Addiction recovery is far more complex than a “happily ever after” story. Recovery contains the full spectrum of emotions, including great sadness, because life itself is filled with a rainbow of emotions.
The experience of loss in recovery can come in many forms: job loss, financial calamity, fractured relationships, the death of loved ones, and injury or disability, to name a few. Such losses can accelerate as one ages. In recent years, I have lost my parents as well as professional mentors and valued colleagues and have begun to experience the loss of abilities long taken for granted. Such losses can be disorienting because they rip away the anchors that have shaped our personal identity. But losing people, abilities, possessions, or activities that have been at the core of one’s recovery and identity can also contain profound lessons. Here are a few that come to mind.
Loss is an inevitable part of life. Fully embracing the experience of loss in recovery joins us to the rest of humanity. We share with the rest of the world losses that cannot be anticipated, losses that seem brutally unfair, and losses so profound as to seem ungrievable. Having survived addiction does not exempt us from such suffering. We will each experience loss and eventually take our turn leaving. That is the way of life. What matters is what we do in the midst of such losses before our own leaving. Recovery does not relieve us of that responsibility. It actually adds weight to it because of lost time and the need to balance transgressions from “the life.” If we use our allotted time wisely, we can accept loss as part of life’s way and approach our own departure without guilt, regret, or fear.
Even the most devastating losses—pain that defies measure—can be survived without the balm of chemical anesthesia. When suffering is at its greatest, we let ourselves grieve. While wounded, we accept care from others. When alone, we reach out to a community of people who have experienced yet escaped such isolation. When energy ebbs, we embrace the stillness. When facing the unforgiveable, we forgive. When angered, we breathe. But always, we endure and keep rising. Life can be embraced as an alternative to oblivion. That is what the long history of recovery teaches us.
Losses may open previously unseen windows to our personal destiny. We see this every day in the helping hands people in recovery extend to those still suffering. Losses can contain unforeseen opportunities that pull us toward a high purpose. We see this in the activism of parents and siblings who have lost a loved one to addiction. The experience of loss in recovery can similarly spark a recommitment to recovery and a life committed to carrying the lessons of recovery to others and extending acts of service far beyond the recovery community.
Surviving and transcending loss requires an uncompromising commitment to sustained recovery and the search for balance and harmony within one’s recovery experience. Where empty spaces have been created, new people and activities must be found to fill those spaces. And in some ways, we must become that which has been lost, even if symbolically. The holes in our lives must be filled with living memory, with values and lessons drawn from what has been lost. Memorials must be built within us and sometimes in the physical world to allow us to move forward.
The message of our historical experience is clear and unchanged: Recovery by any means necessary under any circumstances, even in the face of unbearable loss. The hope for the future that all losses threaten can be best protected and regenerated within a community of shared experience.
William (“Bill”) White
Emeritus Senior Research Consultant at Chestnut Health System
Read all of Bill White's Blog Posts on his website here www.williamwhitepapers.com