The Recovery Exchange Principle

Bill White

The first real-life Sherlock Holmes may well have been French criminologist Dr. Edmond Locard (1877-1966), whose 1910 seven-volume treatise on forensics laid the foundation for modern criminal investigation. Locard postulated an “exchange principle,” contending that any human contact with a person, place, or thing leaves physical traces of that encounter that can form the basis of criminal detection.

I would like to suggest a parallel recovery exchange principleany interaction between an individual experiencing an alcohol or other drug (AOD) problem and an individual in recovery from such a problem produces trace effects on both parties.

Where Locard’s focus was on physical trace evidence, my interest is primarily on psychological trace—the residual cognitive, emotional, and behavioral effects that result from interactions between wounded healers and those suffering from addiction. Below are some opening reflections on such interactions and their import for those involved in the provision of recovery support services

Variability of Effects: When people experiencing AOD problems interact with people who once had but no longer have such problems, the residual effects from that interaction vary from minimal to moderate to transformative. Such variability of effect includes qualitative dimensions—from recovery attraction to recovery repulsion. In short, contact can exert a pull force towards and deeper into recovery or a push force away from recovery, depending a great deal on the degree of mutual identification.

Amplification Effect: Positive effects are amplified through this process of mutual identification—experiencing someone like ourselves who mirrors key ingredients of personal identity (e.g., age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, occupational identity, drug choice, etc.) and who models successful addiction recovery.

Ecology of Recovery Contact: Place matters. Residual effects are amplified when contacts occur within an individual’s natural environment. Rather than having an individual leave their world to make contact with the recovery world, the goal is to bring recovery into their world. The positive effects of recovery contact are enhanced when they go beyond inspiring recovery to expanding recovery space within an individual’s natural environment.

Cumulative Effect: Effects are amplified through incremental contact over time; early contact resulting in minimal effects may serve to prime or incubate subsequent contacts that elicit changes that are positive and permanent.

Windows of Recovery Opportunity: Timing matters: Contact during a time of increased receptivity can result in a transformative exchange even when prior contacts have produced minimal effects. The goal is to inject recovery contact within these windows of opportunity. This involves bringing hope (and a recovery plan) at the exact time addiction-related pain is at its rawest and further addiction-related losses are imminent.

Trace Elements: The influence of recovery contact is influenced in great part by what traces are left following the interaction. Such traces ideally include:

*objects that draw one back to the interaction (e.g., cards, tokens, literature, music, art, food, clothing);

*feelings (emotional memories of acceptance, respect, self-regard, connection);

*ideas, words, metaphors, and stories that cast one’s problems in a new light, incite new possibilities, and invite participation in a community of recovery; and

*an altered view of the future (residual feelings of hope and expectation).

Reciprocal Effect: Effects are reciprocal, meaning that both parties are affected by the interaction, and efforts to measure the effects of recovery support services should include the effects on service recipients AND service providers. At the point of contact, the person currently experiencing an AOD problem and the person in recovery both occupy particular points on the addiction to recovery continuum. Ideally, contact results in the former and latter moving further along the recovery end of the continuum. In other words, the contact produces therapeutic effects for both. We should, however, be mindful that the opposite is possible and that contact could result in both individuals moving towards the addiction end of the continuum. Such mechanisms as screening, orientation, training, supervision, team delivery of recovery support services, and codes of ethical practice can minimize the risks of this latter outcome for both the person in need of recovery and the person delivering recovery support services.

Any interaction between an individual experiencing an AOD problem and an individual in recovery from such a problem produces measurable and immeasurable effects. Our challenge is to assure the direction of such effects and assure the durability of their influence. How might we improve how we do this in the future?