Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted
A dilemma is a situation in which somebody must chose one of two or more unsatisfactory alternatives.” Also called a “quandary,” “tight spot,” or “Catch-22.”
Many affluent addicts in treatment find themselves in “recovery dilemmas.” These dilemmas stem from conflicts between how we were raised and what we learn is needed to achieve a sober life. These can be presented as choices between actions to take, but I think they really are better described as emotional conflicts between staying in our comfort zone (existing attitudes, behaviors, and social norms) and the fear of trying something new and unknown.
The following are common dilemmas those of us with wealth, fame, status, or power encounter when trying to transition into recovery.
(Where do we see ourselves when reflecting on these dilemmas?)
Shame re: money/status vs. talking about the issues
Money is very confusing to children. They enjoy the material benefits that come with wealth, even though such benefits are unequally distributed among socioeconomic groups. When children are taught it is wrong to think of themselves as superior, those teachings are easily converted into feeling guilty and thinking they are “bad” for enjoying their privileges. Because children think in black and white, this thought process leads directly to shame and a more fragile sense of self.
In treatment, we tell ourselves: “I can’t talk about this – both the pleasure from having money and the opposite – the shame from enjoying our privileged status.”
The antidote to this disease is honesty. Will our shame keep us sick? Will it keep us from talking?
High expectations vs. the disease concept
The burden of high expectations, coupled with much criticism by adults and a never-good-enough educational system, makes it very difficult for us to accept that our behavior stems from having a disease. Instead, we view the problem as the failure to control drinking or use.
The resistance to the disease concept also makes it difficult to seek family support: “I never knew my nephew was a heroin addict until he died of an overdose.”
Where am I with my beliefs as they relate to control vs. accepting I have a disease?
Expected behavior vs. recovery activities
There is a narrow range of acceptable behaviors in all areas (e.g., career, speech, friends, social activities, hobbies, etc.), and many of us in the moneyed class fear deviating from the “norm” and being rejected by our social/business class or by our parents.
It’s the “save your face or save your ass” dilemma: “I can’t give up doing what others expect of me. But then I can’t recover that way, either”.
Recovery requires taking risks, redefinition of self, and hanging out with others on the same path.
Outward appearances vs. internal feelings
Parental absence, isolation, and “don’t trust anybody” rules can lead to shy and lonely adults. This comes across to as being a “snob” or as “not one of us,” particularly in groups. Sadly, this is usually the opposite of what the person intends to communicate.
Another result is a superficial sociability, which is also off-putting. These kinds of interactions may be attempts at intimacy, but the truth is that those raised in wealthy culture often do not know how to express feelings. We are at loss to do so: “I feel so cut off, so alone.”
Can we talk about why we are unable to talk?
Controlled emotions vs. empathy
Repression and control of feelings for us are the social norm (but it’s OK to give reasoned criticism). In trying to show no pain, many often feel no pain. Other times we feel the pain but don’t express it, leading to the same problem.
This makes it difficult to empathize with others in groups and form relationships based on expressed feelings: “I feel no emotions.”
Stick with the basics: sadness, anger, fear, and joy. Can we be angry about losing our only way of coping? Or is that too embarrassing?
What shows is what matters vs. it’s what’s inside that counts
The emphasis on the positive public/social image prevents us from acknowledging the private and personal effects of use and the harm to family members. This attitude often allows the addiction to become so embedded, it is almost impossible to recover. The effects on children are devastating. But “What will they think of us?” predominates.
Why wait to address the problem until the overdose, the car wreck, or the cirrhosis goes public? Besides, many people know anyway.
Concealing WFSP attributes vs. being real
Limiting what information we share helps avoid resentments but creates an incomplete or misleading “protective” identity in treatment and recovery. This concealment comes at the price of dishonesty and the stress of managing information.
We tell ourselves: “I just try to fit in. I won’t talk about the money. It doesn’t matter.”
Can real progress happen with a big piece missing? True acceptance of our disease rarely occurs when so much energy goes into controlling information and the perception of others.
If the whole me is not out there, the whole me can’t recover. The missing part will stay in addiction. Worrying about whether they like me won’t get me sober.
Limited relationships vs. recovery relationships
Associating with people from similar social or economic backgrounds limits access to meaningful relationships with the whole spectrum of the recovering community. Reality checks offer perspective and balance. Staying within our social set may keep us away from the resentments of others and the feelings of guilt and isolation from being privileged and different, but avoiding these reactions comes at the price of learning about the real world.
We must be careful not to try to manipulate our world for the sake of personal comfort: “I don’t relate to those people.”
Rejoining the human race around the commonality of shared disease is part of the recovery process. Trusted counselors and peers help teach us how to benefit from group interactions and 12-step meetings.
The experience of control vs. the experience of consequences
We are used to exercising power over our environment (control). We make decisions and watch as things happen. However, our consequences remind us that we are not in control. Rather, it is consequences that make the disease a reality. Recovery cannot be controlled, but we can allow ourselves to feel what recovery is like for us.
Exercising self-will, thought, and direction is useless for addicts and alcoholics when we want to use: “I know what to do to stay clean or not drink” is a common delusion.
