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The Flow of Recovery

Fifth Annual Addiction Leadership Conference

The healing process from the trauma of addiction is not just related to past explanations of our trauma, but also the direct experience of our emotional thoughts and feelings, and the remnants of those emotions that we continue to revisit (Epstein, 1995, p. 192).

The ability to change, and to some extent heal, from the trauma of addiction is often related to our capacity to manage, adapt, and integrate new knowledge that facilitates a more positive, productive view of the past and how that past influences recovery in the present and the future. If we stop old behaviors (such as substance use) without adding new behaviors, we are doomed to failure. Therefore, the absence of alcohol or other drugs from the body is only the beginning of recovery. To have a responsible life in recovery, individuals must engage in newfound resilience with a life process known as “flow” (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

According to Becvar (1997, p. 20), it appears that finding resilience through flow involves the integration and awareness of the following into our daily living and sense of well-being:

  • There must be a continuous interplay between our thoughts, our emotions, and our physical and emotional state of health and well-being.
  • We are primarily responsible for our lives and thus for our health.
  • Emotions and the mind play a large part in the creation of “disease,” they also can be employed in the healing process.
  • Our bodies and minds have an intelligence of their own. Each cell has the wisdom and inclination to carry out its function, which may be negatively or positively influenced consistently with the messages received.
  • The body-mind speaks to us and can be our teacher if we are willing to learn. Pain, discomfort, and disease provide information about conflict and disharmony.
  • Symptoms of illness must be considered at a variety of levels, including the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual levels.
  • The inner self is always seeking growth.
  • The reduction and possible elimination of conflict are facilitated by a desire and willingness to pursue self-awareness actively.
  • What appears to be an illness may be the necessary by-product of a deeper level of healing. As we heal holistically, we go through periods of detoxification that may be experienced as a temporary discomfort.
  • Each of us must get to know our body-mind better than anyone else. By learning to listen within, we also become our own greatest healers

Long-term health in individuals involves a body, mind, and spiritual balance characterized by positive emotion, constructive thoughts, and responsible actions while supporting the notion of the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual integration of the whole person (Scoles, 2014, p. 167).

In recovery, individuals must create a life in which the focus is no longer on negative behavior, but instead emphasizes positive solutions that facilitate wellness in a holistic sense (Becvar, 1997, p. 69). Therefore, the absence of alcohol or other drugs from the body is only the beginning of recovery. Without the thought of having some control over life events, it is complicated to build self-esteem and find a positive flow process that reflects resilience and transformation. To sustain a life of positive well-being, we must embrace a redistribution of energy so that our consciousness can form a new balance that encourages, and to some extent creates, both internal and external harmony (Scoles, 2014, p. 51). One of the ways individuals can redistribute energy is through flow. Flow often refers to a sense of timelessness or living in the moment, or a state of absorption characterized by intense concentration, with a feeling of being correctly challenged by the moment. Anyone can experience flow in different areas of life such as play, creativity, work, recovery. The energy or “fuel of flow” appears to be related to the following (Clinebell, 1995, p. 82):

  • A viable philosophy of life
  • A relationship with a higher power
  • A developing sense of self
  • A feeling of being connected (i.e., belonging) to the universe
  • A connection with a community that nurtures spiritual growth

In the flow process, the emotions are not just contained (as in early recovery) and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with current activity (as in full long-term recovery). Feelings of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task is the flow experience. Words used to describe flow have been to be “in the moment,” “in the zone,” “on a roll,” “wired in,” “in the groove,” “centered,” or “singularly focused” (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). Flow is achieved when the challenge of a given life event is aligned with our ability to cope and manage a given life event.

The traditional linear thought of relapse (i.e., that we start over again and lose all our “clean time”) is counterproductive to the concept of flow and gives no credibility to the circularity of energy and its relationship to the flow of recovery. Circularity of flow refers to the fact that energy is never lost—it is always with us and at times it resurfaces in conscious and unconscious activity (Jung, 1964, 1968/2014). This Jungian concept gives credibility to the thought that we are never recovered from our trauma, but always in a state of recovery. The challenge of relapse for individuals with one month of recovery is not the same as the relapse experienced by individuals with many years of recovery. The latter event can be more traumatic, since the loss appears to not recognize “clean time” (the positive experience), but only relapse (the negative experience). What is more important is not the relapse, but how we manage the relapse and strengthen our positive flow of resilience. Relapse behaviors are significant not because they occur, but because they give us the opportunity to build resiliency for future events.

