Factors Facilitating Recovery: Understanding

Here is the next section from my chapter Factors Facilitating Recovery in  my eBook Our Recovery Stories: Journeys from Drug and Alcohol Addiction.

Understanding is essential for recovery. People with substance use problems and those on a recovery journey need information and education about a variety of matters, including: the nature of addiction and their own substance use problems; the range of interventions they can use to help them overcome or manage these problems; opportunities that allow them to exercise their strengths and assets; supports they can use to facilitate their recovery journey, and self-management skills that help them cope with situations that might lead to relapse. 

Recovering people are a major source of information that can facilitate another person’s recovery journey.

People with substance use problems and those on a recovery journey need to understand that addiction is generally a symptom of a deeper underlying problem. The recovery process is greatly facilitated by tackling the underlying problem. World leading experts like Gabor Maté [1] and Bessel van der Kolk [2] see addiction arising from past traumatic experiences. Maté stresses that whilst addiction is a problem: 

‘… it is also an attempt to solve a graver problem that is, unbearable psychic pain. To understand addiction we need to understand human pain and that takes us to focus on childhood experiences.’ [3]

People who have been traumatised often don’t fully understand what is going on for them and often don’t look towards other people for help.

‘Trauma builds into us feelings of worthlessness and self-destructive urges. We experience people as being inherently untrustworthy, so when we have problems, we don’t reach out for help, instead relying on the comfort of a liquid. Deep down, we feel that a lethal painkiller is all we deserve to soothe us.

The prevalence of trauma had been apparent in my experience of working with addicts. I had seen myself as an outlier. I now understand that I had just as traumatic a childhood as most addicts did. I just didn’t know it.’ Beth

Some people deal with the psychological pain caused by past traumas by going to their GP, where they may be prescribed a benzodiazepine drug such as Valium. This class of drugs is highly addictive. Other people drink alcohol excessively, while others turn to the ‘street’ to obtain and use heroin. This drug alleviates both physical and psychological pain. 

A person who has been traumatised by physical, sexual or psychological abuse as a child will not only feel the powerful analgesic effects of heroin, but may also benefit from relationships and experiences within the social setting in which they take the drug. The people who they take the drug with may have experienced similar abuse in their youth, or may know others with similar problems, and are therefore more likely to be understanding and comforting.

At least three of the stories in this book refer to traumas experienced as a child. Natalie did not realise until many years into her recovery, when she attended a talk given during a session of the Sycamore Tree Project run in a local prison, that she had been traumatised by her experiences as a child. 

‘As I entered the gates of the prison for Ray and Vi’s talk, my past started to resurface and affect me emotionally. I remembered visiting my Dad at the same prison when I was child. I kept thinking about Dad; my thoughts were almost overwhelming me. 

During Ray and Vi’s talk, I started to cry uncontrollably. Their story was deeply moving (and very interesting), but my reaction was way over-the-top…. 

… When I got home, I was really upset. I kept thinking about Dad, my experiences from years before, and what had happened in the prison when I attended Ray and Vi’s talk. This ruminating continued over the following days, then weeks, and then months. I would go out for long walks and be lost in my thoughts, and feel all sorts of emotions. 

I realised that I was experiencing trauma from my past, triggered by my recent visit to the prison.’ Natalie

Once she started to address this trauma, and the issues that had arisen following her visit to the prison, Natalie found a ‘new level’ of recovery. 

A variety of models of addiction have been proposed, the best known being the disease model of addiction. This model has caused some controversy, the details of which I am not going to describe here. What is important in terms of a person’s recovery is for them to gain an understanding of their problem—their addiction, and the factors that have contributed to its development and maintenance—and how it can be overcome, the factors that facilitate recovery.  

A person may believe in the disease model because it gives them an explanation for why they are as they are. It may help them to stop blaming themselves for their destructive behaviours, which can facilitate recovery. However, any other model, or combination of models, as an explanatory framework might be beneficial. The most important thing is that the person must understand and relate to the model—it must be believable and ‘actionable’ to them. Of course, a person may change opinions about different models at different stages of their addiction journey.

