It is a really important question and we get asked this all the time. After all, we expend all kinds of energy and resources down here on men with addiction issues – so what is really happening?
In the field of addiction recovery, there are actually two schools of thought about what constitutes success. One view is called Harm Reduction and that highlights any reduction in drug or alcohol use. So, if someone used 30 days last month and only 20 days this month – that is Harm Reduction. Anyone who has ever struggled with an addiction, or has family members who have, can appreciate that any reduction in usage as positive.
The other view of success in recovery is Total Abstinence. To use just once during that same month is to not practice Total Abstinence and thus not be successful. Consequently, there is a sense where we see that as failure, no matter how much clean time the person had achieved.
Yet addiction recovery is measured one day at a time and it might be helpful to look at this a bit like we would look at a sports team on a winning streak. If you lose, the streak is over. That doesn’t mean you are a failure, just that you need to start a new streak. I understand my analogy can’t be carried too far – no sports team can win forever, while an addict can experience permanent and lasting recovery. But on the other side, because someone used again doesn’t mean there is no hope and all the progress they had achieved was for naught. Just as in everyday life, our greatest lessons sometimes come from our greatest shortcomings.
Here at Helping Up Mission, the policy for our 12-month residential Spiritual Recovery Program is Total Abstinence. Men understand this when they arrive. If they use, they forfeit the right to be in this program for now. It doesn’t mean God is done with them or that they can’t immediately regroup in their recovery, it just means not here and not now. In fact, under most circumstances they can apply to come back after 6 month. We consider this to be appropriate tough love.
Consequently, in our 12-month residential Spiritual Recovery Program, if we bring in 5 new men a week – statistically, one year later, 1 of those 5 will graduate. In addition, we have anecdotal evidence which suggests that maybe another 1 of those 5 will leave early before graduation but also stay clean. We don’t get to count that person as a graduate, but we consider their recovery to also be a success. Taken together, that still means we are only making substantial progress with 2 out of 5 men.
But I don’t think that tells the whole story. The fact is that many of our men achieve their longest clean time on the street (as opposed to time incarcerated) while they are here. Yet, they might use again and have to leave. We don’t take all their effort and success (I do think that is an appropriate term) lightly. We understand how hard each day clean is for an addict. We appreciate the Harm Reduction they have achieved, but now we want them to get back to Total Abstinence again.
And I am encouraged about that. After 10 years of doing this, I have seen and heard enough to know – even though a guy used again and had to leave, he really got something while he was here. When most men arrive the first thing they begin to find is hope, then they get some answers and, if they stay long enough, they even begin to change. For them, there comes a real sense that God is up there, that this recovery thing really does works and that it could even work for them.
I should also add that those 2 of 5 who are making it may still struggle at some point in the future and use again. When that happens they must regroup and do the things they know have worked. Sometimes they will even come back here for a “refresher course” on recovery. We honestly don’t consider that to be failure. Of course we are sad that they struggled, but at least they admitted they had a problem, knew what the answer was and knew where they could go to get it right. Not quite Total Abstinence, but it is some pretty good Harm Reduction.
I need to close with this thought. I have been talking about statistics and it is pretty easy to just crunch numbers. But when you meet these men, see what all is happening in their lives now and realize how far they have come, it is hard to be discouraged for very long. I see victories, miracles and answers to prayer every day around here at Helping Up Mission. I have to call that real success!
Pastor Gary Byers
Spiritual Life Director