Over 20 million Americans suffer from addiction every year. Only about 10 percent get the help they need. Drugs and addictive behavior are major issues here in the United States, where despite the resources and time we’ve spent fighting the availability and reputation of addictive substances on the street, we’re still dealing with a nation where various personal circumstances – from finances to peer pressure, depression and other mental illnesses – drive people to seek solace in something that can, in the long term, completely destroy their lives.
It’s a scourge, but not one we can fight in the traditional sense. Addiction needs to be fought – with understanding, knowledge, empathy, and volunteers working for better treatment options for recovering addicts. If you want to work in the realm of addiction recovery and rehab, however, it pays to understand the fundamentals.
What Is Addiction?
Addiction is a very varied disease, in so far that it can occur at the hands of a number of substances and behaviors. Some of the most common addictions involve substances like alcohol, prescription medication, marijuana, and other illicit drugs – but non-substance based addictions, such as a gambling addiction or sex addiction, are just as devastating.
We’ve gone from having an unofficial consensus regarding addiction as a scourge of weak personality and bad character, to officially recognizing it as a physical issue, and a neurological problem – one where a person’s willpower and determinism has less to do with the origins of the disease than uncontrollable factors like genetics, environment, and societal circumstances.
As years pass, we’ve also come to learn that fighting drug wars on the streets and vilifying addicts through increased prosecutions, sentences, incarcerations and fear-inducing stereotypes hasn’t truly helped.
A Disease, Not a Flaw
Addiction is a disease, as we’ve come to learn. Addicts aren’t monsters, or weak, misguided individuals – they’re people, with normal people problems, and the ability to address those problems on their own terms in a way that ultimately backfired. Addicts don’t fit a specific dress code or set of behavior – they come from all ages, genders, races and classes. Understanding this – and more importantly, being able to convey that to guilt-ridden addicts or those in denial of the severity of their situation – is absolutely vital.
It’s not just important to be a knowledgeable volunteer. Many addicts face a stigma in the media and in society in general as wholly responsible for their situation. While it’s true that the ball is in their park when it comes to taking the initiative to fix things, many addicts blame and shame themselves for their choices, leading to a depressive cycle that continually feeds their addiction.
No matter why it started – whether as a way to self-medicate with prescription medication, pain medication, or through peer pressure, or simply as a way to have fun – addiction always takes a dark turn into a spiral of guilt, anger, and mental battles. Alleviating that takes considerable time.
What a Volunteer Can’t Do
Understanding addiction is one thing, especially when you’ve already been an addict. If you’re looking to start volunteering expressly because you were helped by an amazing community of volunteers and empathic souls and you want to do your part to spread that love, then knowing everything you can about addiction through your own experiences is vital.
As is knowing how individualistic the journey to recovery is, even when you’re surrounded by a network of supportive people. Remember, it’s not on you to push someone along a path of betterment when volunteering to help recovering addicts – one vital aspect to successful recovery and lasting sobriety is that a recovering addict takes the mental (and physical) steps towards improvement on their own terms, in their own pace, with no coercion.
Helping means being there for support. It means aiding and teaching, explaining and suggesting, standing on the sidelines and watching as the patient makes their own decisions, weighs their own options, and takes their own steps.
If the battle recovering patients wage with themselves isn’t fought solely between their urge to get better and their temptation towards relapse, then they’re less likely to build the confidence and self-esteem needed to carry on getting better in the future. You’re not trying to create a person who is dependent on medication, therapy, rehabilitation and a gigantic sober support system. The idea is that these things are ultimately temporary, and teach a patient precisely how to live without them.
What a Volunteer Can Do
However, there is a list of things you’ll most likely end up doing, including:
- Speaking about your experiences regarding addiction, and recovery.
- Sharing your own tips and stories on how to get sober, and reasons you decide to stick to your lifestyle.
- Aiding others transition from a post-rehab life into regular life, and steer clear of the dreaded relapse.
- Help others openly discuss their feelings and confess their urges and relapses, and teach them that it’s okay to fail, as long as you keep trying to the best of your abilities.
- Modeling healthy emotional and physical lifestyle choices, from fitness and exercise to self-care.
- Offering companionship to recovering addicts looking for workout, jogging or riding partners, art collaborators, or just sponsors and friends.
- Helping in the organizing and setup of local group meetings and activities, and getting involved online.
This is just a sample list for an average volunteer position, but it doesn’t touch on the complexity and variety of tasks and responsibilities that could be your own depending on what program you decide to work with.
For example, if you live in an area with a high rate of teen substance use and suicide, chances are there’s a program in your area for suicide prevention, recovery and drug abstinence, helping teens do better in school through tutelage and group activities arranged by other recovered and recovering volunteers such as yourself.
It’s Not Just Altruism
While it’s obvious that the biggest benefit of becoming a volunteer is that you get to do it out of the goodness of your heart, and give back in a way to all the people who have helped you get to where you are. It can also help you alleviate whatever guilt you still feel towards your choices.
But the added benefit to your altruism is the fact that, by volunteering, you’re massively increasing your chances of long-term sobriety and relapse prevention. Statistics show that recovering addicts who often volunteer and act as models to newly rehabilitated patients do a lot better in the long-term, ostensibly because by putting more on the line and having more people rely on your success, you increase the pressure and motivation to keep staying active, to keep staying away from your past, and to keep on striving for improvement.
Lastly, it’s important to know how much pressure you can and can’t handle. It can be difficult for some to engage with other addicts on a constant basis, especially newly recovering ones. If you devote too much of your time to the volunteering process, the stress may grow on you and backfire. That doesn’t mean it can’t turn into a viable career option – just know exactly how much of yourself you can devote to the cause of a drug-free world.