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Recovered versus Recovering — What’s your position?

Here is a letter published in the AA Grapevine, December 1999, Vol. 56 No. 7 from an AA member who expressed confusion over the phrases "recovered" versus "recovering" alcoholic:

At several meetings lately old-timers have been saying they are "recovered alcoholics." The Big Book states: "It is easy to let up on the spiritual program of action and rest on our laurels. We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe. We are not cured of alcoholism" (p. 85). To me, "recovered" means cured, and if I'm cured, I can drink socially and not get drunk. Doesn't saying we're "recovered" give us a false sense of security? Is this a lifelong program of recovery or is there a point at which I'm recovered? I've talked about this at several meetings, and had lengthy talks with old-timers, and now I'm totally confused. Help!

William E.
Farnham, New York

Published in the AA Grapevine, April 2000, Vol. 56 No. 11 were the responses from readers to the question of being a "recovered" alcoholic versus a "recovering" one:

Concerning "recovered" vs. "recovering," there can be no confusion if we accept the Big Book as our basic text for recovery (p. xi).

The division in AA is deeper, however, than a disagreement over two words. There are in fact two camps in AA today. The first is the message of recovery documented in the Big Book as given us by our founders. The second is the New Age message which began infiltrating our AA rooms several decades ago and has become accepted by many if not most of our members. Its roots originate in treatment centers and rehabs.

In direct contradiction to the Big Book, New Agers tell us we'll "never recover," "always be recovering," and "never get well." The message from Bill W. and the first one hundred recovered alcoholics (p. xiii) uses the word "recovered" approximately twenty-three times; "recover," twenty-eight; and "recovering," only twice, and then in the context of the newcomer.

We never become cured from the physical allergy. Once we take a drink the phenomenon of craving will be triggered. This is what it means to say "we are not cured from alcoholism" (p. 85). But once we become recovered, the mental obsession to drink is removed. The physical allergy is rather a moot point. We now do not have to take that first drink. Being recovered is conditional. We remain recovered by staying in fit spiritual condition (p. 85).

Bill F.
Hyattsville, Maryland

Is part of the difficulty with "recovered vs. recovering" a result of the mixed message I keep hearing? When I was new in AA, they said I was sick, but I could get well if I would apply the AA principles on a daily basis. By doing so, I haven't had a drink since my first meeting over sixteen-and-a-half years ago. That doesn't mean I'm cured. It does mean, however, that I can no longer blame my aberrant actions on "alcoholism," "my disease kicking in," "my alcoholic mind," or anything else.

Today, I hear that we are "always sick," with an emphasis on problems. I'm so glad I got a lot more hope than that at my first few meetings. Sometimes I have to sit and scratch my head when I hear members talking about "continuing recovering" after ten, fifteen, or twenty-plus years of sobriety. Have they never read the Big Book or taken the Steps? Have they not found a Higher Power that will solve their problem?

I believe the process continues for a lifetime; there are no vacations or breaks. I cannot do it alone and found help through God, the group, and good sponsorship. The words of hope I heard still ring loudly for me. I remain thankful that those early members had the courage to speak up for their convictions to help convince me there was a real answer to alcoholism.

Gary K.
Parker, Colorado

Having heard numerous discussions on recovering vs. recovered, I prefer to focus on a different concept: "permanent recovery," as used in the Big Book. For a vital requirement of this condition, see p. xvii.

Bill P.
Gulfport, Mississippi

I believe I have an obligation to carry the unequivocal message that complete recovery from alcoholism is not only possible, but probable, provided I'm willing to go to any length to achieve it. Now for the big question: when can an AA member claim to be fully recovered? The answer to this question can be found only in the heart, soul, and conscience of the individual, and is based on the quality, not quantity, of one's sobriety. When one is recovered, one will know it. Ultimately, the great promise of AA for me is permanent recovery from alcoholism, which is contingent upon a constant state of grace being granted by my Higher Power. I can exist in this state of grace on a daily basis, and thus remain "recovered," as long as I stay surrendered to alcohol and practice the Twelve Steps in all my affairs.

Larry P.
Hudson, New Hampshire

It is my belief, and that of one of the old-timers (forty-plus years) at my home group, that at some point, we recover from the seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. This does not mean we are "cured," we are never "cured." The only solution is a daily reprieve, based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. And we must never rest on our laurels. However, at sixteen years, I firmly consider myself recovered. Now, I can continue with the matter of living life, no longer encumbered by the swamp that I came out of. Early on, I was recovering. But through the application of the Steps, use of outside resources when needed, and the persistence taught to me early on by a man who saved my life, I am recovered!

