In a recent interview, I was asked, “what things might you have missed over the years as an addiction and mental health counselor who has worked with 20,000-some people?” Of course, I like to think that I have been successful in treating addicted individuals — and I take pride in that — but as much as it hurts to say, when I look back, I have certainly made mistakes. There are things I wish I had said to those struggling with addiction, but did not. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and I realize now that the answer to the question is the power of a recovery philosophy and a recovery growth mindset. The interviewer then asked me to explain what these meant?
In reflecting on my journey as an addiction counselor, I was immediately drawn to those people who were most successful in recovery. They all seemed to have something I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. Whether it was in relapse prevention groups or seeing them during individual therapy sessions, they all seemed to have this one certain thing that allowed them to thrive in recovery, separating them from those who struggled in recovery. This thing often times emerged after a relapse. It emerged when they came back and talked about what happened. They sometimes cried, felt disappointed and ashamed of what happened, but through it all they were able to make sense of the relapse, feel good about what they learned and were ready to put their new learnings into action. It was almost as if a weight had been lifted off of their shoulders.
Philosophy of Recovery
This thing was not totally clear to me at the time. However, after many years of reflection I now realize it had a name. The name it went by is a philosophy of recovery. That is, people have ideas about what it would take to stay sober both short- and long-term, and a willingness to live by and chase those ideas. It seemed people trying for recovery reach a fork in the road. Those people having no or few ideas on how to approach recovery and those having more ideas and willingness to grow and pursue new ideas in recovery. Don’t get me wrong, recovery is not easy by any stretch! But there seemed to be a recovery philosophy pattern difference with those who were successful from those not successful.
Some sober people might be thinking, “Ted, what are you talking about? You don’t need a recovery philosophy to stay sober. You just go to meetings or complete treatment, work through a 12-step program and stay sober.” Well, to be honest, that is recovery philosophy! This is exactly the lesson to learn. In spending time with people who were able to put together years of sobriety and live happy and successful lives, they all seemed to have this thing, a recovery philosophy. They sometimes could not articulate it completed to me, but they would naturally follow that philosophy and live by the values of this philosophy, coming back to it especially when times were tough. It was sort of like a road map and instead of going back to drinking everyday after a relapse or feeling depressed or bored, they would pick themselves off the ground and commit to doing 30 AA/NA meetings in 30 days. They would then begin to maintain sobriety. In the end, it turned the tide against their addiction. On the other hand, people in recovery without a solid recovery philosophy would fall back into months or years of using again. This is the tragedy in the story. The problem in the picture is that us as addiction counselors can have the best well written treatment plan that outlines short and long term goals, has all the crucial elements of skill building and is measurable and observable; but, we failed to include dialogue and idea generation around the fit between what that person’s short and long term philosophy on remaining sober is and the treatment plan.
A short-term recovery philosophy looks a bit different from a long-term recovery philosophy. For instance, for some people it could mean that in the short term, I am going to lock myself in my house for two weeks, avoiding everybody, to just get myself a couple weeks sober. For others, a long-term philosophy might be realizing that addiction is a disease that I must battle my whole life, so it makes sense to have a program I work to stay sober long term. The type of philosophy someone has for short and long term sobriety can be applied to fitness or weight loss programs. For example, you might have to adopt a philosophy that getting in shape is not going to happen overnight….that there really aren’t any quick fixes and that there may be some ups and downs in your exercise motivation level over the next year, but your long term your philosophy on health and working out will win out. You will build in consistency and rewards to following through with this philosophy both short and long term. I mean maybe this is why so may people who purchase gym memberships in January quit in January.
They did not get the chance to identify a philosophy they believe in that will lead to long term results. Because they did not have a philosophy or did not believe in its effectiveness, they abandon ship.
So might there be a connection between these two statistics? We know that individual addiction treatment outcomes depend on the extent and nature of the patient’s problems, the appropriateness of treatment used to address those problems, and the quality of interaction between the patient and his or her treatment providers; nonetheless, how much does a recovery or lack of a recovery philosophy enter into the picture of a relapse rate. We know it does enter the picture with exercise in a big way. Could it with recovery as well?
Bottom Line – Develop that recovery muscle
You will need a short and long term plan/philosophy which has a structure with exercises (i.e., AA/NA meetings, building a sober support system, getting a sponsor, knowing high risk using situations) to encourage continued sobriety. There are not any quick fixes. For example, you will have a beginning sober philosophy which might be attending your addiction counseling group, going to AA/NA meetings and having more structure in your day, but will have to be open to add to it over time. Similar to the idea that being able to do 5 pushups on Day 1 will not suffice 2 months down the road if you are working out regularly. You will need to add more exercises and long reps to develop fitness. Similarly, beginning to work a 12-step program, complete a relapse prevention group, attend 90 AA meetings in 90 days might be add ons to your short term recovery philosophy that will build your recovery muscle over time. You might also have to have more family support, attend more sober events or get involved in meditation or mindfulness practices to continue to build a solid recovery philosophy over time. You might have to pivot a few months later to addressing maybe the underlying causes of your addiction. The bottom line being if you remain closed in your philosophy to add to it, your recovery might get stagnate and ineffective and lead to relapsing. Recovery is a fluid, changing process not static over time.
The other thing that struck me was individuals successful in recovery all had a growth mindset. They not only took things one day at a time, but they saw each day as an opportunity to grow as a person. Maybe even deeper, they learned to love themselves enough to say I want to be a better person and grow every day. Some solidified this through faith practices and others through daily living. These people knew they do not have all of the answers, but they were naturally curious about life and how to improve themselves. They were courageous fighters in the truest sense. People seeing them would label them as resilient. Others were inspired by them or were envious of them for having what they wanted to have. I guess there will always be lovers and haters in every group, but I think the haters saw something I missed at first and that was my mistake.
Questions to Move Your Recovery Forward
With that, I leave you with six simple questions in hopes that you might use them to better yourself and your recovery:
- What is your philosophy on recovery short and long term?
- What could you be missing in your philosophy?
- How could you be more open to the idea of growing every day?
- What are some of the principles you want to live by in your recovery?
- Is a growth mindset worth having in a recovery philosophy, and if so, how do you get one?
- How can you innovate yourself, live by new principles and live the life you want?