By Olivia Pape, MPH

As the director of the WVU Collegiate Recovery Program, I am often asked questions like: What should recovery look like? How do we know if someone is “in recovery”? Like most things in life, there may not be a “one size fits all” answer. I am an advocate for those in recovery, and I pride myself on helping others find their way to being a better ally to those in or seeking recovery. I would not call myself an expert, as the field is ever-evolving and there’s always more to learn and understand, but I would refer to myself as someone with ample experience in this area, and I am always excited to share my thoughts on recovery with others. As anyone in a support group can tell you, it’s important to have a “take what you want and leave the rest” approach. My thoughts and exploration of recovery is my own, and it is always in a state of growth in both my professional and personal life—but maybe it will help you assess your thoughts and beliefs, as well.

SAMHSA defines recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.” I love this definition because you’ll notice nowhere in there does it have a description of a certain type of sobriety or abstinence, nor are there any time-bound limitations. Just like no two addictions or disorders are identical, recovery journeys are all individualized and unique, as well. Recovery, in my opinion, should be focused on the myriad of amazing things that can be added to one’s life, focused on the solutions, not hammering down on the problems or what has been taken away.

At WVU Collegiate Recovery, we don’t ascribe to the belief that recovery has a certain look. In my opinion, there is no one right way. All pathways to recovery are welcome in our program—medication-assisted recovery, 12-step groups, inpatient treatment, faith-based approaches, mutual aid support, and others. We are less concerned about what someone is in recovery from and more focused on where they want to recover to. Recovery isn’t about white-knuckling your way through life—it’s an opportunity to live a fuller, more abundant, and vibrant one. We know what the problems are, so now let’s focus on moving toward the solutions.

The SAMHSA working definition of recovery also doesn’t imply that recovery is limited only to substance use disorders. I believe, and our program promotes, that someone can be in recovery from a wide variety of diseases, disorders, and concerns and that no form of recovery is better or more important than another. We serve students who deal with eating disorders or disordered eating, anxiety disorders, social anxiety, personality disorders, and more. Maybe you just want to improve your relationship with alcohol or substances or food, body, and weight. Maybe you are focusing on recovery in one area but not quite ready to look at other behaviors. You’re welcome in our program. There are so many ways to make people feel like outsiders, to feel “other than”—can we find more ways to be inclusive?

SAMHSA also lists four major dimensions of recovery: health, home, purpose, and community. These dimensions align well with NWI’s Six Dimensions of Wellness: occupational, intellectual, spiritual, social, emotional, and physical. Consider looking at recovery from a holistic lens. What does the rest of your life look like now that you’ve reclaimed it? What is the quality of that life? Our program focuses on someone’s total well-being. How can we help build up those areas of life that were negatively impacted by one’s disease or disorder or concern? Are you finding meaningful connections and building a sense of community? Is there a loving movement you can engage in to help deal with stress? Are you accessing your inner creativity and learning and growing as your recovery evolves? Can you continue to build awareness of your emotions and develop your toolbox to cope in healthier ways? Just as addictions and disorders are complex, so is recovery.

And recovery is a process. It isn’t linear and it sometimes involves relapses or slips. Individuals learn and grow from these experiences and going through a relapse does not mean someone doesn’t want or will not achieve that sustained recovery. The process is the true journey. There is no final page, no graduation. Sometimes we move forward, sometimes we move backward, and sometimes we don’t move at all. It’s ongoing and incredibly humbling—but recovery is always possible. Often, recovery is probable. Some books just have more chapters than others.

So, how do we better advocate for and support our college students who are in or seeking recovery? We can start by creating safe spaces. We can start by looking at our own behaviors, attitudes, biases and explore where they’ve come from and how to move past judgment into a place of acceptance. When a student comes into my program, I don’t know why they are there. I make it a point to not even ask. When someone is ready to share, we’ll be there to receive, but until then, we can just hold space. This is your hand, and you don’t have to show anyone your cards until you are ready. But when you want to, knowing there’s a whole room full of other college students who get it is incredible. I am humbled watching my students support one another. And their recoveries all look different. Some have been sober for a decade. Some are just stepping into understanding that their relationship with food, body, and weight is problematic and causing distress. Some are not quite ready to tackle the challenge of giving up substances. They are all worthy. They are all welcome. There is space to support them all.

For more on this topic, read here.