Many years before I found my way into a group room or sat in a chair before a client, I listened to a recording of Dr. King and his “I Have a Dream” speech. Having listened to his speech I knew I wanted to help people in some way and I knew I wanted to affect change, I just didn’t know how. I had a dream of supporting clients to find a way to exit addiction. I suspect I must have found a way to reach my goal as more than 28 years later I continue to support people to find a way to to achieve sobriety. When I was wandering about trying different careers, I tried selling cars for a bit. The work didn’t engage me, but in some way I latched on to the idea of sales. In some way I sell sobriety. I am able to highlight the various features of recovery and like car maintenance, I am able to show clients what they need to do to achieve lasting recovery. Taking care of your car is a choice, much like recovery is a choice. To stay sober you need to do many little things on a regular basis that support you to abstain from chemicals or support you to make a decision to use in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary. It’s not much different than maintaining a car. If you neglect the maintenance your vehicle will cease to run. To this end I think that everybody has the ability to make a choice and find sobriety.
Over 32 years ago I made a conscious decision to quit using chemicals. I found a way that worked for me with the help of my grandparents. The way they supported me to remain sober looks very similar to the way I have been able to help clients find sobriety. Throughout my career I have seen various trends in the field of addiction recovery. While the addiction treatment industry was borne out of the self-help movement, things have changed. While I can see the benefit of attending support groups, most research has not affected the way support groups and the 12-step movement operate. However, great strides in modern science have brought many changes in the way addiction treatment and mental health services are delivered. We have seen the the advent of anti-craving medications, the creation of various cognitive behavioral therapies, motivational interviewing, the creation of the Transtheoretical Model (stages-of-change) short-term therapy, goal-based treatment, and the implementation of peer-led support.
While I think many changes in the addiction treatment industry have been helpful, I have seen an intensification in the negative attitudes from some folks in various support groups or clinicians in the recovery community suggesting the “new methods” are essentially harmful. I don’t think this is the case. I think that many people who see the “new therapies” as harmful are misinformed and narrowly focused. It seems to me that at times people forget that recovery looks different for everybody. I am not sure how attending 12-step meetings gives a person special insight over someone who found recovery though a therapist and anti-craving medications. It seems to me that recovery is a choice. How we get there shouldn’t matter – what matters is that we find a way and that we get there.
This might be a contentious statement for some folks, but my sense is that recovery alone is not a job qualification. I don’t think that being sober gives us any special insight into the addicted mind or the behavior of an addict. In some ways we could suggest that a period of recovery without a professional and educational background to complement our experience could be seen as a hindrance and allow us to be less than objective? Perhaps recovery alone positions us to be too close to the issue at hand and would serve as a deterrent for a sober person trying to run a group in a treatment facility. I don’t think that being sober makes us special, just different.
Many times I will hear someone in recovery suggest that ‘only an addict or alcoholic can understand another addict or alcoholic’. I don’t think this is the case and is essentially an urban myth. When I think of addiction I think of people feeling helpless, powerless, and being held captive by their dark side. My sense is that we don’t need to be brilliant to understand the mind of an addict, just human.
In my career I have worked in agencies that served clients with both mental health and chemical dependency issues. Many of the clinicians on both sides didn’t want to work together nor did they want to share techniques. I didn’t have the language at the time to verbalize how I felt, but I got the impression that some of the clinicians thought they were sharing secrets. I think they forgot that we’re on the same team.
While recovery looks different for everybody, we should also remember that sobriety is a skill. I think that as people that have experienced sobriety our job and mission is to make sobriety as accessible as possible for people who want it or express an interest.