Michael R.
Campbell, California

When I introduce myself at a meeting I simply say: "My name is Jim--and I'm an alcoholic." But when I introduce myself as a speaker, I call myself a "recovered alcoholic." The difference being, that when I'm speaking I can then readily clarify my position, and lest I forget, it leads me straight to an opportunity to express my gratitude for how God and the principles of AA have brought me from an extremely hopeless state to a place of reasonable comfort and peace.

Jim M.
Bloomington, Minnesota

I prefer the past tense of "recovered alcoholic" for a couple of reasons. First, I believe that alcoholism is what has happened in my life, not what is currently happening. During the past seven years I have had heart bypass surgery, cancer, kidney surgery, and surgical repair of an aneurysm of the aorta. And here again, I recuped in fine style from each surgery--recovered if you will--and I feel great. To imply that I am still recovering from these surgeries, as well as my alcoholism, would seem to indicate there are still problems, and problems just do not exist. Secondly, heaven forbid that I would ever give a newcomer in AA the impression that he or she would normally be experiencing problems recovering from alcoholism after twenty-nine years of not drinking. In our text book, recovered is used quite extensively, starting with the forwards to each edition and throughout all 164 pages. Bill W. wrote, "Utopia, we have it with us here and now." Utopia, would that be anything less than recovered?

Don A.
Lakeview, Arkansas

What do you think about "recovered" versus "recovering"? Send us your thoughts.


18 Responses

  1. Yvon Piche, Espanola, Ontario says:

    My name is Yvon and I am a recovered alcoholic. When I was out there drinking, I blamed my alcoholism on all my life’s circumstances then for the first two years in the A.A. Fellowship, I blamed all my life circumstances on my alcoholism. Thank God and those few who carry THE message for having given me the opportunity to hear the A.A. Program and to recover. Today, I realize that, like everyone else in this big beautiful world, I suffer from “selfishness”/”self-centeredness”, not from alcoholism. For me, the problem has been removed. As long as I continue to Trust God, Clean House and Help Others, I will never again have to deal with the bottle which is but a symptom of the root of our human problem. Being a “recovered” alcoholic levels the playing field for me. It reminds me that after 24 years without taking a drink, I can no longer blame the bottle or my allergy to its content. By the way, I’m allergic to bananas too but I do not recall having ever blamed any of my problems on that one! LOL

    “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not…”

  2. Juan-B, Miami, FL says:

    This question is probably best answered by each individual member according to his/her belief in a power greater than ourselves that restores us to sanity…

    I agree there is no cure for the physical allergy; but the book was written to precisely show us how others have recovered (paraphrasing foreword to the first edition)…I am a recovered alcoholic because: I know, without a doubt, that I can never have a drink like "normal" people…I have found and completely abandoned myself to a Higher Power which has restored my sanity by giving me a sense of usefulness and purposefulness in my life…

    "Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone. The only condition is that he trust God and clean house" (AA Big Book, p98, Working With Others)

  3. karen says:

    Never thought about this before but I really do like the idea of saying ‘recovered’ and of course that I will stay ‘recovered’ based on maintaining a fit spiritual condition. It somehow sounds so much more POSITIVE! Yes! I like that. I think I’m going to ignore the ‘experts’ who claim I will never be ‘recovered’ ! ! ! I WILL remain ‘recovered’ if I keep spiritually well via the Big Book’s instructions.

  4. Cameron F. says:

    On page 132 of my Big Book it says, "We have recovered, and been given the power to help others".

    By working the Twelve Step program as described in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and living in the disciplines of Steps 10, 11, and 12 everyday, I am able to remain abstinent from alcohol and all mind-altering substances. The obsession to drink has been removed. My progressive alcoholic illness has been arrested. My alcoholic disease has been put into remission. I have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.

  5. Bill L. says:

     After eighteen years of trying to "stay away from a drink one day at a time" versus working these principles in all of my affairs for the last five, it is clear to me today what recovered is. I see "recovering" AA’s today who claim they have a life second to none, but I would’nt give them a plug nickel for what they have. Recovering is code for  having an excuse for living an angry, (or depressed) dishonest, problematic, unpricipled life. If I claim to be recovered, I have no more excuses. My problems ARE of my own making and I admit this to others. The only "day at a time" action that I take  is turning it over  God each day. If I am having a "bad" day, I am living in the old unrecovered insanity. Being recovered is realizing this insanity and being able to turn my will back over to God .

  6. Brenda MacPhee says:

    I prefer the term recovering versus recovered because recovered some how sounds like I am fixed, However I will be recovering for life.

