LIVING BEYOND: THE POWER OF EMPATHY IN RECOVERY – AN ADDICTS GREATEST RESOURCE

THE POWER OF EMPATHY IN RECOVERY

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” ~ Walt Whitman

For many, unless you have been directly involved with an addictive family member, or you yourself have had an addiction; the concept of an addiction, or an addict, is foreign. Addiction itself is the process with which an individual becomes personally consumed with an object, a subject, a substance, or a particular activity. In general, it could be theorized (or hypothesized) that a vast majority of society today has the probability of becoming an addict.

After all, an addict does not have to be consumed with a substance or have a substance abuse issue; to be clinically diagnosed as
“an addict.” An addict may be addicted to gambling, technology, a career, academic pursuits, ideological or religious perspectives, sexuality, and a number of other possibilities. If you are human, you have the ability of becoming consumed with something in your life.

In our society today, technology has become an essential part of our lives. It is easily understandable why technology could unintentionally become an addiction. Technology not only shapes the way we think, but the way we behave, interact, and communicate. In our society today, it is unimaginable for many to think of what the world would be like without it. The necessity of technology lends itself to becoming an addiction. Unlike alcohol, cigarettes, and other vices; technology knows no age limits. There are no restrictions or barriers for preventing someone from becoming an addict to a technological device.

While we view technological addiction with a different set of lenses; technological addiction has the same makeup of other known addictions. Therefore, it is important to recognize that addiction has the probability of affecting you or a loved one.

While the intent of this article is not to discuss the effects of technology or the probability of such an addiction; I simply wanted to clarify that addiction has an ability of affecting any person, at any time.

What are the general warning signs of an addict? Interestingly enough, the warning signs of an addict abusing substances mirrors many other addictions. The general warning signs that someone may have an addiction are:

• Increased aggression or irritability
• Mood swings
• Headaches
• Weight gain or weight loss
• Cravings, yearnings, and impulsive urges
• Lethargy, lack of interest, or enthusiasm
• Depression, severe despondency or dejection
• Neglect of responsibilities or accountability: job, school, etc.
• Significant changes in academic performance
• Poor judgement or increased risk taking behaviors
• Profound changes in an individual’s worldview or perceptions
• Isolation or social withdrawal
• Involvement in criminal activity and behaviors
• Increased indebtedness or financial problems

For addicts of legal and illicit substances, this particular type of addiction is viewed with bleak optimism. Regrettably, society has a much skewed view of substance abuse and addictions. The perceptions have been fostered by the legal and judicial systems, the media, the movies, television and the internet.

The legal and judicial system view substance use as a criminal matter; while the mental health system has been fighting for generations to change that particular perspective. “It is estimated that about one-half of State and Federal prisoners abuse or are addicted to drugs, but relatively few receive treatment while incarcerated.” Yet, the legal and judicial systems avoid addressing their responsibilities in the treatment of addicts. If our intent is to incarcerate those struggling with addiction, then we should be providing mental healthcare in the process of this individual’s rehabilitation. After all, if our judicial and legal system is going to proclaim substance abuse as a criminal matter, then they owe it to the individual and society at large to restore the individual to normality.

The bleak optimism has skewed the overall views of our societal perspectives on substance abuse. Substance abuse users are considered weak and there is a general intolerance of those who have become vulnerable to substances.

RETHINKING OUR PERSPECTIVES ON SUBSTANCE ABUSE AND ADDICTION

And above all, we must reduce drug use for one great moral reason: Over time, drugs rob men, women, and children of their dignity, and of their character. Illegal (and legal) drugs are the enemies of ambition and hope. And when we fight against drugs, we fight for the souls of our
fellow Americans.”~ President George W. Bush

As a society, we must change our perspective on this most egregious epidemic. The power of empathy is essential in helping those who are societies most vulnerable. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) “the World Drug Report 2017: 29.5 million people globally suffer from drug use disorders, opioids the most harmful.”

As a society, we must change our way of thinking and our perspectives on addiction. We can no longer view addicts as criminals and we must begin thinking of them as individuals suffering from a chronic disease.

As a clinician, I have never met an addict without a psychological history. Whether the history is acute or chronic, there appears to always be some sort of history that lends the individual to seek out substances. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) reports that there is a definite connection between mental illness and the use of addictive substances.

THE POWER OF EMPATHY

The power of empathy in recovery can prove to be the greatest resource for an addict. If society were to treat addiction as any other disease; there would be no need for this article. As a society, we have no problem dispensing empathy for those suffering from chronic diseases such as cancer or diabetes, but mental health disorders and diseases lack a similar form of empathy.

We must begin to recognize the importance of empathy and its role on the treatment of those with substance abuse issues. “This is where the power of empathy works in recovery from addiction. Empathy is the ability to walk in the experiences of another, while recognizing that they are not that person.” Empathy transcends our preset perspectives and rises above those ideological viewpoints. It allows us to begin looking at the core of the individual, rather than the addiction.

Furthermore, we must move beyond labeling the individual as an addict and begin treating their addiction. Not unlike a cancer, an addiction is a disease. An individual suffering from an addiction is neither their disease nor the psychological disorder that they are struggling to manage. Through empathy, we see an individual beyond their alignment, frailty and vulnerability. We begin to see the individual as worthy and deserving of our best.

As a society, we practice empathy for those suffering from cancer and other grave diseases. Let’s start practicing empathy for those suffering from addiction and other psychological disorders.

Dr. Asa Don Brown,

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