The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines September as National Recovery Month, a national observance held every September to promote and support new evidence-based treatment and recovery practices, the emergence of a strong and proud recovery community and the dedication of service providers and community members across the nation who make recovery in all its forms possible” (www.samhsa.gov/recovery-month). The dedication of service providers and community members is essential in helping those in the recovery community succeed.
Recovery takes a village, yet every person with an addiction needs to make that journey alone. Yes, they can have support, attend meetings and receive professional help, but the reality is that they and they alone must make the decision to be substance–free one minute, one hour, one day at a time. All it takes to lose the battle is one moment of giving in to the addiction; however, relapse is a common part of recovery.
People ask me, as a mental health professional, whether I think of addiction as a disease. My answer is that the distinction isn’t important to me. There is only one cure for addiction that I know of and that is abstinence. Whether or not a person uses is a decision only they can make. It is a much easier decision to abstain when a person isn’t addicted. Once there is a physical, emotional and psychological dependence on a drug, it is incredibly hard to say “no.” However, that’s the only way to curb addiction. If there is a physical addiction, sometimes the addict uses simply to ward off withdrawal, which can be so horrible the person wishes they were dead.
In my experience, addiction is typically the symptom of an underlying problem, not the problem itself. People who use can be self-medicating a pain that is so intense, they need to numb themselves. This pain could be from abuse in childhood, a devasting loss or a lack of healthy relationships, including the relationship with self.
I do a lot of training for the staff of a residential rehab in Pennsylvania. People come into their program usually knowing their lives have become unmanageable and they need help to achieve sobriety. Sometimes after 24 to 72 hours, they rethink that decision and decide to leave. No addiction counselor can make an addict stay in treatment when they have made up their mind to leave. This is why I say, “You can have help, but you must do it alone.”
The best treatment for addiction is healing the underlying trauma that led to the addiction in the first place and teaching relationship-building skills, which can begin with one’s sponsor, their loved ones, new people in their life and, eventually, with themselves.
I have yet to meet a person with an addiction who has healthy self-esteem. When a person begins to experience post-acute withdrawal symptoms, emotions are the first to return. This may sound like a good thing to people who are accustomed to having mostly positive emotions, but imagine what it would be like to emerge from your drug-induced numbing haze into a constant stream of pain, sorrow and guilt—emotions you can’t escape from without your drug of choice. Is it any wonder that so many people return to the sanctuary of their numb existence?
Here’s what I would like people to focus on while contemplating the process of recovery:
Recovery is difficult and deserves celebration and respect when accomplished.
Addiction is usually a symptom of a larger problem, not the whole problem itself.
People who work in addiction, who aren’t burned out, are angels. They keep showing up, knowing the score of the game, where addiction wins far more than recovery, and they keep coming back to be there for people they might be able to make a difference for.
Some people who work in the field are burned out and, consequently, aren’t very effective. Don’t judge them. Their job is often thankless, and they are hurt every time someone begins a sober life and returns to their drug of choice. Burnout is a form of self-protection.
Family members of those battling addiction are experiencing their own kind of hell. Don’t judge them if they are wary of their family member’s sobriety. On the other hand, don’t judge them if they are overly optimistic about their family member’s sobriety, even though this can later lead to extreme disappointment during a relapse.
No matter how much you want the person with addiction to stay on their recovery journey, you can’t want it more than they do. You can’t do the work for them. They must do it themselves.
Whatever you do, don’t judge the person with the addiction. It can be easy to adopt an us–versus–them attitude and become so condescending in order to clearly delineate you from who you perceive as an inferior person. You are but one decision away from addiction, as is everyone. There is nothing that separates you from a person with addiction.
Recovery is monumental. To be successful, people need to face their demons and slay them so they can live in the real world. There, things for people continuing on their path of sobriety can be painful and scary for a very long time until happiness starts to creep back into a person’s life. Never underestimate the struggle.
For the addiction specialists and the families of people with addiction, never give up. You never know when the next thing you do or say will inspire your person to seek the help they need to maintain a sober lifestyle. Relationships are most indicative of success in recovery. Be that person your person can count on to denounce the behaviors that come from addiction, while unconditionally supporting the person in pain without enabling their addiction.
To anyone living in recovery and all those who love you, I salute you!