What are the Pillars of Recovery?

Posted on August 17th, 2010

When it comes to addiction recovery, there are varying views on the number of pillars upon which such recovery depends. Instead of getting involved in a debate over which number is correct, the more important concern should be how comprehensive such lists are. Do they cover all the basic requirements for recovery? If so, it doesn’t matter if they’re condensed into four pillars or expanded into five or seven or any other number. If you or your loved one is beginning recovery from addiction, or if you are researching it for the benefit of a friend or just for general interest, it’s a good idea to have a firm grasp of what evidence-based research says makes for effective recovery.

Knowledge about the Disease of Addiction

An addict can’t remain in the dark about the disease of addiction and have any hope of overcoming it. Before any progress can be made by the addict toward managing the disease, he or she needs to have a thorough grounding in all aspects of the particular addiction.

Such knowledge is best taught by addiction treatment professionals during the course of treatment for addiction, whether in a hospital-based inpatient or outpatient setting, or a residential inpatient or outpatient facility. In addition, recovering addicts continue to learn about the disease of addiction through sharing of stories and experiences in appropriate 12-step groups.

As new research into effective treatment modalities and medication become available, effective recovery also entails staying on top of whatever may benefit the individual’s ongoing efforts to maintain sobriety.

In other words, the pursuit of knowledge about the disease of addiction needs to be ongoing. More and more research is going on in the field of addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery. This offers a great deal of hope for those currently in recovery.

Strong Family Support

As an addict enters recovery – especially early recovery – the support of his or her family is critical to the ability to maintain and sustain sobriety. Coming home fresh out of treatment, the individual is, understandably, a bit fearful about his or her ability to handle all the stresses, the recurring triggers and cravings and urges. They’re vulnerable, lack self-confidence, afraid to make a mistake, and desperate for the support, encouragement, and understanding of the family.

In the best of circumstances, they are welcomed home by family members who have taken the time to go into family therapy to learn about the disease of addiction and how they can better support their loved one in recovery. This does not mean that the transition will be easy for everyone – not the returning loved one and not the family members. It is always a period of adjustment. Sometimes the adjustment is difficult. Many things may need to change within the family: schedules need to be altered, behaviors have to change, and communication needs intensify. Not everyone may be completely on board with what’s best for the loved one’s successful re-entry into the family. Such adjustments take time for all concerned. But with the love and support of family, the recovering addict has a much better chance at being successful in recovery. Research has proven this time and time again.

On the other hand, if family members are not supportive, or the individual has no family, support has to come from somewhere else. Lack of support of any kind is almost certainly to result in relapse.

Participation in Outside Support Groups

Outside support groups consist primarily of 12-step groups. These include Alcoholics Anonymous, the original 12-step group, and others which formed later and continue to utilize the 12-step concept and philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous. If there’s a recognized addiction, there’s likely already a 12-step group that’s been formed and is available to help those who struggle to maintain their sobriety.

In addition to 12-step groups for alcohol addiction recovery, there are 12-step groups for various drug or substance addictions: Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous, and Marijuana Anonymous. There are 12-step groups for process or behavior addictions such as Gamblers Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous.

Why should participation in a 12-step group be a pillar of recovery? One very basic reason is that recovery is an ongoing journey. It’s not a straight-line path and there are no short-cuts to success. It takes constant management, working the steps, being cognizant of what can cause relapse and taking appropriate action to overcome the temptation to use when cravings and urges recur.

When an individual is in recovery, he or she needs the support, understanding, and encouragement of others who have been or are now going through similar circumstances. They know what it feels like to be awakened in the middle of the night with nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety, or overwhelming cravings and urges. They’ve been in situations where they feel ill-equipped to handle stresses and triggers that may precipitate relapse. They’ve had to figure out their way through the minefield of hundreds of daily decisions (should I take a different way home from work, what should I say to my friend who wants me to join him for a drink after work, am I taking too much on my plate so soon after treatment, and so on) and can offer the benefit of their own experiences. What worked for them may work for the newcomer. Or it may be something that can be adapted to better fit the newcomer’s particular circumstances.

In any case, being with and listening to what others in recovery have to say, just having the recognition that these are people just like me who are genuinely working their recovery, is one of the best things that anyone who’s serious about staying sober can do. It’s a true pillar of recovery.

• Working with a Sponsor – Besides the interaction with other 12-step group members, it’s critically important that those new to recovery find a sponsor that will work with them on the steps. The sponsor is someone who has committed to being available to the newcomer and is the first one that should be called whenever there’s a problem working the steps, when a crisis occurs that may threaten to derail sobriety, when there are anxieties or concerns about doing the right thing to maintain recovery. At first, newcomers may select a temporary sponsor. Later on, they may transition to a more permanent sponsor. A sponsor is not a counselor, however, and does not take the place of or fulfill the role of a counselor – nor should they be asked to do so.

While we’re on the subject of 12-step support groups and how they’re a mainstay of successful recovery, it’s important to note that there are numerous 12-step groups for the family members and loved ones of those in recovery. Since addiction is a family disease, just because the addict has gone through treatment and the family members may have gone to family therapy doesn’t mean that everything will always go smoothly. It’s tough learning how to interact with someone in recovery. Besides behavior changes, there are also deep-seated emotional wounds to heal. Talking things out in groups comprised of other friends and family members of loved ones overcoming addiction helps.

