When you’ve lived with addiction and had the courage to get treatment, by working through your obstacles, you usually end up facing life lessons and gaining life experience that is often relatable to persons in similar situations and useful for those who are unaware of the challenges that addiction brings.
Interestingly enough, two aspects that almost always surface are: 1) how someone’s family has played an important part in their recovery journey and 2) how redeeming it’s been to learn about the science of addiction.
In this article, we’ll hear from some Homewood Alumni who have generously agreed to share their insights and key learnings when facing their addictions. We’ll also hear from Dr. Michael Berry, Clinical Director at Homewood Health’s Ravensview treatment facility in Victoria B.C., an expert who guides individuals on the path to recovery and helps people write new chapters focused on their healing and attainment of sustained sobriety. When stories are shared with such honesty and transparency, they can radiate hope and help others who may be early in their recovery journeys or who are experiencing some setbacks along the way.
Like other diseases, addiction can have a profound effect on your own life, but equally so for family members and others that you care about. There is a certain measure of complexity with their involvement in securing a recovery path: family members often have significant influence in helping you find your way to treatment, and they also need to learn about addiction as a disease and be well supported to understand that recovery is a life-long process.
Research has shown that stress is a significant risk factor and catalyst for “activating” an addiction (1). Living with a family member who has an addiction can upset relationship dynamics, and this often stresses the family to the breaking point as the addiction takes a stronger hold on their lives (2). As much as the addicted person is often using an addictive substance like alcohol to cope, family members can unknowingly take on certain dysfunctional behaviour patterns to help them deal with what is happening to their loved one, and become part of the addiction ecosystem.
Dr. Michael Berry emphasizes the importance that Homewood’s inpatient programs place on exploring these types of stress-response roles within family systems and the interactions they precipitate as part of the recovery process. “There’s the addict, the enabler, the peacekeeper, and the black sheep to name a few,” he says. He went on to describe a popular and very practical model used to help patients, a social network diagram that places the addicted person in the middle, and then spreads out people they care about in concentric circles according to who they are closest to. It helps people visualize the relationships, the dynamics and the vulnerabilities that are all around them to help make peace and make choices.
James, a Homewood alumnus who in June celebrated four years of sobriety, spoke about how much he wanted to move away from his alcoholism but was fearful. A combination of help from his employer in the form of a “last chance,” his girlfriend at the time (now his wife), and his father brought him into the program:
I had shown up to work and shouldn’t have been there. My girlfriend was under so much stress, and she was also an enabler for my alcoholism. My employer told me that I needed to get treatment, starting immediately, because as a first responder, I couldn’t perform my job safely and while they had been patient with me, my job was now on the line. So, even though I was worried about being away for 30 days, I agreed to go to Homewood. My girlfriend reassured me that she would take care of everything at the house, and I should “just go!”. It was very hard. While she was relieved that I was going to be getting treatment, she cried every single night I was away. That day, I needed to tell my parents about my alcoholism because I needed their help to get to Homewood. I was terrified of their reaction. The people at Homewood spent two hours with my dad, talking to him about addiction and explaining about how it was a disease and how my recovery was going to start as long as I was willing to participate. That really opened up his eyes and helped him understand.
I was in treatment for 35 days and a lot of the work I did there set me up to see the value of experiences. I was able to bring my parents in for picnics, I immersed myself in all of the activities to get the most I could from my time there. For the first time in my life, I learned how to talk to the people I cared about and how to listen. Homewood had some of the best meetings I have ever been to. The videos they showed us of other first responders made me realize I wasn’t alone and that there was a way forward. In the end, all of the right people were in the right places at the right times for me. This time was a chance for me to reset my life, not pick up a drink, and not be stressed. It was the start of a lot of really hard work that helped me learn how to be accountable for who I was.
Dr. Berry believes that family conferences are critical during the entire course of someone attending an inpatient program. They help address the blame that people affected by addiction can feel. Meetings emphasize how recovery is about treating the whole person rather than just the disease, an important distinction that recognizes the biological and environmental influences inherent with addiction. Dr. Berry further indicated that alcoholism can be passed from one generation to the next and that children of alcoholics move through the stages of addiction more rapidly. Having information about the science of addiction can generally help everyone move forward in recovery.
