The Financial Impossibility of Recovery

I’m going to invite you to imagine something very difficult. As you read each paragraph here, try to really put yourself in these shoes; feel what these experiences would bring up for you. Who would you be if this was your reality? Ok, ready? 

Your single mother was a violent, depressed addict, and sharing heroin with you was the only way she ever expressed affection. By the time you were ten, she only allowed you to spend time with her if you brought her heroin. 

Your only other family were distant, and you hurt all of them in the course of your addiction. You stole and lied to get drugs, and there is no trust there. 

You were incarcerated when you were 12 for theft and possession, and spent the next six years in and out of Juvenile and then County prison. In prison you learned that anger was the only emotion that kept you safe, and never to trust anyone, ever. 

In your brief stints on the outside, you spent time in the violent circles of addicts you grew up around. You learned to sell and to hide. You learned that money can come really easily.  

Now you’re almost twenty, and you’re working hard to put your life onto a better track. You live in a Recovery House with a bunch of other addicts. Because of your criminal record, you cannot get any jobs paying more than minimum wage, so you work really hard to get a job flipping burgers for 11.25 an hour. This gives you a take-home pay of around $1,530 a month. This feels great; until you look at your bills.

Rent is $650, court-ordered therapy is $400 (plus $200 in medication,) hygiene is $50, clothes/laundry are $50, smokes are $50, and some $400 in food (which is about $4 a meal. You usually eat a few hot pockets and buy a cup of coffee.) This adds up to around $1,800. If you can get at least 5 hours of overtime a week, you can make this work. There’s no wiggle room and you have zero pocket cash, but you think you can make it. 

On top of this, you also have several thousand dollars in debt; mostly court fees and legal costs, some back rent from when you first got out, and so on… but these are things you can basically ignore; at least for now. Things look ok. 

Then one day your tooth cracks open. Within a week it’s brutally painful, you’re downing handfuls of painkillers just to get out of bed. You have no health care of any kind. You have no savings, no family or friends to call, there is no safety net for you. 

You know one thing that would immediately make your tooth feel better. With a tied arm and a needle full of maternal love, literally everything in your life would feel better. You live in the town you grew up in, so you could walk less than a block and old “friends” would be more than happy to give it to you for ‘free.’ Beyond that, there’s quick money to be had. You could walk out the door of your Recovery house and make 5 grand this weekend, easily. The demand is huge, and you know all the right people. Next week, you could have your tooth fixed and be rolling in cash, surrounded by “friends,” having a great time. 

Can you do it? Really? Can you get up every day to go flip burgers for ten hours at minimum wage with no end in sight? Knowing the other path so well, knowing how easy it would be to feel loved and relaxed and happy, can you keep showing up to super annoying house meetings where people expect you to communicate in ways you’ve never known, keep going to meaningless therapy with someone you can’t relate to and charges $100 an hour, and daily show up to utterly degrading police check-ins where you’re mocked as a ‘junkie?’ 

All right, let go of this imagination and return to yourself. Take a breath. 

If you’re lucky, you’ll never know. Resisting the temptation to relapse while facing the seemingly insurmountable financial barriers between someone new to recovery and a stable, healthy life is some of the most difficult work that I’ve ever seen anyone do. It’s not just about the cravings; it’s about the capacity to completely shift your entire cultural paradigm, system of ethics, social circles, spiritual beliefs, beliefs about gender, diet… often literally every aspect of an addicts’ life must change in order to sustain recovery. 

There are resources that make recovery financially possible. In fact there are many; the local religious communities are regularly deeply generous with recovering addicts, many can get help with rent from general assistance, there are several local organizations that offer support and funds to addicts, and often estranged family members are much more eager to help when approached by a staff member supporting the family member with whom they have had to establish hard boundaries. 

Unfortunately, there are deep cultural and psychological barriers to accessing these resources, because almost all of the require asking for help. Many addicts have internalized the belief that nothing is ever really free, and that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Because of this, recovering addicts will often simply retreat into depression and isolation, allowing bills and responsibilities to spiral out of control, rather than ask for help that would be freely given. 

At Midcoast Recovery Coalition, a large part of what we do is provide community support for continuing this often thankless, exhausting work. We make a hot meal or offer a cup of tea when residents get home from work, we talk about long-term goals and help them see paths towards better lives. We listen a lot, and often just venting about how hard a 10 hour day of minimum wage labor is helps to relieve some pressure and allow another day of recovery. We also work to maintain relationships with all the local resource organizations so that we can connect residents with appropriate services. While we try to refrain from speaking in absolutes, we’ll make this exception: no addict can recover alone. Recovery requires community support, and we work to help our residents reframe asking for assistance to make it more accessible, and then help connect them with the right people to ask. 

Over time, this creates a culture in our houses where the residents can support one another. They can relate and listen and help one another find healthier paths forward. This residential-based, organic, peer support is one of the most powerful contexts for recovery, and we’re honored to be helping to create spaces for these incredible, breathtakingly strong people to do the almost-impossible work of changing the core patterns of who they have been. 

Please remember this story when you interact with addicts. Not all of our stories are this dramatic, but many of them are close to this challenging and fraught with structural barriers to success. Many people have been taught to judge addicts; “Why don’t you just stop?” “Pull yourself together!” If these thoughts ever sneak into your mind, I would ask you to remember what it felt like to read the story of this addict, and imagine what would help you if you were in their shoes. 

May we all continue our journey of healing and recovery, and support one another along the way. 


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