“I imagine a person battling a dragon, throwing pebbles at the beast to no avail, and then one day finding a melody that did not kill the dragon, but finally, for some precious moments, put it to sleep.” –Stephanie Chang, (2021). NC State University Social Work 516 (Addiction, Recovery, and Social Work Practice). Abstinence Exercise Journal Entry February 5, 2021.
Alcohol and other drug (AOD) problems exist on a spectrum of severity, complexity, and duration. I have referred to the ends of this continuum as the “apples and oranges” of the AOD problems arena and noted the mischief created when what we know about apples is applied to oranges—and vice versa.
At one end of this severity continuum are AOD problems of a mild to moderate nature that are transient and resolved through maturation, changes in personal circumstances (e.g., leaving college, relocation, getting married, having children, escaping a toxic relationship), an assertive decision prompted by a humiliating AOD-related experience, or a desire to improve one’s health and quality of life. People often shed mild to moderate AOD problems of relatively short duration without participation in peer or professional support, without embrace of a “recovery identity,” and often through deceleration of AOD use rather than complete cessation. All such efforts and successes are cause for celebration.
Transient, self-resolved AOD problems of low to moderate severity constitute the “apples” commonly revealed in studies of AOD problems in non-clinical community surveys. So-called “natural recovery” is an affirmation that some AOD problems are a product of brief developmental windows of vulnerability or situational circumstances that do not accelerate into progressive and prolonged addiction careers.
At the other end of the continuum are AOD problems marked by high severity, immense complexity, long duration, and multiple failed efforts at self- and assisted-resolution. Persons experiencing such severity, complexity, and chronicity are characterized by high personal vulnerability for AOD problems (see HERE) and low levels of internal and external problem-solving resources (i.e., recovery capital). This high severity/complexity/chronicity group constitutes the “oranges” revealed through studies of people participating in recovery mutual aid groups and addiction treatment programs.
Further scientific research will ultimately determine what distinguishes apple people from orange people and if and how one transitions from one group to the other. There are, however, tentative conclusions drawn from historical, clinical, and experiential knowledge that warrant our consideration.
Apple people face potential harm when captured in systems designed for orange people. Apple people find themselves forced to embrace a stigma-laden diagnosis, coerced into expensive and life-disrupting clinical interventions, pressured to accept a drug abstinence goal without consideration of a moderation option, and are subjected to punishment for being “in denial” or “resistant.”
Orange people face potential harm when shamed for their inability to moderate AOD use, castigated for their embrace of a recovery identity, discouraged from involvement in abstinence-based recovery mutual aid groups, and stigmatized for needing clinical support (particularly medication support). Orange people face such questions as, “I know many [apple] people who cut down or just stopped. Why can’t you?” or “Why do you still go to all those meetings? Can’t you just put this behind you and get on with your life?” The implication: inability to stop using in spite of adverse consequences, failed promises to self and others, and the need for sustained recovery support is a reflection of immaturity, impaired intelligence, moral depravity, or some other personal defect.
For centuries, orange people have likened their addiction to possession by a devil, demon, serpent, dragon, monster, or beast. When the beast reigns, voices speak in our head that are not our own; when we look in a mirror, other faces appear; we do things alien to our nature and values; we fear losing our mind; and loved ones join us as hostages to this malignant force. Addiction and recovery literature is replete with references to battling monsters and slaying dragons. Those who have suffered under the beast’s control constitute a distinctive subgroup of people experiencing AOD problems.
Many orange people find that efforts to kill or expel the dragon—an aggressive assertion of self-will—result only in repeated failure and intensified shame. However, some find a most interesting alternative. Rather than a Sisyphean fight with the dragon, they discover a way to induce the dragon into slumber. This process involves discovery of ideas, words, phrases, metaphors, stories, or rituals that, like keys to locks, open avenues of change. I think of these elements as recovery songs that temporarily quiet the beast and induce a hibernating slumber that continues as long as the songs continue.
Lacking a cure of the condition, some who have unsuccessfully battled the beast discover instead a “daily reprieve” from the beast contingent on maintenance of certain beliefs and practices. These beliefs and practices—recovery songs—free one from the beast’s control: freedom from the physical cravings, the mental obsessions, the compulsive drug use, the gross distortions in character, and all the related consequences of addiction.
The new recovery song contaminates the drug experience and opens new life possibilities—marking a “before” and “after” line in one’s personal story. The recovery song is catalytic—releasing, revealing, and transforming who we are at a most intimate level. The song’s emancipatory ideas reverberate deep within us and elicit pleasure and a call to purposeful action. The song centers us on who we are and what we aspire to be and do.
Recovery songs enable living one’s life free of disabling symptoms. They do so by answering fundamental questions: Who was I before this problem arose in my life? What happened as a consequence of my drug use? What turning points sparked my search for recovery? What do I need to understand and do today and in the future to maintain my recovery? The answers to these questions (what becomes one’s recovery song or story), whether achieved as a sudden epiphany or through a slow awakening, provide one a new way of looking at self and the world and spark a radical reconstruction of the person-drug and person-world relationships.
Now what gets interesting is the myriad answers (recovery songs) people have found to such questions and how these songs can evolve in subtle or dramatic ways over time. For each individual, the challenge is to answer the above questions in the present. When such a solution is found, any unfreezing of that solution—those ideas and practices, what might be thought of as one’s personal recovery song / dragon’s lullaby—offer an opportunity for a maturation of recovery, but also a risk of regression to one’s former state of suffering.
Family members, friends, professional helpers, and peer helpers error in prematurely challenging the defense structure that supports an individual’s recovery, no matter how rigid or malformed that preferred defense structure may be at a particular point in time. Those who play with the idea of recovery as an intellectual exercise or critics who attack particular pathways of recovery do great harm when failing to understand that for those seeking or in recovery, this exercise of sense-making is a deadly serious one—a search for release from suffering and a desperate act of survival. If we undermine an individual’s song without replacing it with another, we crumble the scaffolding upon which recovery rests.
Any song that sets one free deserves a place of honor—even if different from our own freedom song. Claiming superiority or inferiority of particular pathways of recovery is counterproductive. The preferred mantra is Recovery by any means necessary under any circumstances, or as the wise Sly Stone proclaimed, “Different strokes for different folks.” We do a great disservice to people—harm in the name of help—when we act with individuals seeking or maintaining recovery in ways that neutralize or corrupt the songs that keep their dragon sleeping.
At a personal level, there are many songs of recovery. Each of us facing the dragon must find the song that makes our soul sing and seduces the dragon into sleep. Any song that quiets the beast is a freedom song. To quote Bob Marley, “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?”
Acknowledgement: A thank you to Chris Budnick for sharing with me the opening quote that was crafted by one of his students, Stephanie Chang, and to Ms. Chang for her permission to include it in this blog.