No issue causes more contention within communities of recovery than abstinence.  Many people believe that if you do not completely abstain from substances, any substances, then you are not in recovery.  Some do not.  Personally, abstinence serves as the foundation of my recovery established in December of 1987.

What do you believe about abstinence?

Here are a few descriptions of people that all say they are in recovery.

  1. A 34-year-old woman takes her daily dose of methadone as prescribed. She has been heroin-free and on methadone for the last 4 years.
  2. A young man, 27 years of age, talks openly about his poly-substance history when drug consumption took over his life. Today, he effectively chairs an All Recovery Meeting and helps many in a collegiate community of recovery.  He is mostly abstinent.  He openly shares about how on the occasional weekend he climbs a mountain and smokes marijuana – literally a mountaintop experience he describes as spiritual.
  3. A gentleman, in his mid 60’s, had a 20 bag-per-day heroin habit 35 years ago. He now runs a prominent addiction treatment center. He drinks wine on the weekend.

Would you say any of these folks are in recovery? Or are all of them in recovery?

Does it matter?

Frankly, none of these pathways would work for me. I’ve never taken methadone and don’t see the need to start now.  I don’t believe I could use marijuana “recreationally”.  So I don’t.  When I thruhiked the Appalachian Trail in 2015 I had plenty of opportunities.  Today, I don’t believe I could take a single drink of alcohol and survive.  So I don’t.

But I can fully support all of these pathways.

Recovery coaches embrace the principle that “you’re in recovery if you say you are”.  But it’s a sticking point for many recovery coaches. Remember – alternative practices of recovery do not threaten another one’s recovery.  They can co-exist.

It’s imperative that recovery coaches support many pathways of recovery, yet I hear about coaches who believe in only one.  Usually, they insist recoverees follow a singular pathway. Most often this refers to abstinence within a 12-Step program.  Again, this is my personal pathway.

From the June 1990 AA Grapevine magazine, the editors reprinted this quote titled “Falling Through the Cracks” from Bill Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous Founder (emphasis added).

“. . . Though three hundred thousand did recover in the last twenty-five years, maybe half a million more have walked into our midst, and then out again. No doubt some were too sick to make even a start. Others couldn’t or wouldn’t admit their alcoholism. Still others couldn’t face up to their underlying personality defects. Numbers departed for other reasons.  Yet we can’t well content ourselves with the view that all these recovery failures were entirely the fault of the newcomers themselves. Perhaps a great many didn’t receive the kind and amount of sponsorship they so sorely needed. We didn’t communicate when we might have done so. So we AAs failed them.”

I see a gap that Bill Wilson identified nearly 70 years ago, do you? Maybe recovery coaches are finally stepping into this void.

I also think that young people today are showing us oldtimers new ways that work. They are currently expanding recovery boundaries.

As an aside, it’s my observation, not based on any scientific research, that people are much more defensive of their own pathway of recovery during roughly the first 10 years of recovery. After 10 years, attitudes often soften. Minds become open to alternatives. This certainly rings true for me; therefore I’ve noticed it in others.

No matter what we believe personally, recovery coaches must support multiple pathways of recovery. So… how do we do support other pathways, especially when they go against our intuition?  It’s easy.

Be curious.

When we become curious, we suspend our judgment.  Here are some useful “tools”… feel free to spin them to suit your situation.

  1. I don’t know much about that; please tell me.
  2. I’m curious, how does that help you?
  3. I wonder how that would work for others… what do you think?
  4. What’s working well?
  5. What in your life could go better?
  6. How do you stay hopeful?
  7. How can I help you with your recovery today?
  8. What does recovery look like for you?

The last two might look familiar.

Over the years, I have witnessed many other pathways work for recoverees that would not work for me. This surprised me.  I’m grateful my AA sponsor has taught me to remain teachable.

And that’s what makes this work wonder full – seeing people thrive in ways we could not imagine.

