One commonly hears in addiction treatment and in the rooms of recovery mutual aid circles that recovery is a time-involved, stage-dependent process. From the iconic Jellinek Curve of the mid-twentieth century to the equally iconic and currently popular transtheoretical stages of change model of Prochaska and colleagues, addiction recovery is often portrayed as a slowly unfolding process with the potential for progression and regression along the journey. And the stories of many people in addiction recovery precisely fit these depictions. But there is another style of recovery initiation that differs significantly from staged change (SC) in that it is sudden, unplanned, profound, positive, and permanent–a recovery conversion experience in which one’s life is forever cleaved into the categories of “before” and “after” in a matter of moments. This style of recovery has been christened quantum change or transformational change (TC). SC is like spilled molasses inching its way across a table; TC is like a lightning strike to one’s brain or heart.
In 2004, I penned an article for Counselor in which I suggested five important lessons that could be drawn from studies of this TC style of recovery initiation.
1. TC is a viable, but poorly understood pathway of addiction recovery. Professional helpers need to be open to the potential for such sudden, conversion-like transformations in the lives of those they serve.
2. TC experiences often contain elements that closely resemble, and may be misperceived as, symptoms of psychiatric illness. Professional and peer helpers must be patient in allowing sufficient time and support to distinguish clinical deterioration from personal metamorphosis.
3. TC is often characterized by two overlapping experiences: a breakdown and a breakthrough. What many of the individuals transformed by such experiences retrospectively understand is that their addictions were imbedded within a damaged self that had to die before a new self could be born. Recovery is both destructive (the collapse of an indelibly stained self) and constructive (the emergence of a new self). This metamorphosis can occur over decades or a span of moments.
4. The TC experience has a momentum and trajectory that should not be altered or aborted by professional intervention. William James advises, “When the new centre of personal energy has been subconsciously incubated so long as to be just ready to open into flower, ‘hands off’ is the only word for us, it must burst forth unaided!” (1902/1985, p. 187).
5. The addiction counselor can help nurture and consolidate experiences of TC by:
* heightening awareness of the incongruity between the idealized and real self,
*creating opportunities for isolation and self-reflection,
*being with a person during the TC experience and assuaging anxieties and fears related to the experience,
*helping frame the TC experience within a recovery-anchoring personal narrative,
*facilitating the transition from the TC experience to a sobriety-based identity and lifestyle, and
*linking the TC-touched persons to a community of shared experience, or encouraging them to build such a community.
The messianic vision and evangelical zeal that are a common aftermath of the transformational change experience have spawned many recovery mutual aid and recovery advocacy movements. Addiction counselors never know when they may be called by history to play midwife in the birth of such movements.
Perhaps there is a broader lesson in all of this. That lesson is that there are brief developmental windows–defining moments–in all of our lives that provide opportunities to change who we are at a most fundamental level. The TC experience serves as a catalyst for addiction recovery, not by removing alcohol and drugs from an otherwise unchanged person, but by birthing a new self in which alcohol and other drugs have no role. We who have been called to work in this ministry of recovery would be well advised to respect the potential for such mysterious and positive processes of change–in those we seek to help and in ourselves.
For those wishing to learn more about this style of recovery initiation, I recommend the book Quantum Change by Bill Miller and Janet C’de Baca and my 2004 review of the history of transformational change in addiction recovery.