Learning From the Experts: How Recovery Strategies Can Guide All of Us to Become Better, Healthier People

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

To mark Recovery Month, we are examining what ‘recovery’ means to various groups of people: First, to the general public; next, to the only true experts – people in recovery. My goal in this third and final piece of the series is to outline some of the powerful lessons that I, someone who is not in recovery – i.e., ‘a normie’- have learned about how to live life, from people in recovery.

What Can We Learn From Addicts?

It’s generally accepted that one ‘addict’ (stigmatizing term, by the way – don’t use it!) can help another, as in AA. But the idea that a “normal” (!) person could learn anything from someone who spent decades getting high may strike some as odd. After all, we are the lucky ones. We stayed on the straight and narrow, lived responsibly, blah, blah, blah. But wait…didn’t I say elsewhere that addiction is a brain disease? That would mean people may not really ‘choose’ that path, wouldn’t it? Well yes it does. [Note to self: Please tattoo this on your brain: addiction is not a choice]

Back to what could we possibly learn from “addicts”? They’re manipulative, unreliable, selfish… Nothing to learn there. Right?

Well okay, to survive in active addiction, you may have to be all these things. Your brain has been hijacked by a disease. Mood altering substances have become your master. That’s what a substance use disorder (SUD) – ‘addiction’ – is: the first criterion for diagnosing an SUD is ‘impaired control’ over the substance. So yes, people in the grip of active addiction may not be very nice at times; they may do some bad stuff. We all know that. I want to focus here on what we can all learn from people in recovery.

Managing any chronic condition (e.g., diabetes, hypertension, depression) requires taking control of your well-being to keep symptoms at bay: making and sustaining significant lifestyle changes – changes in your diet, level of physical activity, how you cope with stress and negative emotions, etc. But managing an addiction requires a momentous paradigmatic shift in who you are and how you live your life.

Making Changes and Regaining Control

We saw in the last piece that recovery is about a lot more than not using drugs or alcohol. Overcoming years or often decades of active addiction requires changing pretty much everything in your life – from your thinking patterns and what you think about, to how to spend your time, with whom, how to relate to the people you spend time with and to yourself. That’s just for openers. Thirty minutes of moderate physical activity three times a week and a daily pill won’t cut it to sustain recovery from addiction.

Whether or not you work a formal recovery program, you need to make these changes. You need to regain control not only over the substance (that’s probably the quickest and easiest part in the grand scheme of things), but you need to retrain your brain– that’s right. Neural pathways established in addiction have to be extinguished and new ones associated with healthy behaviors and thinking are developed and solidified through practice.

…it’s fair to say that recovery isn’t for the lazy or the faint of heart. But people do it. They do it with a focus and a determination you rarely see, as if their life depended on it. Because it does. -Alexandre LaudetUnlike in childhood where we learn how to ‘be’ over time and with a lot of feedback, people in recovery have to do this in a moving train as it were: They are adults, they have responsibilities – kids, family,  possibly problems to take care of from their addicted past, like health issues, debts, criminal records, child custody ‘stuff’. So it’s fair to say that recovery isn’t for the lazy or the faint of heart. But people do it. They do it with a focus and a determination you rarely see, as if their life depended on it. Because it does. They enter recovery full of hope, but also often burdened by shame, a sense of lost time, a deep desire to right past wrongs, to improve themselves, to be the best they can be and give back as much as they feel their addiction took from them and, at times, them from society. In so doing, they become extraordinary individuals whose journeys, disciplines and practices we can all learn from.

Implementing Your Own Strategies

A friend who’s also a preeminent recovery advocate and in solid recovery himself, Chris Lawford, wrote a book, What Addicts Know: 10 Lessons From Recovery to Benefit Everyone. It’s a great read, engaging and informative, with strategies you can implement in your own life to improve the quality of your relationships with yourself and others, enhance your physical, spiritual and emotional health. I am convinced that this can really work for anyone, IF you actually do it (it can be hard and sometimes uncomfortable ‘work’).

