This month, we are taking a look at the issue of substance abuse and addiction. What are some dangers around substance abuse? How does it affect a person’s life and the lives of those around them—specifically those within our military and veteran community. How do we break the stigma surrounding substance abuse? And what resources or programs are available in Colorado Springs for those in recovery or seeking recovery?
The following articles contributed by HFMN’s partners offer insight and help to answer these questions.
Breaking the Silence Around Substance Abuse
By John Schneider
The Phoenix Multisport – Colorado Springs Instructor
Alcoholism and drug addiction have a negative impact and stigmatization in our society. Especially in the military. The military culture is steeped in drinking. When drinking crosses the line from relaxation and camaraderie into an addiction; where it is needed to self-medicate or to deal with trauma, that is when it becomes a problem. Programs like Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) and Addictive Medicine Intensive Outpatient (AMIOP) are in place to aid service members in finding the help they need. The barrier becomes getting soldiers to voluntarily seek out this help. Most of AMIOP and ASAP participants are command directed. The stigma around these programs, and around getting help for drinking, are real and effective barricades towards service members finding this help. The Phoenix, a sober active community, is helping to break that stigma.
Alex, a Phoenix team member, said, “I drank every day because that was the norm, and it was socially acceptable. And that’s why it took me so long to realize I had a problem. I only went to treatment when it was command directed. It was never voluntary and I’d justify my drinking.”
Sean, another Phoenix team member and still active duty, had this to say, “I didn’t want any interference with my work through ASAP or to put a spotlight on my problems that could affect my career.”
“I had a very negative opinion of ASAP (Alcohol Substance Abuse Program) because the people going were looked down upon, they had poor character, were weak, couldn’t hack it or do their duty. NCO’s are taught to judge from the start, to be in the habit to compare ourselves with others. We judged everybody,” said Paul, a Phoenix team member.
It was a matter of pride for these service members to be able to show up to work or to PT hungover and still able to function. But how well did they actually perform their duties? Many think that their drinking only affects them and that if they can still function and complete their tasks, they can’t really have a problem. Sean said, “I saved someone’s life and then blew a .15 on a breathalyzer right after. I was a functioning alcoholic.”
Getting someone to admit they have a problem with addiction is the first step towards recovery. Having that same person seek out help is another story. Changing the view of seeking out help as empowering rather than weak or defective. It takes more strength and character to admit there is a problem than to live in denial. Paul said, “Drinking helped me relax and feel self-confident in social environments. It made me feel tougher, able to keep up, to prove myself and be manly. Alcohol was liquid courage.”
The stigmatization attached to a history of substance use makes it challenging for some to find [a] supportive network. Without this network of support, many are forced to either return to the network of users they are familiar with or remain socially isolated, both options increasing the risk of relapse (Best & Lubman, 2017).
PTSD and alcoholism
Active-duty military personnel experience heightened trauma while in combat, which leads to emotional distress and other mental health conditions. Being away from family members, being threatened, witnessing violence and death, experiencing emotional, physical, and sexual assault, and suffering severe injuries can create or worsen mental health disorders. In particular, Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often the result of combat, featuring a host of symptoms like depression, anxiety, irritability, and insomnia. (Murray, Kristina, 2020)
To deal with the symptoms from PTSD many people turn to drinking to self-medicate. This in turn can amplify the trauma that they are trying to stuff down. It can also impede any recovery from PTSD by not facing it or dealing with the trauma.
“I used it to cope with life, seeing my best friend die while deployed, dealing with PTSD and problems with my wife when I returned home. I’d drink to stuff it all down and then explode on whoever was around me.” – Alex
Alcohol misuse can interfere with this necessary precondition for recovery by leading individuals to continue to engage in unhelpful avoidance behaviors. In fact, within the self-medication framework, alcohol use can in itself be conceptualized as an avoidance behavior (e.g., using alcohol to avoid thinking about the traumas). In addition, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can mirror or exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD (Jacobson et al. 2001).
