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4 Principles for Being Human in Addiction Recovery

Defining Addiction & its Treatment

Anyone interested in addiction recovery can find any number of videos and books that define what addiction is and how to recover from it. Today, of course, the brain chemistry argument is huge, and if one believes that drugs hijack the brain, then recovery is a matter of simply doing helpful things until withdrawals lessen.

These “helpful things” typically include an emphasis on relapse prevention techniques, diet, exercise, sleep hygiene, and so on. Other experts provide us with help on how to deal with anger and other emotions that seem to accompany addiction. And others recommend understanding one’s place in the family and how addiction has been a response to family dysfunction.

Addiction is Part of the Human Condition

All these are valuable, but they seem to tell us that the key to recovery is to focus on only one aspect of life. At Sunshine Coast Health Centre, we help clients with any medical issues, diet, exercise, and any psychological issues such as anger, guilt, depression, anxiety, etc. In addition, we help clients with family matters. But, above all, we place a special emphasis on what it means to be human. There are certain dynamics in being human that seem to be true, regardless of what family we grew up in, what country we were born in, or what era we lived.

Higher Expectations for Individuals with Addictions

It’s interesting that some people seem to think those in recovery shouldn’t be human or, at least, that they magically cannot operate by the same principles that all other human beings operate on. For instance, some people seem to think that individuals in recovery can just change habits and thinking that they’ve used to survive in the world for years. Stick them in a treatment center for a few weeks, and they’ll be cured.

Many of our clients have this idea as well. They rely on exercise and diet to stay sober, believe that attending 12-step meetings alone will lead to the good life, or think that if they could just reduce the stress at work they will have no problem with substances. But human beings are very complicated creatures. And we know that addiction operates at deep psychological levels — if it didn’t, we would have eliminated the problem a long, long time ago.

Addiction = Lack of Personal Meaning

In line with the great psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, we believe that addiction is a response to living a life that has little personal meaning. As valuable as exercise, diet, relieving anger or depression, reducing stress at work, and other tactics are, recovery has to address the feeling that life is “meaningless, monotonous and boring”. Such a feeling affects us as total human beings — physically, emotionally, and mentally. Because it is at the core of addiction, the emptiness that those with addictions have pervades their physical bodies, attitude, emotions, thoughts, and actions.

Human beings live by principles that seem to operate regardless of what family, country, or era one is raised in. If we do not account for these human qualities, chances are that recovery will not be very successful. Addiction is an entirely understandable response if one feels he doesn’t belong, is different, that sober life is boring, and so on. It is a very human response to do something that makes one feel vital and alive, even if it lasts only temporarily.

Here are 4 principles of what it means to be human and how they relate to addiction.

1. You are a Whole Human Being (Wholeness)

When we follow up with clients after they have left treatment, we are often surprised that they focus only on one part of themselves. Perhaps they spend enormous time and energy in a recovery group, such as AA or NA. Perhaps they spend a great deal of time focusing on their physical health. Perhaps they spend the vast majority of their time focused on family.

All this is good, but it’s important to remember that people cannot be reduced to one or two or three aspects of their lives. We are complex wholes. The great psychologist, Rollo May, said that each of us lives in three worlds at the same time. One world is the physical world, another is our interactions with others, and the third is the world inside our heads. Paying attention to our physical health is important, but so is our relationship with others and our self-awareness. Going to AA or NA meetings is great, but so is the time spent with families and friends in the community, and time we reflect on our own lives.

One of the things we’ve discovered from research is that the idea of “addiction” appeared only when people started to compartmentalize their lives. Work, family, and play more or less happened in the same place, often at the same time. Then what is known as the industrial revolution hit (somewhere around the mid-1700s) and we started going to the workplace, which was different than the home. When we wanted a drink, we went to the Public House (the Pub). Suddenly there was a time for work, a time for family, a time for fun, and a time to be religious. We started fragmenting our lives. We began living our lives in separate compartments, as if we were not whole, unified individuals. We put on a different face depending on where we were, behaving differently depending on whether we were at work or with family or with friends or at church. Interestingly, the industrial revolution seems to be a time when major mental health issues suddenly appeared.

