Whether it’s jail or rehab, how does an addict stay clean when they get out?
I met William in his last week at a program that helped former inmates deal with addiction and prepare for the real world. We talked for almost an hour. I told him my history, and about how I stayed clean. He seemed excited to know someone in recovery. He took my number, and promised to call as soon as he got settled in his new apartment.
I never heard from him.
The are literally hundreds of thousands of men and women incarcerated for drug related offenses, many of them nonviolent. What happens when they get released? Some of these go to halfway houses or rehabilitation programs. Do these improve their chances? Thousands are voluntarily in rehabs. Are their chances any better?
There’s one aspect of addiction that few programs, and few theories of addiction, take into account: Addiction is a way of life. It defines what we do with our time. Conversely, it tells us what to do when we don’t know what to do.
This means the first day or two after getting out, whether from incarceration or from a program, are critical. Structure has been removed. Even if there’s a job to go to, which there often isn’t at that stage, there are still 16 hours in the day to navigate. In an unfamiliar world. With complete freedom of choice. After months or years of complete structure, the person is suddenly expected to know what to do with their time.
That’s not a reasonable expectation. Anyone who has become unemployed, or who has faced a quarantine that disrupts their normal routine (and that’s most of us now), knows that it isn’t easy to find a new routine. And we generally start with what we know, whether that’s exercise or prayer.
What an addict knows is not exercise or prayer. I say this as one who struggled with addiction for many years. The drug becomes the center of our lives, defining our identity and our purpose. And it tells us what to do with our time.
How long will a person wait for something new to happen before returning to their old ways? My experience indicates that it may be as little as 24 hours, and certainly not more than a few weeks.
This is the window of opportunity for the person to develop not only a new routine, but a new circle of friends and support. In the absence of those, he or she is alone and without tools for navigating their new reality.
If you think about how long it takes to find and adopt a new routine, find support, and make friends, this is a nearly impossible task.
So what is the answer?
Those who have relationships with supporters and friends before their release are more likely to succeed. They already have some of the most important pieces in place. If we want to support addicts in staying clean, this should begin while they’re still inside, whether it’s a rehab or a jail.
But secondly, when they get out we shouldn’t expect them to reach out to us. They have been conditioned not to trust, and to believe that those who need help are weak. It takes time for those beliefs to change– time they may not have. There’s also the shame factor. They may be ashamed of their social status, and of their need for help. They also may be afraid of rejection, betrayal, or abandonment– all common occurrences in the world of addiction.
We need to reach out to them! And we need to do so with persistence, but not harassment. They may or may not respond. They may or may not stay clean. Working with addicts always risks heartbreak, including the ultimate heartbreak of funerals. But we do it because there would otherwise be even more funerals.
William, my new friend who disappeared, taught me one thing: not to just give out my number, but to take his. I didn’t do that for him, and he is likely back in the trap of old behaviors. But I have done it for others since then.