The Biggest Lies in Recovery, pt. 1

by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.

This week’s topic is the first installment in a series that will explore lies that have permeated the recovery culture.  Lies selected for critique will share a common theme of being detrimental to progress.  The first lie on the chopping block is the lie of perfection.

idea of perfection in recoveryHow strange would it be if a therapist treating depression told a client to never be sad again?  It would not be at all helpful to tell someone with a phobia of spiders to never encounter a spider again.  Substance use is the only area of mental health in which those being treated are burdened with demands of perfection.  Lifelong abstinence, or perfection, is the unjust measure of success in substance use.  Not only is basing success on perfection unreasonable, it is unethical.

Someone who drinks a lot every day, who then drinks one time in a year, almost inevitably feels like a failure under the demands of perfection that color the current climate of recovery.  This person is experiencing the abstinence violation effect.  Goals are best framed in terms of what to do rather than what to avoid.  Abstinence as a goal leaves the question of what to do still unanswered. Rather than making abstinence a goal, consider making it a value and then do your best to live in accordance with that value.  Bringing actions and values into alignment is the essence of mental and emotional health, but nobody ever does it perfectly all the time.

To be clear, pursuing abstinence is the safest approach to recovering from a problematic pattern of substance use for most people.  Regardless of the recovery path chosen by an individual, making reasonable decisions that build trust in one’s own judgment is a useful measure of success.  Practicing self-compassion rather than self-criticism in response to a recurrence of substance use is of vital importance to behavior change.

Behavior change is an imperfect process.  Being human is an imperfect process.  How someone responds to a recurrence of substance use is far more important than the recurrence itself.  In any other mental health or medical condition treated, a 99% reduction in symptoms would be viewed as an overwhelming success.  Why then, in the treatment of problematic substance use, do so many continue to view a 99% reduction in substance use as a failure?  Ninety-nine percent is an A+, end of story.  The lie that perfect, 100% abstinence is the only success in substance use is an undeniable and unethical dilemma and something needs to change.  Perhaps the first place to start that change is in our own thinking about what constitutes success in recovery.