Treatment programs usually have a recovery group component. But why is that?
Peer support groups, group therapy, meetings, discussion sessions … I’ve even heard people call them “classes.” Whatever you call them, recovery groups are a common feature in most programs for addiction treatment. Many rehabs and intensive outpatient (IOP) programs require participants to attend 12-step meetings, which are available around the world, live and online. There are also a wide range of other recovery groups, like Refuge Recovery, Celebrate Recovery, SMART Recovery, the Sober Mom Squad, Recovery Dharma, Recovery 2.0 … the list goes on and on. Here at Workit Health, our members have access to online meetings with topics ranging from grief to tapering off buprenorphine to meditation.
But WHY do all of these groups exist? What’s the point of recovery groups, anyway?
Recovery groups provide connection to combat our sense of isolation
In a 2015 TED Talk, Johann Hari said, “Connection is the opposite of addiction.” That might be a little simplistic—considering all of the physiological and psychological impacts of substance use disorder—but he’s not wrong that addiction and substance use disorder can be incredibly isolating.
When I was active in my alcohol use disorder, my whole world seemed to revolve around getting, consuming, and hiding alcohol. I was so protective over my drinking that I didn’t put much time or energy into my relationships. A lot of other people have shared similar experiences with me, telling me about how they cut themselves off from others in pursuit of a substance. Many more have shared their own painful histories of being cut off by their loved ones due to their addiction. The feeling of being alone can be exacerbated by the fact that addiction and substance use disorder are still taboo topics in many circles. There aren’t a lot of places where we can feel comfortable talking about our struggles without fear of being judged.
In recovery groups, we can openly share, knowing that the others present have had similar experiences. I can’t express how validating it is to talk about something that I’d thought no one else had ever done and see a whole group of people nodding along. Just having the company of other people who get it, alongside us on our journey can provide support, reassurance, and a sense of community.
Recovery groups can provide a sounding board and a space to process
The function of a sounding board is not necessarily to advise us, but just to listen nonjudgmentally. Sometimes we need to express our thoughts and emotions out loud. This can help us process emotions and work through our reactions to situations.
Personally, I also feel that talking about negative thoughts and impulses in a recovery group helps me to let go of those thoughts and release my sense of shame about them. Group members share a goal of supporting one another, so a meeting is a comfortable and sympathetic space. Additionally, the folks in my groups are not usually personally involved in my life situations like my family might be—so hearing my fears, guilt, or anger won’t be hurtful to them, as it might be to my husband, son, or parents.
Recovery groups create accountability for our goals
Peer accountability is an interesting phenomenon. As we build connections within a group, we begin to feel more accountable to them—we want to be honest with them and we don’t want to let them down. This can help us keep showing up for our recovery (attending meetings, getting to our appointments, taking our meds reliably, doing any recovery “homework” or courses), even when we’re not feeling super motivated. So many times when I’ve felt like hanging out on the couch, I’ve been moved to go to a meeting by the knowledge that people would wonder where I was if I skipped.
Research also suggests that people tend to internalize things more when we say them out loud. So if I share a goal in a meeting, I am likely to feel more emotionally invested in that goal than if I say it only to myself.
Recovery groups can help crowd-source information and solutions
In general, I tend to feel like I can figure everything out by myself. But since I’m only human, that often isn’t the case. As a part of a group, I have access to an awesome resource—the stories and experiences of a wide circle of other folks. This doesn’t mean I must take suggestions from members of our recovery groups, but it does open me up to their guidance.
This wider perspective and experience can be especially helpful when I’m feeling scared or uncertain about facing something new. Often, other group members have already been through that situation. Whether I ask for advice or just listen to their stories, it’s really reassuring to hear that other people have been where I am and made it through. Hearing how they navigated it can relieve my fear.
In groups that are led by counselors or therapists, we often find additional support, as they help counteract our misconceptions and direct us toward relevant resources.
Recovery groups can help boost our confidence and self-esteem
For a long time, I didn’t feel like I was contributing much to the world or to my fellow people. Frankly, I felt like a failure. It was a discouraging, dark, lonely time. Taking part in recovery groups offered me a chance to help other people who had stories like mine—by lending a nonjudgmental ear, by sharing my own experiences, sometimes by offering suggestions based on my past experience. It’s really empowering and inspiring to feel like I’m contributing in this way. Like I have value.
There are a ton of recovery group options out there, some guided by counselors, some led by peers, some rigidly structured, some loose and flexible. You’re sure to find one where you fit!