Much of the narrative around addiction focuses on the negatives. We’re told that addicts can’t be trusted. Addicts can’t ever have another drink. Addicts can’t make up for what they’ve done.
When people talk about addicts they talk about their limitations. There is an implicit understanding that addicts are expected to live a kind of half-life, always careful and always second-guessing. You’re applying for a new job – can you handle it? You’re going on a trip – will you manage alone?
Most people who have been in recovery for a certain period of time start to understand that they don’t have to live like this. In fact, in rehab you learn a whole new range of skills that almost everyone else lacks. You learn how to build trust on a solid foundation, how to manage your emotions, and how to interact with others in a healthy way.
Much of the struggle that recovering addicts face upon leaving rehab is having to live and work with people who do not have these skills and are self-destructive in other ways.
It is important that we change the narrative around the experience of a recovering addict. Their lives are not defined by what they can’t do, but rather what they can do better than everyone else.
1. Recovering addicts can manage their emotions
Anyone who has suffered from mental illness, whether depression, bipolar, or addiction (or a combination) has experienced emotions at a more powerful level than the average person. These emotions have led the person to do whatever it takes to numb them out or distract from them.
In rehab, addicts learn new, healthy ways of managing emotions before they get to this stage. It is one of the most important skills a recovering addict can learn. And it is a skill most people don’t feel they ever have to learn.
After rehab, a person is better able to manage their emotions, giving them a clearer perspective on things and making it easier to make good decisions. It takes time and work to get there, but it is an incredibly worthwhile journey.
2. Recovering addicts can empathize
Because addicts are so sensitive, they tend to have porous boundaries. This is why they tend to take on the world’s burdens, not just their own. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make anyone’s life better, creating codependent relationships and making it more difficult for the addict to function.
However, in rehab recovering addicts learn how to put boundaries in place. They have to, because they are surrounded by a number of other people going through the same thing. It is impossible to continue taking on everyone else’s pain.
With healthy boundaries, the sensitivity does not go away. Rather, it becomes a major strength. Recovering addicts are able to empathize with others, intuiting what they’re going through and showing care in a way that is healthy and helpful.
3. Recovering addicts can be honest
Addiction is often associated with dishonesty, and for good reason. In the throws of addiction, a person learns to lie to get by. They eventually lie and manipulate without thinking about it, and go into denial when confronted about it.
But in rehab, this pattern is interrupted and changed. Recovering addicts have to face their own dishonesty if they want to get better. They need to get used to being honest, not just with others but with themselves as well.
Everyone has a narrative they tell themselves and others. Often, this narrative is constructed of pretty pictures that don’t really tell the whole truth. A recovering addict breaks down these narratives, finding the truth and therefore being open and honest on a deep level.
4. Recovering addicts can counsel and negotiate
All of the above skills mean recovering addicts can build their own relationships and connect with others. Recovering addicts often make great counselors. They can use their own experience and skills to understand what someone else is going through, helping them get to a healthier place without trying to solution for them.
They are also excellent negotiators, and can become the lynchpin that keeps family and friend groups healthy. When conflict arises, they tend to be best placed to help all parties understand where the other is coming from.
Recovering addicts gain an array of skills in rehab and recovery. They are not defined by their limitations, but are adept at doing many things the average person struggles with.