These groups include, but are not limited to: Al-Anon/Alateen (the family component of Alcoholics Anonymous), Nar-Anon Family Group (affiliated with Narcotics Anonymous), Gam-Anon, Families Anonymous, Co-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA), Codependents of Sex Addicts (COSA), and S-Anon Family Group.

Ongoing Therapy or Counseling

Following treatment for addiction, many new to recovery feel that they haven’t had enough time or practice utilizing the strategies and techniques they learned during treatment. For many recovering addicts, continuing care or aftercare is a part of their overall treatment program. This consists of continuing access to individual and/or group counseling, help with developing or refining an effective relapse prevention program, assistance with developing and working on long-term goals, and help in any area that’s causing distress to the person in recovery.

Private counseling or therapy is also available.

There are times when those in recovery relapse. Following relapse, it may be necessary for the individual to return to treatment, or increase counseling sessions, to get back on track to sobriety. Again, recovery isn’t a straight-line process. For some individuals, it’s a lot of back and forth. Some people need to go through treatment multiple times before they’re able to be successful in recovery.

Care of the Self

In recovery, it’s important that the individual take good care of him or herself. This means ensuring that they get adequate sleep each night, that they eat well-balanced and nutritious meals, and that they get plenty of exercise. If the doctor has prescribed medication, either to help counter anxiety or depression or inability to sleep or to assist in healing or managing another medical condition, it’s important that the person in recovery continue to take the medication as prescribed. Report any side effects to the doctor so that the medication may be modified, changed, or eliminated, as required. Some psychotherapeutics for depression or anxiety, for example, must be taken for some period of time before any improvements begin to show up. Discontinuing or switching medications too soon can prove counter-productive.

Taking care of the self also means that the person needs to moderate and balance daily stress and obligations, not take on too much responsibility too soon, strive for emotional stability, and pay attention to the need for spiritual enrichment.
Having a daily schedule certainly helps those new to recovery to better manage their day-to-day lives, especially during the first 90 days of recovery when things tend to be most hectic, when the individual is most vulnerable and uncertain.
Adhering to a schedule also provides a sense of relief. Instead of worrying or wondering what to do next, it’s right there on the schedule to see and mark off as completed. It’s one less stressor that the person in recovery has to think about (as in, did I remember to take my anxiety medication, or where is the meeting location for my new 12-step group, etc.).
Time management is also an effective tool in early recovery. Managing time is part of being able to make and keep schedules. It’s also important to factor in the time to play, to read, to meditate, pray, exercise, laugh, be with friends or family, and write in journals.

Addiction recovery experts say that it’s wise to remember the following: Don’t allow yourself to get too hungry, tired, angry, or lonely. That’s because these are the times when you’re most vulnerable to relapse. When you’re ignoring what’s going on with your body and your emotions, you’re putting yourself at risk to succumbing to stressors and triggers and cravings and urges. It’s too easy to tell yourself you’ll just have one drink to take off the edge, or one swing by the casinos couldn’t hurt – after all, it’ll relax you. But giving into these thoughts is always a mistake. It won’t stop at just a single drink, and you can’t just breeze through the casino – like that would ever work now that you know about your addiction.

Learning How to Be Resilient

Ever wonder why some recovering addicts seem to go through a lot of stress and adversity and still maintain their sobriety? How is it, you may ask, that one person can have so much happen in his or her life following return from treatment for addiction – one crisis after another – and still be able to keep on the path of recovery? The same things happening to another individual may cause immediate relapse.

Many experts in the field of addiction recovery say the answer is resiliency. Let’s use the analogy of trees, a sapling versus a mature tree. Think of the sapling that is able to bend in the wind and quickly return to its former shape once the gale has passed. Now think of the mature tree that’s shallowly planted and is broken in two by the force of that same wind. It’s easy to see where resiliency allows the sapling to withstand the force and the lack of resiliency destroys the mature tree.
Resilience has been defined as the universal capacity that an individual uses to prevent, minimize, or overcome the effects of adversity. Resilience thus reflects a person’s strengths as protective factors and assets for positive development – as in the resiliency to bounce back from crises or setbacks that occur in recovery.

Developing resiliency gives the individual in recovery another effective tool to be able to withstand crises, stresses, cravings and urges that appear out of the blue. Being able to bounce back, not internalizing guilt or blame, and being able to see where progress has been made and moving forward toward recovery goals is not only a good idea, it’s almost a requirement for effective and ongoing recovery.

Live in the Present and Create a Plan for the Future

The foundations or pillars of recovery work best when the individual lives fully in the present, while creating a plan for the future. Achieving a mind/body/spirit balance, maintaining a positive outlook, and finding joy in everyday life also impact the individual’s recovery.

In short, recovery consists of many different aspects. It is ongoing, filled with daily opportunities and challenges, instances where learning and growth and hope and love can all occur. And, while recovery is personal and unique to each individual, no one recovers alone.

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