What's the resistance to harm reduction in recovery circles?
Harm reduction is any effort that's meant to decrease the negative effects of problem habits. Sugar substitutes, condoms, nicotine gum, budgets, and spray tanning are some examples of harm reduction.
But too often people in addiction recovery talk of harm reduction as the enemy of abstinence. In truth, harm reduction just encourages any step in the right direction. Twelve Step practice and adulting (yes, that’s now a word) both thrive on tiny shifts in the right direction. So it seems odd that on the surface many of us in recovery aren’t fans of harm reduction. Yet many of us practice harm reduction in our own lives. We choose decaf over regular, vaping rather than smoking, or helping others rather than giving in to self-pity.
What’s the glitch?
The answer might lie in the story of the plant, the puppy, and the partner. It goes like this: in early recovery, when you feel ready for a romantic relationship, first get a plant and take care of it. If the plant is still alive in a year, get a puppy. If, after a year, the puppy is well-behaved, well-fed, well-cared for, and you haven't given it away, you might be ready for a romantic partner.
The point is that in early recovery our great ideas don't always match up with the hard work and responsibility necessary to turn our best plans into reality. That’s because in early recovery most of us are idealistic and immature. We are sensitive and inconsistent and twisted and volatile and unpredictable. We’re also escape-seeking missiles and desperate romantics. We invented "a better way." We are the piece of crap the world revolves around. The egomaniac with the inferiority complex.
And, ummm…. (what’s a nice way to say this?): our history of active addiction or alcoholism trained us to bring a certain level of color and flexibility to the truth.
We're not against harm reduction.
The abstinence-based recovery community is not anti-harm reduction. It’s anti-“giving a powerful, dangerous, addictive, worth-a-lot-on-the-street drug that promises to make you feel better” to a guy in the earliest stages of recovery.
The mind in early recovery is too screwed up to follow the directions written on a prescription. The mind will clear, but it takes time.
So the general wisdom in certain recovery circles goes: if you can’t keep a plant alive for six months you probably can’t manage a Suboxone prescription responsibly. And if you can keep a plant alive for six months you’re probably past the point that you need Suboxone.
People in recovery can be stubborn, and we love to stand on principle. When it comes to harm reduction and Suboxone use, most of us stand on the principle of safety, even if we haven't taken the time to frame it that way.