Recovered or Recovering?

Who’s “right”?

Of the many topics that may receive varying opinions in Alcoholics Anonymous or any other affiliated “anonymous” 12 Step Programs, few seem to have as much a divide as this one. However, since the Big Book of “Alcoholics Anonymous” is the the accepted authority on the program, it really is quite clear which term is to be used and that is “Recovered”.

The word “recovered” is used 16 times in the Big Book of “Alcoholics Anonymous” and 4 times in “The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” (12x12) beginning with the title page of the Big Book which states:


The Story of

How Many Thousands of Men and Women

Have Recovered from Alcoholism

Each time the word “recovered” is used in subsequent contexts throughout the book, it is very straightforward and makes the point. Here are a few examples to illustrate:

p. xiii Foreword to the First Edition

“We, of Alcoholics Anonymous, are more than one hundred men and women who have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.”

“To show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered is the main purpose of this book.”

p. 20 Chapter 2: There is a Solution

“Doubtless you are curious to discover how and why, in the face of expert opinion to the contrary, we have recovered from a hopeless condition of mind and body.”

p. 29 Chapter 2: There is a Solution

“Further on, clear-cut directions are given showing how we recovered.”

p. 113 Chapter 8: To Wives

“He knows that thousands of men, much like himself, have recovered.”

p. 132 Chapter 9: The Family Afterward

“We have recovered, and have been given the power to help others.”

p. 133 Chapter 9: The Family Afterward

“We, who have recovered from serious drinking, are miracles of mental health.”

So, that’s a smattering of what the Big Book of “Alcoholics Anonymous”, the definitive work on the program, says about the word “recovered” (and there’s more). The word “recovering” is only used twice and in the context of an alcoholic who is either still drinking or is currently “recovering” (i.e. early sobriety).

So what’s all the fuss and confusion about? I think this ties into a few separate, but related things:

  • Some AA members prefer to think of themselves as “recovering” for the rest of their lives as a way to remind themselves that they are not cured of alcoholism and that they are always a “work in progress”. Therefore it is helpful for them to use the word “recovering” vs. “recovered”. They sometimes use this quote in the Big Book on p.85: “We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.” (which is a true statement by the way).
  • Some AA members think that anyone that uses the word “recovered” makes them “arrogant” or “better than” and that they are suffering from a “self-delusion” of grandiosity as such and it’s an indication of them NOT working a program.
  • Some AA members think that people who use the word “recovered” are “Big Book Thumpers” who only have book knowledge but no actual wisdom or meaningful sobriety and just preach down toward people.
  • Some AA members think those that use the word “recovering” are giving themselves an excuse to “not get well” and therefore always be “fighting” the disease against relapse and predict that this will eventually happen if they continue to identify as “recovering”.
  • Many rehab centers today tend to use the word “recovering” (I believe because while in rehab you ARE “recovering” at that point in your sobriety) and it is never put into context later, and it is generally pounded into your head that you are “recovering”.

Personally, if it helps someone to stay sober by thinking of themselves as always “recovering”, then by all means do whatever is necessary to stay sober. I am not saying this is wrong or that it implies a different kind of sobriety is going on. I am just trying to point out what the book says about the terms, specifically as they are used throughout the book as I have pointed out above.

But I would offer this analogy for thought:

What if we were talking about cancer? Are people always “recovering” from cancer? Or, at some point are they “recovered” (in many ways from a “hopeless state of mind and body”)? As people slowly begin to get well, they are in early and/or intermediate to long-term recovery from cancer. Now, they must remain vigilant with diet, supplementation, lifestyle changes, etc. and go for regular check ups, but are they still “recovering” years later if their cancer is gone and/or gone into remission? Or have they “recovered”?

Every single person I know that has survived cancer considers themselves “recovered”. They are glad to have put that misery behind them and they are living miracles. Are they vigilant? Yes. Do they watch everything about their lifestyle like a hawk? Yes. But they consider themselves to be WELL and “recovered”.

So, why can’t an alcoholic be “recovered” as so many people seem to want to argue against? I would consider someone in early sobriety, especially if they have not done any meaningful work in the 12 Steps to be “recovering”. Everyone goes through a recovery process, even as in the example above. But, following the 12 Step program, an alcoholic should be “recovered” by the time he completes his 9th Step amends and moves on to the maintenance steps of 10, 11, 12. This is illustrated in the Big Book on p.84 in the passage known as “The 10th Step Promises”:

“And we have ceased fighting anything or anyone-even alcohol. For by this time sanity will have returned. We will seldom be interested in liquor. If tempted, we recoil from it as from a hot flame. We react sanely and normally, and we will find that this has happened automatically. We will see that our new attitude toward liquor has been given us without any effort on our part. If just comes! That is the miracle of it. We are not fighting it, neither are we avoiding temptation. We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality-safe and protected. We have not even sworn off. Instead, the problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. We are neither cocky nor are we afraid. That is our experience. That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.”

So, I will ask you, if you had to pick one word to describe that paragraph above would you pick “recovered” or “recovering”?

I think I will stick to the book, and my own experience to say thankfully that I have “recovered”. How about you?

I wish you good fortune on your continuing journey.