By Wesley Gallagher
According to a recent article in The New York Times, approximately 21 million Americans suffer from substance abuse, and an average of 175 people a day die from overdose. Despite the growing epidemic, there’s still a culture of silence around addiction and a stigma surrounding drug and alcohol abuse. It’s often seen as more of a moral failing than a disease, and fear and shame keep many from being open about their addiction.1
Recovery is a monumental step for someone with a history of addiction, but the culture of silence remains, even for those who no longer actively use drugs or alcohol. While anonymity serves an important purpose in creating safety for people struggling with substance use, unfortunately, it also contributes to the stigma of addiction.1
Fay Zenoff, Executive Director of the Center for Open Recovery and someone who is in recovery herself, believes that one of the ways to cure the addiction epidemic is for people in recovery to speak up. If it were safer for people to say they were in recovery, it would be safer for people to say they needed help. If more people spoke up about their addictions, understanding would increase, and stigma would decrease.1
So how can people in recovery be more open, and how might that openness help others battling addiction?
Why Should You Tell Your Recovery Story?
If you’re in recovery, you’re in a unique position to speak to others traveling down the same road you’ve been down. You have a story to tell — and it has the potential to provide great hope to those who hear it. It’s both an individual story of your personal journey from addiction to recovery and a communal story that relates to the greater whole of humanity.
According to RtoR.org, there are several reasons to share your recovery story:
- Sharing your story with another person makes your recovery more real. It’s not a recovery story until you tell someone about it.
- In writing or telling about a difficult time, you can organize past events into a structured story that makes sense to others and ultimately helps you better make sense of the experience as well.
- Studies show that sharing difficult experiences with others can improve health and well-being by establishing supportive bonds and reaffirming positive values and lessons learned from life experience.
- Your story will help other people who feel hopeless and alone in their struggles. It could be the catalyst another person needs to finally get help.
- Storytelling is one of the great foundations of civilization – it’s how we build community and create connections.
- Your emotional resilience and coping capacity is strengthened by the realization that you have something to give others that can help them.2
How and When Should You Tell Your Recovery Story?
Your recovery story, like your recovery, is yours and yours alone. Before telling your story, there are some things to consider in order to ensure that it benefits you and your listeners.
Depending on where you are in your recovery, it’s a good idea to talk to your mental health provider about telling your story. They can help you decide whether now is the right time to open up to others. Sharing your story will likely bring up strong emotions and can leave you feeling exposed and vulnerable, so it’s important to be in the right state of mind. As always, your recovery and health come first.3
Once you decide the time is right, here are some tips on what to include in your recovery story, according to the New England MIRECC Peer Education Center:
- Early indications you were beginning to have a problem
- Descriptions of yourself and your situation at your lowest point
- What helped you get from there to where you are
- How you accomplished this and who helped
- What you’ve overcome to get to where you are today
- Strengths and supports you’ve developed and used
- Things you do to maintain your wellness and recovery4
Remember this is a story of recovery, not of illness. Instead of focusing on the impacts of the illness and reliving details of your addiction, focus on your wins and how you’ve overcome challenges and maintained wellness.
And while sharing your story will benefit you, it should also benefit those who hear it. Focus on the positive, transformative experiences you’ve had in your journey to recovery, and provide hope for your listeners.4
Why Writing Your Story Might Be the Way to Go
If you’re not quite ready to tell your story to others in person, writing it down may be a good place to start. Dr. Linda Hatch lists several benefits of writing your recovery story on Psych Central:
- Often you can write about something before you can talk about it, and the act of getting something onto the page makes it feel less overwhelming.
- Writing your story can help you believe in your ability to take responsibility over your recovery.
- Writing is a meditative activity that involves stillness and attentiveness to yourself, leading to more mindfulness of your inner life.
- Writing your story gives you permission to consider all the events of your life and begin to make sense of where you came from and where you are now, propelling your recovery forward as you deepen your self-awareness.
- It is an opportunity to construct your own personal narrative, which up until this point may have been constructed by others or not at all. It allows you to challenge false beliefs you’ve held about yourself and write a truer life narrative.5
Heroes in Recovery contributor Nadine Herring claims that there is great power in the telling of these stories:
“The most powerful thing I’ve experienced … in sharing my story is that it allows people who have been suffering in silence to step forward and ask for help,” says Herring. “There’s something about reading or hearing about someone who has gone through what you’re going through and making it to the other side that lets you know that it is possible, you’re not alone, and there is help for you if you want it.”
1. Hilgers, Laura. “Let’s Open Up About Addiction and Recovery.” The New York Times, November 4, 2017.
2. Boll, Jay. “The Way Back From Mental Illness: 6 Reasons Why You Should Tell Your Story of Hope and Recovery.” RtoR.org, January 25, 2015.
3. “Guidelines For Sharing Your Story Responsibly.” National Eating Disorders, Accessed November 26, 2017.
4. Parker, Mark, and Michael Uraine. “Making Effective Use of Your Recovery Story.” New England MIRECC Peer Education Center, Accessed November 26, 2017.
5. Hatch, Linda, PhD. “Telling Your Story: 5 Ways Writing Is Essential to Recovery.” Psych Central, December 3, 2012.