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Just A Little More Change Required

By: Kevin McLaughlin, Executive Director, Recovery Allies

Part of my job is to organize the “recovery” community. How can we organize the community if we don’t know who they truly are. Those who suffer consequences due to a substance addiction do not all look alike, nor are the paths they take to become free of that addiction all the same. The more I learn about recovery and the people in it, the more I learn that the paths out of addiction are varied.

I think many of us make an assumption that in general the recovery community is made up of people that have messed up their lives really badly. They have legal issues, medical issues and money issues. There is a certain image that comes to mind when we hear the word alcoholic or drug addict.

Unfortunately, this negative image is not only true coming from the general population (those who don’t have negative consequences due to use) but some of those in active recovery as well. If those of us in recovery have a misguided notion of what we look like, how can we expect those that don’t look like that to change? And how can we reach those that don’t fit that description?

In an effort to help as many people as possible, we need to change the distorted image we have of those with addiction. This message is for those in recovery, for those that simply chose not to drink or use drugs, for those struggling in active addiction, and for those who treat people for addiction.

Let’s look at the clinical categories for people with addiction. The categories are separated into three groups: mild, moderate and severe. I think that the general population and the treatment industry think of ALL people with addiction as being in the last category of severe. This is due to the fact that by the time this person surfaces for help, they are in the later stages of addiction. Before we go on about the two categories of mild to moderate we need to talk about the three different ways people identify themselves who are no longer using.

Recovery Identity 

It is important to know that for 5 to 10% of the drinking population (regardless of their socio-economic status), addiction is a normal side effect of continued use of a drug.

Remembering that, lets look at three kinds of recovery identity or association to recovery.

First is called recovery neutral. This person says simply “I don’t drink”. They never connected to the recovery community and never had a need to. They had problems of some sort and just stopped. Typically these people don’t have any trouble saying they “had a few problems” which is why they quit. If asked how long they have been in recovery they may say, “what do you mean?” Labeling it and counting the days is not a part of quitting for them.

Next is the recovery negative identity. For this person it is a bad or shameful thing to be associated with the recovery community. This person doesn’t tell anyone they have a history. They fear judgment and stigmatization. For many it’s for good reason. The employer may change their attitude about an otherwise stellar employee, which may result in a missed promotion or a change in position. But for most, experiences like those aren’t necessary for the feelings of shame to exist.

The last group is the recovery positive group. The person in this group is proud of the achievement of such a monumental change in themselves. They have no problem sharing their story especially in the hopes of helping someone else.

Now that we understand how people may think of themselves in relation to no longer using substances, we can look at the mild and moderate groups. The mild to moderate group identifies typically with the recovery neutral group and very often is made up of kids. The group is also made up of young professionals, stay at home moms and dads and lastly retired people. I propose that we develop a different language to get this group’s attention. If they only have a few consequences it is more likely they will fall into the “recovery neutral” group. If we suggest a lifetime of abstinence we usually lose them. If we say that recovery is a journey and will require a ton of work for a long time we could lose them. If we say they have to change everything especially friends we lose them. So why not change our approach?! We could start by listening to the individual and actually believe them when they say “I don’t think I’m an alcoholic”. They may not be. But then again they might.

I also find that by sharing my path (ie my early reluctance to be labeled or join the recovery community,) the ground is laid for further discussion. My experience has been that the more I learn about them and adapt my language to fit their situation, the more engaged in change these people become.

Another fascinating thing I’m finding is that many people are “coming forward” and sharing that this is exactly their experience with addiction. Some have failed treatment yet ultimately reached a place of overall well being without “joining” a recovery program. One reason they typically don’t talk about this within recovery communities is that their experience is often challenged, discredited, or discounted. When coaching a person, seeking wellness and recovery, I absolutely love the response a person, usually young, gives when they hear these words: “you may not be an alcoholic”, or “you don’t need to attend a support group to get well,” or “you don’t have to identify with the recovery community or call yourself anything other than human.” It is as if a heavy weight is lifted off their shoulders.

For those unfamiliar with the history of treatment, labeling is a necessary thing used to establish a system of being able to pay for treatment. To treat someone we need a diagnosis and the ability to measure the effectiveness. Labels serve a purpose for that goal; let’s use them just for that. I think we should be allowed to define ourselves.

We at Recovery Allies have had to open ourselves up to some new and different ideas and facts and then take the next steps and make a sincere effort at changing such things as our language and assumptions of what the recovery community looks like. The result so far is people who don’t fit the image of an alcoholic or drug addict are coming to us and talking. They are doing so because they have a desire to help those that may identify with their story. After saying all this, the funny thing is, it seems like people that don’t identify or relate to those in the recovery community look an awful lot like someone who does….