When people mention the word “recovery” from addiction, they have a certain image in their mind of an addict or alcoholic who has decided to quit their habit, has accepted their “disease”, and usually, they’ve attended some form of treatment for their affliction. In most circumstances, an individual who identifies as a “person in recovery” sees their recovery self-image in a positive light. This article, however, will make a different argument. I will lay out the case that the construct of recovery is a lifelong trap that ties you directly to the habits you’re trying to shed. I will also present a way to escape the trap so you can redefine yourself as a free-thinking, happier, and more fulfilled person. But before I do, I need to say one caveat: if you are a person in recovery and it’s working for you, then this article is probably not going to provide you anything beneficial. I applaud your satisfaction with the concept and lifestyle. I simply was unable to find that sweet spot in the recovery realm, and for the thousands that fall on my side of the fence, here we go…
When I was forced into treatment in June of 1989 for a DUI car crash I’d had 6 months prior, the idea that I needed to attend intensive outpatient rehab for a court-mandated year seemed totally pointless. I had already been sober for 6 months on my own at that point, so why the mandate? None of my feelings on the matter seemed to shift the court’s ruling so into treatment I went. The next year-and-a-half (my sentence was extended while in treatment – and it was not for drinking) saw me slowly taking on the identity of an alcoholic/addict – something I’d rejected completely when I decided to quit months prior.
Here’s the issue; I was massively conflicted. When I first entered treatment I knew I had quit “on my own”. I mean, who else was inside of me at the time, right? It wasn’t the counselors or the people I was now seeing at the AA and NA meetings, that’s for sure. At the time of the quit, it was just me. My thoughts had truly shifted to the benefits of sobriety on that cold, drunken December night. Yet, once the daily clinic sessions began, a constant barrage of recovery lingo from the clinic counselor staff reinforced the strange idea that I “couldn’t have just quit on my own”. The brainwashing was consistent enough to make me begin to doubt myself and my own memories and past experiences. Slowly, ever so slowly, I succumbed to the recovery world and I began to rewrite my own history. Where once I saw myself as just a kid with a massive appetite to get loaded, and whose appetite had already changed for the better; I was now seeing this change as being exclusively facilitated by the recovery world, not one of my own doing. Of course, the fact that I wasn’t even in treatment at that time of the decision to change my habits, was completely ignored by the counselors. And with time, that reality was overwritten by the new recovery narrative being supplied solely by the treatment staff and 12 step members. By the end of my mandated attendance in the program, I started to parrot things like, “Hi, I’m Mark, and I’m an alcoholic.” I had officially become a recovery cliché.
Now, none of this would be a big deal if the self-image of being a “recovering alcoholic” wasn’t so utterly self-limiting, small-minded, and deeply depressing. Taking on the idea that you have a progressive illness (when in reality no such disease of addiction exists) and believing that you’ll have to be in remission of said illness through the technique of regurgitating daily the antics of your failed past with other “recovering” folks for the rest of your life is daunting at best. This negative rumination methodology slowly wears on you. In desperation for a better existence, you double down on your allegiance to the altar of recovery: you go to more meetings, you attend more therapy, and you slowly become more isolated from those “normal people that can drink.” Eventually, recovery becomes your life, and it ends up not being all that much different from the last of your addicted days – you feel just as trapped. This is where people fall apart and use substances again or they just simply give in and convert to becoming a full-bore recovery zealot.
I got close to this, but in the back of my mind, I knew something was terribly wrong with what was happening to me. While it took me many years to fully extricate myself from the cult of recovery, logic did eventually win out, and I found the freedom of mind that saved me from a life of endless meetings and therapy.
The Distraction We Call Recovery
Here is what freed me; the truth. When you find the truth, it always clarifies the muddy waters. Here is how I came to know the facts:
I knew my drinking wasn’t a disease, so no matter how many times I repeated AA’s addiction disease lingo; I knew it did not make sense. Logic is a great thing; it leads you to the truth. For example, drinking (or drugging) heavy is nothing like cancer, so there’s simply no logical connection there. No matter how you try to talk yourself into it, you rationally cannot convert the choice to use substances heavily into a non-voluntary disease like cancer or HIV. Once this perspective is held, the entire house of cards of the treatment/recovery paradigm begins to disintegrate. The logic train continues chugging along; without a disease, there is nothing to recover from. And if there is nothing to recover from, any recovery activities or processes become unnecessary; they become a distraction to the truth.
We describe this distraction in our book, The Freedom Model for Addictions, Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap:
There is no particular set of actions by which you can reliably make a person stop desiring drugs and alcohol. Going to meetings and helping others really has nothing to do with getting to a mindset where your desire for substances is reduced. It’s not a recipe for success; it’s simply a temporary distraction. (emphasis added)
Recovery ideology completely misses this point about recipes; this includes even the seemingly progressive alternative approaches now coming into fashion. These alternative treatment providers acknowledge that a “one size fits all” approach is wrong. “Going to meetings and doing the 12 steps doesn’t work for everyone,” they say, “There are different combinations of treatments that work for different people.” Sadly, even these well-intentioned “mavericks” still hold onto the idea that people are like flour and eggs that can be transformed by external forces to make a sober cake. They think there are many different recipes to follow, and that it’s just a matter of finding the right one.
Part of our recipe for many years had been helping our guests make a plan to rebuild their whole life and find more fulfilling activities to replace heavy substance use. We actually called it “Replacement.” Since most of our past guests were ripe for such life improvements we had always offered a focus on goal setting and self-analysis to address this assumed need. We assumed goal setting was needed to cause a change in substance desire and use. Like treatment, we too connected substance use and other life issues in this casual way. We said things like, “If you’re not happy, you won’t stay sober.” Or “If you don’t have a purpose, you’ll continue to get high.” This was a mistake. In time, we recognized that there were many guests who didn’t need to rebuild their entire lives, as they had plenty of fulfilling life activities on their plate already. But of even more importance there were many guests who left with no goals and no plan at all, that never got drunk or high again, or reduced their levels of use. By all accounts, these people should have been struggling in their “purposeless” lives. But they didn’t, and we began to see that substance use need not be tied to these qualities. People could just stop or decrease their use and live exactly as they wished, with a greater purpose or without it. Besides, we’re in no position to decide what qualifies as a purpose-driven life. We certainly can’t judge what brings happiness to people. That is unique to each individual and exists in their own mind.
For these people who changed their substance use habits, it was simple; once they realized that the entire construct of addiction was a myth, they were able to move past their substance use without any other changes in their lifestyle. Just knowing they were choosing their use was enough to open the way stopping it or reducing it. That is the Freedom Model in a nutshell! After that single issue was resolved, they simply moved on. Some went out and created goals, while others went home and conducted their lives as they always had, only now without substance use problems.
So it is vital not to get distracted by a “method (or process) of recovery” when instead, you can directly choose to reduce your use, or stop your use completely, based on the benefits of one of those options. Let go of recovery and directly decide if continued heavy use is your true desire, or if reducing or stopping will provide you more benefits. Be direct and truthful. If you struggle to understand the options and you find yourself remaining tied to the disease mythology, I urge you to take the time to read The Freedom Model. We wrote it for just those kinds of situations, and you don’t need to feel powerless anymore.