Archive for the 'Featherbed Syndrome' Category

Recovery dilemmas: Should I stay or should I go?

Feb. 19th 2015

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.

Why don’t they change?! – Evaluating the therapeutic environment vs. blaming the addict

Feb. 12th 2015

Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted

This phrase – “Why don’t they change?!” – expresses the frustrations many counselors and family members experience when we enter treatment, complete our stay, and then struggle with relapse.

 

  • They tell us we don’t understand the first step, meaning we are unable to talk about or accept our powerlessness over drugs or alcohol or we believe we can control our use of alcohol or drugs by saying, “I’ll do a better job next time.”
  • We also are described as “running our own recovery program” and “unwilling to ask for help or take direction.”

Counselors will say in their treatment meetings that we have not suffered enough or need to go back out and use again so there will be more consequences. Their thinking is that with more consequences, we will admit to powerlessness over use and listen our counselor.

 

In my view, the answer to “Why don’t they change?” lies as much with counselors and the protocols used to treat us as within us. After all, we are the ones who need help, and to reject us out of hand is anti-therapeutic, to say the least – especially given the amount of money charged upfront for treatment. If we seem stuck, resistant, and likely to relapse, a far better approach is to evaluate the treatment setting and see if the right conditions exist to promote change.

Safety and trust

People – even those of us with wealth, fame, status, or power (WFSP) – generally do not change unless they feel safe and trust in their surroundings and counselors enough to risk new behaviors and shed old attitudes.

 

In my experience, there is far too much labeling of us by treatment center staff as uncooperative and far too little self-examination and acceptance of responsibility on the part of counselors and staff for how they can help promote change.

 

This means assessing why change is not happening and how the situation can be modified to help us take the risks and make the emotional shifts necessary to begin recovery.

Accessing emotions

Another impediment stems from the current treatment model, which emphasizes education and information. This is based on the idea that by reading and thinking about addiction, we will be inspired to stop using. To the contrary, we need an approach that builds trust and accesses our emotions – one that is based on relationships with empathetic counselors. While we may be motivated to enter treatment, once there, we need a supportive environment to create the conditions necessary to encourage us to adopt new behaviors.

 

To aid our discussion of these conditions, I developed the accompanying chart (below) with the client in the middle (that’s us), the counselor on the outside, and the interactions between the counselor and client that promote change (in yellow). For the client, there are four factors that set the stage for the change process (in blue) and four counselor attributes needed to encourage us to change. This chart helps in assessing where the blocks are to the change process.

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 12.02.45 PM

Conditions for Change for the Client 

  • Safety
  • Time
  • Space
  • Commitment 

Interactions Promoting Change 

  • Content
  • Personal Reflection
  • Dialogue
  • Coaching 

Counselor Attributes Supporting Change 

  • Conviction
  • Real
  • Compassion
  • Integrity

Conditions for Change

The client; the client’s family, social, and business relationships outside of treatment; and the counselor determine these four factors. For example, time can be influenced by how long the client is expected to remain in treatment or spend in recovery activities after treatment. Space is both a function of whether the client is expected to do business or communicate with family and friends while in treatment, as well as whether the client intends to do so or focus on treatment. In contrast, safety is very much influenced by the environment and counseling staff.

 

Safety

Treatment should foster an open environment in which it is safe to speak up without fear of reprisal, retaliation, or personal rejection. This includes:

  • No sharing of information with outsiders.
  • No reactions of resentment, envy, or awe.
  • No asking for money, favors, or a personal relationship.
  • Hearing what is said, not making it “off limits” because it doesn’t fit preconceived ideas about what is supposed to be said in recovery (i.e., talking about how money and privilege has impacted our life and addiction).
  • Setting boundaries.

Safety allows trust to develop. With trust comes the opportunity for honesty.

 

Time

We must allow time for the process of recovery. Getting over the physical affects of drugs and alcohol has little to do with recovery. Living a sober life means:

  • Recognizing the mental, emotional, and spiritual impacts of the disease.
  • Working on changing behavioral patterns from using to “normal.”
  • Learning to have personal relationships based on intimacy.
  • Establishing boundaries with non-WFSP.

These tasks rarely are accomplished in an in-patient program. The usual 28 days in treatment merely provide a foundation for continuing the process in the community.

 

Space

Treatment is supposed to create the space to reflect on core issues where we transition from our heads and into our hearts – where it is OK to feel confused. Having the space to recover means:

  • Getting away from it all.
  • Limited business transactions.
  • Minimal relationship calls.
  • Not using money or prominence in a way that separates us from others.

Allowing space is part of our recovery journey as we begin, over time, to gain insight and feeling into the layers of our experiences.

