Why We Need to Reject Negativity

When you know what's possible, you can overcome a lot, even addiction.

Posted Jul 14, 2014

What if, early in your life, people with great authority told you that you could only go so far? Imagine receiving the following messages:

  • "You cannot get a college education and become a doctor or a lawyer."
  • "Your dream of becoming a professional baseball player, dancer, or musician is impossible."
  • "If you believe more is possible, you are setting yourself up for a huge disappointment."
  • "Aiming for more will only exhaust and demoralize you and result in your failure to reach even a lesser goal."
  • "Just take our word for it. We know because we’ve been there, and you are just like the rest of us."

You probably would have been upset, hurt, and even angry—and rightly so. One can see how you might not have even tried for anything beyond these predictions.

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The Power of Negative Narratives

Blazej Lyjak/Shutterstock

Some of you may have experienced situations like this. But people with addictions face such prescriptions, predictions, and admonitions every day, especially from those who treat them—"Moderation is impossible," "You can't change without admitting powerlessness," "You can never be around people who are drinking." While well-intentioned and coming from a place of love and concern (though sometimes also fear), caring individuals feed these negative, limiting, and inaccurate narratives about what is possible.

I believe such statements and beliefs turn addicted individuals off to the idea of change and, as such, are at least partially responsible for the limited success we sometimes see treating addictions. It is time to challenge these assumptions. This blog—"Recovered: The Most Optimistic, Surprising and Accurate View of Addiction Yet"—will help you rethink some of these common misconceptions. 

By describing negative narratives, and alternative viewpoints, my goal is to expand the realm of possibilities for individuals struggling with addiction. Armed with accurate information, everyone can get the help that is most likely to lead to recovery and the realization of their potential. There is no reason anyone, even individuals with substance issues, should be deprived of the innate human right to reach for his or her dreams. We are all entitled to dream big. Some of us might just need a bit more specific information so we can dream with our eyes open.

Can We Ever Change?

The first negative narrative is that addiction is always a chronic and progressive disease without any chance of a cure. While we rarely talk about cures for most serious medical conditions, such as cancer, we do speak about remission, when the disease or disorder is held back, managed, or treated well enough that the individual is symptom-free or at least not continually getting worse, or when symptoms are not chronically at a clinically damaging level. I agree that addiction is a serious disease, in some cases more serious than in others. It can get progressively worse in some but not all cases, and sometimes it is a chronically symptomatic condition if not treated or managed well.

But is remission from addiction possible? If you are like most people, you would probably say, "No." But you would be mistaken, according to the official manual used by licensed healthcare providers and addiction scientists to diagnose substance use disorders and other addictions—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, or DSM-5, published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013. In what might be a surprise to many, the manual reads that “sustained remission” is the absence of symptoms (i.e., negative consequences of alcohol or drug use) for a period of 12 months or greater. ("Early remission” refers to a period of 3 to fewer than 12 months.)

So the accurate answer is, Yes, remission from addiction is possible.

Not informing people that remission from addiction—the dream of addicted individuals and their loved ones—is analogous to telling your son that after Little League, there is no more baseball, that Major League Baseball doesn't even exist. And imagine if he believed this. How would he feel one day when he happened upon Yankee Stadium? When I've told clients that addiction remission is possible, they've first argued with me to the contrary, but then accepted it and became much more motivated, optimistic, and engaged—ultimately achieving way more than they had previously.

Unfortunately, most people still think, “Once addicted, always addicted.” For some reason, the voice of the medical and scientific community arguing otherwise has not been heard well enough. But when you limit possibility and reduce positive expectations, you fuel a negative, and very pessimistic, self-fulfilling prophecy.

I have treated hundreds of clients in my 22-year-old career, most of whom achieved their personal treatment goals and many of whom fully recovered from addiction, but all of whom said that one of the key ingredients of their success was that I believed they could do more. So if you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, find a specialist or recovery coach who can see all of the possibilities.

Let's not limit ourselves or our loved ones who are struggling.

Let's dream with our eyes open.

Let's always believe in getting to the big leagues.

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