Authority Figures, Community and the Addict

One of the social aspects of addiction is the sense of community that addicts have with each other. While a major emphasis of that community is the drug/alcohol use, it still provides a sense of belonging. That  can make it difficult for addicts to stop using because they do not yet have a healthy community with whom to feel that sense of belonging.

As an addict starts to develop a connection with a healthy community, the way others relate to them can have a powerful influence on the strength of their addiction. If others relate to them as members of a healthy community that tends to reduce the strength of their addiction. If others relate to them as members of the addict community that tends to increase the strength of their addiction. This is especially true when the addict interacts with authority figures.

A few months ago someone who had gotten clean from heroin was pulled over for expired registration tags. She had just purchased the car and the seller had not yet gotten her all the required paperwork. She expected the worst from the officer. However, he recognized her from her using days and commented on how she was looking a lot healthier. He looked over her paperwork and noticed that while some of it was missing, some of it was in order. He listened to her story and told her that since some of her paperwork was in order he would give her two weeks to get the rest of it together. She felt an immense amount of relief and a much stronger motivation for staying off drugs.

A while later, with almost a year clean she developed severe back spasms which were so bad she had to leave work. She went to an Urgent Care and described how after she informed the physician that she had a substance abuse history he became cold and distant. He ignored the fact that she had not asked for narcotics and did not offer her any alternatives. When she asked him if there were exercises she could do to relieve the spasms he again ignored her. She left feeling a sense of despair, that being in recovery had not changed anything, and thoughts of using were prominent in her thinking.

This has a happy ending in that she talked with her mother, who reminded her that there were other doctors, and her thoughts about using ceased. She was able to see her primary care physician who prescribed a stronger NSAID which relieved her pain.

Let’s look at this from the perspective of how the two authority figures differed in their relationship to her. In the first case the police officer related to her as if she was a member of the healthy community. He chose to focus on the evidence that she was working on recovery and gave her the opportunity to prove herself. As an authority figure, by relating to her in this manner he literally pulled her brain farther from its addiction to opioids.

In the second case the physician related to her as if she was a member of the addict community. He ignored data and did not give her the opportunity to prove herself. As an authority figure, by relating to her as an addict he literally pushed her brain toward its addiction to opioids.

If we are relating to addicts in recovery, especially if we have a position of authority, we can work to relate to them as if they are members of a healthy community. This is even more important if their recovery is fragile at the moment. Relating to an addict as a member of a healthy community does not mean ignoring evidence to the contrary. Rather it means that we give them appropriate opportunities to correct the deficits. In the first example above, the police officer did not ignore the fact that some of her paperwork was missing. He gave her a reasonable amount of time to obtain the missing papers and she was able to meet that requirement.

If you are an addict in recovery and you are being related to as if you are a member of the addict community, then it will help you to develop some useful responses. The most important response is to reflect on the observations that the other person may have made and to make sure those are not a warning sign that your recovery is shaky. That reflection can help you strengthen your recovery.

A second response is to connect with others who will relate to you as a member of a healthy community. In the example above, she talked with her mother and then saw her primary care physician, who prescribed a strong NSAID instead of narcotic, which was appropriate for a patient in recovery.

A final response is to avoid accepting the other person’s judgment. Just because someone has a position of authority does not mean they are always correct. If we are not giving them cause to judge us then instead of thinking “F–k recovery,” we might think “That person is having a really bad day,” and reaffirm our connection to a healthy community.

As a society it will be helpful for us to drop the judgmental attitude toward those who have drug/alcohol addiction. It is not so much where a person is as what direction they are moving, i.e. toward or away from addiction. Encouraging people to make progress is more effective then judging them for where they are at the moment.

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