New Science, New Dangers; A Response to Concerns

My first task in this response is to assert that I do not speak for the RSRC collectively, nor is there any one authority within the RSRC. So my responses will be buttressed with my own work, and by drawing from some lessons of history within various sciences as they emerged. Recovery science, is, after all, moving out from underneath the shadow of addiction science. This is an important historical event, and marks an epoch, whereby the strength-based nature of wellness is separated from the elusive pathological and etiological tracings of addiction science. We set aside symptomatology, and pick up holism. The first step in this process was to define the word “recovery” in a way that made sense for the future of recovery science.

You can catch up on the original post here:

and the response here:

Assuming you have done your homework, let’s continue.

So what dangers are entailed in widening the definition of recovery? There is, of course, always the danger of co-opting, of misuse, and mischaracterization. Science is often misused in the service of various narratives. However, as scientists we owe, if nothing else in this new age, an equitable starting point for all pathways of recovery. If a person or organization wants to claim recovery as defined by the RSRC, the very next question should be, “Okay, so let’s see the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and ecological data that shows this movement toward wellness.”

Definitional parameters are like rules to the game, they guide what’s in play, and what isn’t. They do not, however, dictate the outcome.

I think this is our most pressing challenge- What are the rules of the game?

History demonstrates that every element of recovery that we have allowed outsiders (those outside of recovery) to shape, mold, or commodify, are lost, in whole or in part, to the community. Some, like treatment, become enormous headaches, with the recovery community being blamed for the failure of the treatment industry, and the treatment industry co-opting resources from the recovery sphere. In fact, treatment could not exist without the recovery community. Yet failing to recognize our power in this matter, we have handed treatment over, lock, stock, and barrell to the insurance companies, and we do our best to help the newly treated as they enter into our communities. Those of us who work in treatment, have to constantly walk the tightrope between community based knowledge formations, traditional theory, and our clinical training. In short, yes, there are risks to widening the definition of recovery. But they are our risks. If we do not take them, then outsiders, crediteers, and profiteers will overun the edifice of recovery, each breaking apart and claiming various pieces that promote their own specific agendas. The destructiveness of markets, greed, capitalism, and power know few boundaries. Yet those of us in recovery understand that community and connection to meaning are the answer. Power, and money both seek to destroy collective bonds that may resists the ever-expanding reach of neoliberal markets. History is quite clear on what happens when profiteers and vulnerable communities come in contact. They are exploited, and communities are often destroyed. We are dangerously close to this right now. But we should not be afraid. Many of us have had exposure to enduring communities and traditions that have easily resisted, and altogether avoided, such overtures from society. We should meet this head on, and put to work the tools we have.

Instead, we must see the RSRC definition of recovery as a challenge. A challenge to ourselves, and a challenge to the world. If we (or someone else) say x, y, or z is recovery, or the best kind of recovery, or promotes the best outcomes- then let’s see what the data says. Let’s give everyone an equitable starting point, and go from there. I suspect, if we are capturing robust longitudinal experiences of recovery, the most holistic forms of recovery will take shape. The less holistic, but still useful, will also take shape. The garbage can be left aside. To quote the Big Book of AA, “Let’s look at the record.” (pg. 50)

Both the nature of the evidence, and quality of the data on recovery can be brought into the light. The power dynamics, systems of oppression, and interests promoting new ideas can be openly scrutinized, not hidden in the fine print, not disguised in funding streams.

Which means of capturing the recovery experience are the most true to the lived experience of recovery? That should be our scientific goal- Abandoning the pathological mindset of symptom management, abandoning the use/non-use paradigm as the sole benchmark of success: What IS the phenomena of recovery, how does it occur? How is recovery sustained, and what types of support are involved? What role does abstinence play? How does the individual, their relationship to the world, and the structures of their world become shaped by, and improved through recovery? Let’s start by answering these questions. Why? Because they are questions about the very nature of recovery. These changes manifest from within recovery, they are not sourced from textbooks, or in a lab, or with some doctor with no experience. These movements toward wellness occur directly from recovery transformation. If we take a survey of the field as it stands today, we would see that these types of questions are being asked by many scientists. We are already moving in this direction. Our predescessors have done tremendous work on the science of recovery. We are merely bringing it all together, owning it, and taking the next logical steps.

Next steps-
First, the RSRC definition should, at least in my mind, be coupled with Recovery-Informed Theory. I am of course partial to the grand theory. When used in conjunction, the RSRC definition and RIT are essentially the two guideposts through which we should aim our endeavors. If we are to abandon traditional constructs, we should offer clear directions as to where to go next.

