Lessons in Recovery: The Brighter the Light, the Darker the Shadow

Psychologist Carl Jung once said “the further you go into light, the greater your shadow becomes.”  As a person long drawn to Jung’s school of thought, the concept of “the shadow” has always been intriguing to me.  The idea that each of us has a shadow – a part of our psyche kept hidden away from others, a portion of us deemed too unruly for the outside world yet still ever present right there under the surface – is an idea that has reverberated in me as truth since the very first time I heard it.

As a person in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder, I’ve done a lot of personal growth work around actualizing my potential and living my life in accordance of what I believe to be “good” or “right.”  For a long time prior to entering into recovery, my life centered around anything but what would be widely considered good or right.  It is fair to say, in fact, that my very existence was a walking contradiction of good and right.  Lying, stealing, hurting others, total self-centeredness and utter self-destruction were characteristics and ways of being that steered my ship.  Upon entering into recovery, I quickly learned that if I were to stand a chance at wellness and a meaningful and fulfilling life, the cessation of these “bad” behaviors and the transition from doing the wrong thing to doing the “right thing” would be critical.  In turn, I spent much of the past decade in a consistent and wholehearted attempt to be good and do the right thing.  While this way of being has certainly granted me a meaningful and fulfilling life far beyond what I would have dared imagine, there is one pesky matter that has always hung back lurking in the mist and waiting to be acknowledged.  It is the matter of my shadow.

It is important to note that the concept of the shadow and the ideas of “being good” or “doing the right thing” are universal and far from limited to those in recovery from a substance use disorder.  From a very young age, most of us are taught right from wrong, good from bad.  We learn what is socially acceptable, what is socially appropriate and what parts of us are given a warm welcome from the outside world versus which parts of us are shamed, shunned, made wrong and sent away.  We all grow up developing our persona based on these learned experiences and we all have that pesky matter of the shadow to contend with in our adult years.  Some of us skate through life without ever putting much thought or work into it.  Others of us find that we are left with little to no choice but to put the time, effort and energy into addressing the darker part of us as we grow in awareness of it.

For me, I have only recently begun to realize to what extent my repressed shadow self has an impact on my life and those around me.  While I was handed many tools along the way of my personal recovery journey, from strategies developed in professional treatment settings to mutual aid group involvement and 12-step program participation, I was never quite given the tools to address the matter of my shadow.  In many ways, some of the tools at my disposal were actually more useful in heaping additional piles of persona on top of my shadow self rather than truly addressing and integrating the darker side of me.  I have since come to realize that the darker side of me is as much a part of who I am as is the bright, shining light that the world seems so attracted to.

As I find myself embarking on the next stage of my recovery journey – a journey that in many ways is simply just the human journey – I look forward to reconnecting with all parts of me.  There are lots of pretty, shiny and sparkly parts and there are lots of ugly, darker and not so pleasant parts.  The reality of it all is that the bright shiny light people see and love in me would not be so bright were it not for the depths of darkness that exist in the shadow part of me.  The reality is that the same is true for all of us.  For me, the latest iteration of being “good” and “doing the right thing” is as simple as this: it would be no justice to myself and the world around me to only show the bright light without showing the shadow that inevitably accompanies it.  If I am going to share the light, I ought to share the shadow.  I look forward to doing just that.

 

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.

Hurry.

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.

 

 

The Greenhouse Effect – The Future of Behavioral Health

For a long time, our nation’s behavioral health care systems have been focused on treating people after they become unwell.  It has sort of been like waiting for the leaves to begin falling off of a plant before rushing in to provide any nourishment or care.  This approach has been problematic in many ways, most notably because there has far too often been an extraordinary amount of unnecessary suffering experienced at the individual, family and community levels when a person is not treated until acutely unwell.  We know that the longer an illness progresses, the more difficult it is to treat and the more severe the adverse impact on an individual’s life becomes.  A close second in terms of this approach being problematic is the financial cost – the United States spends more money on healthcare than any other country in the world yet ranks the lowest in terms of positive health outcomes in many categories.  It is clear that the current way of doing behavioral healthcare in our country is not working – so what do we do about it?

