Personal Character and Recovery Activism
“Just because you are a character does not mean that you have character.” Wolf, Pulp Fiction
“A man got to have a code.” Bunk/Omar, The Wire
What is the role of character reconstruction in addiction recovery? In recovery activism? I have repeatedly returned to these questions over the course of my adult life, especially as young recovery advocates sought my guidance on how to best use their lived experience as a catalyst for social change. Effective recovery advocacy and peer recovery support depend on the scope and depth of one’s knowledge and skills, but equally important is this dimension of personal character.
I recently listened to an interview with Patti Smith, noted singer/songwriter/poet. When she was young and struggling to develop her craft, she sought the advice of William Burroughs, author of Junkie and other noted novels and essay collections. Burroughs shared what Patti Smith later judged to be invaluable guidance: “Build a good name and keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises and don’t worry about making a lot of money. Be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices. If you build a good name, that will be its own currency.”
The challenge in recovery is how to rebuild a name (character) ravaged by the addiction experience. The challenge in recovery advocacy is how to use the fruits of that character reconstruction as a fulcrum for one’s service to others. As Burroughs suggests, service to one’s cause requires a foundation of personal integrity. That, in turn, requires a personal mission/vision (What am I here to achieve?) and a personal code (What are the values and personal code that will guide my journey toward that goal?)
I formulated the below personal advocacy mission/vision statement in the late 1990s and evolved a related code to guide and evaluate my efforts.
My mission is to shift the focus of the alcohol and drug problems arena from a focus on addiction-related pathology and addiction treatment to a focus on the prevalence, pathways, stages, and styles of long-term recovery for individuals, families, and communities.
I will do this by:
- Documenting the history of addiction recovery in the United States,
- Supporting the cultural and political mobilization of people in recovery and their families and allies via a new addiction recovery advocacy movement,
- Advocating a radical redesign of addiction treatment—from models of acute care to models of sustained recovery management nested within recovery-oriented systems of care,
- Conducting recovery-focused research studies,
- Providing recovery-focused education to the public, policymakers, addiction professionals, peer recovery support specialists, and allied health professionals,
- Working to integrate primary prevention, harm reduction, early intervention, addiction treatment, and long-term recovery support, and
- Mentoring future generations of recovery advocates.
To increase my effectiveness as a recovery advocate, I will strive to emulate the following actions and values:
*don’t pick up (recovery first, sobriety, simplicity, self-governance)
*balance care of my own needs and the needs of those closest to me with my service activities (self-care, balance, harmony),
*listen to and help others (service, empathy, acceptance, compassion, altruism, generosity, kindness, love),
*refrain from actions that would inflict harm to others (do no harm, conscientious refusal),
*support the personal freedom of those I serve (autonomy, choice, empowerment),
*tell the truth (honesty, candor, transparency, authenticity),
*value service to others and to community over self-importance (humility),
*recognize multiple pathways and styles of recovery and their cultural contexts (tolerance, respect),
*seek understanding of those whose actions offend me (empathy, forgiveness),
*seek new knowledge and question everything (critical thinking, skepticism, curiosity, creativity, self-development, competence),
*keep my promises (fidelity, loyalty, reliability),
*work hard (duty, diligence, consistency, stamina, perseverance),
*be fair and equitable in my actions (personal justice),
*advocate for those denied representation and access to resources (social justice),
*respect confidences (discretion, privacy),
*seek council of ancestors and mentors (honor, humility, awareness of limitations),
*acknowledge mistakes and make amends to any injured persons (restorative justice, restitution),
*use resources wisely for the public good (stewardship),
*express appreciation for the efforts and contributions of others (gratitude, graciousness),
*find the best within even the worst of moments (meaning, optimism, joy, hope, beauty, humor),
*recognize and distinguish times for urgency and times for patience (wisdom, persistence), and
*pursue collaboration but embrace conflict when necessary, exhibiting courtesy and civility in both instances (cooperation, courage, civil disobedience).
My personal mission/vision remained unchanged in the years following its creation, but my personal code grew as I developed deeper awareness of my own character weaknesses and limitations.
Such an actionable set of values constitutes the building blocks of character. It enriches the recovery experience, quiets the childish attention-seeking of the self-absorbed ego, and enables compassion and care for others. We become a more substantive and contributing person when we formulate and live by a code. Will we follow any such personal code perfectly? No. Will we fall short of these aspirational values over a lifetime of service? Inevitably, and, in my case, frequently. But building character is not about perfection; it is about consciously and progressively closing the gap between our aspirational values and our daily decisions and actions. If we are to join the vanguard of those putting a face and voice on the recovery experience, then we must work diligently to solidify the character behind that face and voice. We cannot succeed in calling for values-grounded social activism with our words if we do not model reasonable congruence with those values in our daily lives. Our currency, our social credibility, our NAME as an activist depends upon the quality of the character behind the face and voice of recovery. Recovery is as much about discovery and creation of a new self as it is about shedding a destructive drug relationships and retrieval of a lost self. Like Burroughs suggests, in recovery your name is your currency, and your name is your character.