Recovery and Sobriety

by Marc Dunn

Much is being written about addiction and recovery, many doctors and scientists are weighing in with their researched studies, and addiction counselors are adding their experiences to the onslaught of information. Occasionally an ex-addict or person in recovery will rush to the defense of whatever program it was that did or did not work for them.

As a recovering alcoholic/addict I am disturbed by the lack of perspective and first hand knowledge leading the discussions.

A new dynamic that has been introduced with more zeal lately is the elimination of addiction through medication. Not new in the sense it has never been tried but that it is the new cure. The opinion among those seeking a non-12 Step cure is that religion plays to big a role in 12 Step Programs and that scientists have developed medications that if taken as prescribed can cure addiction. One of the offshoots of this approach is that some are better off with a life of moderation rather than total abstinence.

The disease of addiction is a gradual deteriorative affliction that devastates entire families and will continue to do so unless the addict member takes action to live a life of sobriety: physically and mentally. It affects the person who is addicted, that person’s family and everyone who interacts with that person.

Consider the following just about alcohol addiction (similar facts exists about all addictions):
• Alcohol dependence and abuse cost the US approximately $220 billion in 2005. For the sake of comparison, this was greater than the amount of money spent to combat cancer ($196 billion) and obesity ($133 billion).
• An estimated 43% of US adults have had someone related to them who is presently, or was, an alcoholic.
• 6.6 million Minors in the US live with an alcoholic mother or father.
• About 24 million US residents battle an alcohol addiction in a recovery program
• Greater than 50% of grownups in the US have had knowledge of someone in their immediate family with an alcohol problem.
• Around a quarter of all children experience some form of alcoholism in their families before they turn 18
• 40% of alcoholism is passed down through the gene pool, while the other 60% stems from unknown circumstances.
• 500,000 US Children ages 9-12 are addicted to alcohol.
• Studies show that the offspring of alcoholics have a greater chance of becoming alcoholics themselves than those whose parents are clean.

It is generally conceded by medical people who even patients seeking a strictly medication cure need a therapy, and only a select few can moderate their drinking for a lengthy period without relapsing into addiction. Another reason that gives rise to this discussion is the small number of people who recover in any treatment programs.

Medication as a cure for addiction is not new; it dates back to ancient times including our own 19th & 20th century flirtations with morphine, Valium, steroids and LSD. Even within the last 50 years doctors prescribed barbiturates and benzodiazepines for withdrawal symptoms. This often led to a new addiction or multi-addictions.

There are now three new drugs being used to break down alcohol and make it less effective, physically repugnant, cut hangovers and to block the receptors in the brain that create the pleasure from drinking/drugging. The data suggest that these medications do reduce the amount of drinking /drugging done by those taking them.

For those of us who are addicts there are two different ways of life: sobriety and/or recovery. All of us with the disease/mental health condition of addiction know this to be fact. We have lived it and can tell the differences.

What is the difference between sobriety and recovery?

Strictly speaking sobriety is the absence of mood altering substances: alcohol, narcotic drugs, pot, non-prescribed pain killers, etc. Sobriety with recovery is much more; it includes lifestyle not just abstinence.

The point of sobriety is life over death. We can make it by self-willed abstinence, the easier and undisciplined way, affording a less stressful lack of commitment, or by the action of recovery, a planned change of lifestyle designed to prolong life and make it more joyous and free. It is a medical fact that long-term alcoholism will result in a shorter more painful life, not just for the abuser but also for those closest to him/her. In abstinence we may be successful for short periods of time or indefinitely. But if the point of sobriety is recovery; then we are searching for a quality of life that includes peaceful happiness, better relationships, less expectations, more acceptance and tolerance, freedom and peace.

The first time I tried to stop drinking for more than a few days or weeks, it was by attending AA meetings and being stubbornly abstinent. I did it to get everyone off my back. My wife had threatened to divorce me and I thought this was the way to lessen the incessant feeling of being scrutinized every time I picked up a drink, which was often. It lasted about 3 years and I got nothing. My life did not get any better. It was a conniving attempt on my part to seem to be better. I would listen to old timers speaking of recovery and burglarize their conversations, repeating what I had heard as if they were my thoughts, pretending to have found some spirituality. It didn’t work.

I was out to dinner after about 30 months and without any premeditation said, “ It’s been 2 ½ years since I had a drink, I can probably have one with dinner.” The naïve responses were, “That’s great.” I was off and running for 6 months. The end came when I totaled my car in a blackout on the interstate, in the middle of the afternoon. Miraculously, I walked away without hurting myself or anyone else. My next step was to try recovery not abstinence. I found that they were compatible and my life could be better.

