Real Recovery Requires Life-Building

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on January 25th, 2009 - Last updated: February 4th, 2014
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Addiction is like the tail wagging the dog, or person, with the tail being a habit that dominates the person’s whole life. Addiction therapy concentrates on the tail – cutting it off in abstinence therapy, making it smaller in behavioral treatment. But the real task is for the person to build a life – body and soul – that can’t be wagged by even a very powerful tail.

Here are the five elements to effective addiction treatment and successful recovery:

1. Tapping values. Traditional treatment involves cajoling, convincing, or coercing people to quit the addiction – often by dictating to them what their values should be. Successful treatment – like motivational therapy – instead encourages people to discover personal values that will anchor them against the pull of the addiction. Sometimes these countervailing values are quite evident in people. Sometimes deep exploration is required to find and resurface them. When addicts in Moments of Clarity see their true selves in visions or in coffee cups, it simply means they’ve made contact with their own value structures. Reconnecting to their core values makes it much more likely that people will maintain their recovery.

2. Savoring rewards. To get through the immediate recovery period the person has to appreciate the benefits sobriety brings – better health, more productivity, gratitude of family and friends. People must refocus to see the deep background to their lives rather than the immediate stimulus of the addiction. Successful treatment and recovery involve learning how to focus on these rewards and to savor them.

3. Enhancing resources. People already have resources in their lives – families, skills, experiences – like the ones James Frey relied on to create a new identity as a writer after his treatment. Some people have more resources than others for this task – good educations or job skills, strong families, rich experiences in dealing with the world – resources they often seem bent on ignoring or even destroying. Others need to develop essential skills – through further education, skills training (e.g. communication skills), family therapy, etc. – to add to the solid life foundation they will need.

4. Finding meaning. People need to be motivated to proceed with their lives. This requires something more than just getting to the end of each day. It means uncovering deeper purposes in life – spiritual or altruistic or artistic or professional or family goals. Investing life with greater meaning allows people to shrug off the momentary discomforts or challenges that otherwise could drive them back to addiction.

5. Touching base. People need to recall the rewards from – and their motivations for – achieving sobriety. Research finds that it is often not the kind of therapy that matters as much as continuing contact with the client. Thus, successful treatment touches base regularly with graduates – even if only briefly and at intervals – to rekindle the spirit, the methods, and the goals of recovery.

These five key elements in successful therapy and recovery all contribute to a fulfilling, self-sustaining life. Indeed, recovery isn’t about successful therapy, or kicking a habit, or belonging to a support group. It’s about getting a life.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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