  7. Yvon P. says:

    But I am "fixed" and even so has God restored us all to our right minds! I’ve never talked to anyone suffering from a disease or illness who did not have, as their goal, to recover completely! Except of course, for most alcoholics! There is a line in my Bigger Book that says; "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he" As I had to concede to my innermost self that I was an alcoholic in order to get well, I must also concede to my innermost self that I am recovered in order to Pass It On! The problem has been removed! Lack of power was my dilemma but today I have power and I call that Power God! God didn’t "almost" fix me, He FIXED me! He did for me what I could never have done for myself! I was always "recovering" until I let Him remove the problem! When dealing with alcoholics who still suffer, I draw their attention to me as a person who HAS RECOVERED and that is THE MESSAGE of AA! Not popular but one of hope to the alkie who has, as of yet, not found an answer. Am I perfect? Hardly! Am I recovered? Absolutely! Recovery from alcoholism is not a lifetime process but becoming of maximum service to God and the people about us certainly is!

  8. Adam says:

    The first promise in the big book says the story of how over 100 men and woman have recovered…our hope is that when this chip of a book is launched on the world, a tide of alcoholic defeated drinkers will seize upon it to follow its suggestions…many we are sure will rise to their feet.(Big Book, page 153). Anyone who is hasn’t read the book would not get the recovered part. If you have gone threw the work in the book, then you are recovered.

  9. Lupe P. says:

    My name is Lupe and I am a recovering neurotic (I’m powerless over my emotions, my emotional and mental disease). Since I found stories of AAs attending meetings, doing service and working with others, but relapsing in drinking after years of abstinence, or dry but living a life of hell, and were taken through BB and 12 steps, I came to admit the previous work I did with the Steps was incomplete and I wasn’t recovered. My experience is I didn’t have the foundation, the stones and the exact guidelines to make the Step until an audio from a recovered AA member led me through BB.

    I must say I am recovering, even when I have a protegè, share my experience, and we’re working BB and steps together. But pioneers and this work makes me hang in there, following the clear-cut directions, and BB is full of sentences describing what a recovered member is and looks like, so it’s easy to see where I am and where I’m going to. I’ve came to believe it will be inevitable to be recovered if I follow BB’s directions.

  10. Gregg G says:

    Hey friends:

    Funny, leave it to me to want a specific label to be of fit people worshiping condition..Do I or am I and arent you? They aren’t but we are..Like my selfwill run riot checklist, he’s screwed up and I’m OK, check! He doesn’t get the real program but I do, check! He’s spreading the disease and I’m in the solution, check! I’m everything and he’s not,check! The alcoholism illness centers in my mind, Huh?

    When I ask the Higher Power to direct my thinking here I see myself forever rearranging others to suit myself as the selfish problem creating my confusion. As I pray, It becomes clear that each for themselves will decide if they are recovered or recovering..It is my place to accept them as they are. I am willing to bring emotional security to the situation by my action as a power of example.Or of course I can decide whats best for you and everyone as an example of power in hopes of a bit of instant gratification. Damn selfish self centeredness…

    Today I have solved the drink problem, I have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body..

    Be good to yourself, share the new found freedom..

  11. gregg g says:

    As a Big Book Step follower who as a result of the psychic change offered through all 12 Steps laid out in masterly detail for the benefit of the hopeless alcoholic, it is now quite clear that when I stepped onto the Spiritual Path suggested as the 12 Steps, I surely began recovering..After the fearless and thorough 4th Step I made a good beginning..I then found myself faced with action and more action as faith without works is fear going nowhere but into a state of nothingness… When I made my decision to stay on the path to best serve my God and those who suffer or need a power of example, giving credit to the AA Step work I recovered..I am recovered today, right now at this writing..

    Alcohol is neither here nor there and has no effect on me as I maintain my fit Spiritual condition..I am willing to grow in understanding and effectiveness with my God and thereby am capable of honest decision making and rational thought..Today as a result of the 12 Steps especially 10 11 and 12 if not all of them, participating in life and a willingness to serve others has become a working part of my mind..I am reborn or if you like, restored..

  12. Ron says:

    I have 38 years of sobriety and hadn’t gone to meetings in 20 years. I helped start a Big Book meeting 2 years ago, and now getting flank by one with 11+ years and a newcomer. One with 18 years is still an alcoholic. I believe you don’t get cured , but do believe you can recover, as it states 6+ places in the Big Book. Forward in First Addition really states recovered, and that was for 100 people from 1935 to 1939, with Bill and Bob in the mix. In 1955 (Second Addition) there were 150,000 recovered alcoholics.

