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How Getting Sober Makes You More Resilient

Image via Drop the Label Movement/Unsplash

Some may argue that achieving recovery is in and of itself an act of resilience. It is by no means easy to sustain recovery. It may take many attempts and it isn’t always smooth sailing. Once we do achieve recovery, however, we find that we can just about do anything. 

What is Resilience?

By definition, resilience means recovering from difficulties—such as alcohol use disorder—and the ability to spring back into shape. One might argue that there is less springing and more metamorphosis that occurs when someone embraces recovery. Either way, the reality is that recovery gives us a new lease on life. 

We spoke to addiction and recovery experts about why people in recovery exhibit resilience, how that resilience has impacted their own recovery and that of others, and how we can use that resilience to deal with the rest of our lives.

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Why Folx in Recovery are Resilient

People in recovery are resilient by nature, explains Dr. Kristine De Jesus, PsyD, a writer, activist, and the founder of The Wellness Cooperative. “Creative and self-sustaining, they have found a way to persevere despite the most difficult situations,” she says.

De Jesus adds that alcohol use disorder by its very nature can be a barrier to treatment. “Healing from a disorder that is characterized as a moral failing, in a medical system that pathologizes one’s mere existence and criminalizes you for having an illness, it is a wonder that anyone in the USA is able to recover. Yet despite the structural and systemic barriers, people with substance use disorder find a way to heal.”

Tony Vezina, BSW, CRM II, and the executive director of 4th Dimension Recovery (a young persons’ peer-led recovery community organization), explains, “People in recovery from substance use are resilient because they have overcome a disease that hijacks their brains while society can shame, judge, or paternalize them.” In addition, Vezina explains that while alcohol use disorders are treatable, there is a lack of access to evidence-based and culturally responsive treatment and recovery support, meaning someone may die before getting life-saving treatment. 

“So, when a person overcomes all of this and finds recovery, they embody the essence of resiliency,” he says.

Are Folx in Recovery More Resilient?

De Jesus argues that our perception of people with alcohol use disorder is distorted when in fact we demonstrate immense resourcefulness and hope. “Some might look at people with a history of substance use disorder and see a person who engages in destructive behavior, when in reality, folx were using every resource available to numb the pain and keep trudging along in hopes of a better day. The well of hope that exists in people with SUD runs deep” she says.

Vezina believes that recovery makes you more resilient. “I overcame so many things to get into recovery; I went through so much that when I finally broke the addiction, I felt like I could do anything.” For him, it is his belief system that sustains his recovery: “I learned a lot getting into recovery, but the thing that keeps me resilient is the belief that my worth and value are connected to my spirituality.” 

Vezina explains he has observed resilience in others that have made them unstoppable. “For some, the resilience people build in finding recovery propels them to do amazing things,” he says. “We don’t hear about it much, likely because the media covers the wild and erratic behavior associated with using substances, but I have seen people become launched into wonderful parents, leaders, business owners, actors, athletes, rappers, etc. It’s like once they beat the disease, nothing can stop them.”

De Jesus says that because people in recovery have often experienced pain, that pain creates a profound sense of compassion and empathy. “This is the springboard for their resilience,” she says. “Once compassion and empathy are internalized, the sky’s the limit. This resilience allows folx in recovery to show up for themselves and others in circumstances in which most people would struggle to function with a grace rarely seen outside the recovery community.”

How Can We Use Resilience and Apply it to Our Challenges? 

“Resilience is an artifact of survival,” says De Jesus. She explains that resilience is a skill set we use to sustain life despite difficult circumstances. “Recovery is about using one’s inherent resilience and developing healthier coping skills. The application of healthy coping skills, innate resilience, and a recovery community make growth virtually inevitable.”

Vezina advises that we should know there is beauty in the struggle. “The beautiful part about recovery is that you did it; you survived.” He explained: “I see too many people (including myself) that have unrealistic expectations of themselves, mainly because they wanna be perfect.” He encourages us all to remember that we made it this far and to keep going.  

“Also, for me, my resilience is closely connected to my people. I would say find people who believe in you and lean on them during challenging times. Just don’t forget to believe in others.”

Resilience for BIPOC

A large part of the struggle that we fail to recognize when looking at resilience is the resilience demonstrated by marginalized folx. Their whole lives have been about resilience, says Dharma Mirza, an equity and justice fellow for the Association of Recovery in Higher Education. “Being resilient in the face of systems of oppression, being resilient in the face of stigma, being resilient in the face of grief. Being resilient is a skill we learn that we have to engage in every day. Sometimes resilience is just making it through another day.” Mirza continues, “This resilience seems to be entangled with survival, especially for folks like myself from cultures impacted by colonial genocidal projects, displacement, and settler colonialism.”

However, even though Mirza notes that while resilience is steeped in ableist and white supremacist norms, like the idea of  “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps,” there is still value in showing resilience. “I would say it’s important for me to articulate my resilience as a trans person of color,” Mirza says, “because we are often cast as hopeless and failures.”

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Whether you are new to recovery or not, you may not have realized that you have already shown great resilience in your struggles that you can apply to some aspects of your life, especially those in which you are marginalized.

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