 

Commitment

Are we willing to do what is necessary for recovery? Committing to the process includes:

  • Recognizing we don’t have the answers.
  • Staying the course without knowing the outcome.
  • Asking for help.
  • Allowing counselors to “encourage” our efforts.

Part of commitment is the courage to try new ways of interacting with others – to engage in trial and error.

Interactions Promoting Change

The counselor’s role is to engage in interactions leading to a change of perspective and, subsequently, behavior. The perspective change may occur during therapeutic encounters or later when we have an opportunity to process our experience. Thus, desired counselor attributes include the ability to communicate and interact with us in ways that support internal change.

 

Content (Information)

This includes what counselors know about the clinical needs and childhood experiences of the affluent, wealthy, and prominent (and how it is different for men and women). By knowing actual content, counselors build trust with patients. Examples:

  • Secrets
  • Lack of consequences
  • Being special
  • How money affects relationships
  • The connection between money, prominence, position, and addiction
  • The resentments and misconceptions of others

And most importantly: how this has impacted our lives.

 

Personal Reflection (Feelings)

Pain and emotional turbulence leads to change. There are countless ways we experience confusion regarding our addiction:

  • This is not how I planned my life.
  • What has happened to me?
  • How did I get here?
  • Why can’t I stop using?
  • Will I ever feel better about myself?

Counselors should be mindful of childhood issues (i.e., where is the pain?) and, for the newly successful, the fear of failure and feeling like a fraud.

 

Dialogue (Intimacy and Honesty)

Through honest discussion, counselors should be able to identify some of the challenges and dilemmas we face in the treatment setting in terms of relating to other patients, staff, and AA attendees. These obstacles can include:

  • Isolation vs. connection
  • Living in images vs. being real
  • Comparing differences vs. seeing similarities
  • Money and fame vs. recovery and humility
  • Remaining static vs. starting the process of insight

Coaching (Model Interactions)

Counselors are tasked with understanding where we are in terms of time, safety, space, and commitment to being in treatment and recovery. The counselor can help suggest words to use and ways to communicate with other patients, staff, and in meetings, such as:

  • Describing life experiences in ways that reduce distractions over details but still convey the meaning.
  • Owning one’s own bottom.
  • Setting boundaries (e.g, saying “no, I am here for treatment, not loans, tickets, or autographs.”).

Counselor Attributes

We often have very low trust levels in helping professionals, as well as the general public. This low trust level results from exploited relationships by counselors and apparent friends. Most of us have developed a “radar” to distinguish between people who are being genuine and those who are presenting a false front (exception: when we are using or with skilled manipulators). Counselors must be absolutely comfortable with their feelings about money and status, and if they cannot treat us without resentments, disrespect, or genuine empathy, they should not take us on as patients.

 

Conviction

Counselors must have confidence in what they are telling their patients and have faith that the information will promote recovery. If they think we do not really have specialized clinical needs, we will pick up on this attitude. Here’s what’s necessary for a counselor to be effective and convincing:

  • They need to walk the walk (and not speak negatively of us when we’re not present).
  • Focus on recovery.
  • Believe what they say.

Real

Putting on a false front to impress a patient or hide insecurities about having a patient who is very wealthy or famous is all too common. We easily see through the façade. Keeping it real includes:

  • No images
  • Humility
  • No hidden agendas

Compassion

An effective counselor needs to understand that money and prominence are barriers to recovery and that every person’s “story” is valid, despite the circumstances. Showing compassion means:

  • Hearing what is being said – not thinking “I wish I had that problem!”
  • Listening without judging.
  • Understanding the difficulties of recovery unique to the patient’s situation.

Integrity

Counselors are here for the patients, not the other way around. Too many times we become a source of vicarious pleasure for the staff. This becomes self-evident and destructive to the counselor-patient relationship. Integrity depends on the following:

  • Boundaries
  • Privacy
  • Focusing on the problems and issues that brought the patient to treatment

Trust comes from integrity, when we can see that the counselor is not focusing on who we are, what we have, and what we’ve done.

The professional’s therapeutic task

Recovery requires effort and commitment on the part of the patient and the counselor – neither can be held solely responsible for the success or nonsuccess of treatment. It’s true that many of us with WFSP show up to treatment with self-imposed limitations and expectations, but it’s a therapeutic task on the part of the professional to convince us to stay, encourage us to let go of our old habits, and to trust the process. But as we all know, trust is hard won, and we need the appropriate conditions. It’s on us to remain open to treatment, and it’s on the professionals to be worthy of our trust.

 

Not many treatment centers are up to the challenge of creating the conditions for change discussed here. But once a safe and trusting treatment environment is established, it’s up to us to choose to venture into the uncharted territory of recovery and say goodbye to our using lifestyle, friends, and ways of thinking.

