The River of Addiction

Exploring the River of Addiction: A Metaphor for Recovery

Dear Friend,

As the temperatures climb into the 90s, many of us in Asheville are looking for ways to stay cool. At Next Step Recovery, one of our favorite ways is to grab a raft, inner tube, kayak, or canoe and spend a few hours in a mountain river going with the flow or running some rapids. It’s a great way to beat the heat, and something we always look forward to doing together.

No substances needed. Just add water.

As much fun as it is, we remember to have a healthy respect for the river as well. We wear life jackets and helmets if we’re going to run the rapids. We use the buddy system in case someone gets stuck in an eddy or a rock punctures their inflatable. We make sure we stay hydrated and protect ourselves from sunburn, especially if we’re going to be on the river for several hours. So while river running is a blast, it’s not without some risks—which is what makes it the perfect outdoor adventure. Anticipating and navigating risks is an important skill we practice every day in recovery.

In fact, the river itself is a great metaphor for helping others understand addiction and recovery, especially if they’ve not experienced these things firsthand.

An Exercise in Self Reflection

We’ve explored this metaphor with our residents and their families, and it has produced some interesting “aha” moments. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.

Take a few moments to think about addiction.

What words and/or images come to mind?

Stop right here. Don’t read any further. Pause.

What comes up for you? Make a note (or two). Write it down.

Now, take another moment to consider “intervention.”

Repeat the process above.

Do the same with “treatment.”

Then “recovery.”

What came up? Were the words and images positive or negative? How would it feel if those words and images were directed at you? Did anything shift as you considered different aspects of the recovery process?

Spend a little time with these questions. How do your answers make you feel? Many of us notice there are a lot of negative feelings that come up when we consider addiction. Maybe you conjured up images of lying, stealing, feeling out of control, dirty needles, overdosing, friends who’ve died, betraying family and friends, shameful memories. It can be hard to feel compassion for ourselves or anyone else in active
addiction.

But what if we thought of addiction and recovery like a river?

Take a few moments to imagine this river. What direction does it flow? How fast is it going? What’s in it? What’s on the shore? What else do you notice?

Take it a step further. Get some paper and a pencil or pen and draw everything you just imagined. How does each feature of your river represent some aspect of addiction or recovery? Label your drawing if you like.

How do you feel about addiction now? Has anything shifted?

The River at Next Step

When we’ve gone through this exercise at Next Step Recovery, our drawings have included rushing rapids to symbolize active addiction, waterfalls that plummet people into treatment, rocks that represent triggers and challenges, people drowning in addiction, bridges that lead to recovery, counselors throwing ropes and pulling people to safety, and many variations on these and other themes.

The “aha’s” come when we realize that we don’t tend to blame people for drowning or for just treading water. We understand that sometimes people jump in over their heads, get caught in the current, or get swept away by forces stronger than themselves. If we find ourselves in this swiftly moving river, we recognize that we need more than human willpower to get back out. Much more. This is where we can find some compassion, which can be a life raft we offer to ourselves and others who are in recovery.

Addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease, and its rapids are fast and deep. Some of us dive in and never make it back to the surface. Others fight the current for many years. Most of us need help to make our way to shore and keep from falling in again. It takes a lot of practice to become a strong swimmer.

Why It Matters

So why does it matter if we talk about addicts or rivers? Or people getting lost in the rapids?

It matters because we are in the midst of a national epidemic. We’re losing 470 people a day to opioid overdoses and alcohol-related causes. That’s the equivalent of a Boeing 747 crashing every day. And yet, despite this crisis, only 1 in 10 people who need treatment are able to get it.

One reason more people don’t seek treatment is the stigma surrounding addiction. Thinking and talking about addiction as a river is one way we can fight this stigma and make recovery more accessible, according to research conducted in Canada. I encourage you to do your own research by inviting others to grab a paddle and see where the river, and the conversation, leads.

What came up for you, reading this post? Did you have any “Aha!” moments? Tell us about them below! Or, if you know someone who is struggling to keep their head above water, please like and share this post with them. Perhaps this exercise can be one plank in the life raft they need.

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