What’s the Difference Between Abstinence and Recovery?


Many individuals believe that getting sober means simply abstaining from drugs or alcohol and that’s it. However, recovery is much more comprehensive and involves the creation of a brand new life of sobriety. Stopping the usage of drugs or alcohol is easy, but doing the work to heal the part of yourself that craved drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism is an entirely different journey. Understanding the difference between abstinence and recovery will help many understand what recovery is all about and what to expect when getting sober. Being able to separate the two will perhaps motivate individuals struggling with addiction to get sober and prepare them for possible treatment. 

Defining Abstinence

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, abstinence is “the practice of not doing or having something that is wanted or enjoyable.” That being said, abstinence is simply giving up drugs or alcohol and not using them anymore. Its definition does not imply the powerful healing that occurs for someone on the path of recovery from drugs and alcohol. You can still be struggling and potentially engaging in the same destructive behaviors while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Some have even coined the term “dry drunk syndrome” for individuals who are behaving the same way as they did when drinking or using drugs.

Dry Drunk Syndrome

The dry drunk syndrome occurs when an addict stops using alcohol or drugs but still behaves as if they are struggling with addiction. Individuals with the dry drunk syndrome are often unhappy in their sobriety and would rather be drinking or using drugs because they have not found the joy that sobriety can bring when healing occurs. Many are stuck in the early stages of recovery where they haven’t yet learned healthy coping strategies to deal with the stressors of everyday life. Some of those with dry drunk syndrome end up relapsing, yet there is still a population that stays sober for a long time but does not succeed in restoring their lives. 

Defining Sobriety

For the general population, the term sobriety often refers to not drinking any alcohol or consuming drugs. The definition often never goes past this point. However, in the world of addiction recovery, sobriety has a much deeper meaning. It often means living a life that is free from using drugs and alcohol while repairing your life physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Recovery means healing the parts of you that crave the drugs or alcohol to cope with life’s stressors. It takes courage and strength to commit to transforming your life.

Being in Control

Perhaps the most telling difference between abstinence and recovery is the fact that abstinence implies you are in control of your addiction. Abstinence is all about your willpower to stop without acknowledging the common opinion that addiction is a chronic disease that you have no control over. Recovery acknowledges that you have lost control and are unable to manage your use of drugs and alcohol. Admitting that you are no longer able to manage your drinking or drug use is the first step in the healing process and the beginning of your recovery journey. 

Step One

Step one in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) states, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol- that our lives had become unmanageable.” This first step of AA’s 12-step program is key for recovery. It is challenging to begin the healing process until you realize that you are not in control of your addiction. You may have found yourself in a place where you cannot choose how much or how little you drink or use drugs because of your physical dependence and the power of craving. At a certain point during our usage, our bodies may begin to be physically addicted or our brains may be setting off signals of craving. Oftentimes, our brains are searching for the same buzz or high we had the first time we tried drugs or alcohol. substance more over time as it tries to achieve the same high as when you first started using drugs and alcohol.

Even if you could choose to stop using drugs and alcohol on your own, you could end up with dry drunk syndrome or potentially relapse. Healing from addiction is about doing the work to address your fears and troubled past so you can find joy in your sobriety. 

The Joys of Sobriety

Addiction recovery does not only address the physical problem of your drug and alcohol abuse. Some of the greatest gifts of recovery are also the powers of healing emotionally, mentally, and spiritually to give you the best chance to live a happy and fulfilling life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states that addiction recovery includes five key elements. 

  1. Abstinence from drugs and alcohol
  2. Improved wellness
  3. Improved health
  4. Continuous growth and change
  5. Improved quality of life

You won’t find some of these great assets of recovery through only abstinence. If you want to have an improved quality of life or the changes and growth that occurs through the recovery process, then you should seek out recovery over just abstinence. Only abstaining from drugs and alcohol could leave you struggling with the emotions that come up when we remove the substances that helped us to numb which in turn could eventually lead to going back to abusing drugs or alcohol. Finding the joys and miracles of a new sober lifestyle is at the very essence of recovery. Once you experience these great joys, you can share with those that still may be struggling and give them hope for a life free from drugs and alcohol. 


Many individuals believe that recovering from addiction is simply choosing to stop using drugs or alcohol completely. There are a couple of problems with this theory in that simply abstaining from drugs or alcohol will not help to heal your mental and emotional health. Addicts often turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with the negative occurrences of everyday life. Recovery teaches these individuals that drugs or alcohol are not needed and there are healthier ways to cope with distressing situations and events. At Choice House, we strive to teach our clients about the differences between abstinence and recovery. We want to stress that abstaining from drugs and alcohol isn’t enough because it will do nothing for you in finding your true happiness. Our clients should leave us feeling happier and more confident in their lives than when they first entered our facility. We do this by encouraging not just abstinence, but total recovery. Call us today at (720) 577-4422 for more information.