Waiting for Sobriety in a Quick-Fix World

By Jason Schwartz 05/27/11

For many of us, recovery is a lengthy journey full of dead-ends and scary twists and turns. But patience is an increasingly rare virtue in our quick-fix world.

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Twenty years later, it’s still a mystery to me. John was the one knocking on my door to drag me to meetings. He was enthusiastic about 12-step recovery. He strongly identified with what people shared, was grateful to find the fellowship, and had faith that this was the solution to his drinking problem. I, meanwhile, thought everyone at the meeting was brainwashed. I hated the God stuff. I was sure my problems were far too complicated and unique for any of this simple-minded crap to help me.

A year later, he was in jail for breaking and entering and I was still sober.

Why did I make it when he didn’t? I’ve pondered this question for years. I know I wouldn’t be sober today if it wasn’t for his support in those early days. After 20 years of sobriety—17 working in addiction treatment—I’ve come to accept that I’ll never fully understand it.

To be sure, part of the story is that recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. For some reason, I managed to stay in it after my friend’s enthusiasm waned. As in weight loss, early momentum is not necessarily a predictor of long-term success.

This is why I’m often troubled by headlines about celebrities “completing treatment” or stories about those who have “beat” addiction, like, ahem, Charlie Sheen. Headlines rarely capture nuances, but these convey a pretty dangerous and inaccurate “mission accomplished” message when in fact the mission is really just beginning.

Addiction is not an acute illness—like, say, strep throat—that can be treated and cured. Addiction is a chronic illness and, like other chronic illnesses, requires long-term treatment, monitoring and support.

Think of someone suffering from cardiac disease—let’s say your Uncle Bob. He has a heart attack and ends up being admitted to the hospital to get a coronary stent. The surgery is a success and a few days later, he is released from the hospital. Is that the end of the story? Can he just go back to his old life? Hell no, right? He may, or may not, require additional medical treatment or daily medication. If he wants a long and healthy life, he will definitely need to make some major lifestyle changes. Goodbye McDonalds, goodbye salty and fatty foods. Hello portion control, lean meat and veggies. Goodbye lazing around on the couch all day. Hello treadmill, elliptical. Hell, he may even go all out and hire a personal trainer.

If his recovery is to last, it needs to be supported by more than just behavioral changes. He has to undertake a lifestyle change—maybe even an identity change. To fend off his condition, he may need to spend less time with friends who are sedentary and eat poorly. He may need to make new friends that share the active, healthy lifestyle he’s trying to adopt. Support from Aunt Beth will be critical, too. Uncle Bob’s really going to struggle if she insists on maintaining a supply of Oreos around the house. So, in the end, there’s no “completion” for Uncle Bob. The risks to his health are always waiting around the corner. He just has to do his best to fend them off.

Recovery from addiction shares a lot of similarities, but is even more challenging because of brain abnormalities that produce craving and lowered resistance to those cravings. For people in the midst of acute addiction, emergency treatment is key. Detox and inpatient treatment will interrupt drug use, support the patient through physical and psychological withdrawal, and ward off dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

“Completing” a stint at detox is certainly good for an addict’s health, but it has little bearing on the long term. What addicts do in the days, weeks and months after treatment will truly determine their quality of life. Ongoing treatment and recovery support is critical and, in many cases, should continue for a couple years. More importantly, recovering alcoholics and addicts need to commit to extensive changes in lifestyle and values. For most people who manage to beat their demons, recovery means a lot more than attending a few meetings—it means wrestling with some heavy existential questions that have serious implications for how to live: Questions like, who was I before I began using alcohol and drugs? Who and what did I become as a result of my use? Why me? How do I explain what happened? What happened to break this pattern? How do I explain why and how I stopped? Who and what am I now? Where am I going and what do I need to do to get there?

This process is not a quick one. It’s something that takes a few years to unfold and certainly isn’t always comfortable or easy. And it requires a ton of faith and patience.

Why is this quick fix thinking about addiction so entrenched in the popular imagination? Well, in large part, it’s a reflection of our culture. We want to lose weight immediately so we purchase that blu-ray player on credit instead of saving for it; we want 15-minute meals, a four-hour workweek, three-minute abs and a pill to solve our problems. We want to be fully rid of a lifetime addiction in seven or 28 days. But much like with many cancers, recovery from addiction is not considered durable until a person has been sober for five years. This may not be quick, but a recent study found that 78% of the addicted physicians in a Physician Health Program “had no positive test for either alcohol or drugs over the five-year period of intensive monitoring.”

As for John—well, he got another bite at the apple. After several years and a few more attempts, he managed to embrace sobriety again. It’s just another reminder that recovery may not always come easily or quickly, but it’s always possible.

Jason Schwartz, LMSW, CADC, is the Clinical Director of Dawn Farm. He is also an adjunct faculty at Eastern Michigan University’s School of Social Work and School of Leadership and Counseling. He serves on the advisory boards of Eastern Michigan University’s School of Social Work and School of Leadership and Counseling and also serves as a board member for a substance abuse prevention coalition that was formed in the wake of several overdose deaths in his home community.

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