From Native American sobriety circles though Keeley’s Gold Cure and Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s evident that addicts and substance abusers do better when at least some of the people helping them have personal experience with substance abuse, dependence or addiction themselves.
Knowing that the healer has suffered as the patient has, and has not only recovered but thrived and returned to help others, is good for the addict. Helping others into and in recovery also is good for the healer who is a former addict.
Carl Jung referred to this phenomenon as “wounded healers,” that “a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor’s examining himself” and finding a similar hurt, and that this common hurt “gives a measure of his power to heal.” That applies to social workers, physicians and healthcare workers in addiction and substance abuse treatment.
Alcoholics Anonymous was inspired by co-founder Bill Wilson’s experience with the Oxford Group, an earlier Christian organization which though not expressly for treatment of alcoholism, did stress surrender to God and selfless living. Its “Six Assumptions” are akin to AA’s Twelve Steps, including: “Those who have been changed must change others.” That’s similar to AA’s final step: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
To give back, to help others as you were helped, is built into the recovery movement’s DNA. It’s not just good karma or altruism: It works. It’s spiritual, religious and scientific.
For caregivers, counselors, recovered alcoholics or other substance abuse workers, helping others also serves as reinforcement. If they are constantly telling others not to give in to temptation, reminding them of the wreck drink or drugs has made of their lives, their relationships with family and friends, and their jobs, it drives home to the caregivers who also are recovered addicts why they should not return to that destructive pattern themselves.
“Do what I say and do as I do” is more persuasive and beneficial, to both the sayer and the sayee, than “Do as I say, not do as I do.”
That’s part of the thinking behind Helping Others Live Sober, a non-profit, federally funded research project of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, (currently tied for 25th best medical school for research by US News & World Report). Its principal mission is to help alcoholics, drug addicts and other substance abusers – particularly adolescents – get and stay sober. Helping Others also studies the comorbid mental health conditions that often accompany substance abuse.
Helping Others continues to followup on its longitudinal study of 195 juvenile offenders referred to treatment by the courts. One of its findings has been that “helping others helps adolescent helpers reduce their craving for alcohol and drugs,” even helping with mundane tasks such as “making coffee” for an AA meeting or “carrying their heavy bags.”
Because trouble shared is troubled halved, as the adage has it, sharing your experiences with others who have undergone similar experiences – the emotional similarity hypothesis – is a cornerstone of AA meetings and its sponsor-mentor support system. Sharing also is an important aspect of Helping Others, with audio of “personal experiences on the role of service in addiction recovery.”
Empathy and experience: It’s as much a calling as a career.