People on a recovery journey generally learn a lot about themselves during this journey, a process that is often facilitated by other recovering people.

‘I learnt in group that I am not a bad or an evil person. I learnt that I can’t be perfect and I make mistakes. I learnt that I don’t know everything and that I have a lot to learn. I learnt that I am willing to learn. I discovered that expressing my emotions was healthy, even though everything within me said otherwise…

… This was probably the first time that I realised that my addiction wasn’t about a particular substance, but was about my way of thinking or perception of reality. The substance was in fact my solution to my inability to live at peace with myself. Coming to accept that I, rather than the substance, was the problem, was the foundation to my recovery. The realisation that, ‘If I worked on myself, I wouldn’t need to keep running to chemicals’, was a revelation.’ Paul

‘I’d arrived at this point in my life with some really embedded behaviours that I was coming to understand were not just fear-based, but almost completely self-defeating. As a self-absorbed, self-centred person, I was used to the idea that I was always right, and that nothing was my fault. As a newer member of NA, I was learning that it was not possible to resolve these conditions alone. I was now responsible for the direction of my life, but I needed external guidance. There was a wealth of experience for me to draw upon, not least within my own community.’ Simon

Sometimes, a new insight or understanding can have a profound effect on someone trying to recover from addiction. Brad decided it was time to take a break from drinking. He abstained for six weeks, but found that his craving for alcohol was stronger than it had ever been. He couldn’t understand why. 

‘Alan, who was 16 years in recovery, simply said to me, ‘Brad, you haven’t just got a problem with alcohol.’

When he said this, I thought to myself, ‘He’s mad. What does he mean?’ 

He then proceeded to tell me that if my problem was just about alcohol, then everything in my life would have been rosy and nice when I had stopped drinking. Clearly, this wasn’t the case—everything wasn’t as perfect as I had expected.

At this point, I experienced something I remember clearly like it was yesterday. My head span and I was dizzy. I had never realised that my problems involved more than just alcohol—they involved me as a person. No one had explained this to me before. Alan also said to me that if I were to listen to him, then this would ‘fuck my drinking up’. It certainly did that.’ Brad

Anna’s life became focused on her brother’s addiction to heroin. She decided to go to a psychologist. 

‘In the third session, the psychologist said to me, ‘Anna, I’ve been hearing a lot about your brother and all of his problems. What about you? Do you think you might have a problem with drugs too?’ 

I said, “Yes.” I was drinking every night to cope with what was going on, and my boyfriend at the time was also a heavy drinker. She said that I needed to accept that I couldn’t change my brother’s behaviour or anyone else’s. I could only change my own. She also said that I needed to focus on my own life, and stop focussing so much on my brother’s.

After the session finished, I went out to my car and bawled my eyes out. However, this was a different type of emotional release. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I knew that things would be different for me, and that I could change the way I was thinking and feeling.’ Anna

Many people with a serious substance use problem start using drugs, alcohol and solvents during their early teenage years, at a time when they are still developing emotionally. This substance use, particularly if it gets out of hand, can interrupt their emotional development, such that their emotions, thinking and behaviours are influenced in a negative manner in later life. They can act as if they are still in their teenage years and be unable to deal with situations that someone with a normal emotional development would deal with.

‘And even today, I’m puzzled a bit by what was going on in my head. But I think it comes down to the fact that I never had the emotional development that other people had as child and a teenager, because I was sniffing glue and other substances and then drinking excessively. Over the previous years of my recovery, I had been learning slowly to deal with new emotions. The more I dealt with them, the more used to them I became. However, I had never experienced anything like these feelings of love. They hit me like a ton of bricks and I had no idea how to deal with them.

Rather than work through the emotions, I told myself I couldn’t do it. I didn’t use my anaesthetic (alcohol), since I didn’t want to drink. I decided to just run from the situation. I went home, switched off and blocked everything out. I didn’t contact Emma. It was all just too hard.’ Brad

[1] https://drgabormate.com

[2] https://www.besselvanderkolk.com/

[3] Text introduction to the YouTube film clip of Gabor Maté, The Roots of Addiction, KidsCareCanada.

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