The Toll of Recovery Advocacy: On Service and Self-care

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Recovery advocacy, like any form of social activism, can exact a great personal toll. Some early nineteenth-century recovery advocates thrust themselves completely into the role of temperance missionary in the belief that such work would provide a pathway to personal recovery. Exhausting themselves in this role, they often succumbed again to addiction. Luther Benson, whose story followed this path, later reflected:

I learned too late that this was the very worst thing I could have done. I was all the time expending the very strength I so much needed for the restoration of my shattered system.

Recovery advocacy should come with a promise and a warning label. The promise? Recovery advocacy can be a deeply fulfilling form of social activism. The warning? Be careful out there: Recovery advocacy could be harmful to your health and your recovery. 

For those pursuing a recovery ministry, those you are seeking to help will test your emotional capacity for service. Your family will at times question whether the mission you are pursuing is worth its personal price. Some members of the recovery community will question your motives and your suitability to represent recovery at a public level. They will accuse you of violating or “ripping off the program” for your own aggrandizement or profit. You will face addiction-related stigma and all its accompanying stereotypes from the very community you are seeking to serve. Some will castigate you as a hustler masquerading as a healer. If you have a history of severe and prolonged addiction, some will think you too damaged to put a public face and voice on recovery. If you are younger or your addiction career was less severe (not fitting media-manufactured caricatures of addiction), some will question the legitimacy of your addiction and your recovery status. Such is the lot of anyone called to service in recovery advocacy and recovery support roles. That is why training, supervision, and peer support are so critical to the prolonged performance of these roles.   

In Recovery Rising, I describe four daily rituals that are essential for sustained addiction recovery and effective recovery advocacy. Centering rituals, whether in the form of prayer, formal meditation, or just quiet reflection, help us “keep our eyes on the prize,” remain grounded, and help narrow the gap between aspirational recovery values (humility, honesty, integrity, tolerance, gratitude, forgiveness, etc.) and our daily actions. Mirroring rituals allow us to commune with kindred spirits for mutual support, for feedback on the quality of our advocacy work, and to rekindle our passion for recovery and recovery advocacy.  Acts of self-care and personal responsibility allow time for self-repair and caring for the needs of our families and others of importance in our lives. Unpaid and unacknowledged acts of service help keep our egos in check and allow us to remain focused on the value of service to others and to our own recovery. The first three of these daily rituals constitute the essential foundation for the fourth.

Service in the absence of self-care is an act of self-destruction. Focusing on the self in the absence of service sustains the narcissistic self-encapsulation that is the very hallmark of addiction. Ironically, we must tend to self to serve others and serve others to escape entrapment within the self. Balancing self-care and service to others is the great challenge of recovery advocacy and peer recovery support.