Ending Addiction for Good

Posttraumatic Growth: Addiction as Positive Transformation

In recovery, you can turn negative experiences into growth opportunities.

You know the challenges of addiction. You’ve seen it in yourself or someone you love. However, increasing evidence also points to the experience of substance abuse as an opportunity for self-growth. Not that anyone wants to become an addict, but if you can, why not turn lemons into lemonade? After an addiction you will never be the person you were, and studies show that struggling to make peace with this trauma, and perhaps with the earlier traumas that fed the addiction, may help you become more than you could have been without the experience. 

What does this growth after addiction look like? A Washington University study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment posed this question to residential treatment center focus groups. Now with addiction in the rearview mirror, these 65 people split into five groups largely agreed that there were ways in which they had changed for the better in recovery, as a result of their experiences. They also agreed on what this growth looked like; they had deepened ties with close family and friends; they had come to understand they weren’t “alone”; they had developed empathy and compassion; they had learned what really mattered to them in life; and they had learned there was nothing they couldn’t handle.

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They said things like this:

•  I try to appreciate—and not trying to sound romantic about it—but I appreciate when there is nice weather now, a lot more than I used to. And I just appreciate a lot more of that. I mean, when I think back on all the stuff I've gone through, I appreciate the fact that I'm just alive. It is not just feeling good physically, it is a matter of there is a lot of little things that I just appreciate.

•  Before, my family could not talk about anything, and this kind of forced them to come together because of my crisis.

•  I'm blessed that I've got a good-paying job, and if I see somebody and truly feel that they need a couple of bucks, I'll give it to them without them asking.

•  I am grateful for everything that has happened in my life that brought me here, and that's from my heart.

This isn’t to say the experience of addiction is rosy. For example, many of the participants said versions of the following: “Any gain I've gotten is so tempered by astronomical losses, and I would have rather had it the other way, learned it differently. You know it is high-priced.” But still, these addicted persons in recovery felt they had grown through addiction in ways they wouldn’t otherwise have been able. In many ways, they were better people now than they were before.

This idea of positive change through adversity is what psychologists call posttraumatic growth—and in addition to recovering substance abusers, it’s been measured in populations including combat vets, firefighters, abuse survivors, victims of traffic accidents, mothers of chronically ill children, and many more. Basically the idea is that trauma is a challenge that tends to split people into two groups: those who experience posttraumatic stress and those who experience posttraumatic growth (though there’s also evidence people can hold both within them at the same time). When your understanding of the world is shaken, you have the opportunity to construct it anew. Some trauma survivors including addicted persons in recovery are able to reconstruct a psychological experience of the world filled with a resilience, hope and wisdom that they didn’t appreciate before addiction ripped down their first “self.”

A study by the University of British Columbia Emotion & Self Lab explored how former heavy drinkers talked about their drinking experiences—who showed posttraumatic growth? To find out, the study asked subjects to tell the stories of “the last time they drank and felt badly about it” and also “the last time they wanted a drink but did not drink.” Then they asked which narratives showed change and which showed what they called “self-stability.” Maybe it was the study design, but in this case, none of the 92 participants described negative self-change and so the researchers ditched that aspect of the study and focused instead only on positive self-change (which they found in abundance).

Of course, they found that some addicted persons in recovery had changed while others hadn’t, but here was the real question: was one group better off than the other?

It turned out that the people who reported the highest degrees of self-change also had a “heightened level of self-esteem, authentic pride, and mental health, and a lower level of hubristic pride” than the people whose drinking narratives showed they remained the same people now that they were then. This growth wasn’t only in their words, but rained down through all of what it meant to be a person in the world.

This is not to suggest that people seek addiction, just as it would be unwise to seek abuse, a car crash or combat trauma. But for those addicted, there is definite, scientific hope for positive outcomes in recovery. With the right help, the addicted person has the potential to reconstruct a version of their self that is more compassionate, centered, wiser and better than they were before.

Richard Taite is CEO and founder of the Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center in Malibu, California and co-author of the book Ending Addiction for Good.

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