Alcohol Rehabs versus Peer-Group Recovery

Over the many years that I have been in alcohol recovery, I still remain grateful that alcohol rehabs were available when I first chose to stop drinking. During the first year of my sobriety, I continued to go to an out-patient counselor whose professional experience proved to be invaluable.

However, around the last month of my first year as an out-patient, I began to sense a need for closure. My counselor also seemed to have run out of material, and I had sensed that his usefulness was beginning to become more frayed. It wasn’t that he had suddenly become an incompetent counselor; it was just that recovery issues for him were limited to the more immediate, day-to-day behaviors and relationships during that first year. He was not trained to deal with deeper, more chronic psychological/psychiatric issues.

Nor was he trained in any form of spiritual/personal-growth journey that could give solace, insight, and direction for the long-haul. He was merely following the model used in most rehabs and detox centers: treat the immediate medical and emotional needs of the novice or returning addict.

When I first came into my recovery program of choice, I was struck by the fact that it was a peer-group body. An infinitesimally small minority  claimed to be “recovered,” and no one generally considered themselves an expert, although, unlike most of us,  there are still some who still believe that they have “nailed it.”  These are the ones I tend to put on the back-burner of my recovery, for I need people in my life that I can trust to verify their own changing circumstances and how they deal with those changes on a daily basis. I simply cannot trust anyone who claims to have arrived and has all the answers.

In any event, the institutional recovery I experienced in a rehab was much different than the “on-the-job” training I continue get from others in my recovery-program of choice, my own real-life experiences, and the many “teachers” I have stumbled into along my daily recover journey.

As I continue to psychologically evolve in my twenty-four years without a drink—and the evolution in recovery is never linear—I have also come to realize that the institutionalization, even the commodification of addiction- recovery, at least in the U.S., has begun to dominate the Internet.

Anyone who googles “addiction,” “alcoholism,” or “addiction recovery” will almost instantly discover that the rehab industry has become a very potent force in the conversation about addiction. In fact, it would not be an overstatement to say that, if  one just looked at the number of rehab ads and google entries on the Internet, one could easily come to the conclusion that rehabs are what recovery is all about.

Few of us who have had some years of experience with our own addiction recoveries would ever challenge the up-front efficacy of addiction/alcohol rehabs. And not many of us, I think, would ever give a second thought to the whole notion of the institutionalization and professionalization of recovery, even though there are some old-timer rumblings in the recovery rooms about not having rehabs when they first got sober (a variation of the “when-I-was-a-kid-we-had-to-walk-to-school-uphill-both-ways” stories).

I certainly do not question the importance of rehabs and out-patient alcohol/addiction counseling; however, my own experience is that, at some point, the recovering alcoholic/addict is going to have to leave the comfort-zone of rehab professionals. The safety net of the rehab world begins to disappear the closer a client comes to officially signing out.

After all the up-front addiction issues have settled down and an alcoholic or addict leaves the rehab, there are day-to-day issues with family, work, and other relationships that the recovering addict has to deal with. That is why support groups and recovery programs are essential to help us learn how to practice having a normal existence without a drink or a drug.

For those of us who often suffer from rugged individualism or an overly exaggerated sense of will power, membership in any group or organization is always a challenge. However, there is not a recovering person I have ever come into contact with in the recovery rooms who hasn’t admitted, on some level, that their individual identities have been more honed as a result of sharing and listening to others.

Over a long period of time (some say five years), if we are truly honest and share with others, we begin to come into our own and our “true selves” begin to emerge. That doesn’t mean we start walking on water, nor does it mean we suddenly discover every aspect of  how we perceive the world and why or how we act in it

But a continuous dose of honest sharing with others in a recovery program does give us access to a wider window of  authenticity, not to mention all of the reminders to think before acting, to avoid resentments and self-centered intellectual debates—reminders that continue to soften my approach to every intellectual and emotional experience that enters my life.

On a personal note, although I have been in recovery for twenty-four years, I was very hesitant to share with others in the group meetings I consistently attend that my spiritual program has evolved into a non-theistic journey. I was afraid that someone would openly criticize me and that I would have to respond with some kind of intellectual defense of my spiritual path.

I have to be frank that some approached my admission with some passive-aggressive comments, but, in general, no one openly challenged me to justify the spiritual path that I have chosen. Nor did I make my admission with a rigid cerebral approach. I simply said that I am no longer a theist and that I continue to be nurtured by other people’s faiths at the meetings.

This is a radical change for me to have humanized my approach and to respect the faiths of those whom I have truly come to love in the program. Once I dropped my traditional argument-debate mode, there was no conflict to be had, no matter how much I continue to yearn for a good old fashioned, knock-down, red-tooth-and-claw argument.

Just as a writer or a musician can learn from other writers and musicians, a recovering alcoholic or addict has much to learn about the recovery process of others who struggle daily with life issues—a divorce, a death in the family, a breakup, a sick child, the loss of a job, financial insecurity, sex, relationships, anger, trust.

None of these issues ever goes away, but they are uniquely challenging to someone who has never had to deal with them when they were using (Most of the people I know in recovery have openly admitted they were never truly present to any of their personal crises when they were drinking or on drugs).

My last concern about the transition between a rehab and other recovery venues—counseling therapy and peer-group recovery programs, in particular—is to make sure that the public isn’t misled into believing that a six-month alcohol/drug rehab is what recovery is all about.

Rehabs are professional institutions that deal almost exclusively with the first year of recovery; they are not in the business of keeping their clients from cradle-to-grave, so to speak. Although they don’t falsely advertise that promise, the sheer dominance of their voices on the Internet might lead the layman to believe that that is what alcohol/drug recovery is all about.

My blog entry today is one attempt to get a more individualized recovery voice out to the public at large, a voice that clearly comes from a belief that a one-among-equals sharing is a very powerful way of helping each other out on our recovery roads.


3 Responses to Alcohol Rehabs versus Peer-Group Recovery

  • Excellent observation and I couldn’t agree more. On many occasions I’ve seen newcomers use rehabs as revolving doors and never get beyond the ‘pink cloud’. While time doesn’t necessarily equal personal enlightenment; I do think it is necessary to experience some everyday ups and downs and come out clean/sober for any real progress to be made.
    I also enjoyed the message about not being overly confident. I’ll be celebrating my 7 year anniversary this August and go weeks at a time without a thought of using – but, ‘recovered’ I will never be!
    Keep up the good work here…

  • I appreciate your writing; so eloquent and a clear message. In my journey I struggled with very similar issues in trying to get beyond surviving to constructing a foundation to build a life on.

    A good conversation…

  • As a newcomer, the first time I heard someone introduce themselves as a ‘recovered alcoholic’ it gave me hope.

    In context of it being used, recovered does not mean ‘cured’.
    It means more that the ‘mental obssession’ is in remission.
    and the ‘phenomenon of craving’ is not active because there is no alcohol in the body.

    Those are the two symptoms of alcoholism. If I am not suffering either of those things then… I am still an alcoholic but its time to go show someone else the way out.

    And as long as we stay in the trenches helping others, having done the work – the obsession stays away. That is my experience.

    The idea that ‘we’ll always be recovering’ does not come from a certain altruistic movement, 😉 *wink* it comes from the people who make money from from us always being sick and powerless.

    There is a great instruction book written – and on the title page it says –

    The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism.

    You either believe it – or you dont.

    I beleive it.

    My belief is based on my expereince.

    I love being sober, my life is the best it has ever been.

    All the best,


    A recovered alcoholic.

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