December 11th, 2017

A Path To Recovery From Addiction

“Simple, but not easy” is a phrase that describes well the process of recovery from addiction. Even after accepting that the strategy of abstinence from psychoactive substances is more likely to succeed than moderation, my patients, as well as their family and friends, are often troubled by why this course is so difficult to follow. The idea that this process requires hard work can be puzzling – what kind of work is going on?

Perhaps something can be learned about this from research psychologists who have studied how high performing people achieve mastery in their fields. Dr. Angela Duckworth, in a recent book entitled “Grit,” focuses on how certain personal qualities affect the fulfillment of one’s abilities. She concludes that in trying to identify who will ultimately perform at the highest levels, qualities such as fortitude, perseverance, determination, resilience, stubbornness, and self-discipline are more important than innate talent. In other words, hard-working “strivers” can surpass the achievements of less hard-working “naturals.”

Another researcher, Dr. Anders Ericsson, has written a book entitled “Peak” in which he maintains that the “gift” of unusually high natural-born talent, found in a limited number of individuals, pales in comparison with the “gift” that everyone receives – a remarkably adaptable brain and body. He uses the term “deliberate practice” to characterize a particular type of hard work needed to achieve high-level performance. Two key elements of deliberate practice involve being pushed out of one’s comfort zone and being guided by a knowledgeable coach who provides corrective feedback.

I read these studies, which are focused on competitive activities, such as musical and athletic performance, and wonder how they might apply to the (ideally) non-competitive world of addiction recovery. Certain phrases in the recovery support community testify to the belief in the importance of perseverance, for example, “Keep coming back!” in regard to recovery meetings, and “I didn’t give up, I surrendered.” in regard to accepting one’s inability to moderate substance use.

Applying Duckworth’s and Ericsson’s conclusions, one could argue that:

  1. Everyone is capable of recovery (except perhaps for some of those who are fundamentally dishonest), an idea which could reduce the hopelessness that pervades active addiction.
  2. Specific practices could increase the likelihood of a successful recovery. Examples would include the rigorous schedule of alcohol and drug rehabilitation, attending “90 meetings in 90 days,” working through the 12 steps with a sponsor, and “sticking with the winners” by associating with people in long-term recovery.

As I become more familiar with the detailed findings of these researchers, I will share with you my thoughts as to how they may aid the efforts of people who are working on their recovery and improve the likelihood of a successful outcome.

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