Recovery, Transformation and The Search for Meaning

For many of us in recovery from a substance use disorder, we often cite our devastating experience with substance misuse as the catalyst for self-discovery and the facilitator of our own personal awakening.  We frequently refer to our experience with substance use disorder as a beautiful blessing borne from a horrific curse.  Even those of us who would not identify as spiritual or religious can be found regularly expressing this concept in terms of simply stating that we were catapulted into becoming better human beings.  Somehow, being touched by substance use disorder turned out to be an experience that led us to seek out who we really are and how we can continuously improve the ways in which we show up in the world.  Consequently, not only do we experience an enhanced way of living ourselves but the world around us is exposed to all of the benefits that this enhanced way of living brings.  We become better partners, siblings, parents and children.  We become more engaged and productive members of our workplaces, communities, cities and towns.  We show up as change agents in the world as we take our own personal transformative experience and use it to transform the world around us.

Some say that the human tendency to attach meaning to life events is more of a primitive brain response developed for our species survival than a spiritually significant signpost in our search for who we really are.  Others say that the inclination to find meaning in life is by no means a mere biological function of humanity and that it instead may be the most important act we undertake as human beings.

As I’ve grown over the years, I’ve concluded that both schools of thought can co-exist as correct.  I’ve married the two concepts by considering that perhaps my very survival is hinged on my ability to seek out who I really am and where I am meant to be in this world.  I’ve decided that the profound sense of purpose and fulfillment resulting from finding meaning in life events is in fact a positive thing and a magnificent motivator.  I’ve recognized that finding meaning in life events greatly enhances my experience of life and therefore makes the search for meaning a philosophy for living that is worthwhile to employ.  My life is far richer when I pay attention to the signposts and follow the path to which they point, regardless of the origin of my ability to recognize them and the source of my drive to follow them.  Interestingly enough, I have also found that how I show up in the world for others is significantly enhanced when I follow the road laid out by attaching meaning to life events.  It is fair to conclude that not only is my own experience of life enriched by finding meaning but that how others experience me in their lives is enriched as well.

My experience with substance use disorder, and my ability to have access to what I needed to initiate and sustain my recovery, is a life event from which I find much meaning.  There are countless ways that I have been transformed as a result of this experience, and there are just as many ways that the world around me has been transformed as well.  The ripple impact of one person being able to find recovery and go on to live an enhanced life is immeasurable.  The wave of positive change that one transformed human being can bring into the world is endless.

Whether it is a silly biological tick of the brain that leads me to find meaning or a deeply spiritual alignment with something greater than myself, all I know is this: my ability to find recovery from a substance use disorder has transformed me into a better human being that has in turned transformed the world around me.  When I think of the endless wave of positive change that one individual finding recovery can cause to swell up, I can’t help but think of what the world would look like if we had more of these waves unleashed to cascade through our homes, communities, cities, states, countries and the world.  I can’t help but search for the signposts that point toward the floodgates.

The world needs the transformation that recovery brings.

Multiple Pathways to Recovery: It Is Time That We Lead The Way

Although history has shown us many examples of the oppressed becoming the oppressor, the emergence of this human habit in the addiction recovery communities is one that raises great concern.  Infighting within any social change movement is a common, perhaps even necessary stage, but when people’s lives and well-being are at stake, it seems to me that we ought to shorten this period by taking a step back to regroup and unite.  In addition to there being a clear urgent need to break down all silos and any either/or approaches to recovery, the strengths and skills of people in recovery make us ripe to tackle this human habit with a grace that could be a model for the world.  It is time that we lead the way.

The bottom line is this: there is no one recovery pathway, resource or strategy that works or doesn’t work for everybody.  No resource ought to be excluded if it works for even just one individual and their family, as should none be forced upon those for whom they do not work.  Whether it is Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, Lifering, Overcomers Outreach, Millati Islami, Narcotics Anonymous or any other mutual aid group, there is a place for them all. Whether it is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Enhancement Therapy or Family Behavioral Therapy, there is a place for all evidence-based treatment interventions and promising practices. Whether it is abstinence-based, moderation management, medication assisted or reduction of use, there is a place for all approaches to recovery. Whether an individual initiates and sustains recovery naturally, with no treatment or mutual aid support, or an individual initiates and sustains recovery with a high level of treatment and mutual aid supports, a path ought to paved and room made for any possible course of action an individual selects as best for them.  In order for more people to have access to recovery, we need all of our existing options and alternatives to be equally accessible and supported as we continue to seek out even more.

