By Scott Corsi CSW
One amazing opportunity about working at a Renaissance Recovery is that I get to watch the progress of people who struggle with alcohol and drug addiction through the various phases of recovery. Sometimes it’s exciting, sometimes heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking. As clients take steps to recover they start to get in touch with their self-worth, family relationships are mended, difficult legal situations are made right, and various other amazing results can happen as part of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. Unfortunately, the opposite sometimes happens as well. As I’ve watched this process over and over I’ve begun to see common denominators with those who find success in recovery. Two of these are vulnerability and connection.
When someone starts substance abuse treatment they are asked to begin taking certain steps to ensure their success in recovery. As part of drug and alcohol treatment clients are asked to complete self-searching assignments about their lives as part of group therapy. They then share some of these completed assignments with the group. Clients are also asked to attend individual therapy to support them during this process. By taking these steps clients can address issues that have kept them stuck in their addictions. They are also able to challenge negative self-beliefs that have held them back. Those who seem to find the most success in this process are the ones who are very thorough and detailed in their assignments, are very open and honest with others about their addictions, and are willing to take suggestions from others. Through this process the clients invariably experience vulnerability and find connection. It is not enough however to have this experience in treatment only. They also need to experience vulnerability and find connection in their community as well.
In addition to group and individual therapy they are also asked to take other important steps to address this issue. The first is to attend support groups in the community. These could be Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, LDS 12 step, USARA, or other meetings. Next the clients are asked to keep in regular contact with others in recovery to gain support from them. Finally, the clients are asked to find a sponsor or mentor. At first many people are hesitant to attend support groups in the community and to reach out to others. But as they do so it becomes easier. In this area those who seem to find lasting recovery are the ones that this process stops being a chore and becomes something they enjoy. Again, as they are willing to risk they experience vulnerability and find connection.
As I’ve seen these specific things bring success for those in recovery I have begun to wonder about the how and why of it all. I have found a couple TED talks that explain the relationship between vulnerability and connection very well. The first talk is by Johann Hari called “Everything You Know About Addiction Is Wrong” (https://youtu.be/PY9DcIMGxMs). The second is by Brene Brown called “The Power Of Vulnerability” (https://youtu.be/iCvmsMzlF7o). Both of these talks alone are very good and worth listening to but together they have answered the “how and why of it” for me.
Johann Hari’s talk “Everything You Know About Addiction Is Wrong” references the rat park experiment and Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs. The rat park experiment is a variation on the experiment where they took a single rat and gave it a surge of heroin when it would tap on a lever. In this experiment the rat would always end up overdosing and dying. In the rat park experiment they gave the rats the option of drinking water with morphine. But in the rat park experiment the rat was not alone but with other rats to interact with. They also had as much food as they wanted and things like tunnels and running wheels. Given this social environment the rats stopped overdosing.
When Portugal decriminalized drugs they stopped incarcerating people for having small personal amounts of any drug. These individuals were referred to panels of experts to help dissuade them from using illicit drugs. If someone found themselves in this situation repeatedly they would be referred to some type of substance abuse treatment. They also took some of the money that they were spending on incarcerating people for drug possession and spent it on trying to integrate them back into society with things like helping them obtain employment etc. Using this model Portugal has seen many improvements. For one, rates of new cases of HIV have decreased significantly. Overdoses have also plummeted as well as IV drug use overall. After considering these two models the conclusion that Johann Hari reached was that “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection”.
Brene Brown’s talk referenced her own research on connection. As she did this research a theme came up over and over which was shame. She defined shame as: “the fear of disconnection…Is there something about me that if other people know it or see it that I won’t be worthy of connection?”. We as humans have an innate need for connection. Shame is so debilitating when it comes to recovery in that when we experience it we likely feel disconnected and it also keeps us from trying to connect, the very thing we need. So, if the opposite of addiction is connection the equivalent of addiction would be shame. If we are to find recovery from addiction, we need to find connection and reduce shame. In her research Brene Brown was able to determine the bridge from shame to connection is vulnerability. We need to be willing to risk by letting others see our real selves. This is easier said than done as vulnerability requires real risk. One definition of vulnerability is: “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally”. In vulnerability there is real risk but there is also a real payoff which is connection. The steps of recovery previously mentioned are a blue print for this process of vulnerability and connection.
Ultimately through this process we experience love. We learn that our deep dark secrets aren’t as dark as we thought. We find others who can relate and that have had similar experiences. We find that as we share our story we give others permission to be vulnerable and share their stories as well. We find healing in our relationships. And in the end, we find ourselves connected.