Challenges for those in early recovery can result in a state of anxiety, stress, and possible relapse. Insufficient life challenges for those in long-term recovery can result in boredom and make them more vulnerable to a disruption in their flow of positive recovery. Zoja, reflecting on drug use and the avoidance of life challenges, states that,
We often come across people who say that they have turned to drugs with a desire of dying little by little. Even when the physical death of the individual is not an issue, psychic death is still constellated. One often turns to drugs because of the insignificance, senselessness, and flatness of one’s present life. A dead and senseless thing fueled by solely reflex action (1989).

The impact of challenging situations in recovery means that flow is often temporarily exciting and variously stressful, but this is considered “positive” flow and should never be confused with “negative” or debilitating stress. Disruptions in flow (i.e., relapses) occur when the body, due to anxiety, depression, anger, is challenged by the inability to align with the mind. Flow is difficult to achieve when the body and mind are not in harmony. The lack of body-mind synchronicity is considered a major impediment to recovery and a high-risk factor for relapse. This disequilibrium is one of the main reasons why the thread to our spiritual lives is difficult to harness. This disequilibrium makes it more difficult to “cross over the bridge” and find spirituality in everyday life. This disruption is partly related to social determinants of health, such as a body that is poorly nourished or lacking a consistent place to live, or a mind devoid of positive thoughts (Scoles & DiRosa, 2018).

A significant volume of scientific research has developed to support a positive flow model of human development which is in fundamental disagreement with many of the psychological tenants of Western medicine (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). Our ability to shift the focus away from individual blame and towards a more positive, personal acceptance and respect for the dignity of others means that we must move away from diagnostic labels and acknowledge participation in our own lives and the potential to change our lives so that we may more fully empower ourselves to challenge life more holistically (Becvar, 1997, p. 106). In the process of suspending
personal judgment, we move from linearity to circularity and create what Carl Jung referred to as a reality that is more participatory and less causal, therefore allowing for a more empowering model of behavior devoid of negative values (Jung, 1966/2014, p. 118). Individuals in recovery from substance abuse are regularly engaged in the management of events that trigger past experiences. These survivor past experiences are circular in nature simply because trauma and its effects do not follow a linear path of experience. Reemergence of flooding memories, even after survivors thought they thoroughly addressed the trauma of addiction, is a common behavioral health challenge (Herman, 1997). Energy flows circularly and is never lost in our personal, cultural, or collective experiences. It should be noted that the circularity of energy flow should not be confused with stagnation, despair, or helplessness, which can generate a sense of purposelessness, boredom, or depression.

The Flow and Developmental Fixation

Early recovery is a health challenge because our psychological, developmental curve is out of sync with our biological rhythm (Jung, 1972/2014, p. 588). Many individuals struggling in their recovery appear to be emotionally fixated at the age they started drinking or doing drugs, which is usually around late adolescence. In general, the psychology of youth is in the biological body of a middle-aged person (Erickson, 1968). This developmental fixation has to do with concrete perceptions of the world and is at times lacking abstract reasoning. Due to this developmental lag, creativity about life was limited because their teenage years were interrupted by addiction. If a created expression is a path to adulthood, substance abuse represents one of the most clear-cut examples of social/psychological atrophy. Erickson (1963), in Childhood and Society, clearly articulates many of the problems of adolescence that resonate with people in recovery:

  • Identity disillusion: Looking at others to find out who we are as people. This projection during addiction allows us to pick the least socially acceptable friends.
  • Egocentric needs and desires: Focusing on our own experiences with a little, if any, regard for others. Many of us in addiction believe that our conceptualization of the world is more important than the rest of society.
  • The lack of peer pressure experience: This identity crisis of early recovery is related to our nonexistent testing of new and different roles of adolescents and young adulthood. Self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are for many recovering individuals the first meaningful attempt to “grow up” and engage in the possible variations of decisions and situations of adulthood.

The great tragedy of modern life is the loss of supportive communities that foster active healing communities by building passion and managing frustration and confusion, which are necessary for success. Many self-help groups exist to give encouragement, support, and understanding to individuals who face lifelong adversities from various traumas. Many support groups have borrowed heavily from the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Many support groups outline a way of living that is not just related to issues of substance use and abuse, but provide a spiritual path to a more positive life worth living. The Steps are more than just a flow of recovery, but a flow about a life of perseverance, meaning, and transcendence. The perseverance experience is the steadfast pursuit of a task, mission, or journey despite obstacles, discouragement, or distractions. Duckworth (2016) argues that the flow of perseverance is a trait known as “grit.” Grit enables us to persevere in accomplishing a goal despite obstacles over an extended period (Williams, n.d.). Our grit leads to a transcendence experience when we identify with a group of people who have a collective experience of transformation (Jung, 1968/2014, p. 451).

