Addiction is not a lifestyle. It is an experience that shapes the internal story you tell about yourself. It can define your self-understanding. From inside this perspective of addiction, we tell ourselves that the physical challenge of quitting keeps us trapped. But it is more than that. Addiction is defining. Who would you be without addiction? Who would you be, stripped of this way of understanding yourself?
Tom, Dan, Mike and Arjun* started their recovery journeys as people struggling with addiction. Though they were all in supportive groups, none felt connected to the other people in the room. Arjun said, “My fear is of being judged as someone who is lesser.” Tom said, “I kind of want to tell everyone…but there are times I don’t want to tell anyone.”
At first, all four looked around their groups and saw people doing well, people with jobs and families, people making eye contact as they spoke—in other words, people with whom they had absolutely nothing in common. “I was very suspicious,” Dan said, “I knew from the way they were talking…they’d used drugs like me, but they looked so well that I was suspicious.”
In other words, they started with a huge gap between “us” and “them” and at first the four men couldn’t see a way to get from one to the other.
All four struggled to keep attending these groups where they felt they didn’t belong. But they kept going and eventually they started finding the gap between “us” and “them” wasn’t the chasm they thought. Eventually all four found themselves identifying with people in their groups. Tom said, “I can go into a room and say I’m f-ing crazy and someone will say it’s alright, I’m f-ing crazy too.” Mike said, “As much as family and friends will support me they don’t know what I’m up against, they don’t know about this disease of addiction.” But his group did. The group understood. They had been where Mike was and now they were somewhere new.
This identification was a major breakthrough: it showed the possibility that addicted people like Tom, Dan, Mike and Arjun could become people in recovery from addiction just like everyone else in the room. With this feeling of belonging, the four men didn’t necessarily know who they would be beyond addiction, but they could see that the idea of an identity beyond “addict” was possible.
Whatever was beyond addiction started to push aside the addicted people these men had been, allowing them to let go of things that were old in favor of something new. Tom said, “All of a sudden and really quite all of a sudden, I don’t see my old friends…It’s that sort of thing that you kind of, you’re out of the loop.” As they started to release who they were, the men started to take care of their emerging selves. Tom started writing, saying, “It is a nice thing to do, writing you know, writing just about things.”
From distance, through connection, through renewed self-care, the men were finally able to move into a place of authenticity. Dan said, “It’s like when you see a rocket going into the sky and then as it breaks the atmosphere and the bits fall off it and you just see the fuselage…I’ve seen myself change, I’ve seen other people looking at me differently and they’re happy that I’ve changed, there was someone who said to me something, she said you’re growing into yourself.”
Arjun said, “I’m very capable, I have potential, but I’ve got in my own way…I feel like I’m doing it, I felt like I’m standing up for myself, I felt like I’m taking responsibility, I’m looking after me, I’m putting value back in me.”
The beautiful words of these men along their recovery journeys can guide the rest of us on our own paths toward a self-understanding that sometimes feels impossible from within addiction. Distance, connection, self-care and authenticity: how do they frame your recovery? In the end, it’s up to you. When you see yourself as recovered or recovering instead of as defined by active addiction, you will be able to change your life in surprising and joyful ways.
Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also coauthor with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.
*Tom, Dan, Mike and Arjun (not their real names) told their stories to researchers from Bikbeck University in London and what we learned from their experiences is published in this month’s issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.