2. You Must Grow as a Person (Growth)

One important thing to realize about yourself is that well-being depends on growing emotionally. This means overcoming challenges, pursuing dreams, gaining self-awareness, and being true to yourself. Psychologist Abraham Maslow described a theory of motivation, which laid the foundation for the principle that we have an inherent tendency toward self-actualization. Similarly, psychologist Carl Rogers believed that “there is an inevitable directional course in people and all forms of life toward increased complexity, differentiation, evolution, completion, and wholeness”.

Those who do not grow run into trouble. Rollo May said that if someone is “not growing toward something, he does not merely stagnate; the pent-up potentialities turn into morbidity and despair, and eventually into destructive activities”. What he meant by this is that each of us has a natural tendency to grow and develop mentally; if we interrupt this process, we run into big problems. Individuals with substance use issues and addictions are one example of those who stopped growing because their mission in life was to satisfy the addiction, leaving all those other things, such as love and dreams, forgotten.

What is particularly interesting is that modern research has indicated that if a person can overcome barriers to this growth process, then a transformational change in values and beliefs often results. When you are true to yourself, then it will feel as if hands are magically helping you through life. You will begin to meet people who seemed as if they came out of nowhere when, in fact, they were there all along; you simply didn’t see them until you were on the right path.

3. You are Responsible for Your Life (Responsibility)

The idea that each of us is the author of his or her life continues to be one of the most difficult concepts for those in early recovery to grasp. It’s not a simple idea. It means that, fundamentally, your life is the result of the choices you make as well as luck, where you were born, your genetics, and so on. But it is the choices that you make that have the most impact on the kind of life you lead, the amount of suffering you endure, how others see you, and how you see yourself.

Clients attending Sunshine Coast Health Center soon learn that our counsellors spend a lot of time trying to help them figure out how to take control of their lives – to be the author of their own lives. The AA version of this is “To thine own self be true.” Psychologically, this is necessary for good mental and emotional health. But it’s tough because it’s so easy to retreat to playing a victim or blaming others or life for suffering. In fact, it’s well known in the addictions field that people use drugs as an attempt to control their moods. The drug offers a proven, reliable method to achieve a certain altered state of consciousness. Well, at least for a period of time, until the strategy backfires.

Irvin D. Yalom was a firm believer that to be the author of your life, it was not enough to be aware of this fact—you have to do something. Action is an essential component of responsibility. This takes practice. It’s no good knowing that you are the author of your life if you continue to be passive and not stick up for yourself. It’s no good being the author of your life, if your actions don’t match your beliefs and values. It’s no good trying to be the author of your life when what is really controlling you is a drug.

4. You Have Many Untapped Abilities (Potentiality)

Human beings have a remarkable capacity to dig deep inside when things get tough. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Of course, for some, when the going gets tough, some people crash and burn. But the reality is that they have it within themselves to overcome great adversity—if they believed it and were willing to work.

When people are motivated enough, they can find courage, resilience, hope, forgiveness, and other qualities that psychiatrist Viktor Frankl described as the “defiant human spirit“.  Of course, all of us have to face certain givens of existence, such as the knowledge that we will die. But there are many positive givens of existence. We promote the client’s ability to transcend biological and environmental limitations, take control of their lives, turn “failures” into learning experiences, and so on.

SCHC Client Example

Here is one example of an alumnus who tapped into his defiant human spirit. Harry was in his mid-20s and was overwhelmed by his family. He relied on them for money, since he spent all of his on drugs. He relied on them for his truck, since they had bought it for him and it was in their name. He relied on them for a place to stay, since they were helping pay his mortgage. In fact, Harry had relied on his family pretty much his whole life.

His family told him that they would help him out with money but only under strict conditions: he had to be drug-tested regularly, he had to have a job, he had to go to 12-step meetings everyday, and so on. Harry told us that he felt as if he were “being held hostage”. When he came to us, we helped him understand that he is the author of his life.

Harry had to make a decision whether to accept the deal his family gave him or not. It took Harry most of his time in treatment to figure this out, but in the end he decided that the money was not worth the cost of his desire to feel free. So he decided to decline the family’s deal and went off on his own.

This was really a courageous act on Harry’s part. He gave up all the safety and ease of his family’s money for the unknown world, with only himself to rely on. Interestingly, within a year, he had found a good-paying job, rented a nice place, bought a car. When the family saw this, they, too, were very impressed. But, most importantly, Harry told us that he feels so much better now.

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