Driving Through Your Recovery – or What is Recovery Capital?

Imagine waking up to a beautiful car of your dreams sitting in your parking spot. It’s shiny and idling, waiting for you to drive it. It is yours— there’s a note with your name behind a windshield wiper confirming that. You quickly get dressed and have your cup of coffee or a smoothie before impatiently running out to take it for the test drive. You turn the key in, the engine starts—humming sweetly as you pull out of the spot and begin cruising around your neighborhood. It’s a beautiful day, sunny and warm with only a little breeze. The car glides along and you feel the euphoria of the morning spread all across your limbs.

And then, suddenly, the car stalls, sputters, coughs, and stops.

In panic you look at the dashboard and realize that the tank is empty, that you have been, in fact, driving on empty for the past 15 minutes. You’re in the middle of a busy street, behind you a line of angry drivers forms, the sounds of honking soon wiping away whatever is left of your sanity. You get so mad that you get out of the car and kick the door, angry at its failure, angry at yourself, angry at whoever played a cruel joke on you. Except that no one played a joke on you—it was you all along, you who parked the car in front of your house while you were asleep, you who left the note to yourself telling you to enjoy the ride, and it was you, too, who forgot to get gas. Do you abandon the car or do you call for help, someone to come and get it off the road, help you fill it with gas and prepare for another journey? Or do you give up and walk home cursing the world under your breath?

What happened there is a perfect metaphor for Recovery Capital in action—or rather, inaction. Recovery Capital is defined by what sort of internal (gas) and external (the towing service) resources a person has that allows them to initiate and sustain recovery. Recovery Capital focuses on developing resilience and it draws from the strengths of each person’s supports—individuals and services—that can be incorporated into ongoing, lived recovery. Unlike a fuel gauge, Recovery Capital cannot exactly be measured as it doesn’t present a fixed value, but it decreases when a person is in active addiction and it goes up when a person is sober and stays healthy. It can be divided into four categories: internal: human and physical, and external: social and cultural. Generally, the bigger the amount of Recovery Capital the more empowered a person feels in their sobriety and the more likely they’re going to sustain it and have fewer relapses, if any.

The internal factors, human and physical, are the basics we all need to lead a good life, and those include housing, employment, nutrition, health (mental, spiritual, physical), coping skills, financial responsibility and mindfulness. The external factors, social and cultural, are our communities, recovery supports (mutual self-help meetings, Recovery Management, group therapy, self-care resources) and any other resources related to recovery. These components also include cultural and societal attitudes towards things like addiction, peer resources, and access to early intervention and other community assets related to healing and sobriety.

The quality and quantity of Recovery Capital elements are often what determines the success or failure of natural and assisted long-term recovery. Having a car—getting sober—is one thing, having gas is another, but it’s all those other factors that determine that the ride will be a safe one. That includes safe roads, visible signage, maps, services, car parts, good weather, and other safe drivers, amongst other influences. Just as every little thing counts when it comes to taking a successful road trip, it’s the same with getting sober—with only one or two elements, your car might sputter along for a while, but chances are it’s going to eventually stop, or worse, break down completely, relegating you to hoofing it with no direction or sense of where you should be going in the first place.

Photo by why kei on Unsplash

What’s revolutionary about Recovery Capital—and what lends itself so well to these car metaphors—is that it is focused on solutions rather than problems. In my practice I am able to assess what sort of elements an individual possesses in order to feel solid in their journeys to sobriety. We don’t spend a lot of time going over what was wrong—although I might set up a client with a therapist who will help with all past trauma—but we do spend time figuring out what is right. And we identify what is missing. If it’s access to employment services, we will focus on finding those, if it’s housing, that becomes a priority. In my practice I ensure that my clients have as many of those elements as possible before we part ways. For some people, this is a short journey, for others one that will take years. There really is no formula, although I know from experience that those with readily-available resources, good support systems in place, and professional recovery management support, tend to get there faster.

How robust is your Recovery Capital is? You can use this basic scale to assess for yourself.

What are your highest and lowest numbers? Is there anything specific about your numbers you would like to investigate? This provides us with a blueprint on how to understand both risk and protective factors you already possess, as well as those you need in order to integrate all your tools to the point where they become a regular part of your wellness plan. My job as a Recovery Manager is to help you find the empowerment that will allow you autonomy over your own well-being – where taking care of yourself and your recovery goes on long after our relationship as coach-client has ended.


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