Addiction is a Disease
It’s essential to recognize that addiction is a disease caused by a combination of behavioural, environmental and biological factors that actually change someone’s brain (3). And while Homewood’s Dr. Michael Berry agrees that research has shown there are genetic links – some studies report that genetic risk factors account for about half of the likelihood that an individual will develop addiction – he focusses on a model where someone’s genetic predisposition might be activated through stress (4) that ties to the neuro-biological elements of the brain that are on the lookout for rewards (through addictive substances) to get relief and feel satisfied.
Our Brain on Drugs
Different addictive substances – drugs or alcohol — affect the brain’s neurotransmitters within the body by mimicking chemicals that are naturally produced there. Unfortunately, they aren’t exact copies of natural brain chemicals. While these imposters work, they don’t actually send the same messages that the natural chemicals would. And each substance affects different parts of the brain in their own way. As a result, the body receives abnormal messages in a kind of broken telephone game, and sometimes too many messages create over-activated circuitry that causes disruptions in our thinking and makes it hard for the natural chemicals to regain control over the processes (5).
Substance abuse changes our brains over time because we learn that these substances feed the pleasure-seeking part of our brain and cause it to release dopamine as a reward. Our brains respond favourably, by learning that something important is happening and needs to be remembered. The brain makes it easier to achieve this feeling again without having to think about it because it changes neural connections, forming a habit. It’s these large surges of dopamine brought on by substance abuse that teach the brain to seek drugs at the expense of other healthier goals and activities.
Ridding the body of the addictive substances that are mimicking naturally produced brain chemicals is key to starting recovery, but is also very dangerous if not done correctly. Gillian, another Homewood alumnus, shared her lifelong struggle with substance abuse and how not having the right supports available to her early on affected her recovery journey.
I’ve struggled with my physical and emotional health for over 35 years. Early on, I was prescribed morphine for a painful health condition. I found I was staying in the hospital up to four days per month. I supplemented this with alcohol. I needed treatment and came to Homewood for help. It was scary. After two days, I called my husband because I wanted to go home. On the fourth day, I had a seizure. I completed five weeks of treatment and was done with the morphine. Unfortunately, I returned to alcohol within three months. I would start drinking in the morning and blackout by early evening. I wouldn’t eat all day, but I would wake up hungry and try and eat something.
I was fighting with my son and decided that I couldn’t keep this lifestyle, so I went back to Homewood after 3 or 4 months. This time, I opened up and maintained my sobriety for eight years. I got a new doctor who in the process of learning about my health, ordered a full medication review and took me off everything. I became very sick and actually spent 12 days in the hospital. I lost 30 pounds in 7 weeks and started to experience panic and anxiety. The only thing I could keep down was two meal replacements a day. I was actually detoxing.
Science continues to look for different ways to treat addiction, everything from new forms of aversion therapy where long-term doses of medication are implanted in a recovering patient’s skin that cause the person to vomit if they drink, to investigating medications that can prevent people from falling prey to unseen triggers (6). While this research is interesting and in some cases, promising, Dr. Berry states that the combination of pharmacological treatment; psychotherapy, such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy); and alternative therapies such as art, horticultural, and music therapy have clinically proven to produce the best results for many people. This model is grounded in Homewood’s philosophy of treating the whole person and not just the disease. Gillian agrees that a more holistic approach is better in the long run, “Alcohol is so much more than drinking – a pill wouldn’t change things for me. Quick fixes are easy but not the most effective and they don’t help me clear the wreckage of my past”.
A Model for Sustainable Recovery
Recovery is a lifelong process and takes effort. While addiction is not a choice, recovery from addiction is. The path to recovery improves work, finances, family life and health and uses many different pathways … including professional treatment services, informal supports and support groups (7).
Both James and Gillian attest to how helpful a wide variety of supports are, especially peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Talking to people and sharing their stories continues to be a big part of their recovery journeys. Planning for and being aware of what may cause relapses allows James to be proactive and not hold stress about this. He embraced many tools learned from Homewood, AA and keeping connected with his sponsor such as journaling, time management, and maintaining a regular routine.
Dr. Berry agrees that an action plan should cover a broad range of supports that ultimately, puts the emphasis on experiencing an engaging and gratifying life filled with meaning, purpose and fulfillment. In the end, if those things are missing, and a person is disengaged with the activities of life because they are so focused on the addiction, the journey has no point.
