Making Your Way in an Addiction Recovery Support Group
Peer groups for addiction and alcoholism are an integral part of the healing and recovery process. These assemblies of the hopeful can be extraordinarily effective at facilitating constructive interactions between people who are attempting to make a successful transition from sickness to health. Recovery from addiction is hard and challenging work, and the advice and support that substance abusers receive from their peers in support groups can be valuable beyond measure.
Or at least, this is how it should be. Unfortunately, peer groups are no different than any other type of self-organized entity in that they can be highly effective or completely dysfunctional depending on the quality of the input of the participants. Ultimately, those who attend peer support groups must put in a real effort to make sure these self-organized healing-centered associations deliver on their promise to assist, and without this type of care and concern a peer group may come nowhere close to living up to its potential as a force for good.
A lot of the responsibility for the quality of the peer group experience obviously falls on the shoulders of the group leader, who must use his education and experience to help steer discussions in a positive direction. But while a good leader has great influence, if the members of a peer group don’t hold up their end of the bargain, even the best leader will not be able to organize an assemblage that rises above the mediocre. The voluntary relationships that the members establish among themselves are the lifeblood of all peer support groups, and it is vital that recovering addicts and alcoholics who attend group meetings work hard to make these gatherings productive and enlightening for all.
To some extent this burden may seem a little unfair; after all, addicts in the early stages of recovery already have a lot on their plates, and asking them to take on the added responsibility of helping to ensure that peer support groups are run effectively may seem like a bit much. But passivity is not synonymous with recovery from chemical dependency, and anyone who is serious about overcoming a drug or alcohol problem should be ready to take an active role in his or her project of redemption at each step along the path. If a peer group is only as good as its members – and this truism is as rock-solid as they come – then each of those members must be prepared to expend effort and energy to facilitate the recovery process, for their own good as well as the good of their fellow addicts.
So what characteristics make a good peer support group member? There are many possible answers to this question, but the analysis of peer group dynamics that follows should provide some useful guidance for those seeking insight.
Recognizing and Respecting Boundaries and Communication Styles
Addicts and alcoholics in peer support groups share a common problem, but nevertheless each is a profoundly unique human being whose differences must be recognized and acknowledged. Human individuality is the main reason listening skills are just as important in communication as speaking skills, and peer group members should concentrate very closely on what their fellow group members are saying so that they can respond appropriately and constructively to what they are hearing—presume nothing but hear everything, this should be the credo of all peer support group members when dealing with their fellow recovering addicts.
But to gain real insight, it is also important to hear what people are not saying—while some people are comfortable speaking about their lives and their problems in public others are far more reserved and reticent, and everyone’s preferences and styles should be understood and respected. In ways that are sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious, each and every person in a peer support group will let the others know when they are ready to talk, how much information they are willing to disclose, and how much honest feedback they are comfortable receiving. Good peer group members realize this, they pay attention to the signs, and they adjust their interactions with their fellow recovering addicts and alcoholics accordingly.
The Power of the Practical
Recovering substance abusers attend group meetings hoping to find support and understanding, but they are also looking for practical advice to help them cope with the pitfalls and temptations they will inevitably face as they travel the path to sobriety. Whether their useful knowledge has been gained through wise analysis or trial-and-error, most recovering addicts have discovered strategies and techniques that have helped them make it through the rough times, and their “stories of the road” can be immensely helpful to others who will likely face, or are already facing, the same obstacles on their journey to good health. For the newly sober the possibility of relapse looms at every moment, and any ideas about how to handle cravings, overcome the depression that often accompanies withdrawal, or resist the triggers that can sabotage recovery in an instant can be extremely helpful.
In general, a positive attitude in the peer support group setting is highly recommended. But vague, pie-in-the-sky platitudes sound insincere and can actually interfere with the establishment of good relations between support group members. Hard-earned practical advice, on the other hand, will always be accepted with gratitude and appreciation.
The Grace of Acceptance
Giving good advice is wonderful, but accepting the suggestions and insights of others with good grace also helps to make the atmosphere in peer group sessions feel warm and inviting for all who come. When people feel free to share their thoughts about the situations others are experiencing, and when they know their efforts to help will be applauded, it enables them to connect more deeply with other recovering substance abusers and helps them open their hearts and minds to the guidance they will be offered by others in return. Regardless of whether the advice a particular person gives actually has the potential to help anyone else is irrelevant; just the fact that he or she feels comfortable speaking up and contributing is what matters the most.
Peer group members really do need each other, for validation as much as for anything else, and for this reason everyone who attends group meetings should give equal attention to all. Recovering addicts and alcoholics are searching desperately for a renewed sense of purpose, and having the chance to help others who are in a similar situation can help fill in the emotional and psychological gaps that will come to the forefront once drugs and alcohol are no longer around to provide their dubious compensations.
Following the Leader, and Letting the Leader Follow
As previously mentioned, group leaders play a vital role in managing and developing peer groups that actually work the way they are supposed to. But even though they are officially the ones in charge, group leaders still need all the help and support they can get. For example, peer group members who listen closely to what their leader says and ask questions or offer critiques can boost his or her efforts substantially, offering positive reinforcement to a message that may be of vital importance to everyone.
In peer groups, leaders are only as good as their followers. When recovering addicts and alcoholics are willing to support their leaders’ hard work by participating eagerly and attentively in the discussions they initiate, it sets a good precedent and encourages others to get more deeply involved as well.