 

Upcoming blogs will delve into dilemmas that inhibit our ability or willingness to commit to recovery.

Recovery ambivalence: a rich man’s son

Feb. 2nd 2015

Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted

I might start off by giving the experience of a man whom I have not seen for two or three years. His experience so well illustrates the nature of the problem with which we have been dealing. This man was a rich man’s son. …

 

Well, he did a conventional amount of drinking, and that went along nicely a number of years, and then he found he began to get drunk, very much to his own consternation. …

 

I have indicated, I think, that he was a person of character, and great force of character. Therefore the question immediately arises in everyone’s mind: “Why didn’t he stop?” But he did not. … [L]ittle by little, matters got worse and he began to go from one hospital or cure to another.

 

And the very strange thing is that while this is going on, many of us seem to all outward appearances to be sound and able citizens in other matters. Our minds waver, and we wonder what in thunder is the matter.

 

This quote from Bill Wilson’s presentation at the Rockefeller dinner in 1940 introduces the second section of our “Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted” series: Ambivalence!

 

After previously exploring barriers to quitting drinking and drugging or entering treatment, we now turn to the next challenge: ambivalence about whether we actually want to stop using and commit to recovery.

 

Do we truly want the drug-free lifestyle, or would we rather return to substance use – although modified, “under control,” and less visible?

 

Ambivalence commonly occurs after detox, once the drugs are out of our system. We’re already feeling so much better – relieved to have dodged that bullet. But our emotions are raw, and our coping mechanisms and reliable friends are gone. Now what?

The internal tug of war

A tug of war starts with competing voices in our head, as the enormity of the task sinks in. Having money or connections heightens the challenge, providing so many options for figuring out how to get away with it, to deceive ourselves, family, and friends, and to return to our old ways of being. And the shame of falling from high places and ever regaining our standing, combined with the shame of being an addict, makes it all the more difficult to choose to face the reality of our lives.

 

Aside from this internal debate, there are many external pressures – family, social milieu, profession, business, media, etc. – that bear on us when contemplating embarking on a sober life. In the book, The Power of Habit, the author points out that we have limited amounts of energy to learn new behaviors. If we are dedicating a great deal of this energy to fending off external forces that cue using triggers or distract us from our chosen path, we don’t have enough left to win the internal battle.

Outside forces

While future blogs will explore this internal struggle, this one focuses on the many ways outside forces undermine recovery, essentially tipping our ambivalence over to the dark side. Having seen this happen over and over again, the remainder of this blog aims to support those of us exposed to these pressures.

 

From brain scan research, personal experience, and observation, we can answer Bill Wilson’s question of what in thunder is the matter with this rich man’s son: a level of external pressure that can make attaining a sober life near impossible.

 

We now know that using drugs repeatedly over time changes brain structure and function in fundamental and enduring ways that persist long after the individual stops using. Core areas of the brain are reprogrammed so that in the presence of “environmental cues,” we will want to use mood-altering substances. Even after long periods of abstinence, brain scans show that the “craving” areas of our brains light up in the presence of alcohol and drugs in ways unique to us addicts.

 

Too often parents, employers, or media all pay lip service to supporting our recovery, but their behavior belies their verbal encouragement. In reality, we are supposed to go off to treatment and then return to our normal lives – just not drinking or drugging. It’s easy for us to buy into this scenario, as we long for acceptance and try to get back into their good graces, rather than focus on the danger our old life poses to our hard-won “days” of new freedom.

 

How many times have I heard:

 

“My family/law firm/production company/business wants me back, or there will be repercussions.”

 

Or how about:

 

“If I don’t go to my family’s vacation home in Hilton Head for the annual reunion, my parents will cut me off.”

 

Sad, ignorant, and perverse, yes – but all too frequent. We are expected to pick right back up as if nothing happened. Whether self-imposed or required, premature exposure to our “craving cues” leads to relapse.

‘Do you mind if I have just one?’

How many times do friends and relatives ask that question at cocktail hour or when out to dinner? While we have no choice but to tolerate other people drinking in our presence, why drink at all around a friend or loved one in early recovery?

  • Show some respect for what we’ve been through and for the power of the disease.
  • For families where drugs and alcohol have caused so much harm to so many, set an example.

After 19 years of saying “Go right ahead,” on my birthday, I finally said, “Yes, I do mind.” It felt liberating.

Navigating the social scene

At larger family functions, where alcohol flows freely, often 30 percent or more – depending on your definition of substance dependence and how self-serving the answer is – are alcoholic. (Excluding those dependent on pills or weed.)

  • How about the great uncle spotted with a tall glass filled with vodka at the holiday party?
  • Or the cousin with pinpoint pupils toasting his father?

