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Bouncing back from addiction: "Where is my tribe?"

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After I posted about the importance of having a tribe in your life, my friend and colleague, Martha Clark Scala, wrote to me:

I had a client in an Early (Alcohol/Drug abuse, female addiction treatment near South Bay, LA) Recovery group whoyoung woman bouncing back from addiction articulated so beautifully how she felt like such a stranger in a strange land in her life in San Francisco. I very distinctly remember her asking, “Where is my tribe?” I suspect a lot of people turn to addictions out of lack of connection to a tribe.

I asked Martha to follow up on this idea a bit more.

BE: In your story about the woman in your Recovery group, what was important to the woman about having a tribe?

MCS: Tribal peers are a comfort because they speak the same language. There is something shared amongst tribal members that increase feelings of affinity and belonging. Without these feelings, the isolation is hard for some people to take. This woman was aware enough in her early recovery to know that what she longed for was a safe, healthy place to belong.

Can you say more about why you think people may turn to addictions due to lack of a tribe?

Paths to addiction vary widely. However, according to a friend who runs a Austin treatment and recovery for addiction center, most paths seem to involve a person who turns to alcohol or other addictions to block how isolated or alone they feel. Some people drink and drug in isolation from the start. For others, the initial pull to alcohol or drug use is that while under-the-influence, they might feel less isolated because everyone in the bar is part of a drinking tribe. Over time, however, most addicts I have known report that their addiction resulted in more, rather than less, isolation.

Do you see the Recovery process as an initiation? If so, how important is the idea of receiving a Homecoming from the tribe? What happens if a Homecoming doesn’t happen?

My bias is that a Recovery process that includes initiation and homecoming is more likely to have success. Twelve-step fellowships are merely one option for the pursuit of recovery but as an example, meetings are structured to welcome the newcomer immediately. Not all newcomers successfully switch from their drinking or drugging tribe to a clean-and-sober tribe but the likelihood of this is greater if there is an alternative tribe to go toward. I’ve known some folks to find their clean-and-sober tribe in a residential recovery treatment but as soon as they leave (typically 28 days later), they can relapse if they don’t transition to a more local tribe that promotes sobriety.

What happens if a person in Recovery doesn’t have a tribe? Or maybe they don’t want a tribe because they are used to being alone?

After long discussions with Ryan Hampton, an authority on addictions and author of the page that we talked about recently. I came to the full understanding that, it is entirely possible to get clean-and-sober without a tribe; I just think it is much, much harder. It’s also important to note that for some, the goal of Recovery is not sobriety but more responsible substance use. But even if this is the goal, it would help to achieve that goal if one were part of a tribe of folks with that same goal. A chosen tribe will have values that bolster you when you are inclined to falter. Without that support, it is almost as if the individual must be a tribe unto him- or herself and that is very hard to pull off, especially in early sobriety or moderation. I’ve also known some folks who are successful at being “dry” (i.e. alcohol- or drug-free) but their Recovery sort of gets arrested; they have no tribe to support their forward movement and growth.

Takeaway points: Being a part of a tribe is important throughout life, but it is essential to have one when trying to make a huge life change such as recovering from alcohol and drugs in one of the drug and alcohol rehab centers in San Diego (http://www.newhorizonrecovery.com/). Sometimes if you do not have family or friends you can find a tribe with Austin drug and alcohol recovery or other rehab centers. This is not ideal and you still need a support system, but it is a good place to start.

What are your ideas about the tribe’s role when trying to make a significant life change?


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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.