.

    If there really are any gods, now is the time to smile on us. We’ll take whatever help we can get.


  2. steve b April 29, 2019 at 12:08 am - Reply

    These authors have presented what they consider to be a description of the ideal old-timer. I can’t say their notions are ill-advised, but I’m not particularly interested in becoming more like their idealized figure. I’ve got 39 years sober in AA, and nowadays I go to meetings perhaps 2 or 3 times a month. Usually when a meeting ends, I ask myself why I bothered go. I haven’t had a sponsor in 20 years, and haven’t sponsored anyone in I don’t know how long. And I don’t talk on the phone with any AAs. I don’t feel an urge to drink whether I go to meetings or not.  I find it difficult to relate to people in AA, and that’s probably a primary reason I’ve drifted away to some extent.

    But, I enjoy most of what I do. At 76, I still work a little. I read a lot, lift weights, jog, play pickleball, do Zumba, and go dancing.

    • Jack B April 29, 2019 at 3:05 pm Reply

      I think you and I could be friends.


    • Donald April 29, 2019 at 6:46 am Reply

      that active at 76 is ballsy, sir. well played man.

  3. Jack B April 28, 2019 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    a vision of old timers nodding with condescending smiles at the enthusiastic newcomer as he/she makes an important personal discovery – the awful dismissive damage the “wise” “experienced” old timers do as time and my own experience show that such damage can be fatal.

    My fathers generation warned me about the “homos and queers” which set me on a path of self hate that could only be relieved thru alcohol. That obscene warning cost me about 25 years and dam near my life.

    I do not wear my life on my sleeve but I no longer carry secrets.

    A young man, wrestling with his own identity, was vastly damaged by a particular hater who took it as his own to “warn” the young man about people like me. I see the young man from time to time trudging the in/out in/out in/out treadmill with fear and tears so familiar to so many.

    Sometimes I speculate with friends about AA. I don’t know where AA will go or what it will do. As long as religionists have it by the throat, it will go there without me.

    • Donald April 28, 2019 at 7:36 pm Reply

      sucks brother. saddened by your experience, and Im clear, you were not soliciting sympathy. just the same, I acknowledge your experience.

  4. Adam Neiblum April 28, 2019 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    Maybe I’m just feeling open-minded today, but I liked this article. I tend to be one very picky customer. In fact, I sort of consider myself an ex-member, and do not attend meetings. Though I do ‘practice these principles in most of my affairs’, as would anyone who lived AA for multiple decades. Gets into your blood. I liked the article, precisely BECAUSE it created an image. I liked all the comments, too. I really see valid points in them all. I see how this ‘image creating’ thing can be very exclusionary, judgmental, problematic in a number of ways. But for me it reads less like a judgment upon me than as a description of goals. Some of the ‘goals’ I like more than others, of course. But for the most part this paints a picture for me of what I want to be like when, perhaps I should say if, I ever grow up. I am a rather strident variety of atheist. Yet I have not removed the Buddha nor St. Francis statuary from my garden. Same reason, I think…

    • Jack B April 28, 2019 at 3:47 pm Reply

      Namaste friend.

  5. Bob K April 28, 2019 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    The 10th step promises talk about the problem being removed. I don’t like the terminology because of the implied “Remover,” (capital “R”). However, I am astonished as a sober atheist, and an admittedly less than diligent practitioner of the AA process, how little appeal liquor has for me. It’s just faded away, and did so quite some time ago. REMARKABLE. Of course, I continue to be active in both secular and traditional AA, motivated in large part by the social aspect.

    • John M. April 28, 2019 at 2:36 pm Reply

      Bob, would you feel uneasy if someone capitalized the “e” in Evolution? The “n” in Nature? Spinoza got it right in Proposition VII, Part 4, The Ethics: “An affect (emotion) cannot be restrained or removed except by an opposing and contrary affect (emotion).” For Spinoza, “God” was Nature and, an evolutionary nature at that, in pre-Darwinian Enlightenment Europe. The psychologist, Les Greenberg, took this proposition and developed it into Emotion-Focused Therapy. You did it, in your words, “as an admittedly less than diligent practitioner of the AA process” probably because you used AA as a catalyst (and not a be-all and end-all) to discover a multitude of recovery theories and social practices.

