The Gifts of Recovery

By William L White.

Emeritus Sr. Research Consultant Chestnut Health Systems.

In an earlier article entitled “Recovery as a Heroic Journey,” I summarized mythologist Joseph Campbell’s cross-cultural study of hero myths, and compared his depiction of the heroic journey to the processes of addiction and recovery.

Campbell described how these myths typically unfolded in three stages: the hero’s departure from family/community, the hero’s transformation through great trials and tribulations, and the hero’s return.  My focus in that article was on the final of these stages.  Campbell contended that the heroic adventure remained unfulfilled until the hero accomplished the most difficult task: returning to pass on the boon (gift of knowledge) of his adventure to the community.

My discussion of Campbell’s work raised the question of whether recovering people as a group had returned to their communities or whether they were hiding within those communities.  The article ended with a call for recovering people to explore how they could pass on the boon of their recovery to the community and suggested that the work within the New Recovery Advocacy Movement might provide a vehicle to complete that heroic adventure.  In this article, I will explore the exact nature of that boon of recovery.

The most obvious gifts of knowledge that recovering people can bestow on their communities are their stories—narratives that unveil the experience of addiction, stories that communicate the reality and hope of full recovery, and stories detailing their knowledge of how such recovery can be initiated and sustained. Five ideas about recovery need to be inculcated within communities across America. 

  1. Addiction recovery is a reality.

  2. There are many paths to recovery.

  3. Recovery flourishes in supportive communities.

  4. Recovery is a voluntary process.

  5. Recovering and recovered people are part of the solution; recovery gives back what addiction has taken. 

Those alone are worthy gifts, and ones that the New Recovery Advocacy Movement is calling upon recovering people to give to their communities. But there may be larger, more difficult to define gifts that could benefit communities across the world.  Such gifts are not about how to recover from addiction, but rather what recovery from addiction has taught recovering people about life and how to live it.  There are many gifts that recovering people could bestow on the larger society.  

Many recovering people reach a stage in their recovery where addiction is reframed from a curse to a gift-bestowing blessing. Civilians (those not in recovery) who have had close contact with recovery groups have often lamented that it is too bad one has to be an addict to reap the benefits of recovery.  The endless application of recovery programs to problems other than addiction surely suggests something of value here that far transcends their original intent. 

For years I have been asking those in long-term recovery what they most value about their recovery experience.  Most surprising is the number who describe recovery, not as their greatest achievement, but the foundation or by-product of that achievement.  Their responses reveal more about how to live than how not to drink or use other drugs. 

Collectively, these voices say that, through their close encounters with death (of body or self), they have come to understand both the fleeting transience and preciousness of life, and, as a result, the importance of living every moment as a gift to be cherished and lived to its fullest. Those experiencing terminal illnesses have often shared a similar observation.

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What makes those in recovery unique is that they constitute what might be called a Lazarus Society or a Phoenix Society of men and women who, in the face of utter personal destruction, have not only survived but been reborn, often with decades of life to live, to serve, to teach.  The members of this Society, in their most retrospective moments, speak of the experiences and aspirational values that became important in their lives through the experience of addiction recovery.  They speak of the importance of:  

         Living in the present (Acceptance)

         Paying attention (Awareness)

         Listening (Empathy, Respect for Elders)

         Recognizing oneself in others (Identification; Unity of all People)

         Relating (Connectedness)

         Creating community (Participation, Belonging)

         Acknowledging limitations and imperfections of character (Self-knowledge, Humility)

         Believing (Faith, Hope)

         Staying focused (Vision, Centeredness)

         Accepting limitations of time (Patience, Perseverance)

         Paying debts  (Restitution)

         Saying “I’m Sorry”  (Forgiveness)

         Saying “Thank You” (Gratitude)

         Telling the truth (Honesty)

         Telling one’s story (Witness)             

         Respecting privacy (Discretion)

         Keeping promises (Fidelity)

         Laughing (Humor)

         Celebrating (Joy)

         Avoiding complications and distractions (Simplicity)

         Doing one’s duty (Responsibility)

         Giving and helping (Service)

         Accepting differences (Tolerance)

The stories of recovering people also speak of what they have come to believe are the poisons of the human spirit: such things as self-deception, self-conceit, self-centeredness, jealousy, bigotry, resentment, anger, gluttony, avarice, and callousness.

This all stands as an interesting blend of surrender and assertion, reaching inward and outward, reconstruction of self and, perhaps in the future, the reconstruction of communities. The recovery message embraces the ethic of personal responsibility–the power of personal action–while simultaneously affirming the power of acceptance and surrender and acknowledging that the most important things in life cannot be achieved alone but only in the context of relationship.  If that sounds contradictory, an appreciation of such paradoxes is also part of the boon of recovery.  

The New Recovery Advocacy Movement is calling for recovering people to return to their communities and deliver the boon of recovery. The first task will be that of recovery education and advocacy, but a day may come when recovering people will pass on the deeper lessons of that boon to the larger community.  On that day, the community will have received a great gift.  On that day, recovering people will have come home.  They will, in Campbell’s terms, have completed their heroic journey.

For those wishing a more detailed and recent discussion of these themes, click HERE.

The above article was originally titled ‘The Boon of Recovery’ and posted on the ‘Selected Papers of William L White.’ 

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