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Open Wide the Gates

I firmly believe that people with substance use disorders are people first and always, and that characterization of them as somehow fundamentally unique or different from other people is dehumanization that attempts to justify dogmatic approaches and substandard treatment.

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By Adam Sledd

07/24/14

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Another person in recovery died yesterday. In fact, many did, but one of them was someone I knew. Paul was someone who helped me and many others; but for some reason, he did not recover in spite of the help he received. I have the ultimate respect for Paul and the vast network of people in recovery common to us; and so as I learned of his death, I tried to put it in the context of the issues and ideas with which I wrestle on a daily basis. It is sometimes too easy for me to criticize abstract concepts and nameless, faceless groups of people. Yesterday I tried to bring it home; to temper my rationality with an element of humanity.

Paul and I met in treatment, three years ago. His recovery was more turbulent than mine, which is to say that he had trouble achieving his goals. For me to say that I stayed abstinent and he did not perpetuates the idea that abstinence defines recovery. I cannot compare my recovery to his. All I know is that Paul struggled, and now he is dead. As humans, we wonder why, and we are prone to rationalization. I am sure that some of us who knew Paul have various ideas about why he was unsuccessful. I was not there; but what I do know is that Paul sought help, repeatedly. At the time I met Paul he told me he had been in rehab over 30 times. He participated in a recovery fellowship. He had multiple legal interventions. He had friends and family who supported him. Most of all, Paul was an intelligent, self-aware human being who seemed to have all of the necessary elements to succeed in whatever he wanted to do. I believe that Paul wanted to recover. Yet, for whatever reason, he died.

This is the “cunning, baffling, and powerful” nature of addiction that Bill Wilson so eloquently described. It is a maddening conundrum. We must not be tempted to use this as an instrument of fear, a bogeyman to coerce people into fealty to any one program or method. By the same token, I cannot use it as a bludgeon with which to criticize them. It is important that we open wide the gates and illuminate all paths to recovery. The narrow paths must be widened, and new paths must be forged. If someone is not getting what he needs, he must have alternatives other than death to obtain his freedom; and he must be empowered to choose them. I firmly believe that people with substance use disorders are people first and always, and that characterization of them as somehow fundamentally unique or different from other people is dehumanization that attempts to justify dogmatic approaches and substandard treatment. If addiction is truly a disease, then our approach to treatment must be blameless. If people do not respond to treatment, it is because they are not getting the proper treatment. If someone does not succeed in a recovery program, it may not be the right program for that person. Insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Don’t tell me over and over, as my clients, friends and family die, that they are some special kind of sick and cannot be helped. Let’s figure out how to help them; let’s talk about solutions.

I often compare my progression through the ideology of recovery to my journey through atheism to humanism. I went through a phase of rejection; of questioning and angry, visceral reactions to the aspects that I find harmful and unacceptable. At some point, I (mostly) tired of this, and realized the limited utility of railing against the establishment. I now try to focus on similarities rather than differences. I have found through my interactions with others and my research that not only am I not alone, but that my ideas are not new. The problems with the status quo are clear. Turmoil and conflict are terrific catalysts; but what matters is what I do with the energy they generate. It must be channeled into creative outlets or it can quickly turn destructive. I believe in doing solution-focused work with my clients; so it must be with my public advocacy as well.

This post is dedicated to Paul M. 1977-2014

Adam Sledd is a person in long-term recovery and a public recovery advocate. He works as an addiction counselor and recovery educator with clients in halfway house and inpatient settings. Read more at his website, adamsledd.com.

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