Identity is important, even for young adults who aren’t in substance use disorder recovery. Young adulthood is a tough time even under ideal conditions in terms of finding one’s purpose. It’s literally the second question we’re asked in most interactions. What’s your name? What do you do? For those of us who are in recovery, it can be the difference between making it—or not. The issue of identity isn’t exclusive to individuals recovering from substance use disorders by any means. We literally give out titles to denote identity in our society. Officer so and so, Doctor such and such … it’s a major part of our social construct. It’s a major part of who we are.
For decades, impaired professionals have recovered at much higher rates than young adults and adolescents. Part of that higher success rate can be attributed to long term support services on the back end of treatment. Part of it though, is simply that impaired professionals often have more to lose and more to fight for. A big part of that “more” is their identity. They’re not just a “drug addict”—they ‘re a “nurse” first, with a “drug problem” second.
When the question that the overwhelming majority of people in early recovery universally dread of “what do you do?” comes up, being able to say, “I’m an engineering student, a business major or an education major” goes a long way to offset the shame.
With young adults though, especially those with substance use disorders, life often hasn’t solidified into even the semblance of a clear path. Careers are still viewed in the future tense. We don’t say “I am” as frequently as “I want to be.” This quest for identity is the cornerstone of the clinical model at Life of Purpose. We want young people with substance use disorders to succeed beyond treatment, so we structure our entire clinical intervention around setting them up for success. We focus on what they can do instead of simply what they cannot. It’s truly wonderful to see any young person with a substance use disorder self-identify as a person in recovery, but being a student in recovery adds an extra layer of identity, which in turn becomes a protective factor against relapse. When the question that the overwhelming majority of people in early recovery universally dread of “what do you do?” comes up, being able to say, “I’m an engineering student, a business major or an education major” goes a long way to offset the shame, anxiety, and depression that come hand in hand with being at the beginning of our recovery process and feeling we’ve fallen behind our peers.
Additionally, virtually no one has ever asked the speed at which a young person is completing their course load. The difference between taking five and three classes, or even one, is unimportant at the beginning. The difference between taking one class and none changes an identity. Just taking a single class and holding a 30 hour a week job creates a college student with an appropriate college student job.
We want people to have self-esteem? We put them in a position to complete estimable acts. We want them to have meaning in their lives? We help them build a life worth staying in recovery for. We want them to stick with the winners? We encourage them to be winners themselves.
So frequently we talk about the effects of self-esteem on both substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health concerns. We talk about meaning and purpose. We talk about sticking with the winners. The truth is all of these things are available to each and every one of us if we just get the support we so desperately need at the beginning of our journey. We want people to have self-esteem? We put them in a position to complete estimable acts. We want them to have meaning in their lives? We help them build a life worth staying in recovery for. We want them to stick with the winners? We encourage them to be winners themselves.
You might just be surprised at what we’re capable of under the right conditions and when we finally get off the merry-go-round of relapse and start moving toward sustainable recovery and a life of purpose.
If you or a loved one are in need of treatment for substance use disorder or if you’re already in recovery and are considering returning to college, contact us to learn more about our inpatient/outpatient services and post-treatment academic support program.