Recovery isn’t a fixed state; it’s a process. Recovery isn’t a destination. If you’re “in recovery,” you’re on a journey whose direction of travel is toward self-direction, health and well-being, and the fulfillment of your potential.
In recovery, we develop the ability both to choose not to go after the addictive experience and to pursue a range of alternative priorities that align with the fundamental desires, beliefs, and values that represent who we want to be and what we want to do. In recovery, we stop allowing these desires to be trampled underfoot by the immediate rewards offered by the addictive behavior. As we do so, we experience a multiplicity of benefits related to our physical health, relationships, place in society, the inner world of our intellect and emotions, and our spiritual life. We develop a growing sense of positive momentum and purpose. The benefits ripple out to our family, friends, and the wider community. They flow down the generations, releasing children and children’s children from the consequences of addiction.
This last point is vital. When we seek to measure the impact of recovery, doing a cost-benefit analysis on the expensive, draining, and often discouraging work of addiction treatment and recovery support, we need to do so from a vantage point that enables us to look over the horizon. As I write, my friend Rick, now seven years into recovery after multiple attempts at getting clean, is getting married. His life has been utterly transformed by the gospel and his recovery from addiction. But the story doesn’t stop there. Alongside Rick today, celebrating his marriage to Rachel, are many others whose lives have been impacted by his recovery—by no means least, his teenage daughter.
Addiction stories are very often multigenerational. But so are recovery stories. Rick is employed, his relationships are stable, and he serves his church and the wider community. No longer is he tangled up with the criminal justice system. No longer is he in and out of detoxification wards and treatment programs. The impact of Rick’s recovery—of every recovery—runs deep, far, and wide.
In Recovery, What are We Recovering From?
Is it solely the toxic, compulsive relationship with the addictive experience, or is there more to it?
First, we are recovering from the direct relationship with the substance or activity—a relationship that corresponds to changes in habits of thought and action that have become hardwired into the brain.
This is the most obvious aspect of the recovery process and involves learning new positive habits of thought and action that make the old ones redundant, a process that inevitably takes time.
Brain change cannot be undone with a simple choice to “not pick up” or a one-off action, such as cutting up credit cards or removing dealers’ numbers from a phone—vital as such actions can be to kickstart recovery. For old habits to die and new ways of thinking to be established, a new, deep learning process must begin, gain momentum, and reach its goal. The good news—and a source of realistic hope for all in addiction—is that neuroplasticity is never entirely lost, even if it becomes diminished.
This demanding process is one that often requires assistance from professionals, recovery mentors, and mutual-help groups. At first, recovery may not be possible without withdrawing to a safe environment, such as a residential rehab or the home of a supportive family member, or daily attendance of a support group, like AA or NA. It may involve making significant decisions relating to where we work, friendships and intimate relationships, financial commitments, and social activities—all with the goal of building a life that strengthens our capacity to live life on life’s terms, without recourse to the addiction, and minimizing the level of relapse risk to which we are exposed. Recovery will require skill in avoiding and—when there’s no alternative—handling “triggers” (people, places, activities, and emotions that, for whatever reason, make us vulnerable to relapse).
Second, in recovery we are recovering from the impact of underlying issues that make us vulnerable to developing an unhealthy relationship with the object of our addiction.
To build a rich and satisfying life in recovery, going beyond simply not picking up or white-knuckling it, we will need to get behind the relationship with substance/activity and address deeper questions. What was it about life in the age of addiction that left the individual searching for the solutions offered by the addictive experience? What stirred the excessive appetite for the rewards provided by weed, wine, or work? What aspects of their habitat and experience mean that “hibernation” makes sense? If the addictive experience was a solution at first, what problem(s) was it solving? What has (or hasn’t) happened to leave them hopeless, empty, wounded, and disconnected?
If my painkillers don’t work well and have nasty side effects, I can learn strategies to help me break my habit of reaching out for the bottle of pills whenever I feel pain. I can also come to understand better why I’m in pain. Indeed, the process of gaining insight into why addiction found a fertile space in my life can prove to be exceedingly profitable in the recovery process. Something about making sense of things, even if only partially, helps us gain mastery over them. However, explanations are no substitute for solutions. If I can’t get to the bottom of my pain and do something about it, I will always be vulnerable to looking to pain pills to help solve my problem. Moreover, even if I can resist the temptation to reach for the bottle, my quality of life remains poor because my pain persists. A healthy recovery, one that grows and bears fruit, has its roots in good soil—in a fertile seedbed for the kind of good life in which addiction serves no good purpose.
ANDY PARTINGTON was raised in a residential rehabilitation center. After high school, he spent a year traveling with Youth with a Mission (YWAM) before continuing his education and earning a PhD from the London School of Theology, where he also served as Director of Training. He further served local church leadership in the United Kingdom and Bolivia and as the CEO of Yeldall Manor, an addiction treatment center in southeast England. Andy leads the work of Novō Communities and Novō Adventures. Novō Communities’ vision is to bring new life to individuals, peace to families, and hope to communities gripped by addiction by empowering local teams in developing nations to create transformational communities that offer healing, wholeness, and hope. Andy is married to Michaela and the proud father of Daniel, Jemimah, Phoebe, JJ, and Miah. To learn more about Novo, visit novocommunities.org and novoadventures.com. Find Andy on Twitter @partington_andy and Instagram @andypartington.