Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Place in the Colony

Medicate or Medicine

It's often assumed, particularly by patients, that if someone's working in addiction medicine it's because they have a history of chemical abuse or dependence. As a result, I used to get the question, "Are you in recovery?" quite often. And, as a beginning therapist, I wasn't sure how to go about answering it. For one thing, I didn't want therapy to revolve around me when it was supposed to be about the patient. For another, I'd learned as a teenager (you never know where the lessons of therapy are going to come from) that giving advice could very easily blow up in my face.

It was a pretty serious dilemma because trust is the critical element in any helping relationship and I'd been informed that many substance abusing patients wouldn't engage with a therapist who hadn't "been there." I wasn't about to lie and yet I had to find a way of communicating that I knew what it was like to have been kicked in the teeth without spelling out details. One day I tried a little experiment. I was leading a therapy group when I got "the" question, so I looked the patient in the eye and said, "I'm in recovery from life, how's that?"

To my surprise, it went over very well. Not only was he satisfied, many group members smiled, nodded their assent, and we went on to talk about what it meant. As I attempted to explain my own perspective, it became clear it was more important for them to assign their own meaning, having discovered I wasn't an outsider after all.

I still like the phrase because it relates the essential truth that no one gets through life cleanly. Everyone picks up some dirt along the way. As bumper sticker philosophy maintains, @#%$ happens and it happens with disturbing regularity. Recovery doesn't involve ridding ourselves of the filth as much as it helps us learn to live with it. That's a disappointment to some who are new to sobriety because they fear their past behaviors have rendered them untouchable, like lepers in a new disguise. Once they realize we are all lepers, in one form or another, with our own baggage of doubt and fear, self-acceptance becomes easier.

It's really a matter of finding one's own place in the Colony.

(Creative Commons image by Saynine via Flickr)
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