For those of us who find ourselves fanatical about one particular pathway or overly zealous in our slandering of another, it is time that we do some personal soul-searching about the origins of our attitudes, ideas and beliefs.  For those of us who demonize a particular resource or deny its validity for those whom may have benefited from it, the time is now that we take stock of the possible harm we may be causing.  One recovery pathway will work for one person while another pathway will work for somebody else, and there is place in this world for both paths – for all paths – to coexist peacefully with a little bit of the open-mindedness, ego-management, acceptance, tolerance and love that many of us in recovery have learned to practice.  It is time that we lead the way.

Many Pathways: Parallels Between Spirituality and Recovery

The parallel in division that we see between the multiple spiritual pathways and the multiple recovery pathways is remarkable. Perhaps it is no irony that spirituality and recovery go hand in hand for many people. The notion that there is only one path to reach the same destination is a concept deeply rooted in language and cultural variances. When I consider the rich diversity present in our world, I am filled with an overwhelming gratitude that there are so many different pathways to recovery. I think of how many more lives we would lose if there really was only one pathway to travel on along the journey away from the hell of addiction toward the destination of the beauty of recovery.

With the last name Feldman, people often make the assumption that I am Jewish. While it is true that I have Jewish heritage, I was not raised in the Jewish faith and therefore do not identify as Jewish. Growing up in a non-religious household left the door wide open for me to investigate my spirituality and piece together my own set of beliefs. From a young age, I found myself exploring and picking up little bits of wisdom along the way from religions or spiritual practices such Catholicism, Christianity, Buddhism, Kaballah, Taoism and more. I went from being “saved” by Billy Graham at Veterans Stadium to learning about mindfulness from reading Thich Nhat Hanh. The opportunity to discover for myself what was in alignment with my own inner truth was extraordinarily helpful in recognizing that there isn’t just one right religion or spiritual path for everybody. Instead I found enormous worth in all of the religions and spiritual practices I learned about, and I found even more value in the opportunity to take from them all and weave together a quilt made of threads that contained what felt right for me. I often struggled when faced with dogma or doctrine claiming that one particular way was the only way, and I always knew deep within that this was not true. I was able to recognize that it was impossible for any of these different pathways to be the one and only true path since all of them worked for so many people. I’m forever grateful for having grown up in this lesson because it helped shape my ability to be open-minded and transcend division among pathways.

As a person in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder, I’ve experienced a parallel process much like that of my spiritual journey. With a foundation laid down in 12-step programs, people often make the assumption that I remain solely a 12-step program member. While it is true that I have experience with and have gained great insight, knowledge, tools and support from my involvement with 12-step programs, I do not identify as a member of a single one. I was 13 years old when I was first introduced to addiction recovery through treatment and mutual aid groups and went on to experience many different treatment interventions, mutual aid groups, philosophies and approaches when it comes to addiction recovery. Much like my journey through creating a quilt of my own set of spiritual practices and beliefs, I also came to knit together various threads of ideas, tools and practices to support my addiction recovery journey. Additionally, just as I found in my experience with a number of religions, I struggled when confronted with dogma or tradition claiming that one particular recovery strategy, program or pathway was in fact the one and only true path. I found the same inability for that to sit right deep within me for I was able to recognize that it was impossible for any of these different recovery pathways to be the only true path when all of them or components of them worked for so many individuals. I’m forever grateful for having grown up in the recovery process in a way that allowed for appreciation and incorporation of multiple pathways to recovery that transcends any division.

