Discovery Versus Recovery

In the field of substance misuse, the word “recovery” has been used by professionals and service users continually. It seems that the term may have been of relevance at the time it was created, but does it still hold the same significance and meaning in 2018?  In an era where peer mentors are being used extensively to fill the gaps in services, perhaps it is now time to re-visit this term, as many peer mentors have lived-in experience, and will tell you they are in recovery, as that is what they have been informed.

It is important to state that this article is not about challenging models of treatment, as Enigma believes that all models of treatment benefit the service user. The objective of this article is to address the language that is used that may disempower the service user, and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The English Oxford dictionary definition of “recovery” is “A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.”

In these terms, this seems a very positive place to be, until certain phrases are added to it in the context of substance use. An example of this is the term “relapsing condition”.   Surely if this term is frequently heard by a service user, or frequently used by professionals it maybe becomes the expectation for both.  It can create doubt for the service user that their dream of sustaining abstinence is not going to last.  In addition, it can normalize a relapse as inevitable and thereby provide a justification for both the service user and the professional. This raises the question of how long a service user is in recovery and can they ever be ‘recovered’?  This is a delicate issue in the area of substance use, but an important one as many peer mentors, for example, define themselves as “in recovery”

Certain treatment philosophies state that one will always be in recovery, which can raise anxiety and fear for many service users.  Does this have to be the case? Could the service user graduate to the next phase of the process, whereby recovery becomes a thing of the past thereby instilling hope, a goal, a destination?

The English Dictionary definition of “discovery” is  ‘The action or process of discovering or being discovered.’

The art of discovery begins at birth and continues throughout life.  It is a myth that when an individual uses substances, the process of discovery stops.  A service user will continue to recognize many new things that fit into their frame of reference or change it.  “Cognitive resonance” informs us that the behavior that a service user undertakes will be relevant to their world and surroundings, which tells us that learning and discovery, change and adaptation do not stop, rather they become relevant to a key aim and area of pursuit.

When a service user enters a service, they do so with a wealth of knowledge. They have lived and survived their substance use and are now looking at interventions that allow them to either manage their substance use or make it become a thing of the past. They are looking to discover how to put the resources that they have always carried, into allowing them to enhance their quality of life. They may be continually fighting cravings and triggers to return to using and their identity and mask as a substance user have to be explored. They are starting to adjust to the external world on its terms.  Much of this is often new and can, therefore, be daunting.  Could this phase be more accurately described as the recovery process, during which it is essential that services users are reminded of their ELASTICITY  in their ability to bounce back from adversity?  Service users may have a weakness for substances but they are not weak people, on the contrary, their resourcefulness and resilience may have kept them alive and these skills are equally necessary for the next phase of their lives.

When service users have addressed their relationship with substances, they now have a platform to re-connect with the external world. They will soon discover things that were of no interest to them while they were using and with time their connection with substances will get less. They will learn to manage the trauma of what they put themselves through while they were using, and to develop strategies to manage feelings and emotive situations without using.  Their previous life may have been about disconnection, but this phase is about reconnection.

That is not to say that they have to stop being vigilant about a lapse, but it does not have to be all-consuming or cast a shadow over each day because new activities, relationships, interests, understanding, and focus are present, their world has expanded.  Perhaps this is more accurately described as the discovery rather than recovery informing the service user that they are on a journey, they are maturing, engaging with all aspects of life, and using their numerous personal resources to do so.

In a recent treatment setting with a new peer mentor project, my first question to the service was “why are they always called recovery champions when they have completed treatment already?”  The ensuing discussion led to a new term for the service:   DISCOVERY CHAMPIONS!

Christopher Robin
Managing Director


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