When I began recovering from alcoholism 20 years ago, I was surrounded by other people in recovery. I was in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes — also jokingly referred to as the land of 10,000 treatment centers — and it was almost a status symbol to be in recovery.
I didn’t go to detox or treatment, where I might have made friends in recovery, but I quickly fell in with an expansive community of people in 12-step recovery groups across the Twin Cities. Having that kind of community support made a tremendous difference for me in those early days of recovery. Just about everyone I knew was in recovery, from the barista at the coffee shop to the clerk at the grocery store.
Now that I’m in long-term recovery, my social circles include people in recovery and people who aren’t. I know lots of “normies,” those odd birds who can drink socially without problems. In fact, with many people the subject of substance use disorders never even comes up. I still need, and will always need, a community of people living in recovery to keep my spiritual life — my recovery — strong.
But because I had a skewed version of my own history, I’ll admit that I used to scoff at the idea of organized “recovery communities,” such as the Portland Community Recovery Center or Bangor Area Recovery Network. From my self-centered point of view, they seemed like a distraction from what I was sure were the only essential aspects of recovery.
My experience was that I followed the directions of a 12-step program of recovery, led and supported by a recovery mentor. Through those steps, I had a spiritual experience; the idea that I could safely drink actually left me. Because it was so powerful, I assumed what had worked for me should work for others. The lie I told myself was that I did it without “a recovery community.”
In retrospect, I actually benefited from a recovery community. It just wasn’t labeled as such. I was lucky enough to stop drinking and using drugs in a place where almost everyone around me was in recovery. My recovery community already was established. I experienced no shame when I said to anyone, “I’m an alcoholic.” I always had social support for my recovery.
In fact, abstinence from drinking and drugs is only a small part of the recovery picture. My successful recovery depends on expanding my spiritual life. That’s true for most of the people I know in recovery.
I’ve come to understand there are nearly unlimited ways to grow spiritually. In my experience of recovery, I found people who showed me how to find the spiritual solution I needed for my substance use disorder through those commonly known — but frequently misunderstood — “12 steps.” Now I see that what worked for me might not work for everyone.
My friends in recovery have counted on all kinds of support outside the 12-step groups most of them also frequent. For example, Nia, according to Portland-area instructor Erin Curren’s website, is “an exhilarating barefoot cardio workout combining the martial arts, dance and healing arts” that a good friend of mine says helped her “reconnect with her body and begin to sense joy and ease in her own skin.” Some people make career changes; some run marathons; some become political activists. I’ve known people in recovery who find spiritual growth most powerful in returning to nature or in learning new creative skills. Recovery from substance use disorders that includes a strong spiritual life can mean living a life that is happy, joyous, and free.
More directly related to the 12-step model of support, organized recovery communities with centers like the ones at the University of Southern Maine, in Portland, or in Brewer, offer peer recovery support and activities, social events, and volunteer opportunities. They have movies, open mic nights and a wide array of recovery and social support groups.
Having a supportive recovery community has made an enormous difference for me. I’m grateful for all the people doing the work of creating recovery communities in Maine today.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.