  13. The DUDE says:

    The term recovered vs recovering, is a personal view (at best). these phrases have been taken from the Big Book, and everyone gets there own meaning out of it in there own recovery program- as long as we follow these steps- life will get better. Like having a full time sponsor or grand-sponsor, the way it was put forth to begin with is that the sponsor of the individual helps the person through the steps- as a process of there own recovery. not that they have them as a student the rest of there lives, but it has been adopted that way. It comes down to ones own view on there recovery process. I am recovered, and need to maintain that with help from the group, but i would have to make a decision to not be recovered- if i picked up again. The DUDE

  14. Kevin B. says:

    “We realize we know only a little.” p. 164

    Recovered is past-tense. Recovering is present tense. My active drinking is now past-tense, but my ongoing path in AA is present tense.

    Much of what I read in the Big Book and here in these posts speaks to being recovered, and then needing to do ongoing maintenance to keep that state of being recovered. I think for me the words maintaining and recovering are synonymous. They mean precisely the same thing in my walk in AA. That’s how I define my recovery: I attend meetings regularly; have and use my sponsor; work the steps with my sponsor; do service in AA; have a relationship with a power greater than myself.

    If I’m recovered from a treatment for a disease, I don’t continue the treatment. If Im recovered from the disease of alcoholism I should not need to continue any treatment. To use the example of surgery that Don A. posited, now that Don is recovered from his surgery, would he continue the post-surgical methods that helped him heal property? No, and any good doctor would say that would be unnecessary. However, he may need to change certain aspects of his life in order to stay healthy, and that will be an ongoing active endeavor. That would be a continuation of his recovery from surgery.

    However, if I break my arm, after it has been in a cast, and I have done my PT and recovered from the break, I’m done. I need not change any further behavior, so the recovery process is complete.

    Today, rather than being declaring that I am one or the other, I don’t mind seeing my walk in AA as “both” recovered and recovering. Sobriety has given me that opportunity to be open and flexible to new ideas, to not have to be right or wrong, sick or well, black or white. I don’t need to throw “new age” ideas under the bus in order for me to know that AA is the best path for me. I would rather live in the final words of the book we so dearly cherish:

    “We realize we know only a little. God will constantly disclose more to you and to us. Ask Him in your morning meditation what you can do each day for the man who is still sick. The answers will come, if your own house is in order. But obviously you cannot transmit something you haven’t got. See to it that your relationship with Him is right, and great events will come to pass for you and countless others. This is the Great Fact for us.”


  15. Victor says:

    I myself came to this understanding of being recovered when I see that maintenance of my spiritual reality comes from God himself and not from my own doing. The only requirement is that I turn my will over everyday to his own. Of course I don’t do it perfect but I am learning to recognize that humility keeps me in the process of learning how to listen and follow through his direction.

  16. Scott says:

    The term “recovered alcoholic” is just not proper English. If you take the literal meaning of the two words together it would imply that you are now normal and can drink just like normal people. You can’t cure your alcoholism through a 12 step program any more than you could cure a peanut allergy with a 12 step program. You have recovered from from many things that you should be proud of but being an alcoholic is not one of them. The Big Book was written by a man, a great man to be sure. But Human and imperfect like all of us. Just because it says it in the book, it does not make it so…

  17. michaek says:

    I am never troubled by craving for alcohol. My last drink was thirty-nine years ago. I neither crave nor fear alcohol. It is irrelevant. I am recovered. “recovering” seems to imply that constant, unrelenting willpower is necessary. AA doesn’t teach that. Rehabs do.

  18. Steve says:

    It amazes me how hard-headed and stubborn we can be in sobriety these days! We are not willing to change word of the Big Book (and other A.A. literature) and still change it in practice. Gone are the days when an old timer’s opinion counted for more than anybody else’s in the room! I doubt Bill W’s opinion would count for much any more!

    Before A.A., alcoholism was seen as an absolutely incurable and only temporarily recoverable ailment. Bu, the first edition of the Big Book holds otherwise; in the doctor’s opinion, which carries over through to the fourth edition, Dr. Silkworth opines that the 100 founding members of A.A. have in fact “recovered.”

    The full name of the first edition of the Big Book is: “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism.” Subsequent editions saw the name change to: “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism.”

    Today most believe that we are always “recovering”, a simple and seemingly reasonable idea, because being “recovered” is tantamount to a cure, but once we achieve abstinence from alcohol, we can in fact fully recover, “return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength” or “regain possession of (something stolen or lost)”, from the effects of alcoholism.

    It is ironic that the first 100 founding members held themselves to be “recovered” in three years or less, the period from the official founding in 1935 through the writing of the first edition completed in 1938, and the majority now disclaims even the possibility!

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