Is personal experience necessary for successful addiction treatment?

In the “recovery” community, one often hears about how the best person to reach an addict is another addict in recovery. The question is whether personal experience with, and victory over, addiction is necessary for a counselor or therapist to be successful in providing successful addiction treatment?

I’ll spoil the surprise by telling you that I personally don’t believe such personal experience is necessary, and that is despite my own personal experience with addiction. I also think that spreading the notion that the above is true is counterproductive to addiction treatment as a field and that it creates an atmosphere whereby mental health professional are a little weary of getting involved in treating drug addicts.

Personal experience as a requirement for treatment in general?

Imagine for a second that you had acne and needed to get a treatment for it, would you only seek out dermatologists who have had severe acne as teenagers themselves thinking they will be best able to assist you? What about if you were diagnosed with cancer or diabetes? I’m assuming most of you can see that requiring the ones treating us to have experience with the same issues we’re dealing with is a bit silly, at least in the physical health sense. We need clinicians that know what they’re doing, can diagnose problems quickly and accurately, and who are familiar with appropriate treatment options and keep up with the latest advancements. They don’t need to have personal-experience with the problem.

But what about mental health issues like depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, would having one of those require a therapist who suffers from the same disorder in order to truly provide tangible results? Should schizophrenics only be treated by schizophrenics? Here again I think that most people can see that experience is not necessary. It might be nice to have a therapist who sympathizes, but really, what we need is knowledge and ability, which often involved empathy, but not necessarily shared experience.

So what makes addiction so different and special?

There’s no doubt that addicts like to think of themselves as special. I would certainly place myself in that group and have personally heard countless addicts who are no longer using exclaim that once addict recover “we are a special and capable bunch.” All of this makes sense in the whole “in-group/out-group” mentality that is so familiar to everyone in psychology as an effect generally observable in the population. But my sense is that when it comes to treatment it can be a dangerous premise.

Think about it – There is no question that addicts are far less common than the general non-addicted population. This means that in essence, believing this dogma – that addicts are best treated by other addicts – leaves the field less open to outside influence that are no doubt able generate great insight into the addiction treatment field. We can feel as special as we want, but I hope that no one believes that addicts somehow have a monopoly on knowledge, expertise, ability, and empathy. We don’t, and thinking we do is at best narcissistic and at worst ignorant and stupid.

I work with dozens of researchers who have no first-hand knowledge of what smoking crack uncontrollably is like (and probably a handful who do) and I can tell you that each of them has had incredible insight into the problems of addiction. I can also tell you that I’ve met many addicts in recovery who think they have found the end-all-be-all answer to our collective problems simply because these things have worked for them. Experience as an addict does not equal insight into addiction treatment. Experience in recovery may give some insight, but thinking that it is necessary and sufficient for providing great treatment is… unwise.

I believe that we need to get better at measuring, identifying, and replicating good addiction treatment, not setting up barriers for clinicians interested in treating addicts based on their own personal experience. My guess is that as we do this we’ll find that some addicts are great at treating addiction and some are horrible and that the same goes for “normies.”

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…