Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

Good Recovery and Living Well Require Flexibility

A bridge is a powerful metaphor for recovery and a good life

In response to my complaining about a pretty piddling matter one day, a friend said to me, “build a bridge and get over it.” This recommendation had its intended effect; it made me burst out in laughter. More recently I have been thinking about a bridge as a metaphor for understanding recovery and living a good life. How does one traverse the yawning chasm between addiction and sobriety?

The bridge that fascinates me is the eastern span of San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. (See this link for a very helpful drawing of its design from The New York Times. The bridge must be responsive to the needs and goals of the people who use it as well as respectful of physical considerations and constraints. It must be constructed in such a way as to withstand both the wear and tear of everyday use and, perhaps more importantly, a major earthquake. The bridge’s proximity to two very large faults having the potential to produce significant earthquakes is one of the most salient considerations for its design and construction.

This self-anchored suspension bridge has only one tower that is located closer to one side. The tower and deck are designed to move independently of each other, which is crucial in the event of an earthquake. The bridge is constructed to be able to sway. There are also piles that are driven deep into the water at angles to increase stability.

What’s so interesting to me is that the stability of this bridge isn’t a matter of being able to resist movement but rather being flexible enough to withstand the movement that would happen with an earthquake.

Stability through flexibility is a crucial aspect of good recovery, and I would argue, any good life. Good recovery is designed to be responsive to the goals and needs of a person and respectful of physical, social, and for some, spiritual considerations and constraints.  

It may at first seem strange to think one must have a design for recovery, but good recovery requires intention and planning. It does not happen by accident or happenstance. One starts to generate reasonable goals that can be met. The goals may seem really small at first, but setting goals and meeting them require practice and hard work. At some point, a person will be able to set bigger goals for herself about what kind of person she wants to be and how she wants to show up in the world.

Recognizing needs is crucial but often easier said than done. Here too, hard work and practice are necessary since failing to identify needs produces a design that is not useful. The nature of addiction makes the needs very hard to identify and/or prioritize. Addictions affect a person physically, psychologically, and spiritually so each of these dimensions will produce needs. The needs may be in competition.  

Consider a person who has an opiod addiction. Psychologically she may need to be free of all drugs but yet the use of suboxone might physically benefit her. Which need is more important?

All of this is even more complicated by the fact that there is no one program that is absolutely right and best for all addicts. There is no One Size Fits All approach to recovery.

What one person needs to treat her addiction may differ from what another needs to treat the same addiction. Furthermore, a person who has multiple addictions may herself have different needs for treating each addiction. One may be willing to cold turkey on alcohol but need nicotine patches for her smoking addiction.

Instead of looking to make a person’s recovery fit a particular program, we need to make programs that fit our differing needs. The former approach involves rigidity and resistance and the latter flexibility. Some programs will be better or more right for an individual than others. Someone who has a strong Christian faith might feel a more easy and immediate relationship with Alcoholics Anonymous. Some people from other faith traditions might try to stretch the concept of Higher Power to be more inclusive. Others who have left a faith tradition or do not come from one may find secular groups more inviting. Other addicts might find groups using a cognitive behavioral or rational approach to addiction and recovery. Some addicts will be opposed to any sort of group activity, and might pursue more solo ventures of therapy or alternative practices. Some will quit cold turkey and never talk about it.

People change as they dry out, sober up, and start to live a life of sobriety. These changes can be significant. Their recovery must remain responsive to these changes. If not, then one may be seeking stability in resistance and rigidity. Maintaining flexibility requires assessing needs and goals and looking at the means and methods for living soberly. Some people might to start to find AA confining; others who have tended to be more solo fliers might start to want the company of others in recovery. Some may finally try acamprosate calcium (Campral) to help with the withdrawal symptoms when stopping drinking while others stop taking naltrexone that was blocking the high that comes from drinking.

Each of us will experience earthquakes in our own lives. If our stability is founded on flexibility rather than resistance, we have a better chance of weathering those earthquakes. 

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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