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Life Meaning and Purpose in Addiction Recovery

July 1, 2006
by William L. White, MA, Alexandre B. Laudet, PhD, and Jeffrey B. Becker, MSW, MPH
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The counselor can help clients identify meaning that fits their value system

Once you have no hope, no goals or no dreams, you're just waitin' to die.

God gives you the means to get clean; now what you gonna do with that life?

—Voices of recovering addicts in New York City

In the transition from addiction to recovery, each client must find ways to draw life meaning and purpose from the addiction and recovery experiences, forge new prescriptions for daily living, and generate hope for the future. To understand more deeply the role of meaning and purpose in the recovery process, the authors conducted 354 semi-structured interviews and 50 in-depth qualitative life history interviews with New York City residents in recovery. The semi-structured interviews are being repeated annually over four years.

Most of those interviewed have prolonged histories of multiple drug dependence (predominantly crack cocaine, heroin, and alcohol) and numerous collateral problems (including homelessness, HIV, and co-occurring psychiatric illness).1 This article highlights some of the key findings of this study, illustrates those findings using excerpts from the interviews, and discusses the potential implications for addiction counseling practice.

Sense making in recovery

There is a growing diversity of religious, spiritual, and secular frameworks of addiction recovery.2 While individuals representing these varieties of recovery experience are often juxtaposed against one another as part of an acrimonious debate, these frameworks of recovery share much in common. All help their members answer, albeit in very different ways, five recovery-crucial questions:

  1. Why and how did this happen? (Why me?)

  2. What does it mean to have this problem? (How has this problem changed me and my most important relationships and activities?)

  3. How did I come to escape this problem? (Why have I survived when others have not? Where does my recovery story begin?)

  4. What actions do I need to take today to sustain my recovery?

  5. How does this problem affect the future direction of my life? (What is my personal destiny as a person in recovery?)

Such questions are a normal process of constructing meaning and redefining self and the self-world relationship in the face of serious illness.3 Answering these questions provides a way to escape self-censure and social stigma and a means of positively coping with the loss of personal power and control. Whether framed in religious, spiritual, or secular terms, these answers constitute the building blocks of recovery and can be collectively framed within the rubric of life meaning and purpose (LMP).

LMP's role in recovery

LMP links past, present, and future. Meaning focuses on rendering our past coherent and giving value to our present, and purpose provides a framework for linking present activities to a desired future. Recent studies of addiction recovery suggest that LMP plays an important role in the recovery process.4 Some of these studies' clinically significant findings and tentative observations include the following:

  • LMP in addiction recovery is often defined in the context of multiple conditions (e.g., developmental trauma/loss, co-occurring medical or psychiatric illness, poverty, homelessness).

  • The development of LMP in recovery often occurs in the context of catalytic metaphors (through which previously inexplicable struggles become understandable), empowering relationships, and the experience of connection to community.5,6

  • LMP can serve as a catalyst of recovery initiation, an anchor for recovery maintenance, and a source of recovery enrichment.7

  • LMP significantly enhances the likelihood of successful recovery maintenance.8

  • Recovery-inciting LMP can be experienced suddenly in a transformative revelation that is unplanned, positive, and permanent, or through an extended process of self-awakening.9

  • LMP can occur in the context of self-surrender and self-transcendence (connection with resources outside the self) or through a process of self-assertion (discovery of hidden resources inside the self and acts of personal resistance/defiance).

  • LMP evolves across the stages of recovery and across the developmental stages of life. The LMP that anchors early recovery might have to be redefined in later stages of recovery.

  • Life meaning and life purpose are forms of recovery capital (internal and external assets that mediate long-term recovery outcomes); LMP can be increased through the guidance of addiction professionals and recovery support specialists.

Asking those in recovery about the importance new LMP played in their recovery generated responses such as:

I need to have a reason to stay sober. … I asked myself the question, “Why am I here? Just to drink?” No, a sense of purpose gives me something to work with. Everybody don't go to meetings or to church or believe in a higher power. You've got to have a purpose, something that you believe in.

You have to hold on to something that gives you purpose for taking another breath.

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