In drug rehab, addicts learn life lessons and skills that many people don’t learn until much later in life, if ever. As a result, I believe people in addiction recovery often lead happier, more meaningful lives than the general population (with noted exceptions for those who continue with diseased thinking and behaviors regardless of what they learned in drug rehab).
Here are some of the possible reasons for this turnaround:
Gratitude is a recurring theme in 12-Step recovery. Early on, addicts are advised to simplify their lives, making their recovery their primary focus. This clears space for the things that matter most – personal growth, health and family – and drives many to make long-needed changes in their careers, relationships and lifestyle.
In this sense, recovery is an opportunity to hit the reset button. Just as survivors of accidents, injury and illness often feel they have been given a second chance in life, recovering addicts may feel a sense of obligation to use their life for good and share their blessings with others. Having emerged from the dark side of addiction, recovering addicts feel grateful for each drug-free day that passes, as well as the chance to rebuild their lives, and over time, the small joys like a walk on a sunny day, a long talk with a friend or learning something new.
Recovering addicts learn how to find peace even in the most challenging times. Rather than feeling plagued by “bad luck,” recovering addicts appreciate the difficult times by finding the lesson in every experience. And if their gratitude begins to wane, recovering addicts use gratitude lists and volunteer work to overcome self-pity, resentment and negativity.
Many of the lessons addicts learn in recovery are equally beneficial in day-to-day life. Central among these is mindfulness, or the practice of living “one day at a time.”
During drug rehab, addicts may have the opportunity to try yoga, meditation, acupuncture, therapeutic massage and exercise, which strengthen the mind-body connection and introduce healthy ways to cope with stress. Many incorporate these mood-boosters into their daily lives outside of rehab, helping them to achieve new levels of acceptance, concentration and insight.
Often, depression, anxiety, anger and resentment stem from insatiable “wanting” and “if only” thinking. “If only I had (more money, a more loving spouse – fill in the blank), I would be happy.” Mindfulness practice fosters awareness and appreciation of the present moment, without ruminating on the past or worrying about an imagined future. It helps people eliminate automatic responses to stress (e.g., using drugs or alcohol) and accept painful thoughts and feelings without judging or acting on them.
Recovering addicts learn a lesson that many others forget: They have to take care of themselves before they can be of service to anyone else. Their recovery comes first because without it, nothing else is possible.
Thanks in part to a highly structured schedule during treatment, addicts get in the habit of setting aside time each day to satisfy their basic needs, including sleep, a healthy diet, exercise and personal time. Rather than relying on drugs or alcohol to feel good or handle emotions, recovering addicts find sober ways to have fun. Self-care is also about setting personal boundaries, communicating assertively, being authentic about who we are and what we want, and nurturing healthy relationships – all skills that can be developed as part of addiction recovery.
Beginning in treatment and continuing thereafter, recovering addicts build a network of therapists, spiritual advisors, friends, family and support groups that they can turn to any time they need encouragement or feel isolated or alone. With guidance from a therapist, they learn how to communicate with their loved ones with a degree of compassion, honesty and respect that many families never experience. And when the path to fulfillment isn’t so clear, recovering addicts are taught to do what so many fear: ask for help.
Connection with a higher power is a core component of 12-Step recovery and a critical part of what makes the hard work of recovery worthwhile. Research suggests that people with a spiritual belief system are less depressed and anxious and are better able to cope with stressful and traumatic events than non-spiritual people.
For many recovering addicts, even those that were initially resistant, recovery leads them to understand spirituality in a whole new way. Instead of emptiness and desperation, they find meaning and purpose in nature, God or some other higher power, and are able to draw inspiration from that connection.
So are recovering addicts happier than the rest of us? Most likely not at first, when the process of change is unfolding in dramatic and sometimes uncomfortable fashion. But years later, when recovering addicts have embraced a new lifestyle and experienced some of the rewards of sobriety, they often report being happier than they ever thought possible. As it turns out, anyone can benefit from the life lessons of recovery – recovering addicts just happen to get a crash course.
Happy man photo available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 22 Feb 2012