Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Drive to Thrive

[Originally published Sept. 4 2010 on]

The great majority of young people who experience the death of a parent, divorce, emotional or physical abuse, substance abuse, mental illness, developmental disabilities, and similar ordeals end up OK.  They recover, form healthy relationships, have good marriages, and become productive citizens. That, at least, is the finding of numerous studies in a diversity of cultures, summarized by the researcher Bonnie Benard at the outset of her book on Resiliency.  

I shouldn’t have been surprised.  I lost my father before I was born, I survived bombing raids, childhood malnutrition and diseases, numerous changes of home, several addictions, and I’m OK.  And I’m not alone.  I know lots of people with worse experiences who survived -- we all do.  

How did we manage?  What is the secret of our marvelous ability to spring back from adversity?  

Resiliency, writes the author, is a creature with four legs.  First, the resilient person is able to win approval from others.  Perhaps only from one other, but that is enough.  Second, the resilient person is resourceful, inventive, able to solve problems, to make and execute plans, and adapt to changed circumstances.  Third, the resilient person displays autonomy.  They are goats rather than sheep.  Finally, the resilient person has a sense of purpose.  It may be a spiritual or secular purpose, but it gives them a sense of orientation in space and time, a reason for being alive.

With this in mind, I reflected back on my experience in overcoming my addictions to alcohol and other drugs, and I began to understand more deeply how I succeeded in freeing myself from these shackles.

In my recovery from addiction, I participated in a support group network that systematically provides its members with social approval, the first leg of resiliency.  In these groups, the basic principle is that all participants have a sound and healthy core, which we call the Sober Self, and that our work consists of affirming and empowering that positive quality within ourselves.  In the jargon of social science, our groups are “strength-based.”  

I was surprised, early on, that nobody in these groups wagged a finger at me and told me what I had to do.  On the contrary, I was expected to figure it out for myself.  I was advised to think, to marshal my inner resources, to be inventive, to solve my particular problems, to make a personal recovery plan, and to adapt my personality to clean and sober living.  Motivated in this way, I developed the second leg of resiliency.  

My group work always aimed to enhance my power to survive as a clean and sober person outside the group.  I came to believe that the group was a useful support, and I enjoyed -- and still enjoy -- the fellowship and good humor that prevails within the circle.  But no one ever tried to make me dependent on the group, to substitute group addiction for substance addiction.  On the contrary, my group experience was and is a school for personal autonomy, the third pillar of resiliency.

Finally, my participation in my support group network restored to my mind a sense of purpose, mislaid somewhere during the depths of my addiction.  I began to feel that I was useful in some modest way to others who had been similarly lost.  I developed connections with other people, the key ingredient of a sense that one’s life has meaning.  

Thanks to Benard’s book, the secret of my recovery from addictions -- a journey which I thought impossible before I began it -- is no longer so mysterious. Benard writes that the qualities that make up resiliency are hardwired into the human makeup, and all that is required to foster more recoveries is to remove the barriers and enhance the protective factors for our innate drive to thrive.

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