What It Means to Be an Addiction Survivor

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Every year, millions of people gather for awareness events and charity walks for cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. These inspiring events make a difference on a national level. They help raise funds for research, education and treatment and spread a message of hope. While similar events occur for addiction, mostly on a local level, they are far less common. Why? Addiction is widely recognized as a chronic brain disease, 22 million Americans are still in need of treatment and recovering addicts are “survivors” in every sense of the term.

What does it mean to be an addiction survivor? We asked a number of addiction specialists and people in recovery this question, and their answers have been both educational and inspiring. Here are a few thoughts on what recovery means:

Freedom. At its most basic, being an addiction survivor means being free from drugs and alcohol. It means learning how not to think like an addict when faced with any substance or behavior that fuels destructive patterns.

Living Well. Peace, tolerance, joy. These are some of the qualities recovery brings to life. Before, daily life was a series of disasters. Now, every day is an opportunity to nourish the body, mind and spirit with healthy food, regular sleep and exercise, and enriching activities.

Starting Over. For some, recovery means going back in time, reconnecting with who they were before drugs and alcohol became life’s only purpose, and taking back the career, relationships and life that addiction stole from them. Others look back and don’t feel they have much to reclaim. For these individuals, recovery is about getting a fresh start.

No More Playing the Victim. Recovery transforms addicts from victims to survivors who can accept responsibility for their actions. As they discover that their struggles are not unique, they open up to learning from others and recognize that others have feelings which are impacted by their words and actions.

Taking Nothing for Granted. People in recovery express gratitude for how far they’ve come and the fact that they have a second chance at life when others have not been so fortunate. Rather than complaining about the negatives, they search for the positives in every situation and pause to appreciate the small joys.

Hard Work. Many people in recovery say that it has been the hardest thing they’ve ever done. Recovery means no more making excuses or taking the path of least resistance. It means working a program even when they don’t want to and remaining vigilant even in good times. It means making recovery a priority no matter what it takes.

Understanding the Disease. Recovery is a perpetual state of healing. Being a survivor requires understanding the enemy and staying on guard to protect against relapse triggers rather than giving in to complacency or becoming over-confident. A healthy understanding and respect for the disease allows for a balance between realism (recovery is an ongoing process) and optimism (the process is wholly worth the effort).

Giving Back. Addiction survivors look for opportunities to give. They meet their responsibilities at home and work and they volunteer in the community, not because they have to but because it gives them a sense of purpose, enhances their recovery and makes the world a better place.

Accepting Self and Others. Addiction survivors embrace their own humanity and, by extension, develop empathy for others. They live life on life’s terms by learning from their mistakes and expecting progress rather than perfection.

Setting a Good Example. Recovery means being there for loved ones, and for parents, being present for their children so they have a chance to avoid the plague of addiction in their own lives. That example extends beyond their own circles to include being a role model for others through sponsorship, mentoring and service.

A Spiritual Awakening. For some, recovery is about finding meaning through a spiritual connection. Rather than looking inward, they rely on a higher power for strength and a sense of purpose that is bigger than themselves.

Being True to Oneself. Recovery entails a profound shift in thinking. Recovering addicts are not a constant source of disappointment; they are not worthless. Even in the face of fear and self-doubt, they have the courage to take an honest look within and embrace who they are instead of comparing themselves to others or pining after what someone else has or does.

Change. Without changes in thinking, behaviors and lifestyle, there is no recovery. The process of change is uncomfortable, even painful, at times and is typically fraught with roadblocks and blunders. It requires humility and deep soul-searching, but when the transformation begins to take place, everyone notices it. Family, friends and treatment providers all see the light returning to the addict’s eyes as hope is restored in their lives.

Being Able to Cope. Where a problem once seemed permanent and unmanageable, addiction survivors now see fleeting moments of discomfort that can be handled and overcome. A new arsenal of coping skills frees them to treasure the good times and learn valuable lessons in tougher times.

The Ability to Dream. In active addiction, people stop thinking about the future because it seems hopeless and insignificant. In recovery, individuals regain the power of choice. They think about what they truly want and are surprised to find that life can be better than they ever imagined. They start making plans for the future and taking strategic risks to achieve their goals.

Repairing Relationships. Other people are no longer seen as a threat to be controlled, but as an integral part of a fulfilling life. If damaged relationships can be repaired, the recovering addict makes every effort to do so by making amends, being true to their word, leaning on their support system and giving of themselves.

Recovery means different things to different people, but for all who have emerged from the darkness of addiction, it means freedom.

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