“There is nothing about a caterpillar which would suggest that it will become a butterfly”
— Buckminster Fuller
Recovery from a life-threatening condition can bring far more than the removal of pain and sickness from an otherwise unchanged life. Confronting one’s mortality through the experiences of illness and recovery can bring unexpected gifts. Surviving heart disease, cancer, addiction or other life-threatening experiences can be an unlikely source of renewal and personal transformation–catalysts for living more fully and more meaningfully. There may be something to that notion of being stronger at the broken places.
“The greatest wisdom there is to be won comes from the places and spaces where we’ve been split and undone.” –Brooke Feldman
Many years ago, Ernie Larsen suggested that the first stage of addiction recovery–saving one’s life–could be followed by “rebuilding the life that was saved” and through this rebuilding process one could get better than well. In a 2006 paper entitled Varieties of Recovery Experience, Ernie Kurtz and I used the term amplified recovery to depict individuals who, through these processes of saving and rebuilding their lives, experience positive and profound changes in the their character and interpersonal relationships and sustained acts of public service–a quality of service surpassed only by the degree of gratitude and humility through which they are performed.
Those achieving this amplified state of recovery are quite remarkable human beings who contradict everything one usually associates with addiction. They exemplify something far more than a once sick person whose disabling symptoms have disappeared. Such individuals have achieved strengths of character and social contribution not in spite of addiction but because of strengths found within the very heart of the addiction recovery experience. Persons achieving amplified recovery are not a form of rare recovery superhero. They are imperfect people like the rest of us, but they offer living proof of what one can achieve and contribute within this state of imperfection.
The addictions field has been so fixated throughout its history on addiction-related pathologies that we know very little about these amplified states of recovery. We as addiction professionals need to periodically remind ourselves of the distinction between remission and recovery. Remission is about the deletion or diminishment of sickness; recovery–real recovery–involves broader dimensions of character, purpose and quality of life. One of the most important ingredients we have to offer people seeking recovery is hope, and that hope is for far more than the elimination of pain. We need to be able to convey that as the broken places heal, it is possible to achieve optimal health and a fulfilled life. To authentically convey that vision, we must stay connected to those people who are living such lives. To be a champion of recovery, we must maintain our connections to those who are the most infectious carriers of recovery.
We should convey the expectation of remission to everyone we serve at the same time we convey the potential for recovery and a quality of life beyond that which can be presently envisioned. To sustain our faith in that potential for others, we must stay connected to the potential of that life for ourselves and stay connected to people in whom such potential is being fulfilled. Amplified recovery is as unpredictable as recovery itself. The unattractive, even repulsive, caterpillar before us today could well be tomorrow’s butterfly of uncommon beauty and grace.