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When does Recovery Begin? A Dangerous Precedent is Being Set right under Your Nose… Or maybe it’s just Me

Before we even get started down this road, let me make one thing very clear: I do not represent any Twelve Step Program in any way shape or form. The following post will be my own personal experience, strength and hope. The following will be how I see things. As the program goes, it has no dog in any fight. It neither opposes nor endorses any cause. Period. End of story. If you’re looking for AA or NA’s opinion on when recovery begins, don’t bother reading any further because this won’t be it. I am recovery’s Don Quixote, and evidence based recovery is my windmill. You have been trigger (heh) warned.

I’m a little hardcore and old-school about recovery. Snake oil salesmen have been around for a long time so I’m a little more than skeptical when a new drug is introduced that will revolutionize recovery and put recovery in the hands of those who really don’t want to give up their escape mechanism. I am also weary of people in the new U.S. recovery industry who aren’t actually in recovery… Some are good but are missing one important understanding, well two. First is why we use in the first place. The second is why we can’t use anything once we’ve transitioned from recreational alcohol/drug use alcoholic/addict. Once a pickle, we don’t go back to being a cucumber. If you can’t understand the why and the addict, prescribing and antidote is damn near impossible, because the disease isn’t only medical. It’s physical and mental.

Back in the good old days, before “evidence based recovery” (a new term that offers no evidence that it actually works, it’s a term used to describe anything other than a Twelve Step Program or anything devoid of a “faith based” recovery that simply makes the alternative sound legitimate) getting clean or sober was simple, or relatively so… You went to AA meetings, whether pushed to do so by the courts or on one’s own volition, you sobered up and went on to great things… or you found God at church… or you did it white knuckled on your own… Either way, you put down drugs and alcohol and lived a different life. Sobriety began when you ceased taking drugs or alcohol. Recovery began when you ceased taking drugs or alcohol and did something to return to normalcy as the definition of recovery suggests.

Then came treatment centers that would combine sedatives, drugs and an introduction to a Twelve Step program. Then Narcotics Anonymous, because Alcoholics Anonymous was admittedly lacking when it came to handling drug addicts. Either way, the entire system pushed everyone into AA or NA and for the 15% of our population who don’t believe in some kind of Higher Power or God, this was problematic. This isn’t to say neither program required belief in a Higher Power, only fools and knaves truly believe that (in fairness, there are some members who can be rather insistent and silly about one’s turn to faith). In the end, ignorance won the day and a movement away from the volunteer based program of recovery began to give way to the new pay-based recovery handed down by professionals with loads of letters after their name that only they understand.

This wasn’t all bad. We of AA and NA tended to deal with a lot of crazy, and now that crazy is getting farmed out to institutions.

Unfortunately, with institutions comes a need to show results… and that comes with problems.

Old school AA and NA didn’t care about results the same way a government agency does. We offered a way of life, either you accepted it or you didn’t. Either way, we aren’t getting paid to make a person recover so we wouldn’t be held responsible for their failure to actually quit, it was all up to choice. Lawyers would send their clients to meetings to show the court their client really cared and felt sorry for their misdeed(s). Judges would sentence small-time offenders to meetings so they could be turned on to a new way of life… And we accepted all of them (in fact, I was one of those myself). We offered them what we were so freely given and helped save millions from their addiction in the process. We also allowed those who were just there to have their court paper signed to join in. It was our understanding that, while they were only there to get their butt out of trouble, at least we were planting a seed that let them know where they could go when they were truly ready to quit using their drug of choice. We let them go on their way, hoping they’d be back another day.

Institutions don’t work that way. Institutions want results. Studies were done and estimates given referring to AA and NA’s success rates. Of everyone who walks through a door to an AA meeting, I’ve heard as few as 3 to 5% make one year of real sobriety. Now, you may think that bad, but hang on because that number is skewed and I’ll show you how. Of those 3% who make one year, 85% make it to five years. How could that be?

Almost all of those who don’t have a desire to sober up leave before the first year.