Consider the following example: There is a convention in Philadelphia, PA that attracts attendees from all across the country. Some attendees will be traveling by airplane, others by car, some by train and still others by bus. Some will travel long distances while others will be coming from only blocks away. Some will listen to music during the trip while others will be reading a book along the way. For every attendee of this convention, each has taken either a slightly or even drastically different pathway to reach the same destination. In the end, all are sitting as one in the same place regardless of how they got there. All are thankful that there was access to many airplanes, cars, trains and buses, for if there had only been access to one mode of transportation, many attendees would not have made it to the convention.

Recovery is like this convention. We want as many people as possible to make it to the destination of recovery and in order to do so, we have to ensure that there is a vast array of resources, strategies, tools, services and supports for individuals to self-select and choose from as they embark on their journey. There is no one right path, there is no one only path – there are many, many pathways for individuals to take. There are a multitude of threads that an individual seeking to initiate and sustain recovery can utilize as they piece together and sew their own recovery quilt made up of what works for them. It is time that we all transcend any division between pathways and instead aim to ensure that all of the different threads an individual may need are made accessible, available and supported so they too may find the beauty of recovery. Just as the convention needs attendees to arrive so it can actually become a convention, recovery needs all those who seeking it to arrive so that our world can truly recover.

Lessons Learned and Building Bridges

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

When we look back on the Civil Rights movement, the formation and rise of the Black Panthers was a critical pressure point in what still exists today as a journey toward true equality for darker skinned Americans.  While much had been gained by the peaceful non-violent approach preceding it, including the dismantling of the discriminatory and heinous Jim Crow system, the Black Panthers movement was founded on an unwillingness to accept anything less than comprehensive equality.  For many, there was an acute awareness that conditions were still far from close to where they needed to be and, in turn, countless individuals, families and communities were suffering.  Led primarily by those most impacted, young black males, the Black Panther stance was a far more assertive and at times aggressive refusal to settle for slow, small gains for equality.  While this approach conflicted with and at times even appeared to undermine the peaceful, non-violent way of doing business, ultimately both approaches were necessary ingredients to facilitating social change.  When looking back, I for one can’t help but wonder: how much more progress could have been made if there had been less division between the two approaches and more of a unified front and greater attempt at working together?

Today we see similar dynamics in the addiction recovery advocacy movement.  For many years, dedicated and passionate leaders in the movement have diplomatically fought the good fight to decrease stigma, increase access to resources and implement effective public policies around substance use disorder and recovery.  The endless hard work of these great leaders scattered throughout recovery community organizations, public offices, advocacy organizations, prevention and treatment provider agencies, private foundations, managed care organizations and more has resulted in significant gains over the past 30 years.  Individuals and families in or seeking recovery have certainly reaped monumental benefits, some of which include hard earned public funding, a surge in community-based recovery support services, a growing base of research driven evidence-based practices, increased access to a more diverse range of resources and pockets of safer spaces to disclose living with a substance use disorder or being a person in recovery.  While the work of our movement’s leadership and boots-on-the-ground soldiers is admirable, commendable and invaluable, some of us find ourselves to feel a growing unrest.  Some of us find ourselves unable to accept anything less than comprehensive equity in resources for individuals and their families living with a substance use disorder.  Some of us find that a far more assertive approach is necessary as we watch more and more of our friends, families and community members dying each day.

As the addiction recovery advocacy movement marches on, I think about our lessons learned from the Civil Rights movement.  I think about how the diplomatic and peaceful approach is necessary and most effective at times, and I also consider how the more assertive, in-your-face, we demand change NOW approach is most necessary and effective at other times.  I think about the wealth of knowledge and insight that can be learned from our movement’s great leaders, and I consider all that our movement’s great leaders can learn from its young army of change agents bubbling up across the country and the world.  Ultimately, I think about how much more progress can be made if we all find ways to minimize any division between the two instrumental social change approaches and seek out ways to build bridges to the other instead.   With great battles to fight in order to ensure that every single individual and their family at risk for or living with a substance use disorder has access to whatever it is they need to initiate and sustain recovery, I think about how our movement needs to find as many ways as possible to unite and move forward.  My hope is that this thinking is embraced by us all, for we truly do have a common goal: making substance use disorder prevention, early intervention, treatment and recovery a reality for all those who need it.