      As we know from philosophy and psychology, it’s an inside job.

      • Bob K April 28, 2019 at 6:02 pm Reply

        The implied Remover/remover is God, with or without the capital letter. Like Spinoza, I’m an atheist. It may have been Bertrand Russell who said that pantheism is atheism in disguise. Spinoza was an atheist at a time when it was dangerous to be an atheist.

        • John M. April 28, 2019 at 7:33 pm Reply

          Right on, Bob. Many a professional career was ruined in Europe when someone was called a Spinozist — a synonym for a century or two for atheist.

  6. life-j April 28, 2019 at 10:28 am - Reply

    Though I can see the validity of Donald’s comments I like this article. Not because I am it, far from it, but because this long list of recovery qualities are all qualities I would aspire to, even if, past the 30 year mark myself, I have perhaps somewhat attained a quarter of them, continually struggle to varying degrees with half, and another quarter have hardly been able to tackle at all.

    The main problem I see, aside from those I carry around inside myself, and continue to address in my own imperfect way, is that most of us address these problems with bits and pieces of an antiquated amateurish program which, at the very least does say “It’s not enough to quit drinking. You’ve got to live a better life”, but beyond that just doesn’t give us enough good tools to get there. And the fact that our program is sanctioned by god does encourage some people to old-timer arrogance and comfortable stagnation.

    How can we best work on creating a program which genuinely supports us in working toward the goals laid out in this article in the face of the god given, already perfect program we have, and the impediments it creates, that’s the big question.

    Thanks Galen and Bill

  7. Alan M April 28, 2019 at 9:12 am - Reply

    Thanks Donald for adding a bit of perspective. I too felt a bit uneasy or rather a bit disheartened. The recovery described, which I am sure exists seemed idealised something to hope for and to aspire to. My recovery has been a struggle and still is. I have managed to maintain sobriety for over twenty years but have struggled with AA, mental health and other cross addictions. Basically I have to remind myself a day at a time that another day without a drink is a success and like Donald keep on keeping on.

    • Donald April 28, 2019 at 9:37 am Reply

      <3 Best wishes friend

  8. John M. April 28, 2019 at 8:16 am - Reply

    Superb, all-encompassing essay that speaks to the joy in my life vis-a-vis the transformative experience of long term recovery. Thanks, John, for bringing this to us from Bill and Galen.

    • Jennifer C April 29, 2019 at 6:40 am Reply

      I concur! Love the essay and am moved by the experiential picture it paints of transformation, love and tolerance. Jennifer

  9. Donald April 28, 2019 at 6:35 am - Reply

    hmm. a felt a bit of discomfort reading this. recently celebrated 25 years, not sure where on the discussed time line that I would fit.

    it felt a bit like “ideal” creating. homage to old timers. I tend to bristle a bit at the regular hero worship I see in the rooms of people that didn’t drink and didn’t die. there is a guy with 55+ years in the area here, that loves to wax poetically about the giants of AA etc. he was a sponsor for a time. I am uncomfortable with giants or heroes, or special.

    never was happy to go to a meeting and see the familiar old portraits of bill and bob in the front, for these reasons.

    yes, I am pretty comfortable in my life today. not nearly the amount of drama, urgency, fear. I have a “faith”, not in invisible man in the sky, but an evidence based knowledge that if I just keep on trudging, dont use no matter what, and at least half measured-ly apply the ideas of inventory, amends, service, and detachment, no matter what’s going on, I will see the other side.

    Im sure “image creation” wasn’t the author’s intent. but I would tell him, that is some of the take away for me. Just the same, images or models, are rarely useful, I find. it tends to be a contrast I judge myself against, and as a chronic self-deprecator, I default to being reminded, they look happy, successful, I am not always happy or successful, therefore, I am less than. and I am not less than. Im just me.

    sure, each of us have done a lot of work. but I would suggest the long timers enjoy a great deal of luck, more than any other achievement. in the sheltered west, despite plenty of sorrow and injustice, life is very easy, compared to say, having been born in <insert any of the ongoing global imperial wars>.

    but thanks for the post, and the subject matter to ponder on.



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