The Power of Purpose in Recovery


30754020 - mission concept in a filament lightbulb. Duncan Andison

To journey without being changed is to be a nomad. To change without journeying is to be a chameleon. To journey and be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim. --Mark Nepo

You should never take more than you give In the circle of life. --Elton John / Tim Rice Circle of Life

One of the existential turning points within the recovery experience is marked by the diminishment of backward sense making (What happened to me?) and the increased urgency regarding one's post-sobriety future (Okay, what do I do now?). All manner of emotions feed this transition: release, relief, gratitude, unworthiness (survival guilt), remorse (guilt over past transgressions), a gnawing sense of emptiness, and, not uncommonly, a passion to help others similarly afflicted. Many forces coalesce to push people out of addiction, but finding a higher purpose in one's life is a potentially powerful pull force within the process of long-term recovery. For many, that purpose is found in service to others.

For decades, I have observed this passion for service fulfilled through numerous outlets and I have guided many people into service roles within the addiction treatment and recovery support arenas. What I have discovered is that answering the "Recover to do what?" question is a very complex one that continues even once an arena of purposeful activity is discovered. There are always tensions and continual changes that challenge staying within what is often a narrow zone of peak performance, peak contribution, and peak personal fulfillment.

We all search for meaning in what we choose to do with our lives, but many things can take us far from such a purpose. Material necessities of family and the socially-fueled drive for material wealth and professional status can lead us far astray by forcing us into jobs that limit our time and energy for more fulfilling activities. What we find meaningful and fulfilling can change over time creating tension-filled mismatches between our needs and our current roles and activities. We can find ourselves in toxic work environments that undermine our ability to stay within that zone of meaning and purpose. And events outside our control can deny or abort such opportunities.

In my addiction recovery support and research activities, I was blessed to find something more akin to calling than professional career. At any point my activities began to feel more like "work" than service, I made adjustments to again find that sweet spot of meaningful service and personal satisfaction. That sweet spot was not always a perfect match with what I wanted for my own pleasure, but it was a perfect match between what my immediate world needed and what I could uniquely contribute to that need. It was not about doing my own thing; it was about doing my part in a much larger unfolding drama. By staying centered in that zone of intersection between personal pleasure and social purpose (or rediscovering it as quickly as possible), I have never had to worry about money, even when following that sweet spot demanded decisions that resulted in a reduction in income. The result was hardly what could be called a career ladder. Instead it was something much more akin to improvisational jazz. I am aware that this may not be possible for everyone, but this brief message is a retrospective affirmation that achieving a higher purpose in recovery is possible. There are few more powerful motivators than clarity of purpose. It is the source of the fierce determination and the unquenchable urgency that sparks and sustains successful advocacy movements and lives of meaningful service.

So where does that leave us? Don't be afraid to dream. Don't be afraid to turn the turmoil of your past life into a higher purpose. That can be done! To thrive, we must first survive. But don't ever doubt that thriving in recovery is possible and happening every day. What is your recovery mission?