Recovery Pathways are not always a Pathway


By Bill White
Originally posted on June 3, 2016 on the William White Papers

The addiction recovery experience has been sliced and diced in all manner of categories: secular, spiritual, and religious; natural recovery, peer-assisted, and treatment-assisted; and abstinence-based, moderation-based, and medication-assisted, to name just a few.  Recovery achieved through any of these frameworks is often referred to as a pathway of recovery.  The growing consensus that there are multiple pathways of long-term addiction recovery marks an important public and professional milestone within the alcohol and drug problems arena.

Progress has been made by recovery-focused research scientists on mapping recovery pathways and noting their distinctive and shared qualities. This classification work is important as long as one does not lose sight of the fact that reality is often far messier than such pristine categories would suggest.  Or put another way, “the recovery map does not always accurately depict the territory.”

The image of pathways suggests a crossroads with distinct options that call for clear decision-making or voiced guidance from some GPS of addiction recovery. The image conveys that one must choose A, B, or C – with some advocates of each standing at the crossroads claiming they represent the one true path to recovery. There are millions of people living in recovery within these established frameworks of recovery, but there are also innumerable people in long-term recovery who have crafted a style of personal recovery at or beyond the boundaries of these approaches. Their recovery experiences are metaphorically more aptly described as an evolving patchwork, mandala, mosaic, medley, or hodgepodge rather than through the image of the well-marked path. Their recovery experiences are “dynamically evolving” in the sense that critical ingredients are regularly being forged and exchanged without a predetermined map or fixed point of completion.  Their recovery experiences are patchworks, mandalas, or mosaics in the sense that this style of recovery may combine unusual and even contradictory elements, the whole of which may resemble no established style of recovery.

Does this mean that individuals may combine a potpourri of ideas and approaches to initiate recovery and that these critical ingredients may change over time? Does this mean that people may initiate recovery within one framework of recovery but migrate to another framework to sustain recovery? Does this mean that some people may simultaneously use two or more frameworks of recovery, e.g., co-attendance at 12-Step meetings and SMART Recovery meetings? Does this mean that some people may initiate recovery without addiction treatment, but later seek professional help to enhance their emotional and relational health?  Does this mean that the person using needle exchange services today may in the future be sponsoring others in Narcotics Anonymous? Does this mean that people may concurrently or sequentially combine addiction medications with participation in abstinence-based treatment and mutual aid?  Does this mean that one’s secular, spiritual, or religious orientation may change, sometimes quite dramatically, over the course of recovery? YES, it means all of these and far more. As my friend Richard Simonelli suggests, these support options are best conveyed, not as a straight line of menu options, but as resources on the perimeter of the circle of our lives – resources that remain available to us if and when we need to draw on them.

Pathways to Recovery

Long-term recovery involves a rebirthing and assertive reconstruction of one’s life across multiple zones: physical, cognitive, emotional, relational, and spiritual health – all unfolding and evolving across the stages of life and within one’s unique personal responsibilities and aspirations. Achieving such reconstruction over time and maintaining balance within and across these zones is for some people far closer to improvisational jazz than to playing scored music written by one’s predecessors.

None of us are in a position to judge how others negotiate this process. We can only share what has worked for us and how what has worked for us has changed over time and circumstances. As a healing community and network of professional helpers and recovery researchers map long-term pathways and styles of recovery, we must not forget those whose recovery experiences do not fit within the boxes we have crafted to depict such varieties of recovery experience. Those outliers are also part of the recovery community, and their idiosyncratic stories must also be heard and celebrated. Many find recovery within a well-trod path, while others find recovery on a road less traveled. Still others will find recovery where no one has traveled before. Such differences do not need to be cast into categories of superiority and inferiority. All progressive movements toward and within recovery are cause for celebration – no matter how different the journey from our own.

A shared experience of addiction is a hollowing out of self, with the resulting sense of extreme emptiness, disconnection, and resulting sense of extreme isolation. How people authentically fill that emptiness and forge new social and intimate connections constitutes the essence of a highly variable healing process. Such varieties are indeed a cause for celebration. As the recovery advocacy movement declares: Recovery by any means necessary under any circumstances.