If we continue to use the analogy of a sick plant, our current paradigm is situated perfectly to wait for a plant to become unwell, remove that plant from its soil and then place it into an expensive incubating environment for treatment.  Unfortunately, this incubating environment is not designed to treat all of the different kinds of plants that exist in the world and additionally, many plants are unable to gain access to these incubating environments.  For the plants that are privileged enough to gain access to and receive individually relevant treatment in an incubating environment, sometimes there is growth and signs of getting better.  The plants become a little healthier and then are removed from the incubating environment to be placed right back into the soil from which they came.  Also unfortunately however, the very soil from which the plant initially came was never treated – it is still the same soil which failed to nourish and sustain the plant to begin with.  As a result, even those plants that gained access to and experienced improved health from treatment received while incubated will often go on to become unwell again a short time after being placed back into the same untreated soil.  Our current paradigm treats the plant, not the soil.  We must shift to begin to treat the soil at the same time as the unwell plant.

Treating the soil to sustain returning plants that have become unwell is not enough though.  We need to go a step further.  We need to nourish the soil and pump it full of the nutrients needed to prevent plants from becoming unwell to begin with.  In this regard, our current behavioral health systems need to shift to serve as greenhouses of sorts.  With the knowledge that lifestyle and environmental factors are responsible for 70% of good health outcomes, there is no reason why behavioral health systems should not move toward fostering improved access to these positive social determinants of health.   Additionally, with the knowledge that many behavioral health challenges have known risk factors and early warning signs which make prevention and early intervention a very real possibility, there is no reason why behavioral health systems cannot move toward fostering environments equipped to respond early.  If we are truly to see any significant changes in positive behavioral health, our systems need to serve as greenhouses in which good health is promoted and sustained, early warning signs of becoming unwell are detected and addressed, and the environment is made rich with the nutrients of resources and supports needed for all inhabitants to maintain good behavioral health overall.

Marijuana Legalization – It’s Time For The Field To Think More Broadly

I am a huge fan of the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s (ONDCP) Director Michael Botticelli and hold both him and the transforming ONDCP agency he leads in the highest regard.  I could write endlessly on what an amazing recovery advocate and ally we have found in Director Botticelli and the ONDCP’s recovery-oriented approach to addressing the nation’s substance misuse challenges.  To that end, what follows is in no way an attack on Director Botticelli and the ONDCP but more so a challenge to the substance use disorder prevention, treatment and recovery field – this is directed at the practitioners, advocates, individuals and family members in recovery, researchers and educators who all share the common goal of making prevention, early intervention and recovery from a substance use disorder more accessible and available to all.

Currently we see a debate raging on regarding the legalization of marijuana.  This debate has been supercharged in recent weeks by Director Botticelli’s reiteration of the federal government’s stance on opposing the legalization of marijuana as some states have moved toward legalization.  Director Botticelli cited the ideas of marijuana as a “gateway drug”, young people having a low perception of risk regarding the use of marijuana and research that supports the dangers of marijuana use on the developing brain as some of the core reasons for opposing legalization.  Many experts and advocates are in agreement and see the legalization of marijuana as potentially increasing use among youth.  Many other experts and advocates disagree and see this as a step backwards in what has been forward momentum around decriminalizing substance use and substance use disorders.

While I do not pretend to know the best direction to go in, I do believe there are some aspects of this debate that are important for all of us to consider.  As a person in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder who has utilized an abstinence-based pathway to recovery for close to 11 years, I recognize that for me personally, using marijuana – whether it is illegal or legal – is not something that is in the best interest of my recovery and therefore not something I can engage in.  Just like the act of indulging in the currently legal substances of alcohol, tobacco and McDonalds cheeseburgers is not in alignment with the practices I need to maintain my health and wellness, marijuana is in the same boat.  Moreover, I can recognize that my abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and McDonalds cheeseburgers is what remains the best practice for me personally while not imposing my personal needs and choices on other people.  Millions of individuals can use these substances and eat a cheeseburger afterwards without it moving into problem use or a substance use disorder.  I just happen to not be one of them.  I do not need to oppose other people’s use of these substances just because it would not be a good idea for me and many of my friends.  I recognize that many of my friends and I, despite sometimes living in still siloed recovery systems that do not allow for us to see it, are actually in the minority when it comes to this need for abstinence only.

