By Deborah Brosseau
Johann Hari, who authored the best-selling book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, concluded that in his experience “the opposite of addiction is connection.”
There is little doubt that drug addiction thrives in seclusion and isolation. Without positive communion with other people, our brains are left to their own unchallenged devices where disease and chaos can ensue. There’s a reason support groups and 12-step meetings have thrived for so long: we heal through each other.
So when we talk about social support, what does that mean? The actions of social support generally fall into three categories:
1. Providing concrete assistance or resources: This support would be people loaning you their car or bus pass or driving you to a job interview. It could also be someone making dinner for you, or babysitting so you can get to a meeting.
2. Providing relevant information: This could be folks loaning you recovery literature, or letting you know about a particularly great support group. It might even be texting you a link to a meditation app or TEDtalk.
3. Providing emotional support: This is when people listen, empathize, motivate, celebrate, or collaborate with you.
That all sounds good, right? But what do those actions do for us – in our minds and hearts – that is so monumentally valuable in the long run? Turns out, quite a bit. Here are just seven ways social support can enhance your recovery:
1. It increases a sense of inclusion and the sense that you belong.
So while decreasing feelings of loneliness and isolation, community increases your sense of belonging. Few things do this as effectively as 12-step meetings and peers in drug treatment programs, wherein you have a baseline shared experience and a mutual commitment to healing. When a group of people are all together, there’s a potent shared energy that kicks in the kind of brain chemistry (oxytocin) that works in positive ways for us and helps us to keep coming back.
2. It decreases feelings of loneliness and isolation.
At one time or another, we’ve all lived a Mean Girls moment, feeling less-than or like we are the other. And it suuuuucks. Our primal brain tells us we need to be in a group to stay alive and make babies, and while that certainly isn’t what we’re consciously thinking, there’s a similar fear feeling that goes along with being rejected by a peer group. So when we know there are people to count on, who get it and get us, those primal brain fears subside, and we can relax into our recovery work.
3. It provides a safe outlet to be and to share.
Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel – the mantra of the dysfunctional family. What a lousy set up; denying three of the most important healthy functions of being a human. When we come into a community – whether monitored or self-governed – there’s an implied agreement that you will be safe in that environment and with those people. Through that safety, you are able to unload thoughts and feelings – those sickness secrets – and explore other parts of yourself that are now free to fly.
4. It offers ways to broaden your view of your life and to encounter other perspectives.
We might think it’s safer to live in our bubbles, and boy, has technology allowed us to create big bubbles. It’s too easy to filter out messages we simply don’t want to hear, or that are contrary to ours. Healing, growth, and recovery come in the exploration of other ways of thinking, doing, and being. We have to do that exploration with others. Keeping our ears and hearts open in meetings or social situations with recovery mates can provide delicious food for alternative thought.
5. It reduces feelings of guilt and shame.
Guilt (“I did something bad”) and shame (“I am bad”) are huge topics in drug recovery and in recovery research. While a certain degree of guilt can lead to appropriate amends and change, shame is ongoing self-punishment. When we’re able to see our greater value through others in group work, those self-damaging beliefs can subside. Talking out your feelings can bring clarity, as well as a sense of being understood. And knowing you’re not the only one who messed something up can be a real relief.
6. It opens a window to hope and excitement about the future.
Social support is important in coming to terms with your past as well as finding healthy ways to be in your present. And social support also can help lay a foundation for a successful future. One of those ways is simply to support that you have a future, and you are strong and smart enough to shape it beautifully. A shared thrill about your plans and a sense of accountability in meeting your goals is a positive way to take steps forward into the light of the next day, and then the next.
7. It helps you find your sense of purpose.
This is heavyweight. Having a sense of your “why” is a nice filter for all your decisions – will what I do now help me get to where I know I should be? But finding your why can also be hard to grasp. So that’s exactly when we go to our team. By now, they know about you, they care about you, and they are honest with you. They have their own experience, strength, and hope enough to hold you up as you grapple with big questions. And celebrate every time you live that purpose.