Parable of Two Programs

Once upon a time there existed two organizations pledged to offer hope and help to individuals and families affected by alcohol and other drug problems.

The first, which we shall call Hubris, used its massive communications and marketing machinery to assert its claim as the Alpha and Omega of addiction treatment and recovery support. Hubris achieved glowing media accolades. The charisma and eloquence of its leaders were widely acknowledged. Its facilities were beautiful. Its administrative and clinical staff members were professionally polished and engaging. And it boasted a “comprehensive” service menu, an unprecedented “success rate,” and regular surges in its annual budget.

Every service in the community related to alcohol and other drug problems eventually came under Hubris’s administrative umbrella—a feat achieved by undermining or colonizing all potential competitors. The unrelenting message to the community was unequivocal: there is only one professionally-assisted pathway to addiction recovery and it is through the doors of Hubris. In time, as might be expected, Hubris expanded its mission far beyond addiction treatment and recovery support—claiming expertise in an ever-expanding range of community problems and needs. Hubris was by all accounts a highly successful organization.

The second organization, which we will call Humility, never achieved the size or reputation of Hubris. Its leaders sought neither and were the last rather than the first to speak in any community forum. They were far more likely to ask probing questions or praise others than call attention to themselves. Where Hubris prided itself as a successful business enterprise, Humility viewed itself as a service ministry and a small part of a larger recovery-focused social movement. As such, it maintained a singular mission of addiction recovery support and advocacy throughout its years of operation.

Rather than build recovery support services exclusively within Humility, its leaders and staff sought to develop and imbed those services within the wider community. Rather than seeing themselves as THE expert/authority on all addiction/recovery issues, Humility staff and volunteers saw themselves in equal partnership with people in recovery, their families, and their community allies. Where Hubris emphasized service relationships that were professionalized, short term, and commercialized; Humility emphasized the value of recovery support that was natural (voluntary and reciprocal), enduring, and imbedded within a community of shared experience and mutual support. Where Hubris sought to hoard specialized knowledge and services within its own organizational boundaries, Humility sought wide dispersal of recovery support knowledge and activities via recovery-focused professional and public education, personal and policy advocacy, support of local recovery community development, and expansion of community landscapes/spaces in which recovery could thrive.

Humility encouraged and supported the development of recovery supports within the recovery community, allied systems of care, business and industry, religious institutions, and local educational institutions. Its vision was to imbed recovery, not within the walls of a discretely hidden rehab facility, but within the very heart of local community life. Humility took no public credit for this behind the scenes cultural and community development work. Their budget remained comparatively modest, their facilities few and undistinguished, and their staff were more known for their genuineness and passion than their professionalism.

Now as we continue our story and as fate would have it, both organizations ceased to exist after years of operation. I will leave it to the reader to speculate on the sources of these organizational deaths. Hubris might have imploded due to the excesses of its leadership. It might have fallen victim to the capriciousness of funding cuts or been colonized in something akin to a corporate takeover. Or it might have just fallen from grace as the public’s collective experience discredited Hubris’s excessive marketing hype. Humility might have ceased operation due to the passing of its long-time leader, the weakness of its board, or broader disruptions within the local community. Or it might have simply decided to cease existing because its mission of developing natural recovery support resources in the community had been achieved. Our focus is not on how such seemingly successful organizations ceased to exist. It is rather on the state of their respective communities following their closure.

Upon its closing, Hubris’s legacy to its community could be depicted as a pervasive vacuum: few if any remaining addiction recovery support services, weak support for recovery among the community’s leading institutions, little specialized knowledge of addiction and recovery among the community’s mainstream service professionals, and a weak, unaroused recovery community with limited capacity to support its members and advocate on their behalf. Hubris left a legacy of service to its institutional interests and the interests of its leaders, but despite its history of service to individuals, its style of operation did a great disservice to its community. Encouragement and support for recovery once provided by families, extended families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, the recovery community, and other community institutions had over time been strategically absorbed by Hubris. It was in its view good business to do so. At its closing, the community had less internal capacity for recovery support (i.e., community recovery capital) than at the time of Hubris’s founding.

In contrast, the little-heralded Humility left a rich network of recovery support resources, a foundation of public and professional knowledge about addiction recovery, and a mobilized recovery community capable of addressing present, emerging, and future needs. By acting on the premise that it should not do anything alone that could not be done by or in collaboration with the wider community, Humility set the stage for the progressive expansion of indigenous recovery supports sadly missing in the community served by Hubris.

So I leave those among you in leadership positions within addiction treatment or recovery community organizations with two questions: 1) Where would you place your organization on the Hubris to Humility continuum? and 2) What would be the future recovery support capacities of the communities you serve if your organization ceased to exist today?

Moral of the Story: To paraphrase Mark Hyman, the power of community to encourage and support long-term addiction recovery is greater than that offered by any addiction treatment program.  

Of Related Interest:

Evans, A. C., Lamb. R. & White, W. L. (2013). The community as patient: Recovery-focused community mobilization in Philadelphia, 2005-2012. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 31(4), 450-465.

White, W. (2009). The mobilization of community resources to support long-term addiction recovery. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 36, 146-58.

White, W. (2003). The road not taken: The lost roots of addiction counseling. Counselor, 4(2), 22-23.

White, W. (2002) A lost vision: Addiction counseling as community organization. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly,19(4),1-32.