How does it feel to be an addict without a drug or drink? What does if feel like to be powerless? Once we let go and begin to experience recovery as it happens, we understand we were never in control.
The problem (social) drinker vs. the alcoholic
Affluent culture downplays alcoholic and addicted behaviors, using terms like “problem drinking,” “having a good time,” or saying we “deserves to relax.” The predominant role alcohol plays in social settings and the expectations regarding drinking reinforces concepts of normal use that are, in fact, alcoholic. The point here is naming the behavior and use as addictive.
The serious drinker or drugger will socialize with others using at the same level, hide use, and develop dependent business associates, assistants, and family members to avoid being identified as alcoholic or drug addicted: “If I am an alcoholic, so are all my drinking friends.”
Who will call it as it really is? And once called, who will stick with it?
Public behavior vs. private behavior
If the problem is defined or caused by a public incident or social disgrace, it’s easy to focus on the behavior that caused the incident/disgrace, rather than the big picture. By the time the latter comes into play, there is usually severe emotional, mental, and spiritual degradation.
Solving the problem becomes eliminating the public behavior, rather than true recovery: “I will make sure they won’t see me drunk or high again.”
The trick here is to move beyond public behaviors or incidents to private/personal conduct, emotions, and mental status – to define us as addicts/alcoholics. Without this transition, motivation to recover is tough to sustain.
Looking different vs. identifying with others
Due to the protected environment and lack of consequences resulting from money, power, and status, it can take a long time for use to hit home. That is why we come into treatment sicker than many others. But the tragic irony is that so many of us believe we are better off and different than others in treatment who have experienced serious consequences.
This is an illusion is fostered by the ability to maintain outward appearances during heavy drinking and drug use when others cannot: “Who are these people?”
The inability to identify with others compromises our learning from them and asking for help.
Without money, influence, or friends to cushion our consequences, what would we do for our drug or drink? What would we look like?
Pseudo-recovery vs. true recovery
Pseudo-recovery is running a program that looks good to the outside observer. We are socialized to focus on the externals, hang out in the right places, and show no perspiration. Too often the question is, “How should I behave in recovery?” Not, “What do I need to do for recovery?”
What does it mean to be in recovery? Who knows the answer?
Silence vs. talking (the isolation trap)
We are trained to present everything as fine – at the expense of ignoring personal difficulties and withholding information. But if we don’t talk about issues, we can’t get help. Our counselors/peers are then unable to provide relevant feedback and advice, thus reinforcing our sense of isolation and hopelessness.
“I can’t talk about these things with my counselor.” Actually, “won’t” is a better word.
We are not unique. We fit an all-too-common pattern. Our counselors have heard similar stories many times. The choice is to trust and talk or continue using.
Class expectations vs. commitment
The attributes of having money, status, and power and what they bring become ends in themselves. Recovery requires committing ourselves to something we care about outside of our lives that is not based on money, etc.
Who am I without my money, status, power, fame, and image?
Material success vs. self-esteem
Luxury, money, power, and fame are not fulfilling. Often we lose our sense of inherent value and set out to distinguish ourselves from others by developing false pride base on our name, wealth, or connections, instead of true esteem derived from deeds.
People equate material success with well-being: “Look at all I have, I can’t be an alcoholic.” “Look at how well I am doing, I can’t be in relapse.”
Rather the opposite is accurate. Early recovery is about limiting our materialistic trappings, resisting contact with outside voices that reinforce the material, and working a comprehensive program as our first priority.
Recovery is finding well-being in the non-material activities.
A life with WFSP vs. reality
We often are too insulated and lack accurate information about the world. This allows problems and feelings to become magnified and intensified out of proportion. Correction occurs through contact with regular people, particularly those in AA.
On the opposite side of this coin, mentoring by others with similar backgrounds has powerful impact because we can no longer use the excuse that money makes us different and, therefore, we can ignore advice on recovery. (This attitude also may be why we don’t want to hang out with our peers in recovery from similar backgrounds – they can call us out.)
Are we open to risk exposure to learning opportunities?
Institutional power vs. personal inadequacy (pseudo-power)
Often we exercise institutional, professional, or family power, but on a personal level we feel inadequate because we may not have lived up to our own expectations or our values. To compensate for these inadequacies, we can turn to pseudo-power (the arbitrary, self-serving use of power): “Talk to so-and-so. They’ll tell you I can’t do what you are recommending.”
But pseudo-power does not work in recovery. This kind of attitude or the actual use of parents, agents, or other outside forces is not going to keep us clean. Some other solution must be found.
Are we willing to sit with our feelings of inadequacy long enough to take at look at their origins?
Many tough questions
These are tough questions that many of us face when no longer using and when ignoring them is no longer an option. When people ask “What’s going on?”, often we are mulling over these and similar quandaries in our minds, trying to figure out whom we trust enough to talk them over without being judged or scorned. Should we test the waters with some trial balloons, jump right in, or keep quiet (and keep suffering)? There are no easy answers here in ambivalence land – where staying in the middle of the teeter-totter is only a temporary solution.