I’m going to take another break from writing technical articles and focus on something else I know very well. I was being interviewed last Friday about my work with The Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization (HERO) and the last question I was asked was “what do you want people to take away from this story”. That’s such a tough question to answer. Besides being far too vague and open-ended I really didn’t know what the reporter’s purpose in writing the story was either. I get that question a lot though and it always stumps me. Sure, the easy way to handle it would be with some trite, feel-good message like “don’t give up” or “anyone can do it” but I have to admit I really don’t believe either of those things, sadly. What I could speak to was the subject of identity. I’ve seen far too many addicts and their families during the course of my work that, besides the issue of the addict in their lives, all had the same problem – addicts and their families struggle with their identities when the addict decides they want something better for themselves. Families have a hard time knowing how to behave and the addict is sometimes set up for failure even when, technically, they’re doing everything right.
My son/daughter/husband got sober. Now what?
We have several families who come to the HERO Family Support meetings who are on edge and nervous despite the addict in their lives becoming sober. How could that be? How could these families take such great news and react to it with suspicion, incredulity, and a general distrust of the addict’s sincerity? Well, I for one actually understand that. After all, only 3% of all opiate addicts stay sober for any significant amount of time (one year or more). But what about the families who have someone who has been going strong for 3 months to two years? Surely they have no reason to worry, right? Well, in a way the answer is yes, especially in the case of someone with over a year sober. The problem however is that when someone becomes an addict, the person you knew before is gone forever. This doesn’t mean they can never lead a full and happy life again. When we say that a person is gone forever we mean it more in the sense of losing innocence. In the same way that you are never the same after losing your virginity or getting married or having your first child changes you, so does experiencing active addiction. Families want so much for their lives to be as they were before the addict in their lives began using but this expectation can only lead to disappointment. Families can rebuild and repair relationships after this kind of experience but they’ll need to learn and adapt to the person newly sober. This person looks and acts like someone you used to know but there is a lot more to learn about this person now.
The other thing that happens is that families get so used to the addiction-driven behaviors an addict exhibits that over time they learn a set of behaviors, reactions, and expectations that no longer apply when the addict goes into recovery. I’ve seen families so used their addict lying, stealing, and behaving in all manner of truly terrible ways that when they get sober they’re unable to adjust to the addict’s new, positive behaviors. What ends up happening is that they treat a recovering addict in the same way they would someone in active addiction. There are worse reactions, however. The one thing many families do that scares me more than anything is to treat a recovering addict as if they are so fragile that one wrong look will set them off. It’s important not to put too much stress on someone new to recovery but at the same time its important that they learn how to cope with frustration, disappointment, or anything else that may have set them off in the past. Allowing them to avoid responsibility in the name of making sure they aren’t under too much pressure is a mistake.
The point here is that families need to remember they are dealing with a new person and need to learn a new set of behaviors not to keep the addict happy, but to keep their own sanity. The addict has their own work to do and the family putting the focus on that rather than what they need to do to stay sane is a mistake.
The One Year Rule
Addicts in recovery have a huge identity crisis to deal with. I can’t tell you how many times I meet some addict who’s been sober for 1 – 20 years or more and they are proud to tell the world they are “recovering addicts”. They don’t just announce this in the context of whatever meetings or other things they do to stay sober – they do this in their day-to-day life. Unfortunately, when it comes to heroin or other opiates, there aren’t many people you get to meet who can say this after a year or more. I believe that part of the low success rate for recovery addicts has to do with their identifying themselves primarily as “recovering addicts”. Getting sober is an impressive thing. No one can say it isn’t. But how long can you ride that wave? How long can you go around bragging to people that you don’t do drugs anymore? One year. That’s all you get. As an addict you get one year to pat yourself on the back and be congratulated for not doing things you shouldn’t have to begin with. I’ve been driving since I was 16 years old. I don’t go around telling people “I didn’t hit anyone with my car for 11 years” every time I arrive somewhere safely, do I? Don’t get me wrong, I believe addicts should be proud of what they’ve accomplished but trying to hang on to that for too long makes you look sort of like that creepy middle aged guy who used to be an all-star quarterback in high school and can’t stop talking about how he would have went pro if it weren’t for this or that.
After a year of sobriety you should have a decent foundation to build the life you want. At this point you should start to think about the future and create the identity you want for yourself. Rather than focusing on not getting high (which is as useless as trying not to think about breathing, it’s just weird) you should start getting to the point where you think of yourself as “Bob the good husband” or “Jenny the great cook” or “Brian the CEO” rather than “Johnny the recovering addict”. After a year it’s important that you have a vision for the future. In recovery they always talk about having goals to motivate you. This is great advice in theory but there’s a big problem with goals and that’s that goals are finite, rigid, and don’t adapt well to changing circumstances. A vision is, very simply put, an image in your mind of how you want your life to look like in 5, 10, and 20 years. From there, you work backward and figure out the steps required to get to your vision. Those are your goals. Goals require vision for backing otherwise it becomes easy to lose sight of why you had a particular goal to begin with.
Asking yourself “why” is also an important step in getting past that first year. In my experience and from what I’ve seen in those I’ve worked with so far, there are two very difficult and dangerous times that recovering opiate addicts need to navigate. The first three months are difficult physically and mentally. You’re a child in the body of an adult and you need others to help give your life structure, support, and meaning. From there, you get into a routine and you get to go through that first year I talked about earlier where everyone congratulates you for not being a jackass anymore. Enjoy it while you can but don’t get used to it. The second year is the other most difficult time where there’s potential for relapse. Because an addict gets so much attention, support, and general applause during that first year it can be easy for them to forget they still need to face the real world. A lot of addicts are insulated from having to face the real world during that first year because of all the attention and support they’ve gotten to that point. During that second year a lot of the congratulations and other attention start to fade away and you’re left with just you and the life you have to rebuild. The problems you may have been running from or that you created during your active use haven’t all been wiped clean.
During the second year the addict needs to start taking more control of their life. The support system will (and should) start to hang back and let the person fly straight on their own without having to be watched and checked up on every five minutes. At this point they’ll begin to see some setbacks and feel frustration. The real world is tough and if they haven’t learned how to cope with the stresses of life it can mean a serious relapse. That’s why the question of “why” becomes so important as it relates to their vision of the future. Why do they want to pursue a career in X field? Why is their family important to them? Why does it matter if they stay sober? The list of questions goes on and on and each addict needs to have good answers for each of them. It’s easy for them to tell people what they want to hear which is “I want to stay clean for my family and my future and my girlfriend/boyfriend and my education blah blah blah”. Don’t let them get off that easy. Ask why they want that and don’t let them off the hook without a good answer. During this second year if they aren’t starting to see some stress then they’re really not moving forward. It’s too easy to stay in that first-year mindset forever. Don’t let that happen to the addict in your life. If an addict can get past that second stressful year and show signs that they’re starting to get back to being able to stand on their own two feet you can begin to breathe a sigh of relief. No former addict can ever guarantee a relapse-free life but the more time they can put between year one and the rest of their life the more confident everyone who cares about them can be. Sure, only 3% of addicts stay sober but none of us knows which person will be a part of that 3%. That’s why its important to treat everyone like they’ve got a shot even if, deep down, we have little or no faith in them.
Life goes on
Life moves on and people need to evolve. None of us are the people we were a few years ago so why would we tie our identities to something we did or were in the past? Addicts and the people who care about them need to evolve and move forward with their lives too. You’ll never forget what happened and there may always be a small piece of you that worries but if you can grow and recognize positive change in others you’ve got a great shot at having an amazing rest of your life.