"Recovery is a developmental process of finding and building a new self."

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Episode 145 -- September 2, 2021

Let's Get Real: Two Myths and One Truth about Recovery

Sometimes it's really easy to get hung up on semantics, and maybe that's okay. Think about it: What's the difference between sobriety and recovery? Who gets to claim they're in recovery? Sobriety is a start; recovery is forever. And there's a lot to it.

A Place Called Self: Women, Sobriety, and Radical Transformation by Dr. Stephanie Brown is an insightful guide that can help us unravel painful truths and confusing feelings in the process of creating a true sense of self in recovery. In the following excerpt, Brown defines recovery, addresses the myths surrounding it, and discusses the truths of the recovery experience. Gaining a better understanding of these things can help us as we navigate our own transformational path to wholeness. This book was written for women; however, this excerpt is applicable to anyone in early recovery.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

What Is Recovery?
When Anne went to her first Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, she repeated the familiar statement: "Hi. My name is Anne. I'm an alcoholic and I'm in recovery." She had quit drinking the day before, and so she dared to make the claim that she was in recovery. But was it true? Did quitting really mean that she was in recovery? Well yes, but only partially, because quitting is only a tiny piece of it. Recovery is so much more than quitting.

Recovery is a journey, a process, like the evolution of a wizened old tree, bent and blown and impossibly beautiful. You can see that the tree has suffered the ravages of time, and the ravages themselves have become part of its beauty. This is recovery.

Recovery is a radical change in the self, a transformation. It's a long and, yes, even painful process of developing a self that has been neglected and distorted over many years. Recovery may even be finding a self that has never been born.

For many women, their real selves are barely known, even to themselves, barely audible, barely visible, and woefully underdeveloped. If you are in recovery, you have a lot of work ahead of you, perhaps a lifetime's worth of work to catch up on. But wrapped in with the sweaty, grueling work of it is the joy you feel when you hear your own strong voice singing, unencumbered by shame or self-consciousness.

Redefining Recovery
The dictionary defines recovery as a reclaiming or "return" of something lost. According to this definition, a woman recovering from addiction is reclaiming the health, sanity, and well-being that may have existed before she became addicted. But that's not quite right. Recovery is more like a starting over than a restoration of what was lost. This is because, for many women, the real self was never really developed. As she grows up, a woman in our world frequently becomes role-bound before she knows who she is. Like the "beauty" of a traditional Chinese woman's bound and stunted feet, the "beauty" demanded of a woman's personality requires that her self conforms to a shape that is not hers. So when she strips off the false self-presented in her addiction, her real self is only partially there. She frequently finds instead a stunted person.

Recovery is a resumption of the work that was not completed when the woman was a girl. It is a coming into her own. It is an opportunity to resume the normal process of development that was sidetracked, perhaps first by constrained roles, perhaps by trauma, and then multiplied many times by hiding in the addiction. Her development was sidetracked by not accepting her needs as legitimate and not finding healthy ways to meet them, by not even knowing her needs. And so this is what recovery is: a developmental process of finding and building a new self. Recovery is a process of radical growth and change. When you are in recovery, you give birth to a new self. Is it any surprise, then, that it's painful and it takes time?

Myths of Recovery
Recovery involves a change in meaning of everything a woman knows. In recovery, you will transform the way you think about yourself as well as the way you think about life itself. Before we explore this further, let's talk about two of the traditional ways of thinking about recovery that are actually misleading: (1) recovery is moving from bad to good; and (2) dependence is bad and recovery means you are no longer dependent.

Bad to Good or False to Real?
Many women initially think that recovery means a move from bad to good. They think that being addicted is evidence of shameful neediness, of deep and lasting failures. The addicted woman is most often working to do her best, trying to be a good person, a good wife, mother, friend, and worker. Yet she feels bad. She believes herself to be a bad person.

If she thinks she was bad because she was an active addict, then somehow she believes that recovery should make her good. And yet she may continue to feel bad after she becomes abstinent because the shame, guilt, and sense of failure over what she did while actively addicted are so great. She may also feel a deep guilt because she has stopped using and now she is a survivor, one who has started down a new road. She worries about what she has done to others by stopping her addiction: Who has she left behind? Who will be upset by her new knowledge, her new path, and, indeed, her new self? She believes that recovery will make her a good person, but she still doesn't feel like she is a good person.

Dependent to Independent or Dependent to Healthy Dependence?
Like the myth that recovery means moving from bad to good, many women think recovery is moving from dependence to self-sufficiency. But there is no such thing as total self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency is a partial condition. All human beings are ultimately dependent; all human beings need others on whom they can depend. As the old saying goes, "No man [or woman] is an island." On a physical level, we need others to create new life and to sustain that life. At the most basic level, it takes two to make a baby. It takes even more to form a community that can clothe and feed itself and keep everyone warm and safe. We also need others on an emotional level. We do not outgrow our need for nurture, to be loved and held and understood. Dependence is not a failure, but a normal, healthy part of being human. This is the kind of dependence a woman experiences in recovery.

The Truths of Recovery
Let me expand on the definition of recovery: Recovery is a developmental process of finding and building a new self. You will find that the new self is a complex person. You will gain a whole new way of thinking about yourself and about life, a more intricate way of looking at things. It's not black or white, it's not either/or, and it's not good or bad. Instead, this way of thinking recognizes that life is good and bad, joyful and painful, sweet and sour.

Recovery is a more grown-up way of being in the world, and it is filled with complexity. Like all truths, the truths of recovery are mysterious and complex. They are filled with paradoxes—things that seem like they shouldn't both be true at the same time. Things that don't make logical sense. If you look at them logically, they seem absurd. It's what is called "counterintuitive." Everything you thought you were and thought you knew gets reinterpreted and turned around. This makes it hard to hold on to paradoxical truths. Because they seem to contradict logic, they must be experienced to be truly understood. That is one of the reasons it takes a long time to learn these lessons, to learn them in such a way that you know them deep in your bones. You have to take the time to live them in order to truly understand them.

About the Author:
Stephanie Brown, PhD, is a pioneering researcher, clinician, author, teacher, and consultant in the addiction field. A psychologist, she is the director of the Addictions Institute, Menlo Park, California, where she has a private practice. She is a research associate at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, where she codirects the Family Recovery Research Project. Dr. Brown is the author of eight books. She most recently coedited The Handbook of Addiction Treatment for Women: Theory and Practice.

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