Listening across the Stages of Recovery
Addiction shrinks one’s world to a state of stark self-imprisonment. As the person-drug relationship devours everything else of value, nothing remains that cannot and will not be sacrificed. And as the drug then devours the self, what remains are only manipulative masks interchanged so quickly that any sense of “true self” remains as only a faint memory. This shell, now masquerading as a person, burns its way through the world leaving human wreckage in its wake–all wounded by addiction’s self-centeredness, dishonesty, disloyalty, depravity, and brutality.
Extreme narcissism, self-will run riot in the language of Alcoholics Anonymous, is the essence of addiction regardless of whether one sees this trait as a cause or consequence of addiction. It is a paradoxical entrapment manifested in self-absorption (self-inflation and exploitation or self-deflation and serial victimization) and deteriorating capacities for self-care. These styles of self-deception exist within a person fighting to retain and assert his or her fading humanity. These are the Janus faces of addiction–the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of addiction fame. For many, recovery begins not in getting deeper into that split self, but finally getting out of oneself. Listening can be the beginning of that leap out of self into community–the essential step in a process of mutual identification. It also can be, and often is, the first act of service in recovery.
Actions that are critical to recovery initiation and deepening the quality of one’s recovery are often preceded by breakthroughs in one’s capacity and willingness to listen. Such listening can come in many forms: listening to the stories of others, listening to the experience and guidance of recovery elders, listening to those affected by our past or present actions, listening to the written word, listening to our own deepest aspirations, or listening for the voice of spiritual guidance.
Identity reconstruction and story reformulation are critical components of addiction recovery. Such restorying–what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now–is shared across secular, spiritual, and religious pathways of recovery. But reconstructing that new identity/story requires building blocks of ideas, words, and sentiments that are best acquired through acts of listening. Recovery is about breaking out of isolation into connection and community. Listening is the first step out of I and the first step into we. Listening is the way we place our own story within the context of a larger community of recovering people. Hearing the testimony of others–truly listening with heart as well as ears–stirs belief that a new redeemed self can rise from the ashes of a damaged and depleted self.
The reciprocity of listening is the essence of recovery support. Recovery storytelling is but the refrain between acts of listening, and it is only in the presence of listeners that storytelling is possible. Listening without judgment, without the faintest whisper of contempt, within a relationship in which neither party can claim moral superiority–a true “being with” rather than “doing for”–produces a most sublime paradox: mutual strength emerging from admission of mutual limitation. Listening to another’s deepest feelings and aspirations–listening to the experience, strength, and hope of others who have also faced an ultimate reckoning with self–is a first step towards recovery. Listening is the beginning of humility, gratitude, tolerance, and service. It is a ritual–more communion than communication–that exists within and enriches every stage of long-term addiction recovery. Needed at a community level are sanctuaries where the roar of self can be quieted and where such listening can occur. Many in recovery have already found such a place. Others are still seeking such a sacred place.
The power of listening extends beyond the person seeking recovery. I am daily asked how a family member, friend, or service professional can help someone escape addiction. Those seeking my counsel are often hoping I can share magic words they can speak that will serve as a catalyst of recovery. There are many such things that can be said and many actions that can be helpful, but nothing is more important than to listen–to silence all that you fear and hope and simply listen. No helping act is more powerful.