Reflections on Teaching Mindfulness in Recovery

I am always filled with anticipation and curiosity when I walk into the workshop room. On this particular foggy morning (there is often morning fog in the central coast town of Pismo Beach), there are seven people in recovery ranging in age from 19 to roughly 55.

There’s a jovial friendliness between the men and women seated in red or black leather chairs. Everyone is dressed casually – shorts, sweatshirts, and baseball caps.

As I take my seat, no one seems to take notice; the laughter and talking over one another continues until I speak up, “Hi everyone! Let’s get started!” A few people are quiet but others continue the jousting until I again say, “Hellooo, let’s get started!”

Working With Recovery Patients at The Haven

Since I have checked in with the other staff at The Haven, I know that several people here in recovery have recently left the detox house and are new to the residential houses – either the men’s house or the women’s.

I introduce myself to the group as a career coach and mindfulness instructor who comes to The Haven each week. As the Director of Life Skills Programming, I’m here to help people learn more about their strengths and how they can use them, along with skills they’ve already developed, to find a more healthful, satisfying, and sustainable way of working and living.

I am also here to help them discover new interests and possibly find means of education to move in a new career or life direction.

Everyone listens and then, as if we’ve gotten too serious, joking erupts. A young woman gets up and goes to the kitchen area at the back of the room. Others, I notice, have jumpy legs—you know that person whose body is constantly in motion in some way? This is common.

A young guy has his head resting in his hand and his eyes are closed; he looks pretty droopy. This, too, is common. When people are just out of detox they are often still quite sleepy or a bit dazed.

Getting Started

I ask each person to introduce themselves and tell us when they got here and what brought them to recovery. Sometimes they’ve realized their substance use has become a problem through the lense of problems in relationships at home, sometimes at work.

In many cases they have decided it’s time to clean up their act. In others someone else has pushed them into being here. In a few tragic cases, the death of a loved one has brought their own substance abuse to an unavoidable awareness.

The agitation in the room is palpable, so I decide to start us off with some mindful awareness meditation. I explain the practice but I find out that many have already learned and practiced with our yoga and meditation teacher, Chase, who has made these practices central to his own recovery.

He has told me and the residents that he has found yoga and meditation essential to his peace of mind since he started his own recovery over two years ago. Chase is 28, has a full thick beard and the clearest blue eyes. He is patient, kind, and dedicated to the work he does at The Haven, which all of the residents recognize. He has started using Noah Levine’s Refuge Recovery book in his classes.

The Power of Meditation

I lead the group in a 10-minute meditation and even the people with the jumpy legs have settled in. The energy in the room has completely shifted. When we finish the meditation, we then begin the session afresh. It’s remarkable, I think, to see how everyone has calmed down and tuned in; it is a testament to meditation.

The support and care I see in our groups, most days, is remarkably touching. During my work at The Haven at Pismo, I learned that because of one kind of abuse or another – sexual, emotional or physical harm from a parent, family member, friend or stranger -– residents are here learning to cope with heart-wrenching anxiety and depression, distractibility, and loneliness.

Many are challenged with diagnosed (or often un- or misdiagnosed) bipolar depression or other mental illness, along with ADHD, that made high school and college next to impossible. Drugs or alcohol have been essential for each person to fit in and get along, or to move past the sadness and pain that they can’t face without some sort of numbing substance.

The Cyclical Nature of Working in Outpatient Programs

I’ve seen many of clients cycle out of residences to transitional living or to outpatient programs. We talk about life skills like budgeting and job interviews, or we discuss developing mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and even leadership in our own lives.

We look for strategies to create a life that’s enriching and healthy that includes work, exercise, and new friendships often found at 12-Step or spiritual groups. Or we talk about how to develop new interests that can propagate a new sense of motivation, purpose, friends.

Yoga, mindfulness, and gratitude practices have become a regular part of life for many. Cravings and challenges still loom large, and we discuss these too; some people have divorces and custody battles to resolve, jail stays, or court-ordered treatment plans. The team of professionals I worked alongside patiently and kindly support the clients; they, too, share their stories of gratitude for their own sobriety and being able to do the work they do.

Sadly, many patients/clients have to leave before they are ready. Insurance covers some of their stay, but the arbitrary 28-day stay to sobriety is woefully short for those who need so much more healing and support. More broadly I find myself wishing there were more resources put towards teaching good parenting and relationship skills instead of our society experiencing such epidemic statistics of tragic addiction and mental health challenges.

Shifting Mindsets for a More Powerful Recovery Program

I wonder: What about more awareness campaigns that address and work to remove the stigma of mental illnesses that are all too common? If addiction is a disease just like diabetes, we need to teach diet and lifestyle changes to stay healthy.

Instead of recovery could we say remission, instead of relapse say reoccurrence? The experience of addiction and the feelings of powerlessness in managing the urge to use is outrageously strong.

Resources and people are available to help and support recovering addicts, but more addiction counselors, educators, and doctors are needed. Clearly, our country is being challenged to take action to alleviate an obvious decline in emotional wellness.

Instead of recovery could we say remission, instead of relapse say reoccurrence?


What I’ve Learned

As someone who hasn’t lived with the challenges of addiction and recovery in my own family, I relate to my clients through my own experiences of disappointment and pain, loneliness and anxiety.

I know the waves of emotion I’ve learned to surf and can honestly share with them how mindful awareness has changed my life. While my addiction to sugar isn’t perhaps as harmful to my relationships and work as an addiction to alcohol, I know how hard it is for me to go even a few days without it.

I hold strong regard for the powerful challenges of addiction and mental illness, and tremendous respect for the commitment to sobriety and emotional healing that I see around me.

Get to Know Daisy Swan

Daisy Swan is Career and Executive Coach and Meditation Instructor based in Los Angeles, with clients all over the world. She contributes to LA YOGA and other publications on a regular basis. To learn more about Daisy and her work visit her website.