The practice of the Twelve Steps is reflective of the flow of recovery and encourages the use of positive meaning beyond our daily life struggles. The Serenity Prayer is a call to action that encourages the best of our thoughts and behaviors. By asking, “What can I change and what can’t I change?” we begin to devise a plan of action. For things we cannot change, our task is to work on accepting them. For things we can change, we must determine what action is necessary to support such change and then to find the courage to act. The process sounds simple, but is not. That is why it requires serenity, courage, and the “wisdom to know the difference.” The Serenity Prayer offers guidance and wisdom for all of life’s problems. The initial part of the Serenity Prayer is the most widely known, but there is more to it than just the first few lines, as seen below:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next (Neibuhr, n.d.).

To “accept the things, I cannot change” we need to review the life events that brought us to seek recovery. Exploration involves examining the pros and cons of a healthy lifestyle; dealing with discrepancies between the perception of our challenges and others’ perceptions of our challenges; receiving information about behavioral health risks; and providing feedback about our recovery journey. The most difficult thing to do in recovery, as in life, is to act in accordance with our positive thoughts. Even more difficult is accepting what cannot be controlled.

Effective individuals spend a significant amount of positive intellectual activity bringing harmony to what they believe they can bring into a supportive recovery reality. In that reality process, individuals need the knowledge and skills to not control others or project their wishes and desires on others. In general, recovering individuals need to avoid negative feelings of anger, rage, anxiety, depression, and extreme frustration.

“Courage to change the things I can” is being able to identify what can be under our influence and, to some extent, control. We need the helping skills to focus on the here and now, to act, and to work on ourselves. As a result, people in recovery must develop positive affirmations that lead to long-term positive behaviors, and develop a stronger sense of self. These positive affirmations must:

  • Engage individuals in programs and community activities that reinforce the importance of remaining in a recovery- and/or resilience-oriented system of care that supports a realistic view of change through incremental small steps
  • Acknowledge change process difficulties in the early stages of healing
  • Provide assistance to individuals in finding new, self-identified reinforcers of positive change
  • Help people in early recovery identify useful coping skills in high-risk situations
  • Help individuals assess whether they have a healthy community, family, and/or social support network

“Wisdom to know the difference” is learning to differentiate between the impossible and the possible. We need the skills to talk about feelings, accept limits, and ask ourselves the most fundamental question in recovery: “Do I have the capacity to change?” The ability to change is related to our capacity to identify new friends, new social outlets, and new ways in which to use leisure time productively; make lifestyle changes; affirm our resolve and self-efficacy; practice and use new coping strategies to avoid a return to old patterns; develop a recovery management plan to inhibit returning to past negative behaviors; and review and manage long-term goals.

As a result, by using the aforementioned practice principles people in recovery can achieve a balanced lifestyle, the ability to deal with urges and cravings, and avoid impulsive, destructive decisions and negative interactions.


True transformative learning in support of the flow in recovery tends to involve the following four steps:

  1. Creation: thoughts and feelings that formulate new interactions with symbols felt to be personally relevant to individuals
  2. Reflection: Intellectual thinking and intelligent analysis of previously incorporated attitudes about the meaning of life events
  3. Integration: the evolution of a conscious attitude that is expansive, integrated, and differentiated from prior attitudes
  4. Action: changing daily life activities to reflect this renewed perspective (Dobson, 2008, p. 150)

In the this transformative model of recovery, it is essential that we understand the relationship between the mind, body, and spirit and best practices for partnering with others in the quest to achieve health and wellness. It is imperative that we understand the value of inclusion of faith, spirituality, and honoring the ways in which people, families, and communities heal. Finally, understanding holistic care principles enhances the chances for long-term recovery for individuals, their families, and their communities.



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Pascal Scoles, DSW, LCSW, is professor of behavioral health/human services and director of the Office of Collegiate Recovery at the Community College of Philadelphia. He received his doctorate in addictions and health from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, his MSW from Rutgers University, and his bachelor’s degree from LaSalle College in Philadelphia. For more than forty years he has been an educator, therapist, teacher, and consultant to treatment facilities, city and state governments, and the criminal justice system.