Episode 36 Breaking the stigma of recovery and the boldness to walk the path of sobriety
Society has a lot of ideas about addiction. And it has a lot of ideas about recovery. Most of them are wrong. Some of those wrong ideas are harmless enough, but the perception that normal, happy, fun people drink and use, and boring, broken people are sober, is dangerous.
Years ago, in my active addiction, I remember sitting on the sofa in my parents living room, watching the leaves blow around in the afternoon haze, and feeling overwhelmed by grief as I contemplated a life of sobriety. I realized that, should I ever get married, I wouldn’t be able to toast with champagne at my wedding.
At the time, I couldn’t even imagine getting a date, let alone getting married. But that didn’t stop my vicious spiral of self-stigmatization as I mulled over all the ways sobriety would, in my mind, make me a defective member of society. When the cultural norm is to go out and grab a beer, how would I ever socialize? Network? Date? And if I had had a social circle, would recovery mean breaking ties with my friends (and the associated grief that loss entails?) Admitting that I was in recovery was an admission I was fundamentally broken. Who would want to hire, or date, or befriend someone so risky? I felt overwhelmed and trapped by a society that didn’t want me.
I wasn’t alone in that thinking. There are the millions of others out there who are still struggling or sitting on the fence about recovery because they’re afraid of what people will think. And to be fair, that fear isn’t unfounded. Our society, our culture, our media, and our peers (all in a very interrelated way) do stigmatize and judge both addiction and recovery.
The glamorization of drugs and alcohol permeate our culture. It’s in our music, our books, our films. It’s entwined with our rites of passage and our courtship rituals. Watching the game this weekend? Have a beer. Girls night out? Get a bottle of Bacardi. Going out on a first date? You’d better buy a nice glass of wine. Parties in college? Kegs and Jell-O shots. Getting married? Let’s all toast with champagne.
Human beings, even introverts like me, are social creatures. We have a deeply rooted biological need for acceptance; a remnant of the days when ostracization or excommunication from your tribe meant certain death. When we go against the grain and choose not to partake in entrenched cultural rituals like drinking and using, we risk being rejected by society, and our reptilian brains fight for survival.
But here’s the rub: despite the media’s messaging, drinking and using aren’t cool. In fact, that whole cultural narrative puts the cart before the horse. We’re led to believe drinking and using are cool because it’s what our celebrities and cultural icons, our families, and our friends do. But is that what makes them cool?
Hell, no. It’s their accomplishments, their skills, their gifts, and their passions that make those people cool. We value our friends and families for the love and laughter we share. We value our partners, our lovers, and our co-workers for a host of unique reasons, none of which have anything to do with drugs and everything to do with contribution and connection. And we’re almost always better able to give our own gifts and appreciate our connections when we’re taking care of our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our spirits.
In sobriety, my life is better than I ever could have imagined. As I committed to a life of self-improvement, daily integral practice, facing my fears, and questioning my assumptions, I transformed myself and my life, and I became a person who others wanted to socialize with, hire, date, and even marry—despite the cultural stigmatization of recovery.
And it makes perfect sense. When you exercise consistently, you get fit. Regular spiritual practice creates happiness and meaning. Cleaning up our shadows and our traumas restores our emotional health. Intellectual and creative practices make us interesting. When we’re so vital, so full of life and energy and joy, and showing up in the world as we are meant to, sobriety isn’t a downer at all. It’s a blessing.
At first, the world may not agree. Our conditioning runs deep. We may face painful rejections and unfair judgments, and it won’t always be an easy road. But if we continue to hide our experience, we tacitly accept society’s stigmatization of recovery.
Changing the cultural conversation around drugs and alcohol requires us to show up, boldly and unapologetically, as the best versions of ourselves, while being honest about our sobriety and its empowering effects. As we do so, we’ll decouple our culture’s behavioral norms and perceptions of “cool” from substances. We’ll redefine what it means to be cool by living healthy, vibrant, and passionate lives.
