Hello everyone! Welcome back to the National Recovery Month Story project here on Writing for Recovery. Thank you for joining me once again as I introduce another account from someone who works on the front lines battling addiction. Jim is the executive director of a counseling center specializing in addiction, dual diagnosis, and trauma. Every day he works to bring people to a deeper understanding of themselves in order to help them find their way to a meaningful recovery. He has a wonderful perspective on what it takes to walk that path- and how patients and counselors can work together to accomplish lasting recovery.
My name is Jim and I’m a recovery ally. People in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse don’t expect me to be able to understand them. I don’t blame them one bit. I’ve never been an alcoholic and my drug addictions are limited to caffeine and nicotine. These are not exactly conditions that make a person’s life unmanageable, at least not in any short order. Worse, I am seen as less likely to understand because I am a professional in the addictions field. My friends in recovery have too often received poor quality of services, judgment, and been generally shamed by people in my line of work. This must stop. Being a recovery ally means that I seek to be part of the solution to all of the problems associated with the disease of addiction.
In general, if a person hasn’t walked a mile in your shoes it’s hard to believe that they can really understand what it’s like to live with what you live with. I have found that most folks who haven’t been an addict or at least been very close to an addict can’t begin to wrap their mind around what it’s like to be one. I know that while I cannot relate to a person whose experiences I have not shared; I can understand to the best of my ability what it’s like for them and support them in overcoming their disease. All that this requires is that I get my ego out of the way. I listen and listen well. I ask dumb questions and I show a genuine interest in what it’s like for them. The addicts and alcoholics I know tell me that they find this unusual and refreshing.
I love working with people in recovery because I like people who are exceptionally genuine, motivated, and who seek to make great changes in their lives. Normal people bore me. Normal people do not generally make life altering changes. They do not often become something far greater than they are. People in recovery inspire me. I love their candor, their accountability, their integrity, their humor, and their willingness to go to any length to become happy, joyous, and free. I am blessed because people who are willing to make this kind of commitment seek me out.
The recovery communities of 12 step programs are vastly more effective than any professional intervention or organization will ever be. I see what I do as merely a compliment to the work of AA, NA, Al-Anon and others. I am one person working in one organization. Self help programs total tens of millions of people all over the world who genuinely care about their fellow members. Being a recovery ally means having the humility to know that what I do may be important, but it will never be a fraction as important as membership in a self help program.
Never have I been so welcomed by any group of people as when I have attended AA meetings. My colleagues do not receive me one tenth as well. Even after I explain that I am not an alcoholic, I am frequently thanked for attending, for showing an interest, for offering support, and for showing respect to a program that works exceptionally well. Amazingly these folks do not hesitate to share their experience, strength, and hope with me. They speak the most intimate and painful details of their lives in front of me, knowing that all attending have the opportunity to connect, learn, heal, identify, and grow based on these experiences.
I came to work with people in recovery through a backdoor of sorts. I started out as a mental health therapist and found that many of the people I was serving also had problems because of drugs and alcohol. I quickly came to understand that as long as they continued to abuse drugs and alcohol, anything in mental health would be of limited value to them. In most cases I find the importance of being clean and sober as being foundational and of far greater importance than issues of mental health. Today I understand that depression and anxiety are normative experiences for a person who is active in addiction or who is in the early years of recovery.
Being a recovery ally means that I am an educator. I share what I know and I defer to those who know more than I. I am far more likely to refer my clients to people in local recovery than I am to refer them to professionals. I am able to do this because I know people in the local recovery communities. Being an educator also means that I acknowledge that as a society we are not effectively educating children, adolescents, and adults of the dangers of addiction.
The best recovery allies are advocates. We know that current systems fail to meet the needs of people in recovery. Punitive approaches to alcohol and drug abuse have consistently failed to deter or reduce recidivism rates. We need to bring attention to what works (self help, rehabilitation, abstinence) and challenge prevailing stereotypes (addicts and alcoholics as bad people, criminals, or only belonging to poor and working class). We need to demystify recovery (it’s not about religion, it’s not people sitting around just talking about their problems) through achieving direct knowledge of recovery. It’s not enough to encourage people to join self help. Having direct knowledge of local recovery means that we can share our experiences to motivate others.
The hardest part of becoming a recovery ally is learning not to enable. Those who do not understand alcoholism or drug addiction are often unwittingly helping their loved ones to stay mired in addiction. Enabling almost always feels like the right thing to do. It’s something we feel compelled to do. Not protecting our loved ones from harm is counter-intuitive. We had to learn that protecting those who abuse substances from the natural consequences of their actions is to do them a disservice. We learned that in general people stop using because they get sick and tired of being sick and tired. Suffering is a powerful motivator.
Finally, the most important part of being a recovery ally is the willingness to collaborate. The AA tradition of “principles over personalities” strikes at the heart of our lack of collaboration. We need all stakeholders to come together if we are to make a substantive impact on the disease of addiction. Too many of us as Adult Children of Alcoholics are afraid or disinclined to share what we know and what we’re doing. Agencies and groups often behave like alcoholic families. We compete with one another from the mistaken belief that there is not enough to go around. Sharing our knowledge of what works and combining our efforts will yield far greater results than we have ever seen.
Jim LaPierre, MSW, LCSW, CCS