A Bridge Too Far: Individuals with Regular and increasing very heavy alcohol consumption cannot be considered as maintaining “recovery” due to toxicity and intoxication-related risks


The concept of "recovery" from alcohol use disorders (AUD) has garnered increasing scientific interest in recent years including attempts to explicate and measure its presumed component parts. In general, there is consensus that "recovery" should not be solely about abstinence or quantity-frequency measures of alcohol consumption and should include measures of functioning. Some researchers have taken an even more radical step, however, to suggest that psychosocial functioning should be the sine qua non defining feature of "recovery," seemingly irrespective of how much one drinks; as such, people can be classified as achieving and maintaining successful "recovery" despite engaging in regular very heavy drinking. This commentary argues against this notion, as it goes beyond existing data and largely ignores the more insidious toxicity-related, as well as acute intoxication-related, health risks, known to occur with heavy alcohol exposure that contradict the salubrious intent of the "recovery" construct. Furthermore, classifying someone as being in successful "recovery" due to high functioning but while engaging in very heavy drinking, ignores the potential collateral damage to close significant others (eg, children, partners), whose well-being can be severely impacted by the enduring unpredictability of heavy use. Finally, it is argued that exclusive championing of "functioning," while paying little if any attention to AUD remission or alcohol exposure status, creates a conceptual conundrum whereby someone with low functioning but who is in long-term AUD remission or completely abstinent could be classified as not achieving "recovery," holding such individuals to a higher standard and may be stigmatizing.