Recovery Outside of Mutual Aid Groups

In the beginning of my addiction recovery journey, I was indoctrinated into the idea that the only way to recover was through lifelong engagement in a 12-step mutual aid group.  I was advised by professionals and recovering people alike that failure to participate in a mutual aid group would lead me to the inevitable ends of “jails, institutions or death.”  With no education provided to me regarding any of the alternative pathways to sustainable recovery coupled by a substantial amount of fear fanned by this message of doom and gloom, I went on to internalize the mindset and spend a good number of years highly engaged in a mutual aid group.  My world was largely encapsulated inside the community of others who were engaged in the same mutual aid group and the idea of stepping outside of it was strongly discouraged.  Although I increasingly grew to crave a full life in the larger community as well as unable to align with many of the ideas and beliefs circulated in the mutual aid group, my fear of the taught consequences of disengagement kept me involved long past the point at which cognitive dissonance began to wear heavily on my soul.

Now, please note that this is in no way an attack on 12-step mutual aid groups.  Many of the tools and strategies I utilize to sustain my recovery were born out of my involvement with the mutual aid group and I have witnessed the extraordinary benefits, both personally and in others, of 12-step mutual aid group participation.  I am a staunch believer in the idea of multiple pathways to recovery and am in no way blind to the value and importance of 12-step mutual aid groups in the lives of many.  I merely believe that there is a place for all pathways at the table of recovery.  I also believe that people in or seeking recovery ought not be limited to just one pathway, and furthermore, people in or seeking recovery ought to be empowered and supported in selecting from the vast variety of pathways available as they see fit for themselves at any given time.  I say “at any given time” because it is natural that growth and evolution may result in a need or desire for different pathways at different times.

For me, I’ve wondered in the glory of 20/20 hindsight vision what my recovery journey would have been like had I been educated earlier on about the many pathways to recovery.  I’ve wondered if I would have succumbed to being driven by fear of the taught consequences if I had known that there was more than just this one way to recover.  I’ve wondered what I may have chosen for myself had I heard people who were not rooted solely in mutual aid group participation share their triumphant stories of recovery.  I’ve also wondered what the world would look like if more people openly shared their experiences of recovery that expand far beyond 12-step mutual aid involvement.  I’ve wondered how many lives would not be lost if there were increased education around and access to alternative pathways more suited for each individual’s needs.

It is important to hear the voice of those who have sustained recovery without utilizing or following disengagement from mutual aid groups.  It is important for the world to know that thriving in recovery is very much possible outside of solely mutual aid group involvement.  While acknowledging that for many, lifelong membership in a mutual aid group is what they find best meets their needs and this ought to be supported, it is important to acknowledge that there are countless others who have rich experiences and plenty of hope to share around recovery taking place outside of lifelong mutual aid involvement.  It is important for each individual to be able to make an informed choice regarding what would work best for them.

For me, my recovery pathway is littered with an array of strategies and tools pulled from a variety of resources.  It has included psychotherapy, mentorship, reading, online support, sponsorship, spirituality, self-help seminars, volunteerism, relationships with other people in recovery, exercise, relationships with people outside of recovery, time spent in nature and past mutual aid involvement.  It is eclectic and ever-evolving, and it has allowed me a life of freedom and without limitations.  My recovery has allowed me to attend weddings, funerals, graduation and birthday parties.  It has allowed me to be a member of the larger community and not live confined to smaller segments of the community.  It has allowed me the ability to decide what is safe and comfortable for myself and to make healthy decisions. It has allowed me to pursue my education, have the job of my dreams and live a life full of meaning and purpose.  My recovery has continued to grow and thrive exponentially despite, and perhaps in some ways even as a result of my own personal mutual aid group disengagement.

We talk a lot about putting a face and voice on recovery.  The beautiful thing is that each face and voice will tell a different tale of what recovery means for them.  And yes, of course for many, mutual aid group involvement is an instrumental part of their sustained recovery journey…but let’s not forget, judge, discount or ignore the significant number of others who have found sustained recovery outside of church basements and walls.  There is much to be learned from this group of people in recovery as well.