In no particular order, here are some of the most powerful strategies and practices I, someone who’s not in recovery, have culled from people in recovery and strive to apply in my own life:

  • As summarized in a Huff Post article, the ‘Serenity Prayer’ is not just for religious people or 12-steppers. Rather, this deceptively simple paragraph holds some profound truth that can help anyone in virtually any situation, big or small. For me, the most striking points are that (1) There are things that you simply cannot change – e.g., the past- so don’t waste time trying; (2) Relatedly, ‘accept’ does not mean ‘like’. It simply means that that’s the way things are right now. (3) There are many things that you can change in part or wholly. Focus on that. Not the past, the mistakes or the what ifs. Focus on what you can, want to or should change: about yourself first and always, but also around you – e.g., don’t like how society views addiction? Work on contributing to change it. (4) Trite as it sounds, it’s critical to figure out and remember what you can change and what you cannot. Otherwise you will end up unhappy, frustrated, spending precious time banging your head against the wall when you could have taken steps, big or small, to work on what you can change.
  • Honesty is key: Strive to be honest with yourself first – about your mistakes, your shortcomings, limitations, needs, likes and dislikes. Do not judge, merely list and accept for now (if you still think accept = like, please see previous section). Do not forget to be honest with yourself about your strengths, your good deeds, abilities, and accomplishments. Second, strive to be honest with others. As you read this, I bet that what comes to mind is acknowledging when you were wrong in word or action; that is part of it and in such cases, take responsibility, do so as soon as possible, apologize and stop there (do not make excuses). Being honest with others also includes being true to yourself and fair to them: If you do not like something or something doesn’t feel right, you owe it to yourself and to the other person to say so. Don’t try to be a people pleaser because you will come to resent the other person/job/situation. It’s easier to say, “You know, I don’t really enjoy [working weekends, Chinese food, horror movies, hiking, specific sexual practices, etc.]” than to go along with it over and over silently because one day you will explode in bitter anger to your boos/sister/partner/etc. and that will damage the relationship far more than being honest in the first place.
  • Always be grateful. Whatever you think you do not have (big and small), you have ‘something’ that someone else values and doesn’t have right now – be it a loving family, hope, your health, your sight, your memory, physical health, emotional stability, time, a roof over your head. Make it a habit to mentally list what you are have to be grateful for. The list will get longer as you do.
  • Take nothing for granted: (related to the previous point) For at least two reasons: Most things don’t last forever, and ‘things’ that are so obvious that you may not even notice (e.g., the ability to see, hear, think, speak, walk on your own two legs) are denied to others.
  • Look outside of yourself: This applies in several ways. First, we are not special or the center of the universe, so always be considerate of others and of the environment. Second, while you need to become able to make informed decisions on your own, you’d be well advised to turn outside of yourself for strength and guidance, especially in difficult times. What you choose to call this external source – and whether or not it’s imbued with spiritual or religious significance – is entirely up to you. The point is, you need role models, heroes, guides, sources of wisdom and objectivity that you trust and respect enough to hear.
  • Look in the mirror. Not that mirror, your internal mirror. Take a moment, each day if you can, to review where you lived up to your own standards and where you didn’t; could you have helped and didn’t? Did you witness a situation from which you can learn-how to be or how not to be? Learn from these reflections with the ultimate goal of striving to be the best you can be. For you, because you deserve nothing less. Remember: Progress, not perfection.

What Does This All Mean?

We could all stand to work on ourselves and on various areas of our lives that have fallen off balance or were never quite right. But it’s a lot of work and most of us are content with the way things are or too busy to notice that we’re not.

People in recovery don’t have the luxury to pause or decide whether they want to get serious about getting their lives back or when. They need to take their lives back from their hijacked brains and they often do whatever it takes to rebuild themselves and their lives.-Alexandre LaudetThere are a lot of things we know we should do, but we don’t and things are usually okay anyway: Eat healthier, be more active, give back more, work on our relationship, save more money… Sometimes you get a health scare or a near collision, maybe the flight you missed crashed and then you take the time to pause and realize, “Life is short; I’d better get my life in order.” People in recovery don’t have the luxury to pause or decide whether they want to get serious about getting their lives back or when. They need to take their lives back from their hijacked brains and they often do whatever it takes to rebuild themselves and their lives.

I started this series by examining the public perception of recovery, whereby too many continue to believe that recovery means someone trying to not drink or use drugs. I have had the privilege of getting to know, work with and befriend numerous people at various stages of recovery. My team and I have devoted the past 15+ years to trying to elucidate the recovery experience – to give it a voice that can guide service development and policy – but also to the decreation of the stigma of addiction. Based on this accumulated experience, when I hear that someone is in recovery, what comes to mind is a courageous, fun, humble, grateful person. I think role model, and yes, I think bad ass (scientifically speaking of course).

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