This term originated in the USA and recovery remains an essentially Anglo-Saxon concept. Various definitions have been offered including the Betty Ford Institute definition: Recovery from substance dependence is a voluntarily maintained lifestyle characterized by sobriety, personal health and citizenship. Sobriety refers to abstinence from alcohol and other nonprescribed drugs.

The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Commission (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.

Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May introduced recovery into a UK Government policy context in 2010. Although the document does not offer a definition of recovery, what was meant is indicated by the document’s subtitle – supporting people to live a drug free life. In Scotland, the term was defined in the minority SNP Government’s strategy document The Road To Recovery (2008) as a process through which an individual is enabled to move on from their problem drug use, towards a drug-free life as an active and contributing member of society. Some view these British definitions of recovery as less inclusive than those in the US.

In Scotland, the new strategy document Right, Respect and Recovery (2018) re-defines recovery as a journey for people away from the harm and the problems which they experience, towards a healthier and more fulfilling life. This may be viewed as a more inclusive approach than used under The Road to Recovery strategy (2008 to 2018).

As suggested by the range of these definitions, recovery remains a contested term. For people identifying as being in recovery, it may have very particular and profoundly personal meaning and connotations. In wider discourse, there is a debate around whether recovery means being ‘drug free’ and whether ‘drug free’ includes prescribed medication and substances such as nicotine and caffeine. (See abstinence; see drug free)

There are also issues with the frequently deployed metaphor of recovery being ‘a journey’. For some, these issues impacted on perception, understanding and implementation of Government strategy under The Road To Recovery in the decade from 2008 (see journey metaphors).