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A recovery community can foster military-like camaraderie

June 2, 2016
by Heidi Voet Smith
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As my staff and I were discussing the launch of our new curriculum based on the 2001 television mini-series “Band of Brothers,” a co-worker of mine began musing about how many principles of the curriculum related back to his own experience. “I feel like my recovery really happened in my treatment dorm room every night after curfew—that’s where the real work was happening—talking to my roommates, getting real, getting clarity and figuring out what this whole recovery thing was about,” he said. “It was just us, being raw, wearing no masks, and not trying to impress staff.”

What mattered most when he remembers getting sober was his own Band of Brothers. As treatment professionals, we often make the mistake of overestimating our influence in the process of change. The people who have the most influence in an individual’s recovery process are most likely those who are in the trenches with them. But how can treatment professionals help create an environment to support those healthy bonds?

As we studied “Band of Brothers,” a 10-part HBO mini-series that chronicles the experiences of young men who served in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army during World War II, I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather. He never missed a reunion of his Navy crew that he served alongside in the Pacific during World War II. He loved those men until the day he died. He cherished those reunions. In honor of him, I am excited to reflect on what we can learn from “Band of Brothers,” and the military in general, in creating effective group cohesion.

In watching “Band of Brothers,” I was fascinated by how many parallels I saw to the recovery and treatment process. As the owner and clinical director of an extended-care program for young-adult men, I want to foster a brotherhood that changes the lives of each of our clients.

Preparing for battle: boot camp

In “Band of Brothers,” the first few episodes focus on boot camp and the preparation of each individual and the group as a whole. No one goes to war without rigorous and meticulous training. Bootcamp is unrelenting—and I propose that addiction treatment should be the same way (of course, within proper ethical boundaries and with unconditional positive regard for each client).

I believe that treatment can and should be one of the hardest things an individual will ever do. It’s not supposed to be fun or relaxing. You are challenging yourself in ways you never planned, getting vulnerable when you don’t want to, and diving into territory you would rather leave alone. In an article published in the Journal of Consulting Psychology, scientist Dael Wolfle outlined four basic principles of learning that are woven throughout military training protocols.(1) These principles encompass how and why treatment works:

1) Overlearning is useful. As a transitional-living provider, I often hear clients complain when they step down from residential treatment to outpatient or aftercare that “I just did all this for the last 30 days,” or “We are talking about all the same stuff they were at my treatment center.” My response? Yes. Exactly. When the paratroopers were dropped on D-Day, “Band of Brothers” depicts that all they could rely on was their training and following the plan they had gone over a million times. Even though half of them lost their weapons, they just kept moving, which is what they had been taught to do.

In early recovery, individuals won’t have all the accountability mechanisms available to them in the real world, such as a counselor on site seven days a week, or a required morning meditation group. But even if they don’t have everything they think they need, they usually have enough to keep moving. The role of the treatment professional is to remind, reinforce and encourage them to keep moving forward.

2) A skill is lost during periods without practice. When we do “relapse autopsies” with clients, it always traces back to when they quit practicing the disciplines and principles of recovery. There are no breaks in recovery—you’re either going backward or forward. Even after intense, deadly and exhausting battles, soldiers must keep training and must keep in fit condition for the next battle.

3) Training situations should be as much like real-life combat situations as possible. David Grossman, a former U.S. Army Ranger and West Point psychology professor, wrote On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace with former police officer Loren Christensen.(2) Grossman believes that training as realistically as possible is important, and that repeated drills and exercises allow the individual to act without thinking, as though they were on “autopilot.” Grossman makes a case for what he calls “pre-battle veterans,” or individuals who have gone through training that was sufficiently stressful to prepare them for real-life engagements. He believes training should not be over until the trainee has completed whatever goals indicate survival in the test, because in real-life encounters, it is life or death. Recovery also should be a constant “here and now” exercise in how individuals' actions and thoughts affect their real life, right now.

Should treatment always be a “safe place” for healing and rest, or should it be a training zone for real life? I by no means believe in militant and abusive treatment for addiction. But I’m also not sure that treatment is meant to be a safe incubator where the focus is always on comfort and safety. I believe treatment is meant to be a pressure cooker that is intentionally stressful, allowing conflict and discomfort in order to teach real-life coping skills and self-regulation.

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A very thoughtful and thought-provoking article. Nice work!

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