Phil Valentine
Phil Valentine

In 2015, I finished a thruhike of the entire Appalachian Trail, a trek of 2,189.2 miles. It took 189 days and 6 pairs of boots.  During that sacred time, my purpose in life became more precisely defined.  I am, simply, to coach recovery.  Recovery saved me from an early demise and brought purpose to my tattered life.  I have learned that I’m a coach to my very core. I am blessed to put the two together. I started work at the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) in January 1999.  I became the Executive Director of this recovery community organization in 2004.  I have trained the CCAR Recovery Coach Academy© dozens of times and have a hand in modifying, improving and adapting various recovery coach curricula.  I’m old enough now to start considering my legacy. This is one way for me to share lessons learned in my recovery, in my role as Executive Director and a trainer. When I engage with others, I present the same messages repeatedly.  It’s time to write them down.

Phil “Right Click” Valentine

14 thoughts on “Abstinence”

  1. JImmy Frazier-Bey

    Phil thank you for this inspiring message. I also support the abstinence model. I tried methadone years ago and it did not work for ME. I have been totally abstinent for over 30 years. However, I have worked in the treatment field for over 25 years and about 15 years ago I worked part time at a MAT program. What opened my eyes was seeing recoverees coming to get their medicine mostly on a daily basis and driving up in nice cars and trucks; sharing about how the business they had started was doing well; how college is going well; and how they are hiring other recovering people to work for them or helping other recovering people get into college or getting their GED. What was remarkable is these were some of the same individuals I worked with in the treatment program that supported abstinence who were “labeled” treatment failures!

    This pathway seemed to work well for them…KUDOS!

  2. Great blog friend! I really liked the advice from your sponsor…to always be teachable, that totally stuck with me! And I liked that you as an old ish person (young spirited) acknowledged the young people movement of more flexibility. I feel as if many people don’t and it was nice to finally hear it from someone, especially you.

  3. Thanks, Phil! Bill Wilson also said, ““The roads to recovery are many, and the resolution of alcoholism by any method should be a cause for celebration” (1944). Works for me!

  4. Michael Serrano

    Let’s find out together, what works for you and maybe one day, WE can help others together! Built people building people.
    Thank you Phill, your blogs are always educational.

  5. Agree this may be the biggest sticking point for RCs in training. I have also witnessed it to be a transformational experience for most who come around to being “curious” and acknowledge their attachment to definitions of recovery that reflect their own pathway. I referenced this blog in my recovery coach group tonight. I read each of the bullets aloud and asked coaches to admit if they felt an uncomfortable twinge for any of the scenarios. Several honest hands went up. “Its not the coach with biases we worry about…” It was a great conversation and reminder. Thank you.

  6. richard pacukonas

    If abstinence is not required, then abuse, not addiction, is the problem. The trivial proclamation “you’re in recovery if you say you are” is like saying “I’m in the FBI because I say I am.” It’s silly at best and dangerous at worst. Suggestion: Come up with a new, less divisive slogan. Pool the Recovery Coaches, have a contest, engage and evolve.
    In the end, it’s not what one claims, it’s how one lives. Less talk and more action separates success in recovery. Cheap talk is an addict’s treasury. Few care what others rant about themselves, but many will be elevated by the quiet ones who serve.

  7. Hey Phil-
    Nice job on this piece….it can, and frequently is very devisive.
    I particularly appreciate your reference to defensiveness of one’s path dissipating over time……right on target.

    Hope life is treating you well……and that your getting some good fishing in!
    All the best.

  8. Nathaniel Reeves

    Being a volunteer Recovery Coach at the HRCC and completing the RCA has drastically softened my stance on abstinence. Especially the “stages of change.” At the end of the day, for me its about staying alive and living the most useful and productive life available to me. How can I help you do that?

  9. I find that there are as many ways to Recover as there are people in Recovery. My way only works for me.

  10. Herbert C. Boyd Jr.

    My friend I spent 33 years trying to get recovery. The beauty of my journey was all the people I’ve met throughout that time who accomplished recovery. Some of them share the same pathway and so many more found or created different pathways. I came into Coaching with the experience of seeing so many others doing it differently. My recovery came by way of personally watching others do it their way. I’m inspired by recovery not by how one gets it!
    Herb Boyd

  11. Robert Catalano

    Superb job on a most controversial topic Phil. In the end your coaching hat stayed on throughout and I believe you offer a model answer in that you speculate only about the different situations in the context of being applied to your pursuit of recovery one day at a time.

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