This Is It, Every Time.

I take a deep breath, tuck my chin down, open the door and slip quickly inside.

I hope nobody is in there; I hope nobody comes in.  I glance around anxiously.

The anxiety fills my already full insides.  I hate this feeling.

Maybe this was a mistake.  Maybe I should have just waited.

I feel my breathing change as my heart beats faster.

Hurry.  Hurry up.

I duck into the first available stall and quickly close the door behind me.

I hope nobody comes in.


I rush to relieve myself.  To conduct this necessary biological function that ought not be so nerve-wracking and fill me with fear.

I hear the door open.  The sound of shoes walking across the floor.

I hold my breath for a second, as if the very cessation of breathing will disappear this threat.

I haven’t even seen this person but I fear them.  My fear feels almost like an anger that they have entered this space.

What should I do?

I remain in the stall, barely breathing, paralyzed.

Hurry up.  Not me, I’m done.  Hurry up stranger with the blue shoes.

I wait.  I hope nobody else comes in.

The sound of a toilet flushing brings a moment of relief.

Blue shoes who I fear and therefore do not like despite knowing nothing of her beyond her intruding ankles walks past my stall and to the sink.

The sound of water.

A little more relief.

I hope nobody else comes in.  I ready my escape.

The sound of water shutting off.  Paper towels being pulled from the machine.  Shoes across the floor.  Door opening.

This is it, I have to make a run for it now.

This is it, this is what using a public restroom is like for me.

This is it, every time.

I’m Not a Scumbag: Drug Testing for Public Assistance Recipients in PA

The public perception runs rampant that most individuals receiving public assistance are, as one individual who signed an online petition stated, “scumbags sucking off the system.” If this were true, then I would be a scumbag who sucked off the system 11 years ago. When I was a person struggling with a substance use disorder, I utilized public assistance to meet my basic needs and sustain my life long enough to get the help I needed to enter into recovery. Without public assistance, it’s hard to imagine that I would have made it to where I am today. Although I was a person with a substance use disorder receiving public assistance, the people who knew me would most likely not have described me as a “scumbag sucking off the system.” They more likely would have described me as an individual with a lot of potential who needed some help. Thankfully for not only myself but the people around me, I was able to receive that help, and today have close to 11 years of continuous abstinence from alcohol and other drugs. I am an engaged member of my family, an asset to my community, a taxpaying citizen and an example of what the safety net of public assistance is designed to do. It is imperative that other individuals, families and communities get the same opportunity at life that I’ve had.

Currently there is proposed legislation in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, House Bill 1380, that is threatening to take that opportunity away from our most vulnerable residents. This legislation seeks to address the misinformed public perception that most individuals receiving public assistance are “scumbags sucking off the system” by imposing drug screening, testing and sanctions leading up to termination of benefits for individuals who may be struggling with a substance use disorder. The proposed policy is poorly thought out and does not take into account the nature of the illness it proclaims to be addressing. The policy as proposed also would hit taxpayer pockets hard, with other states having experienced costs of up to $77,000 to “catch” just one illicit substance user and 11 states having attempted and aborted similar policies (Drug Policy Alliance). Even with considering that there is some benefit to screening for substance misuse and facilitating treatment options for those who need it, House Bill 1380 is by no means the smart and sensible way to get at this. If we want a fiscally sound way to assist more Pennsylvanians with having the opportunity at life that I’ve had, we need to tell our Representatives to invite stakeholders and those affected to the table and aim to construct a policy that makes sense. If we want a better Pennsylvania, we need to address this issue with compassion, understanding and science. Those “scumbags sucking off the system” are our family members, our neighbors, our community members and some of our state’s greatest assets. I’m not a scumbag – I’m living proof of the many who have gotten a chance at life.