The Basics for an Addiction Recovery Plan (8)
- Stay engaged with your recovery and treatment.
- Attend to basic responsibilities – these will help you stay on track
- Make a relapse checklist where you:
a. List your triggers
b. List tools that you have that can help you stay grounded when in stressful or encountering triggers
c. List people in your support network who you should contact
- Prioritize self-care, healthy relationships and remember to celebrate all achievements, no matter how small.
a. Avoid negativity and have honest conversations with yourself
b. It may mean changing jobs
c. Ask yourself if you are focused on what you want to be doing, and if you feel supported.
d. Stay connected to formal programs.
Recovery may also have you confronting relationships that are not safe and leave you wrestling with some of the choices you have to make about whether connections and contacts you have need to be altered, adjusted or avoided. “It’s not easy, and it requires candid conversations. Sometimes we can manage these as part of therapy, but other times it’s going to happen outside of it,” says Dr. Berry.
Gillian recognizes how difficult that can be. She lives with her husband, who is a first responder, in a community where drinking is one of the main activities everyone does. “We have golf-carts where we drive around the condos, and everyone is always outside with a drink in their hands,” she said. Even her husband jokes that he needs to slow down – but he isn’t ready to do that himself yet. That’s one of the toughest things Gillian has to deal with since reminders and triggers are literally right on her doorstep. Through her work with Homewood, she recognizes those vulnerabilities, and also sees how different aspects of the programming she has benefited from over the years would help others she cares about too – from neighbours to her husband and her children”. She keeps on track by, “accepting the recovery rules, taking it a minute at a time and going with the flow.” She realizes that things won’t happen overnight and that continuing to attend daily recovery-focused meetings and practicing her faith helps her deal with the challenges she faces in the environment. She is also looking at getting back into volunteering and becoming more involved in service for others in recovery to help her find things she can be proud of accomplishing.
James, too, is working towards becoming a certified peer support to help other first responders confront their own situations and addictions courageously. He spoke about the pressures of being part of the culture within his profession – where there are a lot of people with big personalities who are controlling, and where socializing can be hard. “It’s a tough place to be sometimes, but I’m trying to be the better version of me that I know I have to,” he said. It’s for himself, but also his (now) wife, and their two young daughters. What he does differently now is talk with honesty and purpose, to everyone who will listen, and cultivate positive experiences and spaces at home, at AA, and at work.
Dr. Berry adds that kindness and self-compassion, understanding blame, and accepting accountability for all of your actions should be paramount in any recovery plan too because while you’re, “not solely responsible for all of the problems you face, you are ultimately responsible for the solutions.”
(1) Heshmat, Sharhram, Ph.D. (2017, May 10). Stress and Addiction, Psychology Today. Retrieved on June 19, 2019 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/science-ch…
(2) Alvernia University (n.d.), Coping With Addiction: 6 Dysfunctional Family Roles. Retrieved on June 19, 2019 from https://online.alvernia.edu/infographics/coping-wi…
(3) Centre on Addiction (n.d.) Addiction As A Disease: The Disease Model of Addiction. Centre on Addiction website. Retrieved on June 19, 2019 from https://www.centeronaddiction.org/what-addiction/a…
(4) Centre on Addiction (n.d.) Addiction As A Disease: The Disease Model of Addiction. Centre on Addiction website. Retrieved on June 19, 2019 from https://www.centeronaddiction.org/what-addiction/a…
(5) National Institute on Drug Abuse (n.d.) Drugs and the Brain. Drugs, Brains and Behaviour: The Science of Addiction. Retrieved on June 19, 2019 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brain…
(6) Smith, Fran. (2017) How Science Is Unlocking the Secrets of Addiction. National Geographic Magazine, Online. Retrieved June 19, 2019 from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/0…
(7) Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA).(2019) Life in Recovery from Addiction in Canada. Report at a Glance. Retrieved June 19, 2019 from https://www.ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2019-04/CC…
(8) Futures Recovery Healthcare (2018, October 29). 10 Tips For Creating A Sustainable Addiction Recovery Plan. Creating An Addiction Recovery Plan after Rehab. Retrieved on June 19, 2019 from https://futuresrecoveryhealthcare.com/knowledge-ce…