Factors Facilitating Recovery: Mutual Support

I continue with my series of blog posts relating to the factors that facilitate recovery from addiction, which I have detailed in the second last chapter of my eBook Our Recovery Stories: Journeys from Drug and Alcohol AddictionThese factors are also relevant to recovery from mental health problems.

“Acceptance is just one aspect of the fifth key factor underlying recovery, being supported by others. People in recovery stress the importance of having someone believe in them, particularly when they don’t believe in themselves. They also stress the importance of having a person in recovery as a mentor or role model as they travel their journey.

‘After engaging with the treatment agency, I felt like I belonged somewhere for the first time. There was just something about the place. I loved the people, and most importantly they weren’t judging me and they were treating me like a human being. I was being supported in what I wanted to do and I was being treated like a decent person. They believed in me, when I didn’t.’ Natalie

Other recovering people, or role models, help people know what recovery looks like, give them something to which they can aspire, and provide ideas on how to overcome stumbling blocks in the recovery process. 

People who are trying to overcome a serious substance use problem can more easily relate to and trust someone who has been there. Recovering people can help alleviate some of the stresses and strains the person may feel on their journey to recovery. They can also help the person find connections in the community they need to facilitate their recovery.

‘Ian was an important role model for me, someone I could look up to. He gave me confidence and hope, and I was able to ask him questions knowing he would give me sensible answers, providing information I could use in my life. He’s ‘been there’ and come back from a life of hell, so as far as I was concerned, I could relate to, and trust, him.’ Adam

‘Tom is a recovering alcoholic, so he understood what I’d been through, which meant that I could respond to him more. I was not thinking, ‘Oh, what a wanker, go look it up in a book.’ It was important to me to know that he wasn’t looking down on me. Tom would show that he was no different to me, by telling stories of his alcohol use and then showing how he is now. He made recovery seem achievable.’ Kevin

The power of a support group, such as AA, and how its members can facilitate recovery in a variety of ways, is described by one of our interviewees.

‘So, a week later I went to my first official AA meeting. Scared, confused and shaking, I was greeted with nothing but warmth and empathy. As I listened to these other alcoholics talking, I realised that these people were just like me. They understood what I was going through in a way that no one really ever had before. They had fallen into the same traps as I had and suffered from the same screwy thoughts.

I actually didn’t get my recovery through traditional AA methods. I didn’t do the steps and I don’t have a sponsor.  However, attending AA gave me the understanding and connection that I had been missing. It gave me the support network of people who have been there that I had never had before. It gave me wisdom through listening to others sharing their experiences. It helped me to understand a lot more about addiction. It impressed upon me the importance of gratitude and putting my recovery first. In short, it gave me a good deal of guidance and a whole lot of hope.

AA also gave me respite when in my renewed sobriety, I thought I might fall apart and drink. It gave me a safety net. And if I ever think it’s a good idea to drink again, I know exactly where to head in a moment of desperation to be talked out of it.’ Beth

The role of support and belonging emphasises that recovery is a social process and stresses the importance of relationships. It is important that these relationships are not one-sided, like the professional-patient situation in the medical model, but are reciprocal in nature, with the recovering person both giving and receiving. The practitioner-client relationship must be one of equals. Practitioners must show empathy, an ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. The person visiting a practitioner must be able to feel safe. 

In describing the importance of safety and social support in facilitating recovery from trauma, Bessel van der Kolk wrote [1]:

‘Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives…. 

… Social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s heart and mind. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety. No doctor can write a prescription for friendship and love: These are complex and hard-earned capacities.’ 

Interactions between peers, especially in the group setting, are particularly important as a recovering person can give, as well as receive, feedback. Participation in such mutual relationships gives the recovering person a feeling of worth—they have something of value to offer to others—and allows them to see aspects of themselves they may not have seen for some time due to their substance use problem. They learn more about what they are capable of and aspects of who they are, that ultimately contribute to a change in identity, from an addict to a worthwhile person. Supporting others can become a key element that facilitates one’s own recovery. It helps create a ripple effect of recovery.

‘As time went by, I began to recognise in others coming into treatment the very traits that had been holding me back and I was able to start to share my experience of identifying and changing these traits. I began to see that a key part of my own recovery was supporting others in the recovery process, of helping them to move on as I had been helped myself. This practice in recovery communities (recognised by mutual aid groups through the phrase ‘you only keep what you have by giving it away’) means that recovery is self-generating and constantly spreading.’ Tim

Interacting with, and helping others, can serve other purposes that facilitate recovery.

‘I had spent many years without any real hope or passion in my life. The broad horizon of my youth had narrowed to a point where my life had become a place of struggle, with no real pleasure, just relief from a gnawing, constant, self-centred fear. Where everything and everybody was an obstacle to overcome, by myself, and with little energy.

I was becoming much more aware of other people, their feelings and their responses to me, and I realised that I gained real pleasure and satisfaction from helping and being useful. A key feature of the NA programme is the principle of service to others, as a way out of self-centredness. This growing awareness was described to me as spiritual in nature. I liked this idea, as I did the idea that I was enjoying a spiritual awakening. It was becoming clear to me that this 12-Step programme, whilst appearing from the outside to be rather religious in tone and language, was a series of exercises that enabled the ‘awakening of my spirit’.’ Simon

Family members are an important source of support for someone on a recovery journey. At the same time, however, family members may have been negatively affected by their loved one’s addiction and related problems, and may need their own supports.

[1] Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Penguin Group, USA, 2014.” Our Recovery Stories: Journeys from Drug and Alcohol Addiction. Copyright © 2021 by David Clark

The photograph used in this blog post was by Dim Hou and has come from Unsplash, a great resource of free high resolution photographs.