Two Paths: Which One Will Work for You?
Happy March! Here in South Jersey, it is fortunately coming in more like a lamb than a lion. Spring is coming! Last semester, I took a Behavioral Addictions course and the same issue was brought up throughout the course that is often brought up in Codependent's Anonymous, Al-Anon/Nar-Anon, and Adult Children of Alcoholics Meetings: What defines recovery? For substance use disorders and certain behavioral addictions (e.g. gambling disorder), abstinence is the core of recovery (e.g. not drinking, using drugs, or gambling completely). However, when it comes to addictions such as codependency (being addicted to a person), food addiction, sex addiction, shopping addiction, internet addiction, and even addiction to weeding ( the act of weeding in a garden, not the drug weed. A woman who had that addiction was actually featured in my online course), that abstinence route is either difficult or even impossible to maintain. Harm-reduction is the method on maintaining recovery for these type of addictions.
My Transition from Abstinence to Harm-Reduction
I consider my official codependency recovery date October 23rd, 2018 because that was when I realized I was POWERLESS over my cousin and was willing to start working on me. For a good 8 months, I did not look up my cousin or his family on the internet or drive by his house or any of his family or friends' houses. One day, my mom came home from work and broke the new that she heard through a mutual friend of hers and his mom's that he does not live with his mother anymore. I had to know where he was living because I was A. Curious as hell and B. Felt like I needed to know if he was living in my town so I can be prepared to run into him. So I looked him up on WhitePages (sure enough, he was living with his girlfriend just 10 minutes away from me in my town), which led to me driving by his house to see what kind of car he was driving, and checking Facebook to see what he was up to. I felt super guilty an felt like I threw 8 months away, but my now former counselor assured me that on slip-up did not derail all the progress I made, especially on the mental level. I asked about harm-reduction, but she did not think it was good for me at the time. Surely, I got back on the abstinence train, for only 3 months...
My mom ended up running into his uncle in the grocery store and he broke the news that he was doing well and working for his girlfriends father. Honestly, I would have rather have heard that he was doing terrible so it would be more of an incentive to stay away from him. Hearing that he was doing well made a million questions flow through my mind, especially "Would he speak to me if I reached out?" The holidays were coming, and it made me think of him more and more. I decided that I wanted to reach out to him and his mother, especially him, to at least mend old wounds. over the course of two months, I ended up calling his mother, writing his mother, messaging him on Instagram, writing him twice, going to his house twice, and finally leaving a letter attached to my newest book on his doorstep, telling him that I was letting him go, loved him, and am always here from him. None of them yielded the result I wanted: to talk to him. By my old abstinence program, I completed violated my codependency recovery. During this time, my life did not become unmanageable, I did not make any negative chances in my recovery, and I did not use focusing on my cousin to distract me from my own pain. So to say that I trashed my recovery would not be fair. Which begs the question: What is recovery for me going forward?
I brought this question to my current counselor (my former one just moved on to another internship), and she agreed that I am at the point now where I can do harm-reduction, which would be reducing the harm of engaging in activities that were previously problematic. As she put it, "You can do some things while not doing other things." I agree that 7 months ago, it was not the right time to make that change, but now I think I am ready. The abstinence route definitely served its purpose for a time. I needed that almost one year to start putting iodine on wounds and look at myself, but it has proven itself impossible to execute in the long-term because he is still my cousin, I love him, and would like to know where he is at in the world and today's technology makes it difficult to carry out. In face, I believe the relapse rates for substance addictions are so high and successful lifelong recovery rates are so low because medical science has not advanced to make block the reaction in the brain's reward system when the substance is present, making abstinence the only way to recover. Believe me; I have a dad who has still not achieved recovery from alcohol use disorder after 20 years. For my homework for the next two weeks, I have to draw up a new recovery plan which may include:
Only googling and checking social media accounts I am not blocked from every 4-12 months (1-3 times a year) if I desire and do quick drive-bys if I am in the area no more than twice a year or for a valid reason, on the conditions:
The harm-reduction method is still experimental for me. It may work or not. Whether or not abstinence or harm-reduction works for you depends on a variety of factors such as the type of addiction you have, the severity of it, psychosocial history, culture that you live in, emotional/mental state, etc. Consult a professional, support group of people seasoned in recovery, and the logical side of yourself to determine which is best for you.
Bria Riley is a published author, recovering codependent and adult child of an alcoholic, who is active in several recovery programs. She knows the turmoil and heartbreak of growing up in an addiction-stricken family and wants to help others who have also been affected by addiction through her writing.