The opioid epidemic has and continues to be a source of alarming headlines and disturbing news reports. When the average person reads these reports, it can be all too easy to react with disgust towards the person with opioid use disorder. People often lack understanding of the impact of opioid drugs on the brain and the significant chemical changes caused by these drugs. Many opioid addicts did not become addicted through illicit street drugs, but instead from a prescription written to combat pain. What started as an effort to eliminate pain tragically transformed into addiction to these opioids and the need to obtain the drugs from whatever source possible – including illegal street trade.
With our years of working with people with opioid use disorder, we have learned that there was never a desire or intention to become addicted, but the effect of the opioid substances was too powerful. Our experience has also shown that what this person needs to achieve recovery is respect and compassion. These essential elements help the recovering person feel like an accepted member of society and someone with potential for a better future.
How can compassion and respect help?
1. Compassion aids in understanding the recovery journey and challenges.
For those who have not struggled with compulsive disease, addiction can appear to be a moral failing. When active addicts accumulate multiple problems, the question naturally arises: “Why can't they just stop?”
Compassion requires setting this perspective aside. Addiction itself raises a more obvious question: who would choose such a life for themselves?
Compassion for addiction begins when someone puts themselves in the shoes of another person. It requires imagination and conversing with anyone who has experience. Most important of all, compassion means plunging into one’s own experience with making mistakes.
2. Compassion inspires better understanding of addiction.
When a person educates themselves about the powerful risk factors pulling a person into compulsive behavior, they start to understand the path that led the person into opioid use disorder. Learning how opioids work and the impact on the brain allows another person to understand how the path to addiction can occur.
Fortunately, resources for learning about opioid use disorder are abundant, whether sophisticated brain imaging research or the recovery memoir section of the library. Taking time to learn allows a family member or friend to have a greater understanding of what the newly recovering person might be experiencing and the challenges they may be trying to overcome.
The person in recovery may choose to become part of a recovery community to
gain more support and relate to people who are going through a similar journey. These communities are often accessible to friends and family and include special groups to support the person who is living with a newly recovering person.
In addition to gaining more knowledge about addiction, it is also important to demonstrate a sincere interest in the lives of the recovering person. Ask them what their days are like, what they’re facing in the effort to change habits, and what you might do to help. Willingness to take an interest in the person and understand how they are feeling is respect and compassion in action.
3. Compassion leads to self-compassion – and self-compassion is crucial.
A common sentiment for someone who is newly recovering is regret they didn’t get help earlier. As the fog clears and they recognize what they missed in life they can sink into a place of blame and remorse.
There’s no use to wallow in the past. The past is over, and only some of the damage can be repaired. The key is for the recovering person to be compassionate with themselves as well. Be willing to correct the past transgressions but most importantly set out on a path of living well. Beating oneself up for past actions does not take those actions back or change what happened. Focus instead on forgiving the past and focusing on building a positive future.
Compassion and respect are at the heart of recovery.
An atmosphere of compassion and respect make open dialogue possible. The recovering person is more likely to share about where they are in recovery, the challenges they are facing and their hopes for the future. Feeling comfortable to share in this way, strengthens the recovering person’s ability to ask for help.
When the person in recovery is treated with compassion and respect, they regain self-worth.
When they’re treated with compassion and respect, they start believing they have value for the next part of life.
And when they’re treated with compassion and respect, they learn how precious these behaviors are and they learn to treat other people with the same respect and understanding.
Compassion and respect for the newly recovering person may be hard, but the value is endless.