Myths about addiction continue to make recovery difficult. The names have changed, for one thing. You may not even know what you have when your diagnosis is OUD. The tragic fact is that in America addiction is like having Covid every single year without the solutions and support to end it. So what is addiction and why can’t we make recovery work for everyone?
The summer of 2021 marks my 13th year in sobriety. I took a chip at an AA meeting purely as a journalist researching how it feels to be a sober in a drinking world. Out of my comfort zone, after years of terror and ineffective parenting during my children’s high school and college years of substance and alcohol use, I just wanted to understand. I took the chip and jumped into the uncertain sea of rediscovery. Thus begins the hero’s journey of recovery for literally millions of people.
Myths about addiction don’t tell you that recovery is the hero’s journey
All of Disney, in fact all of fiction, is the hero’s journey in one form or another, so my college professor, Joseph Campbell taught me a lifetime ago. How is recovery like a hero’s journey? Well, for one thing, you have to leave what you love and enter a dangerous place where frightening challenges await. Will you ever get out, and who will you be if you emerge alive?
Believe me, no one wants to take that chip. It may even feel at first as if sobriety going to be a perpetual walk of shame because you can’t drink, drug, and party like other people. You abandon the life you knew and go straight to a new circle of Dante’s hell. Let’s get this straight. Not everybody has the imagination and drive to recover from addiction. The hero’s journey of change requires hope, resilience, imaginative work, and the support of a lot of people. I would swear that the hero’s journey of Frozen 2 is directly based on addiction recovery. But I digress.
Addiction like having Covid 19 every single year
Addiction was the number 1 health issue in America before Covid and will still be proliferating long after Covid becomes history. Does that surprise you? This is how many people died from addiction two years ago: 545,000 people. The number will be higher for last year. Imagine the number of mourners for those unheralded lost loved ones, but addiction costs are financial, too.
Addiction costs the nation more than $740 billion annually in crime, increased healthcare costs and lost productivity. That’s economics. We have agencies to measure economics. We have agencies to measure death rates, but the causes of death related to addiction are put into different buckets, so we never really see the full picture of all the ways addiction impacts our physical and mental health. It’s confusing. In fact, alcohol, tobacco and drug overdoses, called “preventable deaths” account for some 545,000 deaths annually. That’s like having a Covid disaster every single year. Some 120 million Americans are directly impacted by these losses, probably all of us.
Four facts that debunk myths about addiction
While addiction is extremely complicated in some ways, there are very positive aspects to it as a disease. It is preventable, and it is manageable.
- Addiction is the only chronic, progressive, potentially terminal disease in which the patient, not the doctor or family members, has control over the outcome. Stick with it and achieve long term recovery; or quit and die. Not everyone can stick with the work it takes, just like not everyone survives cancer. Unlike cancer, however, the potential for survival is there for everyone. That’s the good news.
- Addiction is also the only disease in which people in recovery are not just restored to their previous lives, but rather become better and healthier than they were before their illness. Positive changes occur when recovering addicts and their families learn new habits, new behaviors, as well as better life and coping skills. That’s amazingly good news.
- Addiction is a disease of brain reward that has both physical and psychological components. That means both body and mind are affected, and both have to be treated for recovery to be successful. Just quitting a drug doesn’t change the unhealthy behaviors associated with the disease.
- Addiction causes family dysfunction that does not reverse itself. Destructive conditioning over months and years changes the brain function and behavior of family members so that critical thinking and effective responses are impossible. Everyone in the family is affected and everyone needs help to heal. This is a fact no one talks about. Family members often become sicker than addicts, and their unhealthy behaviors don’t change as their addicts get better.
Three things everyone should know about recovery
There are many things everyone should know about recovery, but I’m just going to talk about family and magic.
- Recovery takes more time than you think. It involves physical, cognitive, and emotion retraining. Family expectations of recovery success and relationship improvements after 30, 60, 90 days, even six months or a year in rehab, are bound to be disappointed.
- Families need to be involved. Nagging and blaming is not healthy involvement. Each person in the family plays a part in dysfunctional relationships and needs tools for change. Learning recovery principles and becoming recovery literate are the keys to building healthy relationship.
- Recovery is the courage to change your emotional landscape and thrive no matter what happens to those around you. That means if treasured relationships end or a loved one dies, loss is not the end of the story. That’s the magic of the hero’s journey. You can choose a different path, go through hell and still be all right.
Recovery is hard at first and fun after a while. In our family we have honest and pleasant communications. We are grateful every day. Kindness comes naturally; love and tolerance have returned.