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Can We Actually Talk About Recovery This Year?

So as we move ahead in this new year, let's all resolve to look for the other side of the story when it comes to addiction, and let's be willing to show that our intellectual and emotional capacities for discussing the issue go beyond the bad news.
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Here we are in early February, just over a month since many of us resolved to make dramatic personal overhauls of our unhealthiest behaviors and least productive mindsets. But the holidays are now long gone, our New Year's resolution fever has broken, and life has resumed its former rhythms, for better or worse. Despite the best intentions, many have already watched their resolve for a new and improved self roll away like a heavy ball down a well-oiled lane. Cynical? I'd say realistic, and largely because the whole concept of New Year's resolutions is flawed at the core. Change is a process, it takes planning, commitment and time. If we just pin our hopes for a better life on the overhyped arrival of Baby New Year, we might as well pin them to the diaper -- they'll both enjoy a similar lifespan.

So instead of obsessing over the annual resolutions towards personal reform that we make and break with the predictability of a hackneyed sitcom, I'd like to suggest we now shift our focus to something more global and thematic, more systemic and collective. Something that could actually have a lasting impact on all of us throughout the year: the perspective from which we're going to discuss addiction in 2015, the angle from which we're going to view its enormous implications for our society. In fact, I'd actually like to suggest that we stop talking about addiction so much this year, and instead make some room in the conversation for its under-publicized counterpart, recovery.

Think about it, and maybe do some rough math: of all the articles, interviews, news stories and headlines about chemical dependency that you came across last year, how many were highlighting the problem, and how many were highlighting the solution? Put another way, what was the ratio of good news to bad? It wasn't even close, was it? And it's that -- our predisposition to discussing what's wrong -- that is holding the value of our discourse around this issue back from its true potential. By fixating on addiction, and devoting our attention so undividedly to the way it's ravaging our country, we are limiting the available bandwidth for an equally important story to be told: how many people are not being ravaged anymore, and how much hope there is for those still suffering.

I'm not saying it's no longer important to expose the depths of the addiction problem in America -- easily a "crisis" or an "epidemic" by most reasonable evaluations of the situation -- and I certainly do my share of emphasizing how pervasive and insidious the problem remains. It's hard to tackle a problem if you don't understand or acknowledge its full dimensions, and education around the scope and impact of addiction therefore remains important -- we shouldn't stop sounding the alarm. But just sounding the alarm isn't enough. You also have to direct people's attention to a clearly marked exit and encourage them to get there. Otherwise, what's the point?

Of all the terrible things that come along with addiction -- mental anguish, physical decline, spiritual vacuums and untimely demises -- perhaps none are as avoidable as the crippling shame and utter hopelessness that often ride shotgun while the disease settles into the driver's seat. As addiction takes over, you lose control of your life, you internalize feelings of worthlessness as a result, and you struggle to see a way out. Why? Not because you are ill-informed about how bad the problem of addiction is, but because you probably aren't overly familiar with what can happen next. Chances are, the messages your brain has spent a lifetime collecting about addiction are all very bad, and there's virtually nothing in the memory banks to counteract the isolating and degrading stigmatization you feel when you have it. Our society hasn't shown you many roadmaps to recovery, or many role models to emulate. Just lots and lots of negative messages. And that's why we've got to shift our focus in 2015, why we've got to talk less about the problem and more about the solution.

I understand that sensationalized stories about public figures who come unglued -- or worse -- as a result of their addictions make for attention-stealing headlines that generate viewership and clicks. When it comes to television and film, I also understand that the train-wreck quality of a life derailed by addiction makes for more compelling entertainment than a story about a stable, "normal" life in recovery. And I get it that reports about how dangerous our country's relationship with various mood altering chemicals has become will get people talking and create a "buzz." But none of this is moving the dialogue about addiction forward enough -- none of it is pointing to what could and should be that clearly marked exit.

So as we move ahead in this new year, let's all resolve to look for the other side of the story when it comes to addiction, and let's be willing to show that our intellectual and emotional capacities for discussing the issue go beyond the bad news. Let's tell more stories of recovery, and publish more studies about its benefits. Let's interview more survivors of addiction and cultivate more interest in positive outcomes. Let's become familiar with what lives in recovery can look like and get to know some people living them. Let's generate some hope and make tangible the notion that lives can be reclaimed, renewed and redeemed. In short, let's just agree that addiction is horrible and widespread, and turn our attention instead to understanding, promoting, and celebrating the many ways people all around us recover from that horror. If I'm wrong, and if shifting our national gaze towards the light doesn't change anything or help more people step out of hopelessness and shame, well, we can always resolve to go back and focus on the bad news next year.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Patrick R. Krill.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.