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An introduction to recovery ally training in five minutes

By Ilana van der Merwe, March 11 2024—

The opposite of addiction is community.

—Johann Hari

On Feb. 28, the University of Calgary welcomed its recovery centre. Located within the strip mall under Yamnuska Hall, the recovery centre will serve as a substance-free community building space that will offer support for students, staff and faculty.

“Universities tend to have a more educated population, but that does not mean they are more educated in this realm,” said Chelsie Graham, an alumni from the University of Calgary in an interview with the Gauntlet. Graham emphasized the importance of these types of resources on university campuses.

Between the heightened substance use culture within the student body and the stigma held subliminally within professional faculty workplaces — recovery can be made much more difficult. 

“Universities can be a recovering threatening environment. 23 per cent students meet criteria for substance use disorder, that’s about 7000 students at any time”, stated Graham. 

With substance use all around us, becoming a recovery ally means becoming a community asset.

“One in five Canadians experience substance use disorder at some point in their life — and less than 10 per cent seek help because of stigma,” she said.

Ally training is a process one can formally register for — like the program provided by the Ucalgary Recovery Hub, but it is also something any community member can actively take part in as we educate ourselves in the world of recovery. Take the time to reflect on your own habits, behaviours, stigmas and approaches surrounding recovery as you begin your training’. After attending the recovery ally training, one will find there are five important concepts to understand to support members of our community through their recovery. 

The Definition of Addiction 

An addiction can be recognized once an individual’s behaviours align with the four C’s: Craving, Loss of Control, Compulsion to use, Use regardless of Consequences. So, with this in mind, many different substances and behaviours meet these criteria. Substances like alcohol and drugs come to mind, but things like caffeine, cell phone use, eating disorders, and even gaming can also be considered potentially addictive behaviours. 

“It is also important to understand that addiction is not a choice, it is a side effect,” an important point emphasized by Graham.

For instance, addiction develops as a coping mechanism to deal with trauma or stress. Therefore, addiction is not a choice and an addiction does not define an individual. 

The Substance Use Spectrum

There are various levels of addiction, but it is up to each person to determine where on the spectrum they fit. Beneficial Use describes use that has positive health, social, or spiritual effects. This can be the appropriate use of prescription medication or ceremonial tobacco. Casual/Low-risk Use describes any use that has negligible health or social effects. The misinformation that a small amount of alcohol is harmless comes from here, although alcohol may ease social interactions, its status as a class one carcinogen makes any amount of consumption harmful. High-Risk/Harmful Use describes use that begins to negatively affect individuals other than the user. This can include family and friends, or even strangers through events like driving under the influence. Chronic Dependence / Substance use disorder describes high-risk use that becomes compulsive regardless of negative effects. This can include side effects like possibly waking up with a hangover or much more detrimental like acclimating chances of developing cancer or dementia.

However, the spectrum is a tool useful to individuals looking to reflect on strictly themselves;

“It is not up to a secondary party to determine where an individual lies on this spectrum. It is up to a user to determine where they sit on the scale in order to set the goals they need for recovery.” 

Harm Reduction and Recovery

“Harm reduction looks to decrease the health and social harms associated with addiction and substance use, without necessarily requiring people who use substances from abstaining or stopping”, said Graham in response to a question surrounding the importance of harm reduction within recovery.

Recovery is a dynamic cycle composed of stages. Between contemplation of potential addictive behaviours, preparing goals for change, and maintenance of healthy habits, recovery looks unique for every individual. That is why, as a recovery ally, it is important not to impose personal expectations of recovery on others.

The Romanticization of Substance Culture 

Graham suggests that students should become more perceptive of how influential their physical and digital environments are to their lifestyles. 

“Count the number of alcohol messaging you see off-site, We have two lounges on campus.”

For instance, look around campus — how many posters advertise social mixers, parties at clubs with discount shots, or even drinks deals at The Den are plastered all over campus? Even on social media, drinking and drug use are romanticized. Students joke about blacking out at parties, while tenure is celebrated by popping a bottle of champagne. As recovery allies, it is our responsibility to acknowledge the dangers of these environments to people in recovery. If a recovering friend feels uncomfortable in an environment presented to them, offer them companionship if they need to remove themself so they are not isolated. Community is the opposite of addiction, often being supportive can make the difference between recovery and a setback.

“Know what might trigger people’s craving, what words might make them doubt themselves, know what situations to help them avoid”

Language Choices

Stigma and negative stereotypes are most prominent in society through language. Graham shares that labels can  in fact harm individuals and their recovery process:

“Someone explaining their own addiction can use any word, you as an ally cant use labels, they are stigmatized.”

Just as medically accurate and respectful terms can provide a safe space and normalize recovery, negative and harmful language reinforces stigma and isolates those in recovery.

Labels like “addict”, “junky”, and “crackhead” are born out of stereotypes and are aligned with negative preconceived opinions. Graham emphasized that these opinions are flatly untrue.

“Substance use is a health problem, not a moral failure.”

Instead, referring to someone who used substances as merely a “person who uses substances” is preferred, as a person who suffers from addiction is not their addiction. Referring to individuals as being “clean” from substances implies that those using them are “dirty”. This negative connotation can dampen motivations to seek help and set goals. Instead, try to use medically correlated terms like “testing positive or negative for substances”. This allows individuals to stand with merit against their potential substance use.

Lastly, the words “relapse” and “overdose” have become controversial in the recovery community. “Relapse” implies that the setback in question is the individual’s choice or fault. Instead, we use the word “setback”. “Setback” also implies that the individual is still making progress, regardless of potential bumps in the road. “Overdose” implies that the individual was aware that the choices they were making would lead to danger. Replace the word “overdose” with a medical term, as addiction is seen as a disease and requires scientific language to express its symptoms. Try using “drug poisoning”, or “accidental drug poisoning” instead. As allies, the language we choose has the potential to welcome or deter people experiencing substance use from recovery.

The University of Calgary, alongside many substance use recovery organizations, offers many resources to further educate yourself on ways to find the help and support that you or a peer may require. It is important to acknowledge that any recovery ally understands that the support offered is not a substitute for professional help or therapy. Being an ally means being a strong community member. Being an ally means being a friend. 

This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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