Believing in Recovery: Addiction treatment and faith

Faith Hill seems to believeSarah Henderson return with another article about addiction treatment and recovery. This time, Sarah gets all philosophical with us and discusses the concept of faith in recovery. Personally, my faith is and always has been very logic-based. I’m not a very spiritual person, and the things that are most important to me are usually right around me – my family, my work, and my new baby boy Kai. I’m not against the concept of a higher power, I just don’t feel a deep need for it and it’s probably the one concept that doesn’t keep me up at night (which is weird now that I think about it). But in the addiction treatment and recovery field, faith is a common word that can take on different connotations so I think it’s important to talk about.

Believing in Recovery: Articles of faith

I have a friend who is researching the history of the Bible. He’s on a bit of a mission, searching for some verifiable proof of certain articles of faith. He and I have lengthy discussions on this, going back and forth on the nature of faith, on whether or not one needs proof to believe. His position is, wouldn’t it completely change everything if we COULD verify the existence of God? My position is, yes it would; proof would make faith irrelevant.

Think about it. If you have proof of the existence of something, then believing in it is no longer faith, is it? It’s not even belief. It’s just actuality. I believe there’s a reason that we as a species have never been given proof of the existence of a higher being. (From here on out, I’m going to refer to this being as God.) I don’t believe that we, with our tiny human brains, have the capacity to understand or conceive of God. I also think part of the wisdom in perpetuating the mystery is that it keeps us engaged, keeps us seeking, keeps us wondering.

Faith is a very common word around addiction treatment and recoveryThe character House, MD (who is an atheist) said on one episode, “I love how people are always so proud of believing in something that isn’t there, like that’s some sort of accomplishment.” Well, actually is IS an accomplishment. Believing in nothing doesn’t take a whole lot of work. But believing in God without any verifiable evidence? That takes effort, takes devotion, takes love. Faith is a difficult path, no matter what you believe in. I also think that in believing in something outside of ourselves teaches us to believe in each other. For instance, when falling in love; you have to hold out your heart with no certainty that this person will not crush it. When forgiving someone; you are risking that they will hurt you again, but trusting that they won’t. When learning something new; you may fall flat on your face, but you have to believe that you can do it. If people never took a chance on each other, no one would ever get married, move away, try a new career, or have kids. Eventually, we all have to have faith in something, even if it’s just our own capabilities.Can you imagine a world without faith? I can’t. It’s what helps us believe in the future, surrender to the moment, look up when the world is falling apart and trust that things will right themselves soon.

When it comes to recovery, faith is essential- and I’m not just talking about God or religion. While attempting to recover from an addiction or other self-destructive behavior, you must have belief. First, you need to believe in yourself. You have to have confidence in your own ability to fight, to know that you have it in you to make it. And when that belief falters, as it inevitably does, you need to have faith in something outside of yourself too. You’ve got to hold on to something- God, a friend, the stars, the color blue- some entity to turn to when your confidence in yourself is flagging. And of course, there will be times when you are overwhelmed and feel like the pain of the transition is going to last forever. You have to be loyal to the concept that if you continue on the path of recovery, eventually you will find peace; that’s the “fake it ’til you make it” part. But it doesn’t happen without faith.

The word “faith” in itself has become so loaded that I think we often lose sight of what it really means; though truthfully, I think we each have to create our own personal definitions. To me, faith mean taking chances. And in recovery, that meant everything from eating when I wasn’t sure if it wold make me gain weight to reaching out to a friend without being sure I would get a response. All of those little risks built on each other until I developed some true self-confidence. With that in hand, I was able to make more proactive choices that have helped me get to the place I am now.

No matter what you believe in or how you define faith, I think we can all agree that recovery is something that cannot be done alone. It requires both external AND internal resources. At some point we all are faced with the fact that it will probably feel worse before it feels better; and in most cases, the only thing that keep us walking across that painful bridge is having faith that we’ll reach the other side.

A final word from Adi about  faith and believing in recovery

As I mentioned above, my faith is centered the things close to me and I don’t dedicate too much time to wondering about the existence of that god everyone is fighting about. Unlike Sarah, I see belief as something different than religious faith. As a scientist, I can believe information and data about addiction without having to make any leap other than in the objectivity of science and the honesty of scientists (which has certainly proven to be wrong at times). However, while I can see why people believe in a god, from the beautiful shafts of light that bounce off an ocean after a storm to the notion that there must be a master plan to make sense of all the pain and suffering in the world, I sometimes wish that I believed in a real higher power.

That’s not to say that I can’t see any power out there as greater than my own – Nature, humanity, my family, and the love I feel for my son are all ideas who’s incredible power is easy for me to grasp. Personally, that’s enough. When it comes to addiction treatment and recovery, I’ve seen the information, I’ve read the research, and I’ve personally experienced and viewed many success stories so belief doesn’t take a leap for me. That’s why I think education is so important and anonymity can be dangerous – By making successful recovery a point-of-fact, we make it easier for active addicts, and their loved ones, to believe that a different life is possible.

