If you are like me, I learned how to share my story of addiction and recovery in 12-step rooms. I learned how to sprinkle my story with quotes and funny sayings from listening to others sharing their story. The first few times I shared my experience to a group of like-minded individuals, it was exhilarating. I had no idea what I really said, or if it made any sense, I just knew it was over. The response was always positive in those instances. Fast-forward five years. I was teaching a class on substance use at the local university. I thought bringing my own personal experience into the class would add to the students’ learning from the textbook. I went into my usual share, except I managed to stay semi-present this time – just enough to see the shocked looks on the students’ faces.
Almost as soon as I was done talking, shame hit me like a boulder would Wyle E. Coyote. I couldn’t wait to get out of the classroom. I immediately tried to figure out why this was so difficult, when I have shared countless times. I realized I had just shared some of my most embarrassing and shameful things – sprinkled with some gifts of recovery on the end – to a room full of people who were not like-minded to say the least. These 85 students could not relate to what I talked about. They didn’t even laugh at all my jokes that have probably worked since 1937.
You would think I learned a lesson and that was the last time I shared in a class like that. But every semester after that, I still shared. Recovery is a huge piece of who I am and what I do; I couldn’t keep it to myself. As time went on, students began to talk to me after class about their own struggles or family struggles. I started being asked to speak to other student groups and organizations on campus. I became the token sober guy on campus. In that time, I wasn’t aware of messaging training or anyone that could teach me what I did wrong, and how to do it better. I just learned by making some mistakes, doing okay other times.
Here are my top three tips for sharing your story to the public:
Understand your audience
I have had the opportunity to share personal experiences with addiction and recovery in many different settings. One thing I have learned is the takeaway points may be different for different audiences. For example, a class full of high school students will need a different message than a large group of business professionals. The message to high school students might be about learning to have fun and enjoy life without the need for alcohol or drugs, and showing the positive lifestyle of recovery. Business professionals might hear about the importance of developing healthy coping skills and mindfulness. You get the point; certain audiences need a tailored message.
Keep it positive
This cannot be stated enough. We do not have a lot of positive words for people in active addiction or recovery in our culture. We get to try and change that. That’s why we use words like “person in long-term recovery” and stay away from words like substance abuse, addict, etc. The last thing we want to do is reinforce the stigma of addiction and recovery with our own words. This doesn’t mean you cannot be real about the pain and imprisonment of addiction. That should be done without negative language.
This is something that gets overlooked a lot. Make sure you have a plan for self-care after you share. It is difficult to be open and vulnerable the way sharing our experience can be. It is brave to do something that leaves us exposed so to speak. It is important that you are prepared for the difficulty that can come with sharing your story, and not let it affect you negatively.