Recovery Rising

Bill White’s recently published Recovery Rising.

“Recovery Rising contains the stories, reflections, and lessons learned within one man’s personal and professional journey. Recounted here are many of the ideas, methods, people, and organizations that shaped the modern history of addiction treatment and recovery. These engaging stories are at times poignant and at times humorous, but always revealing, informative, and inspiring.”

From a description on Amazon. Click here for more information: Recovery Rising: A Retrospective of Addiction Treatment and Advocacy.

A review of the book is available here: Recovery Rising – Review.

6 Responses

  1. Bob K. says:

    Anything William White has to say about recovery is worth listening to. We stand at the edge of a new world of recovery, and the “Let’s keep it all like 1939” folks are about to be left behind. Thank the Good Lawd for group autonomy. Merry Christmas, Bill.

  2. Jack B. says:

    I joined AA nearly 30 years ago. After a few years, my sponsor suggested that I say yes when approached about being a sponsor.

    Today I sponsor three people. All are addicts recovering from various drugs.

    One has had years of recovery from cocaine via prescribed pharmaceuticals. Another – cocaine – hates going to meetings so he and I meet over a cuppa tea every other day. He has not used his drug of choice for almost a year. The last has been alcohol free for nearly six years. He is well on his way to a medical degree.

    The above is intended to underline that no two people recover in the same way. Today, thanks to medicine, science and reason, there are many more routes to recovery than there were only 10 years ago.

    Taking these ideas to the secular meetings is very near to bringing coal to Newcastle. So I regularly attend “religious” meetings to spread the secular/science perspective. When asked to speak I always mention that my home group is AAAA.

    At nearly every “religious” meeting I’m approached by people who did not know of the existence of secular meetings.

    I find it personally rewarding to provide the secular message to newcomers especially.

  3. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Bill for writing this eloquent and concise statement, which honors and celebrates all paths to recovery, and thanks Roger for posting it.

    May all AA Agnostica readers have a safe and joyous holiday season !~!~!

  4. Secular and sober says:

    Each individual’s body chemistry, life stage, brain capacity and social support systems are unique and expecting ONE method of treatment to work (or blame the individual when it does not) is crazy. Maybe that attitude came from lab-rat addiction studies where any mental factors were discounted? Extrapolation is always a bad idea in such basic research.

    Itʻs like nutrition: anyone claiming to have “the best” diet is obviously an idiot: everyones’ bodies are too diverse for such silly thinking. Yet courts and lazy doctors will shoehorn everyone with alcohol problems into the “alcoholic” box and force them into “sober support”, which, for everyone who is not in a handful of big cities, means AA.

    I see sobriety as a summit of sorts too, with many pathways up the mountain. Like most mountains, there are a network of paths that connect, diverge and even dead end. One can just circle the summit forever and never get there! One may step off a popular pathway just to avoid the noise as well! And straight up a wall of ice may be the ideal ‘path’ for some people! You could even helicopter up, with enough cash. My hunch is that even the experience of The Summit is wildly diverse for those who get there.

    Thanks for acknowledging that complicated problems can have complex and/or wildly variant solutions. One might think that is obvious, but given the “fix it with pharmacy” approach of commercial ‘medicine’, it is important to spread out a feast of alternatives.

  5. life-j says:

    Bill White’s clarity, eloquence, open-mindedness, caring never ceases to amaze me. He is truly a gift to the recovery community. Sad only that we so far have mostly lived in a recovery atmosphere where those things, which we should be able to take for granted do amaze. Thanks for posting this.

  6. Steven V. says:

    Good read! I too believe that most of us don’t really “consciously” choose any particular path. I think we initially go with whatever’s been suggested to us by our first encounter with a “helper” of one type or another and then modify our path as we go along the way. I was introduced to AA/CA/NA by the treatment program I first attended and did that for a number of years. I also saw various therapists for one-on-one and group therapy and about 5 years ago, rejected the “main-stream” 12 Step model and pretty much only attend AA Agnostic meetings these days. I now attend CODA meetings occasionally and am always looking for different ways to “enhance” my recovery/life experience.

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