A new approach to recovery
The Phoenix is a sober active community that fuels resilience through the transformative power of connection. The Phoenix takes a new approach to recovery by fostering healing through fitness and personal connection. A combination of community and exercise allow people to find lasting recovery from substance use disorders, build a group of support from others in recovery, and remove the stigma of recovery. It is a peer-to-peer recovery network, meaning all the participants and instructors are in recovery and share in the goal of rising from the ashes of addiction. The recovery model used at The Phoenix focuses on two key strategies: 1) provide access to active and engaging events and 2) build a restorative social network of peers in an emotionally safe environment. Some of these activities or events include strength training, CrossFit, yoga, meditation, road biking, mountain biking, rock climbing, boxing, hikes, and social events. All of these events are free, the only requirement is 48 hours of continuous sobriety.
Inclusiveness and respect for others are at the core of the Phoenix community standards, which are agreed upon by every member before participating in programming and are reviewed by instructors at events. The Phoenix approach is to create an emotionally safe environment where one can explore a sober lifestyle and experience self-directed growth.
In research of individuals in recovery from heroin or alcohol use, (Best and colleagues, ;2012) found that the total number of times a person engaged in “meaningful activities,” regardless of the type of activity, was positively associated improved functioning and quality of life for individuals. The other factor the researchers found to be critically important for sustained recovery was increasing the number of sober peers in a person’s social network, Phoenix’s second strategy.
The Phoenix community started in Boulder, Colorado in 2006 and has since grown to chapters in 43 cities and 22 states. The organization has served over 42,000 team members. For more information, or to find a chapter near you please visit our website https://thephoenix.org.
“When I came to the Phoenix I found people who were active, who didn’t just want to talk about recovery, but what they were doing in life. There was diversity and no judgement for what my issues were. They helped me learn how to be a person again and the community standards helped guide me in how to communicate again. I’ve met great people and great friends. Because of my sobriety I’m a stronger person and have a greater impact on the soldiers under my command.” – Sean
Please follow the links below to learn more about The Phoenix Multisport and the classes/programs they offer:
Breaking Out of Darkness to Realize the Light
By Carl Nassar, Ph.D., LPC, CIIPTS
LifeStance Health – Colorado Division Executive Director
“I’m in pain. I’m in pain a lot of the time. And I do this because it makes me feel better, even if only for a split second.”
It’s in that split second of trying to cope with pain that the seeds of addiction are born.
Sometimes, life is too much. Sometimes, we’re left alone to deal with the “too much-ness” of life. And in those times, in those moments, we just need a way out. And we grab a hold of whatever we can, just to hold on. Sometimes that’s a bottle, other times that’s a cigarette, or it’s food, or it’s a drug of some sort or another.
Addictions never begin with poor intentions. Rather, addiction is a coping style, a survival mechanism, a doorway through a painful situation. The bind, of course, is that once you’ve opened that door, it’s a b*tch to close. Much like a friend who gives you bad advice and won’t leave you alone, addiction convinces you (time and time again) that you need just one more. After all, how harmful could one more be? You deserve one more to celebrate. You deserve one more to get a break from life.
But, of course, constantly breaking from your life profoundly interrupts your ability to live it and live it well. Now, instead of leaning on relationship, on love, on hope, to carry you through the hard times, you lean on the addiction. Instead of finding the light in the darkness, you find the dark alleyways, and stay in the dark.
Of course, addicts know all this. They live it every day. But if they know it, don’t they just get out? It’s because getting out isn’t easy. Because getting out isn’t a single act. Instead, getting out is a moment-to-moment decision, one that requires the construction of a strong support system to get through the hard moments without turning to an “old friend.”
To break free from the grip of addiction, you take the small first step in constructing that support system. Whether it’s therapy, or AA/NA, or intensive outpatient treatment, or something altogether different, you start to build support. And as you build support, you peek out past the darkness (the darkness that addiction once broke you out of, but has since kept you locked into). And as you look around the corner, you start to simultaneously grieve the life that’s been lost and feel the excitement of the life that’s yet to be lived. And as you do that, you open a door to a world of possibilities, possibilities no longer limited by addiction, but fueled by your courage to break free at last.
As a therapist who’s spent a lifetime watching people break free from the addictive patterns that have defined their life, and discovered the richness on the other side, that’s my wish for the addict inside each of us.
Click here to learn more about substance abuse disorders and how LifeStance Health can help: