Sobriety vs. Recovery: What’s the Difference?

Are the concepts themselves up for debate? Do they require clinical treatment, or abstinence from everything? It's complicated! And new ways of thinking are changing the conversation.

February 15, 2024
Auguste Rodin, The Thinker

Virtually anyone in recovery from addiction will tell you it’s topsy-turvy in a hundred ways: You tackle major changes and challenges to your behaviors, thought patterns, relationships, even your identity. And after all that … you’ve landed on this article that’s about to explain that the very concepts of sobriety and recovery might be up for debate? Some luck!

But on some level, you already know this. You know that everyone’s path to recovery is different. That there’s always help, but you have to do it for yourself. That there are millions of different sober lives being led out there.

Still, these are valid and thought-provoking questions to ask yourself and consider more broadly in the recovery community: What is sobriety? And how is it different from recovery?

What Is Sobriety? What Is Recovery?

The conversation surrounding sobriety vs. recovery is a healthy one! It can become heated or even unhelpful when people begin to speak in absolutes or pass judgment on you, but thinking about the foundational concepts of life after addiction is important. It’s important that it reflects individual journeys, it’s important in helping society destigmatize addiction and recovery, and it’s important in addiction treatment, where evidence and inquiry are key to improving care for everyone.

So, what exactly is sobriety? Broadly, of course, “sobriety,” is the state not being under the influence of a substance or substances. But what defines sobriety in the context of addiction? If you struggled with alcohol use disorder and managed to stop drinking, many would argue that you are sober. 

But what if you’re still using cannabis recreationally? Well … in that case, a lot of folks would say, no, you’re not really sober. More recently though, others have taken the view that abstaining from alcohol (in this example), the substance at the heart of the addiction, does in fact count as sobriety, no other strings attached. It’s complicated, even before we get to “recovery”! 

Man pondering sobriety and recovery

Recovery is an even broader term. Not because doctors and scientists are wishy-washy, but because definitions evolve as the research advances — and the thinking around addiction itself changes too. 

The journal Alcohol Research: Current Reviews notes that “recent illustrative definitions of recovery have focused on the importance of functioning and general well-being in defining recovery.” The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) put forth a working definition of recovery that sums it up nicely as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives and strive to reach their full potential.” Abstinence, in these definitions, is one strong tool in achieving such improvements. 

So recovery, today, is rooted in wellness; it’s about getting better, in whatever ways possible, after addiction.

Let’s Get Up to Speed on the Sobriety-Recovery Debate(s)!

There are questions that often crop up in the debates surrounding sobriety vs. recovery, some of which you’ve probably asked yourself. 

  • Does sobriety have to be continuous to qualify? 
  • Do I have to abstain from all substances to be considered sober or in recovery? 
  • Does someone ever fully recover from addiction, or are they always in a state of recovery? 
  • Do people have to “graduate” from clinical treatment to be considered recovered, or in recovery?
  • Am I sober, or even in recovery, if I take medications as prescribed for other mental health conditions, or medications like suboxone or methadone that treat opioid addiction?
  • Do I have to forgo intimate relationships for a period of time to truly “get sober”?
  • Where does harm reduction end and recovery begin?

All great questions! And none have a single, definitive answer. This part of why recovery and sobriety are so individualized. 

Now, in early recovery, it’s usually helpful to have some ground rules. If you’re in a treatment program, you should abide by the program’s definition of sobriety. In most cases, this will be full abstinence from substances. Likewise for some recovery communities.

Getting back to wellness, you might gauge your sense of sobriety and recovery by how you’re progressing in life, by how you’re thinking and feeling. 

To return to our example, if you’ve overcome alcohol addiction but now find that cannabis is inhibiting any forward momentum in your life, you’re probably not in the best possible state of recovery. But another person may be abstinent from alcohol and find that cannabis does not hinder their life in any way. Is it accurate to argue that they are not succeeding in recovery from alcohol use disorder? (You may have heard the “no alcohol; cannabis and psychedelics OK” paradigm referred to as “California sober.”)

Here’s something everyone can agree on: Attaining sobriety or recovery, however it may be defined, is always better than active addiction.

The Bottom Line: Benefits of Sobriety and Recovery

Labels can be harmful. This is especially true when it comes to addiction, recovery and sobriety. You know this if you’ve ever been called a junky or drunk, or even an addict or alcoholic.

If you’re no longer suffering from addiction in the same way you were before you made a change or sought help, does someone else have the right to grant or deny you the label “sober” or “in recovery”? Some people say, well, yes: Recovery does require that kind of structure. 

But like much of the recovery process, what label you give yourself is ultimately going to have to come from you. The catch is, this only works if you’re wholly honest with yourself. If life has gotten better following changes you’ve made to your substance use or mental health, you’ll need to answer the sobriety-recovery question for yourself. 

Your answer very well may follow the guidance of a peer recovery community like a 12-step program, or that of a clinical counselor. They’ve helped millions of people find fulfilling, enriching lives beyond addiction.

And let’s get down to brass tacks: The fact is that if you’re swamped in addiction, cutting all or some substances out of your life will almost certainly improve it. The correlations are there; evidence and testimonials abound. The benefits — physical, emotional, interpersonal, financial and the list goes on — are proven. 

So, yes, the recovery-sobriety debates are intellectually interesting and engaging. Where you land on them can become important to your identity. But the bottom line is that if you’re affected by addiction, the main thing that matters is getting well.

Don’t Miss the Forest for the Trees

Irish spiritual leader Emmet Fox once advised, “You must not under any pretense allow your mind to dwell on any thought that is not positive, constructive, optimistic, kind.”

That may not be remotely realistic, but it’s worth aspiring to. It’s also worth applying to the question of “Is my sobriety or recovery ‘legitimate’?” 

It’s great to be open to new ideas in this dialogue. But never let anything discourage you from reaching your sobriety or recovery goals.

(Top photo: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta / CC BY-SA 4.0)

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