If you based the numbers on those who actually work the program and the steps, the success rate is closer to a 98% success rate. In 25 years sober, I’ve only seen one person fail who was thoroughly following the path. One. And in his case, he was a mental patient with a bi-polar diagnosis and he refused to properly take his prescribed medication. He literally blew up his heart with a cocktail of medication and drugs. His name was Jeff, and I still miss him (he passed more than 15 years ago). What is missing in the numbers is weeding out those who refuse to “thoroughly follow the path”. I thoroughly follow the path, so I make it. Others I work with choose not to, so they don’t. It’s not rocket science.

Now, let’s get to the real topic in the Title, because this post has been getting away from me a little bit with basic history… When does recovery actually begin?

Up until recently, recovery’s definition was quite simple. It followed the dictionary definition of recovery: “a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength”. Using drugs and alcohol, paging Captain Obvious, to cope with life is not normal. Therefore it’s quite simple to make the leap that one is not “recovering” until one is off meds (though this tends to change with mental patients who do need medication regularly, approximately 10% of those who are given psychotherapeutic meds – unfortunately, 90% of the 90% think they belong in the 10% but let’s not get lost again).

Enter the new “evidence based” recovery establishment. They want results, no matter how bad they are…

I recently got into an interesting discussion with a blogging counselor who insists that even though an addict is on psychotropic medication (methadone) for heroin addiction, that person should be considered to be “in recovery”. I disagree, but only with certain parts of the argument. I believe in honesty (it’s a core tenet of recovery – in fact, nothing is more important to recovery than honesty). A person who is on blocking medication, or medication that blocks the body’s ability to respond to opiates, is definitely in recovery (as long as they’re abstaining from any other drug use and working to return to a normal existence). Methadone is a different story, though. Methadone is a watered down version of heroin or morphine. Anyone on methadone, or any other “watered down” version of a drug that will get one high, can’t be in recovery by definition. Relying on drugs is not a return to normalcy.

It would be like claiming you’re in recovery because you’ve switched from Budweiser to Bud Light or switched from whiskey to beer. How about the much-maligned “marijuana maintenance program”? Can’t drink alcohol? Get high on pot instead! Bam, you’re in recovery! Preposterous as that may seem, that’s exactly what we’re talking about here.

And thus is begun the war on reality to claim results where results don’t exist. The counselor, in response to my comment wrote that judging a person’s path to recovery is bad and will make that person feel bad. We should instead celebrate that the person is no longer “a menace to society” or they may even be a “productive member of society” so they should be considered “in recovery”. And therein lies the rub.

A person getting high is not in recovery. A person who still has to get high likely won’t address the underlying cause(s) of their addiction and will therefore continue to try to game the system, manipulate people, lie, cheat, steal, and “shoot moves” as we say. That is not now, nor should it ever be, considered normal.

I get that we don’t want to be Judgey McJudgipantses, but we have to be honest. Recovery starts when the path to normalcy is chosen. If someone wants to pay a pro Tens of Thousands of Dollars to walk that path, or they want to pay a buck a meeting makes no never mind to me, as long as we’re walking the path. This is why I’m always leery of people who aren’t in recovery becoming counselors and treatment center managers. If you haven’t walked in my shoes, it’s almost impossible for you to grasp the simplest of concepts pertaining to us. They may be book-smart, but they have no idea how low I’ll go for a fix. We are a hopeless lot that the medical community shunned as impossible to help for thousands of years. The reason we’re helpless is that when one drop hits enters our system, we need more. When normal people get a buzz, they don’t like the feeling and want to stop.

For a person like me, I feel whole again. I feel alive. I feel at peace… Artificially. When I feel that good, more of whatever I’m using should make me feel even better!

You can’t fix that with a pill, and you certainly can’t stop that freight train with a watered down potato gun version of the drug that causes that feeling. Twenty-five years in recovery, one drop passes my lips and I don’t know if I’d be able to handle the consequences. One drop. Because it’s not the alcohol that’s the problem. It’s that I can’t win the debate in my head that wants more.

I am a two-fisted drunken loser on a daily reprieve from my addiction and my name is Jim. My addiction is real. My addiction is sitting back in the corner of my mind doing sit-ups and push-ups and pull-ups, just waiting for me to make a mistake… and you can’t fix that with a pill.