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The Rush: The Biggest Swing-and-Miss in Recovery

May 16, 2016 - - 0 Comments

What do you mean, rowing?  Like, on a team?

The more I listened, the more I liked what I was hearing.  One of the brightest students in a group of teenagers I was helping recover from drug and substance abuse had come to me with a small problem.  He had found for himself what I believe to be a crucial piece of his treatment in an ocean rowing team in California, but he couldn’t afford the dues.

I was flattered that he felt he could come to me with this problem and I was excited that he had discovered on his own what many recovering addicts never seem to figure out: You have to fill the hole.

Let me explain.

Just months before this student (we will call him Tony) approached me, he was unrecognizable to his family.  A rampant addiction to heroin and methamphetamine had landed him in 4 drug addiction treatment centers only for him to wash right back out again after just a few months.

Standing at about 5 and-a-half feet, he weighed under 100 pounds and open sores covered his pale white skin.  He came to me practically being held upright by his desperate parents to take a swing at what they all considered to be his last chance at recovery.

Now there was a light in his eyes that I had never seen.

There’s a saying I’ve heard a lot in the drug addiction treatment industry: “Relapse is part of recovery”.  While I don’t disagree with that, I believe a huge piece of preventing relapse is to show a recovering addict that there are ways to fill the gaping hole left behind by their addiction.  To understand what I mean, we have to examine how an addiction can leave behind such a void.

Particularly with high-octane addictions like Tony’s, one key aspect of his life got sucked right away from him while in the throes of drug and substance abuse: Time.  Whatever time wasn’t spent using was spent trying to figure out how to get more stuff to use.

Then there’s the high.  The reward for his efforts was now also gone.  He spent his first few months in recovery fully enveloped in the intense effort to detox and heal the damage he had done to his body over the last few years.  He was now thinking clearly and his body was filling out, but he was opening his eyes and starting to see the world around him again.  He saw an intimidating 24 hours every day that he needed to fill somehow.

It is here that many addicts turn back to the familiar old demon and it was certainly here that Tony had done just that, disappearing from his previous drug addiction treatment centers.

While it’s not a new idea that old unhealthy behaviors need to be replaced with new constructive activities, I think these activities need to be much more than just things to replace all the time spent searching for and using drugs.  I think they need to be more than simply healthier.  They should be designed to replace the high as well.  This is why Tony’s rowing team was such an exciting prospect and it is why I would decide to personally sponsor his participation.

What the rowing team did for Tony – and what mountain biking did for me many years before – is show him that the high he experienced mainlining heroin could be replaced with a healthy natural rush.  This triggered a cascade of undiluted positive feelings and emotions that I don’t believe can be found any other way.

As a mentor I used this new activity as a medium to help him understand the one thing I believe is the strongest enemy of relapse: gratitude.

He now had friends who were healthy and competitive.  They would hold him accountable as a teammate and Tony was now beginning to see the physical benefits of regular practice.  Being out on the water felt amazing to this young man who had stared death in the face just months before.  He was now using words like “beautiful” and “amazing” to describe things he had seen or felt out there.  The best part was one I had hoped for and seen coming: What he didn’t feel was an urge to use.

There are millions of people who have found recovery in many ways and the submission of this idea is not meant in any way to imply that it’s the only thing that works.  However, in the world of drug addiction treatment, it is a proven method that is far too often overlooked.  When finding a program that’s right for you or someone you love, remember: Rush before relapse.

Just ask Tony.  You know…. when he gets back to shore.

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