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Defining Success for People in Recovery

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What does success look like for people in recovery from substance use conditions? What about for the providers who serve them?

Claiming a Successful Recovery is Unique to Individuals

I called Frank, a former colleague and peer specialist at a human services agency, to get his perspective on what recovery means. But before I could ask my questions, I learned that a mutual friend had died. I became friends with this man when he was living on the street. He was tormented by his use of crack cocaine, and struggled with persistent mental illness and coping with past trauma. His daily life was full of pain, isolation, and fear.

Yet Frank counts our friend as a success. Why? “Our friend died housed, with food in his fridge, and more connected to friends, family, and his community,” Frank concluded. He reminded me that recovery is a process, one that is often lifelong, difficult, and full of setbacks. Recovery is unique to the person who is recovering. Ultimately, defining successful recovery and claiming that success is deeply personal.

“Success, for me, requires that I be clean and sober,” Frank told me. Sobriety allows him to be present in reality. Yet, sobriety is only a piece of Frank’s definition. Success depends on “the relationships I have and the kindness and compassion I share with others,” he remarked. Success is larger than any one goal and, likewise, one failure. Frank added that everyone owns his or her definition of success, and we must allow others the space to decide for themselves.

Building Trust Is the Foundation for Behavior Change

Creating space for people to recover on their own terms is at the heart of what it means to be a successful treatment provider, according to Ruth Kantaster, director of the Syringe Access Program at the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver, Colorado. You create space for people to recover when you offer “low-threshold” systems and “on-demand” services that allow those struggling with drug addictions to access and choose care, Ruth said. She reminded me that people who have substance use disorders have employment schedules, transportation limitations, and medical conditions that may limit their access to conventional medical and substance use treatment services. When you disregard their reality, Ruth noted, people feel discounted.

They also must be able to trust you. Respect is fundamental in establishing trust, and trust is fundamental in creating a partnership for behavior change, Ruth pointed out. It’s difficult to overcome a lack of trust and respect. “It only takes one bad experience for [an individual with a substance use disorder] to never want to [try accessing services] again,” Ruth said. This means that people who need services don’t receive them.

To successfully engage people who misuse drugs, it helps to reframe their actions in light of their daily struggles. If they miss an appointment, it’s doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t value your time. If they seem to reject you, it may have more to do with them than with you. During our discussion, Ruth laughed and said, “One of the hardest things in the world is to not take things personally.”

The commitment to respect a client requires us all to suspend our preconceptions, quiet our assumptions, and allow our clients, friends, and family members to surprise us. I’m glad my friend found this, in some small way. His death reminded me that success doesn’t always look like what you’d expect. It’s a process as much as a goal; something to strive for and celebrate in small steps along the way. Defining success and working toward it is a process we all live through every day.

This article was published to highlight the theme of Drug Use. Learn how SAMHSA's Recovery to Practice (RTP) program helps providers improve delivery of recovery-oriented services. Learn more about substance abuse treatment evidence-based practices (EBP).

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

Last Updated

Last Updated: 04/19/2016