[1:52] It’s become more clear than ever, as time goes on, that whether we’re addicts or not, we all need to do this kind of work and do the daily practices if we’re going to become the people we need to be, living the lives we’re supposed to be living and giving our gifts to the world. We don’t have to be fractured, partial human beings. We all have a lot to offer. [2:44] Integral Recovery takes practices, and it’s important for us to be models of practice and actually do the work we’re suggesting. Unfortunately, many coaches, teachers, and treatment providers don’t do the work they suggest themselves, which leads to a disconnect and a lack of credibility. John, Doug, and Bob are all committed practitioners, though, and speak from a place of experience. We’ve all been through the hurdles, the resistance, and the challenges, and we’ve all experienced the profound benefits practice has in our lives. [3:44] There are many in recovery who are abstinent from their drug of choice, but are still not living the life they could be, or are struggling to remain abstinent, because they still need to do the work of repairing their bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits. Practice makes all the difference in the world. [4:36] Practice can save your life, and the practices are all interconnected. Each of the four practice dimensions supports and empowers the others. [5:40] Sobriety, unfortunately, still carries something of a stigma in our society. People like our previous guest, Holly Whitaker, model the “coolness” and “hipness” of what sobriety can be. The Journey of Integral Recovery podcast hosts are all musicians, athletes, writers, and more, and through our work we’re trying to model the potential of sobriety to be a “cooler” way to live. [6:44] There’s a problem, too, with the language traditionally used to talk about addiction and recovery that adds to the stigma and shame of the disease. Part of overcoming that stigma will be in changing the way we talk about it, without using a label that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. [7:24] Psychology calls shame “self-stigmatization”, meaning that we have internalized the societal stigma surrounding our addictions – and it applies to recovery, too. How do we change the conversation and societal perception of recovery to remove the stigma that surrounds abstinence? How do we go even further, and paint sobriety as a “hip” and desirable choice? How do we create the momentum and establish the perception that taking the path of least resistance (i.e. drinking and drugging) isn’t the “cool” choice? [8:55] The “straight-edge” subset of the punk rock movement, and they embraced sobriety as the better choice because the increased mental acuity of an unclouded mind allowed them to see through the misguided beliefs and actions of society at large. [10:20] Avoiding the trap of “reverse discrimination” and making sure that we, who have chosen sobriety, don’t turn our decision into a kind of elitism. An Integral version of “straight-edge” would, like all things Integral, allow us to become more and more inclusive, embracing all levels, all lines, all types, all quadrants, and all states, and recognizing their value in the growth of individuals and society. [10:50] Is it cool to smoke cigarettes these days? A discussion about rites of passage in our culture. [12:00] Quitting smoking can be incredibly difficult – some say even more difficult than quitting heroin. In treatment centers, and at AA meetings, it’s common to see people gathered around outside smoking or, increasingly, vaping. And the trouble is that these dopamine spikes, are preventing us from recovering our “birthday brains”, and the behavior is priming us for relapse. [13:30] The changing culture around smoking cigarettes and how the media, messaging, and peer groups have shifted the conversation around tobacco use in the younger generation. Unfortunately, there has been an uptick in vaping, but this, too, can be changed by modeling something different as “cool” as changing the messaging that people are exposed to. This matters because there a lot of people, successful people, who are in recovery. By removing the stigma and the anonymity, we can create a positive image through sober role models. [15:42] Showing up as people who are committed to living a vibrant, cool, sexy, creative life is the greatest gift we can give to people in recovery. If we don’t show that a life of recovery is a gift and a blessing, not a life of drudgery, we’re doing a disservice to people in recovery. Fortunately, it’s not an act – recovery and the practices have enabled powerful transformations and vibrant lives. [18:19] Though it may be comfortable, “coming out” is inspirational to others. [19:30] Our susceptibility to addiction is largely determined by our genes, and thus, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Just like any other genetically inherited trait, it’s not something we had any control over. Not a moral failing. But be do need to be aware of our genetics and our tendencies, and take responsibility for our decisions surrounding drug and alcohol use and the potential impacts it can have on our lives. [20:50] There’s a strength in being honest with ourselves and taking responsibility for our circumstances and our tendencies. It’s worth accepting the truths that we cannot change, as the serenity prayer tells us. [21:21] Drugs and alcohol keep us from our passions, our creative drives, our gifts. Once we’ve accepted this truth, we’re forced to get honest about what really matters in our lives. When we choose to show up and give ourselves