We, as a country, are starting to appreciate the scope of the opioid overdose crisis that has swept through our communities. A record 49,000 opioid overdose deaths were recorded in the U.S. in 2017, impacting different communities in different ways from coast to coast, to say nothing of non-fatal overdoses that occur in the thousands. We are inundated with tragic stories, shocking headlines, photographs that bring us to tears, data that overwhelm and angers us, and we feel the personal impact as the opioid overdose crisis touches our personal lives – our friends, our families, ourselves.

We too rarely hear the stories of recovery, of healing, of hope – stories that provide light in the midst of an overwhelming crisis. These facts should inspire us:

· Millions of Americans find recovery

· Nearly 10% of all adults are living in recovery

· The vast majority of people with a substance use disorder (SUD) do recover

As someone who has worked in this field for many years and in many different capacities, I have often wondered how to best support someone who is seeking recovery. I have worked with thousands of people who used opioids of all kinds, in all stages of drug use and recovery. I have witnessed an equal number of paths to recovery and health, and been privileged to watch people’s lives completely transform before my eyes.

There is no correct path, no universal goal, no single method that will work for everyone. The only “correct” way to pursue recovery is the way that works for the person seeking it – as outsiders, we cannot and should not attempt to dictate the process.

Nearly half of all people who misuse prescription opioids recover without any type of organized program. Some people recover from opioid use disorder by participating in 12-step programs, some recover in secular abstinence based programs, and many, many people utilize some sort of medication assisted treatment – methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone – to pursue recovery. Still others will utilize paths not mentioned here, or a combination of paths. Some will find motivation in themselves, some in religion, some in family or friends, and still others in their community.

What is recovery, though? How is recovery defined? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” This definition applies to recovery from both mental and substance use disorders, and has several guiding principles that can be explored in depth here.

Though vague, this definition is intentionally and remarkably flexible – it recognizes that individuals have their own history, their own needs, their own strengths and weaknesses, their own culture and background. It calls for self-determination, for people to define their own versions of recovery and health, and to develop their own path to achieve those goals. It doesn’t call for specific methods (inpatient care, total abstinence, specific programming, etc.) – instead, it recognizes that the path to healing and recovery is different for each and every person. Accordingly, it also calls for those of us on the periphery to support and help, yet not impose our personal version of health on others.

Over 20 million people living in this country have a substance use disorder – and we must not forget that each one of those people is their own person. Sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, partners and spouses, friends and family, colleagues and neighbors – we can all help. We can learn to be active, compassionate listeners, to recognize that pursuing recovery is a tremendously courageous endeavor, and to understand that it can take several attempts before finding “success.” We can make sure to find time to listen to the stories of hope, of growth, of success, which are as valuable as recognizing the tragic, loss-filled reality of losing a loved one to opioid overdose. We can always do more. Learn more at https://www.recoverymonth.gov/.

With hope,

Rachael Cooper 


  • Rachael Cooper

    Senior Program Manager

    the National Safety Council

    Rachael Cooper is the senior program manager and subject matter expert for substance use harm prevention at the National Safety Council. She has devoted her career to the public health and social services sectors, with expertise in substance use harm prevention, providing direct services to people with substance use disorders, harm reduction work, opioid overdose prevention and education, and community engagement.