September 6, 2020

A few lifetimes ago, I worked in education. Many of those who know me today have a hard time picturing me as director or principal of alternative schools, but that’s who I was for more than a third of my adult life. (Of course, even harder for them to imagine is me as a Baptist of any kind, much less a Baptist minister and seminarian, but there it is.) 

In education as in much of the world where describing things takes the place of changing them, “models” proliferate. To choose three very broad examples, Behaviorism, views human learning as yet one more arena for operant conditioning (rewarding desired behavior, ignoring or punishing undesired behavior) treats teaching a child to read as not fundamentally different than “teaching” a pigeon to walk in a figure eight. Cognitivism views learners as processors of information, not just responding to stimuli as in behaviorism. In some way, cognitivists hope to pry open the black box of the human mind and focus on the how of learning. Constructivism, with its focus on understanding how students think, how they construct knowledge out of a variety of experiences, draws upon prior knowledge to construct a scaffold for new information to be attached.

Theories offer only a half-constructed bridge to reality. Put another way, I’d rather learn about combat from real soldiers who have fought in real wars than from military theorists. Give me Norman Mailer, James Jones or Tobias Wolff over von Clausewitz, B.H. Liddell Hart or even Lao Tzu. The man who has been to war knows combat in his bones and heart; the theorist only in his mind.

Still, despite my complaints above, theories do occasionally offer practical help. Strategies generate tactics and tactics are what I crave. For example, a wise graduate-school professor of mine, Charlie Mitsakos, introduced me to the Four Stages of Competence, drawn from the work of Noel Burch. The four stages also apply, I think, to recovery itself. First, though, the learning model:

1) Unconscious incompetence

The learner doesn’t know s/he is incompetent. Think of the preschooler banging unselfconsciously on a piano.  Just doing is enough at this stage.

2) Conscious incompetence

The learner recognizes s/he is incompetent but doesn’t know what s/he needs to become competent. Mistakes are learning opportunities at this stage. Think of the beginning piano student who struggles to play notes in some kind of order.

3) Conscious competence

The learner has competence, but only when s/he is paying close attention. Think of the piano player who must stay focused on the sheet music, on arm placement, on the use of pedals, etc.

4) Unconscious competence

The learner has internalized the skill, made them his or her own. The skill has become part of the learner, not an outside object to be mastered.

And now, back to recovery, or at least its possibility.

1) Unconscious Using

Drugs and alcohol aren’t a problem for me; they’re a solution—to boredom, to shyness, to loneliness. Soon, they become a solution to everything, a panacea for life.

2) Conscious Using

Other people are noticing how much I’m using, and I need to minimize their knowledge. I probably should cut down, maybe even quit. No longer a cure-all, using has become as much a problem as a solution.

Then . . . a miracle occurs

3) Conscious Recovery

The newly recovered person must be ever mindful of a fragile recovery—staying away from old haunts, cutting off ties with using companions, consciously searching for gratitude, going to meetings, etc. The newly recovered person makes recovery the center of existence, in much the same way s/he used to view using.

4) Unconscious Recovery

Over time, little by slowly, recovery becomes who we are. We are still aware of our physical, emotional and spiritual health, using regular check-ins as maintenance, but our lives aren’t focused on recovery, because we are people in long-term recovery.

I can’t say this model is completely accurate for all people, but I do know it describes my history. As above, models are useless compared to experience, so feel free to create your own model—or use none at all. Just this caveat: if you’re going to make your own model, be careful about sniffing the glue. I’ve got stories about that practice, and I’ll be glad to tell you about that when you stop by Hope for New Hampshire Recovery.