Addiction is a disease if left untreated has a predictable end, premature death. Addiction was defined as a disease by Dr. William Silkworth in the 1930’s and continues to be recognized as a disease of the mind or mental illness by the AMA and SAMSHA. This is commonly called the disease model, and is 100% part of all 12 Step programs and most treatment centers.

These reports and opinions lead to the conclusion that there may be medication to cut the effects of alcohol/drugs and even repulse the user from using them but they do nothing to change the mental health issues an addict faces. Those issues will drive him/her out again once they either stop taking the medication or just impulsively decide to use.

Addiction is more than a physical obsession and the alcohol/drug is only a symptom. Treating the symptom does not cure the disease.

There is a need for diversity of approaches to recovery; knowledge of cultural differences, mental health issues, fitness and nutrition well-being are all instrumental to being successful. The point is to open the door to a discussion of supplemental types of recovery help that may be available. If it is, as it seems to be, that medication, religious programs, addiction treatment centers and 12 Step Programs alone don’t work for everyone, what are the alternative solutions? What solutions are there for those who repetitively relapse because of their drug and/or alcohol addiction?

It is clear more than ever that no one program is for everyone. One avenue that needs to be explored is including alternative combinations of medication, therapy and spirituality. If we believe that the recovery solution must include a healing of the mind and spirit, then therapy and spiritual seeking is a must.

If 12 Step programs alone are not for everyone and people do get sober without them, what are the alternatives? It is also important to note that forcing a 12 Step program on someone from the onset may trigger a rebelliousness that precludes him or her from ever trying (which they may want to do after some time sober, as the fog begins to clear). One of the things we haven’t done very well in working with those seeking help is updating our approaches from the way they were done 50-75 years ago. It may sound like heresy, but the world has changed drastically; medical approaches are different and better. Much more is known about mental health and addiction as well as the treatment of diseases such as cancer and diabetes. They have certainly changed with improved results. Why would you go see a doctor today that was still examining and diagnosing you based on information he learned in the 1950’s? You wouldn’t.

The point is that there are other ways to change an addict’s life, but certain basic skills and patterns of behavior need to be learned for any of them to be successful. Most addicts don’t have those skills, or have not used them in so long that they need a change of lifestyle.

Recovery from addiction to alcohol and/or drugs is not easy. Most people do not succeed and the concept that one way works for everyone is outdated. The approach and implementation need to be multifaceted, there is not a one size fits all that works universally. Abstinence methods, and various forms of it, have been applied to recovery for more than 100 years in this country and our success rates are only moderately improved.

The Journal of the American Medical Association stated in its 2000 edition, “40-60 percent of people treated for alcohol or drug dependence relapse within a year after discharge.” And, if the anecdotal stories, are true,”80-90% of the people who show up at 12 Step fellowship meetings disappear after 6-12 months.”

Sadly the research about drug and alcohol addiction and our youth is even more disheartening. Research shows that anti-drug campaigns and school programs that focus on the dangers of drug use have not worked, and may even trigger experimentation. For parents and the nation, the facts are terrifying. 30% of teens regularly use marijuana, alcohol, and pills. 15% are addicted in high school. That means 15 out of every 100 high school students are at risk for death before their 20th birthday. And the numbers rise when students enter college.

The enormity of the problems addicts experience, both physically and mentally, and the quantity of human beings who have this disease has grown much over the last decade. As we understand more about it and learn the devastating long-term effect on the family as well, it is more urgent to get the message to as many as possible. If we are to arrest this disease and prevent it from further debilitating of our families we must take action. We can stop the spread of addiction within our own families. It can end with us. What greater gift could we give our children?

My daughter wrote the following about kids her age discussing their ”thing” because everyone has a “thing”, She would ask, “What’s wrong with you, tell me in three words what’s your deal”. She heard them say, “my parents are divorced”, “and my childhood sweetheart died “or” I was raped in college”. My daughter responded to her own question, “Alcoholic, addict father.”

Adult Children of Addicts have had their peace of mind stolen from them. If we are to approach addiction as a health issue and look for solutions to end the cycle of destruction it has caused for centuries then we need to look beyond abstinence, we need to look at the persons and their families that are suffering and seek multi-faceted solutions. Everyone will be better served if they are better educated about the benefits of recovery not just abstinence. The health and the health of loved ones, mental, physical and spiritual, will improve long-term and there will be less of loss of lives and more peace of mind.

We are on the precipice of a revolution of the mind, body and spirit and by becoming the faces and voices of people in recovery we can share a quality of life that includes peaceful happiness, better relationships, less expectations, more acceptance and tolerance, freedom and peace.

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