Recovery-Informed Theory states that “Successful long-term recovery is self-evident.” This means that the degree of difference between the pathological state and the recovered state are so prounounced that no scientific knowledge is neccesary to witness the change. The untrained eye will do just fine.

This also means that for scientists such as ourselves, particularly the scientist with lived experience, that the measurement and capture of such radical change (between the pathological state of addiction and the successful long-term state of recovery) should be quite easy. The distance between pathology and wellness are so wide, we actually have little to compare it to in other fields. It is often revolutionary. Recovery frees up the potential energy that spurs on enormous amounts of individual growth and psychosocial wellness. It is often the catalysts to whole new lives.

Recovery narratives are filled with incredible stories seen almost nowhere else. People in recovery go from prisons to PhDs, from homelessness, to political appointments in government, from true hopelessness to boundless abundance. Even leaving aside the wild anecdotes of success, most importanly, they go from isolation and meaninglessness to connection within the communities of their everyday lives.

These are everyday experiences in recovery. Why should we be afraid to define it? But more importantly, why don’t we have better records, models, and measures of this change? Let’s take samples from these recovery trajectories, and let’s create a cartography of transformative journeys that clearly identifies common landmarks, signposts, points of departure, and points of transcendence.

Recovery science is nothing less than the study of freedom and how it came to manifest in our lives.

And finally, let’s look at history. The history of various sciences have historical roots, junctures, triumphs and setbacks. I think of Franz Boas, who legitimized western anthropology by insisting on empirical methods which proved, finally, that no human being was biologicially or culturally superior to any other. This caused anthropology to break off from anthropological evolution and social Darwinism. It is considered the begining of true western anthropology as a distinct science. And yet, at the end of Boas’ life, he watched the perversion of social Darwinism become central to the sick ideology of fascism. He watched social Darwinism and Aryan Supremacist psuedoscience parading as a legitimate social science in the service of the atrocities of WWII (King, 2019). There are some dangers we can never prepare for.

Boas’ main strength was that he used science against itself- He said (I paraphrase), “Fine, if you believe these natives are somehow less than these Europeans- show me the data, let’s take precise measurements of everything and find out.” Such proof of racial superiority never emerged from the data. And social Darwinism was debunked in anthropology. And yet, this did nothing to stop the rise of Nazi ideology. Imagine his horror in his last few years, watching the very thing he spent his life disproving becoming the central ideology of fascism. There is always danger. And, try as he did in his later years to advise panels, inform politicians, and promote truth; he died never knowing if that truth was fully heard. There is great risk. And yet, we should insist, if we are to create a new science, that science be done, and done well. That is our job, come what may. Were Boas to see what came of his work, he would see that through the arc of scientific history, truth did prevail. Even if societies and individuals deny such things here and there. We can hope the same for our own small science.

So how do we mitigate these dangers? First, we keep ourselves, those in recovery, as the joint owners of recovery science, and the central object of study. One reason for the formation of the Recovery Science Research Collaborative was to provide a decentralized, loosely affiliated organization that could operate as the chief stakeholder. Like 12-Step groups, there are no leaders, no politics, no personal money to be made. No one to own the rights to anything. It is a central hub of research and knowledge that functions as a collaborative of ideas. It is affiliated with a public university and includes various recovery scientists meeting each year, and setting out the research goals, collaborating on projects, sharing ideas, connections, and resources. It also provides a platform for clinicians, advocates, and allied sciences to contribute. It doesn’t even have to be the the RSRC in this function, so long as we have some central fact of collaboration, and we each set aside personal interests and personal gain, in order to further the science of recovery. To do it otherwise, would be incongruous to the values of recovery.

The science of recovery cannot be composed of those values which lay outside of recovery. Honesty, altruism, cooperation, service will be required by the scientists themselves. What an incredible foundation for collaborative scientific discovery!

All too often, well intentioned researchers have descended on our populations, studied us, wrote books, copyrighted metrics and manuals. We can no longer allow for that to occur. We must take control of our own scientific fate, because we cannot count on others to have our best interests in mind, nor to understand how we live, think, and move through the world. In short, we will protect the new science of recovery as we have done in the past- Recovery science is ours, and yet it belongs to no single individual. As we move forward, we can draw from our history, and the scientific history of other causes, movements, and ideas. With this comes responsibilities. The first is that we must maintain the values of recovery, as they say, in all our affairs, even when pioneering science. And secondly, we resign from extraneous arguments. We have offered both grand theory, and a definition. Little more needs to be said. Let’s see the data. We have existing metrics, we have community frameworks for care, and we have a long and vibrant history. It is time to bring all of these things together into our own research field. It is time for a science of recovery that is by and for the recovery community. That is how we will avoid the dangers ahead.

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