Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mixed Responses to Recovery Speakers

Anyone who has dealt with problematic or compulsive behaviors (addictions, eating disorders, OCD, etc.), either personally or professionally, has encountered the "self-help" movement in one form or another. The label "self-help" is really a misnomer, however: this movement is really rooted in mutual aid between individuals at various points in recovery from a shared problem. As a result, I prefer to call it the "peer support" model of recovery.

A cornerstone of the peer support model of recovery is the recovery speaker. Most widely recognized as a feature of many 12-step meetings, the speaker is someone who has made significant progress in recovery, and is no longer engaging in the problem behavior. He or she shares a narrative of recovery in order to motivate and guide listeners newer to recovery. Though speakers usually have a great deal of latitude in how they present their stories, a general framework involves talking about how things were when the problem was active, how they managed to stop the problem, and how things are now, in recovery. Examples are included in the text of the AA "Big Book," and many memoirs of recovery from a range of problems.

Many people find these stories moving, and say the stories help them progress in their own recoveries. However, there are also people who find such "war stories" triggering, saying they increase rather than decrease the desire to engage in the problem behavior. 

Sometimes this paradoxical response is related to a specific speaker's approach. There are some speakers who subtly glorify the problem when talking about their lives before recovery - as if they are reminiscing about "the good old days." Some may not glorify the problem...but may also not have a clear sense of how they recovered, and may therefore struggle to offer guidance to listeners. Sometimes the speaker simply spends too much time on the pre-recovery part of the story, and too little time talking about recovery and life thereafter.

The listener's response also depends upon where he or she is in the recovery process. Those who are new to recovery, are highly ambivalent, or feel hopeless/helpless about change seem less likely to find speakers helpful - the message doesn't "meet them where they are." Just hearing about problem behaviors, even when they're described in a negative light, can be triggering for these people. Others' successful change may also serve to heighten a sense of inadequacy or discouragement about one's own less effective change efforts. Finally, if the listener expects to be motivated - or triggered - by the speaker, it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

I'm reflecting on this topic today because I accompanied a group of clients to hear a speaker on recovery from anorexia. My clients responded positively, but a few clients from other programs we so triggered they had to leave. Unfortunately, they left just as the speaker transitioned from talking about the problem to talking about recovery. I thought she had some good things to say, that reflected solid clinical theory and intervention...but I also thought some of what she said was potentially triggering, anxiety provoking, or both. If I felt those things, how much more so did the clients?

So, what are your thoughts on recovery speakers? When are they a positive tool for recovery, and when are they counterproductive?

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