to our practices and our lives, drugs and alcohol lose a great deal of their appeal. [24:00] Historically, and still, there’s a great deal of pressure for young people to use. It’s a rite of passage and a social lubricant, and this is the conversation we need to change. We change this conversation by changing what young people think is cool, which is largely determined by what they see their role models doing. As such, we change what’s cool by changing the messaging in the media and the behaviors of artists, athletes and celebrities. And while changing this is difficult, there are already many people out there who are sober and living the sober life. We all just need to speak up honestly about our experience. [27:00] When we make getting serious about our passions the “cool thing”, leaning into real reward and real pleasure as opposed to the artificial variety, we impact the culture [28:24] When we’re kids, we primarily identity with our families. As we get older and move into adolescence, that identification and influence shifts to that of our peer groups. It’s absolutely critical, then, to have a peer group that supports healthy behaviors and encourages us to develop in healthy ways. [29:35] When we develop in healthy ways, we can differentiate ourselves and learn to follow our own identities and decisions in our twenties. People, whoever, who didn’t have healthy peer groups in adolescence can get stuck, continuing to model the unhealthy behaviors and never quite transitioning into the healthy differentiation of adulthood. [30:35] We all have an emotional bank account. It takes a certain amount of “emotional money” to make the transition between life phases, but unhealthy relationships with our families and our peers, often through no fault of our own, can decrease our “bank account balance”, leaving us with “insufficient funds” to emotionally buy the next stage of development. [32:12] Without sufficient funds in the emotional bank account, our “stuff” gets stuck in earlier developmental stages, keeping us at levels of life and levels of maturity that are incompatible with the trajectory of expected growth and developmental maturity we should be at. This occurrence, while very common in addicts, can be seen across wide swaths of the population in different ways, and this underscores the fundamental importance of shadow work in a truly integral practice. [32:42] Rights of passage and milestones in our culture promote unhealthy behaviors to a large degree in our culture. Ritual is powerful and useful, so changing the rites of passage from unhealthy ones into positive ones requires us to establish new rituals to mark our life transitions, and this is something we need to continue to explore. [33:46] When a person’s primary reference group consists of people who are using, change can feel incredibly scary. When we start to develop new associations with a different reference group, the social influence has a powerful effect on changing our behaviors in healthy ways. However, we’ll only make the shift to a new primary reference group if they model the behaviors in a way that we recognize as “cool” and worth emulating. In other words, they “have something we want.” [34:35] In early recovery, many people are prone to glorifying the addiction. But the longer someone spends with a recovery group, the more they recognize the ways that addiction held them back from living their best lives. [35:27] The great experiences of our lives, from going to concerts, to parties and ceremonies, to vacations, to competitions, are all more enjoyable and more memorable without the background noise of drugs and alcohol in one’s system. And we become the average of the people with whom we spend the most time, so when we change our peer groups, we change ourselves. And our changed selves can continue to spread that positive influence to others through our new way of being in the world. [37:05] One of the hardest parts of beginning the journey of recovery is the threat of loss of your peer group. When you can no longer spend time with the people you care about, there’s a real threat of loss. That’s why it’s critical to develop new, healthy relationships in early recovery and to make those relationships important. [38:45] We can raise our self-esteem and our self-concept by recognizing that we’re making a better choice and living a better life. This takes no small amount of stick, grit, and perseverance, but a healthy peer group can support you in your transformation, and an unhealthy peer group embodies the image of “crabs in a barrel”. [41:27] Though changing our peer groups is challenging, the internet age has enabled us to find new, healthy peer groups more easily than ever. There are numerous resources, including the Journey of Integral Recovery Facebook group, depression support groups, and communities of self-improvement, where we can form new, positive relationships with people anywhere in the world. [42:54] As we continue to spend time with our worldwide, digital peer groups, and start to create the communities locally, these people become our new families, our new inspirations, and the mutually beneficial relationships continue to grow and blossom in self-reinforcing ways. [44:54] The importance of maintaining perspective and humility as our capacities continue to expand in recovery. [46:00] Join us in the Journey of Integral Recovery Facebook group to connect with the community and connect with a community of like-minded peers who are all committed to a life of self-development, recovery, and becoming our greatest selves.
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