In addition to the idea that abstinence from marijuana is not the goal of nor necessary for more individuals than not, another point to consider is the following.  Alcohol, a legal drug and the most deadly, has seen a steady decline among youth and was actually used less than marijuana among 8th graders in 2014 according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  The use of tobacco, another legal and the second most deadly drug, has also steadily declined among young people. The idea that legalization increases use falls flat when we look at steady decreases in the use of these two substances.  Perhaps we ought to explore more how education and prevention efforts may have aided in this decline and how these efforts can be enhanced and more effective when substances are in fact legal.  At the very least, the data shows that marijuana use among youth is already happening at a rate higher than that of legal substances, so keeping marijuana illegal doesn’t seem to be working out too well for our nation’s young people.

To reiterate, I do not pretend to know the answer as to whether the legalization of marijuana would increase or decrease use among youth.  I believe more unbiased research is needed and there is much to consider.  What I do know however is that we have a lot of evidence showing continued decreased use among youth when it comes to legal substance use with increases in illegal substance use.  I also know that we have a lot of old thinking still pervading how we approach this issue and that some of us who subscribe to and apply the abstinence-based pathway in our own lives have difficulty seeing other possibilities outside of only abstinence. Ultimately, for those of us who practice, advocate, educate, shape policy around and aim for change in the area of substance misuse, I only propose that we step back for a moment and think more openly, critically and broadly about the idea of legalizing marijuana use.  We owe it to our young people to be doing just that.

Inspiration, Humanity and Humility In Recovery

The act of openly sharing one’s recovery status with the world around them allows for some of the most extraordinary of things. When those of us in recovery talk or write about our journey through and past the difficulties associated with mental health and substance use challenges, we are then able to serve as beacons of hope and visible guideposts for others who seek to do the same. It is most certainly one of the highest acts of selfless service; to be willing to disclose that we have experienced illnesses and challenges that are still so highly stigmatized and discriminated against takes courage, guts and a willingness to be vulnerable. In sharing ourselves so candidly, we help to shatter stigma, strip away shame and stomp on the sordid idea that recovery is not possible.

There are many times that I’ve been called an inspiration as a result of my own candor regarding my recovery journey. For me, this is the most humbling of adjectives and one that I have always felt privileged to show up as in the world for others. The idea that some of the most painful experiences of my life are now used to serve as a light for the world is one that brings personal fulfillment and a deep level of gratitude. I am tremendously appreciative of the opportunity to serve as an inspiration, however I also recognize that there are certain responsibilities that come with carrying that adjective. One of the responsibilities, for instance, is to always remember for myself and to inform others of the reality that my recovery is largely as a result of many factors for which I cannot take credit. Some of these factors include access to resources and supports that I had while so many others are literally dying to have. Another responsibility when being called an inspiration is to share the whole story – not just the neatly packaged pretty parts but the entire barrel of all that comes with it. If I tell you that you can accomplish something because I have, but do not tell you all of the obstacles and barriers I have experienced while attempting to accomplish it, am I really doing you a fair service in the end? It is therefore important to authentically share the challenges along with the successes if we truly wish to serve as guideposts for others seeking to do the same.

To that end, it is important to share that recovery is messy, just like being human is messy. With nearly 11 years in sustained recovery, I can tell you that for me, there are still some days when the idea of continuing on in life can be overwhelming and scary. There are still many instances in which I struggle with depression, insecurities, feelings of unworthiness, bad decision making, fear, loneliness and a multitude of other challenges. There have been many times when not using alcohol or other drugs has been replaced by an astoundingly creative wide variety of other self-destructive things. There have been many occasions when a Taco Bell drive-thru served as the cop-man or self-pity surfaced regarding all of the things in this world that I cannot indulge in. For every monumental milestone, awesome achievement and inspirational impression, there are equal amounts of hard work, mistakes, struggle, falling down and getting back up, lessons learned and opportunities for improvement.

The beautiful thing is, recovery still happens. In all of our humanity and with all of our imperfections and flaws, when we share our recovery journeys honestly, openly and transparently with the world around us, we truly do serve as inspirations. Not as pie-in-the-sky, unachievable, perfectly packaged inspirations but as very human, very real examples of recovery being possible from mental health and substance use challenges, and really, for humanity as a whole. At the end of the day, perhaps the greatest act of service when it comes to being an inspiration is in sharing this: I am human, I am flawed and I still recover…so can you.