NIDA and ONDCP – American policy on addiction research

At this year’s College on Problems of Drug Dependence (CPDD) Annual Meeting, I got to hear, and talk to, some of the most influential players in the American addiction research field. Here are a few highlights from their talks and our discussion:

Dr. Nora Volkow of NIDA talked about a shift from Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS), which have been the most recent popular advance in genetics addiction research and into more Deep Sequencing work. The hope is that this will allow us to begin untangling some of the GWAS findings that have seemed counter-intutitive or puzzling. Deep sequencing should let us see what genes really are associated with addiction specifically, not just as markers.

Dr. Volkow also brought up the numerous issues of medications for addictions including the Nabi Nicotine Vaccine, Vivitrol (a Nalexone depot that helps opiate users who wouldn’t take it otherwise), and a host of new medications that are being developed or considered. An interesting idea here was the use of drug combinations which are showing great promise in providing enhanced treatment results (similar to HIV treatment that benefited greatly from drug cocktails). These include combining vernicline and bupropion for smoking and naltrexone and buprenorphine for cocaine (that’s not a type even though both have been typically thought of for opiate addicts).

Dr. Tom McLellan, who I personally believe is one of the most informed and thoughtful people we have when it comes to addiction research in this country, talked about our need to expand the reach of treatment to the drug abuse earlier in the problem cycle. While about 25 million people are considered drug addicts in this country, more than 65 million are drug abusers. By finding ways to reach those people in primary care (as in doctor offices) settings before they develop the full blown addiction we’re used to talking about we can do better. He also mentioned the idea of anonymity in recovery playing a role in the continued stigmatization of addiction, a topic I’ve written about recently.

Stay on the lookout for more amazing new addiction research knowledge!

Is anonymity the final shame frontier in addiction?

I’m a drug addict and a sex addict, and as far as I’m concerned, staying anonymous let’s me remain buried in shame, and a double life, that keeps me always one step ahead of those close to me. Did I say too much? Did I give away my secrets? None of those  questions matter when everyone knows everything there is to know about you. For a disease couched in anxiety, obsessions, and compulsive behavior, there’s very little that can be more triggering.

The difficulty of confessing addiction

Obviously I’m not naive to the consequences of confessing to others, and I’ve had a few very uncomfortable conversations that ended in people losing my number or superiors telling me they didn’t need to know. When it comes to the former, it’s their choice, and it might be a wise one, but having those who stay close to me know my truths keeps me safe by making me accountable and protects others from being hurt. And I can hurt with the best of them. Maybe that’s why when it comes to physician treated addicted physicians, there are no secrets, no anonymity, the family and employers are made part of the process. Some notable addiction providers (like Journey Healing Centers and others) have programs that explicitly involve the family in the treatment process as well. Getting the secrets out works to break away from the shame.

We’re only as sick as our secrets, even together

On an organizational level, I understand the need for anonymity to avoid having any specific member represent the group. But that logic only holds when everyone is told to remain anonymous. Otherwise, the entire group represents itself, which is, if nothing else, truthful. If one person slips, relapses, or goes into a homicidal rampage, it only makes the rest of us look bad if no one knows that millions others are “the rest of us.”

Over and over I hear people talk about the secret of their addiction and the lies they have to tell to cover up their shameful acts. Unfortunately, that only contributes to the stigma of addicts and makes it all the more difficult  to get some perspective on the actual problem: We do things we don’t want to over and over regardless of how much they hurt us or those around us

If you’ve read anything on this site, you know that I believe in many factors that contribute to addiction, including biology, environment, experience, and their interactions. Still, when it comes down to it, the misunderstanding of addiction is often our number one problem. And anonymity does nothing to reduce that misunderstanding.

How we can make a difference

Media portrayals only exacerbate the problem as they show us stories of addicted celebrities who are struggling but then leave the story behind before any recovery occurs. That way we only get to see the carnage but have to look pretty hard to see anything more.

But we can change all this with a small, courageous, action. We can let those around us know that we’re addicts, that we’re doing our best to stop our compulsive behavior and that we want them to hold us accountable. If we slip, we can get back up because we don’t compound the shame of a relapse with lies we tell, and those around us know that even a relapse can be overcome because they’ve seen those examples over and over in all the other “confessed” addicts around.

It’s time to leave the addiction “closet” and start living. We may not be able to change who we are easily, but we can change the way we go about living and make it easier on ourselves and on others. By breaking our anonymity, we can help assuage our own shame and let everyone know that addiction is everywhere and that it can be successfully overcome.

Just a thought…

About addiction – Len Bias, the war on drugs, addiction statistics, and anonymity

Here are some good links from the recent past. I know I haven’t done this in a while, and it’s not because of a lack of good stuff out there about addiction. I’ve been busy/lazy, so sorry.

Addiction tomorrow: An article about the effect of Len Bias’s death in 1986 on the war on drugs.

Addiction recovery basics: Statistics on addiction treatment.

The gentle path: A good article about sex addiction (and recovery in general) and anonymity.