What’s that? Nobody wants to know. The senior leaders who can set an example or chart a different course turn a blind eye. Then they ask where you are. Sayonara – that’s what I say, but many feel we must remain and endure.

 

For those of us encouraged to maintain our social connections, friends ask us to join them, telling us they’ll make sure we only drink Pepsi. As an added bonus, we can drive them home! Or we can join them at the 19th hole or country club lunch and drink Perrier. Yeah, right. And then they wonder why we are drinking “again.”

 

Some of us also face our friends, family, and colleagues inserting themselves into our recovery program/plan.

  • How about the mother who wanted her daughter only to attend high-end AA meetings?
  • Or the producer who pressures his newly minted 28-day graduate movie star into attending the media tour, promising a sober companion?

In these instances, we are treated as commodities to save face or earn money – they don’t appreciate that this is a life and death matter.

No wonder

We are supposed to say nothing, fit in, and resume our old lives. No wonder there is so much relapse. No wonder people are convinced treatment is a failure. Do you get it? Our external environment – our social life, family, and economic pressure – works against us.  Even when we learn new responses to these “cues,” our brain unconsciously registers them. Our will to stay clean can collapse, and we succumb to our internal voice that says, “Hey, this time it will be different. This time I can handle it.”

 

I will say this to you, dear readers:

 

For families with loved ones in early recovery, gladly join in abstaining and finding enjoyable activities to engage in that do not involve going to bars and parties. Reorient your life to one that supports sobriety. Do this for several months, and for the next few years don’t drink in the presence of your loved one. Consider having at least one alcohol-free social event at family gatherings and setting time aside for a 12-step meeting.

 

For those of us with “the problem,” it really helps to have an intermediary – a savvy person who can fend off outside pressures and explain that recovery is the top priority for now. This intermediary can be the one to tell our friends and family to leave us alone, to focus on healing from our disease, and of course to vociferously object to any reprisals for putting our health first.

Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted – Part VIII

Jan. 12th 2015

Barriers to recovery: suppressed pain

Fame: The personal and family impact of being prominent/famous.

“Who are you: a real person or the object of projected fantasies?”

 

When addicted, recovery is not so much about how outsiders perceive, define, and interact with us, but understanding the emotional intensity associated with fame and seeking ways to diminish its power over us. The struggle is really at our inner core – our sense of being.

 

Becoming famous or growing up in a family with a famous parent has it own energy and dynamic. For those of us living in the spotlight, our personal experiences are so very different from what the public imagines or projects onto us. And our public image comes at the price of hiding our genuine selves. Either we live in fear that with one misstep, everything could fall apart, or we convince ourselves we are invincible and can do no wrong – a sentiment common among newly-minted tech barons and celebrities.

 

Whether we are the famous person or a family member, fame is always there to be reckoned with – a powerful force in our lives. Equating fame with invulnerability is a trap for many struggling with addictive behaviors. Equally self-deluding is attempting to recover while also protecting that all-important public image.

What does prominence/fame mean?

  • Being known for our name, our brand, our company, our relationships – whatever brings us into the public eye.
  • Exceptionalism: athletic, good-looking, highly intelligent, charismatic, artistic, etc.
  • Being a big fish in a small pond. “Our family company employed everybody in town, and they all knew who I was.”
  • Always being “on”: Wherever we go, people might know who we are.
  • Being objectified: People respond to who they think we are.
  • Transforming the room: We are the person everyone wants to meet.
  • A conduit to the prominent one: As the son or daughter, confidante, or entourage member, we can get you close.
  • Being too important to recover.

What is the experience of being prominent/famous?

Private and public

 

For the self-made, the prominence that comes from success affirms our aspirations and dreams. However, it comes at the price of increasing isolation due to our lifestyle and security concerns. As adults, the overwhelming desire for privacy conflicts with dependency on servants, socializing, and maintaining a public image. We can’t simply withdraw and hope it all goes away. Fame has its own energy and will put us in the public eye whether we like it or not. And there always the nagging fear that we need to keep going or it will all fall apart. Don’t stop now!

 

Modeling behavior

 

Those of us with new wealth or prominence look to the rich and famous as models for how to live our new life, without comprehending the accompanying risks and vulnerabilities. And our family, friends, and business associates are only too happy to join in. Why not celebrate the big contract, award, or stock option with alcohol, drugs, and peak experiences?

 

Can’t live with it, can’t live without it

 

We all like to tell ourselves that fame is a pain in the ass because we are recognized by sight or by name. Many more people know us than we know them. But the name is also an ace up our sleeve when we want special favors or need to get out of a jam.

 

‘Can I touch you?’

 

People use us as an instrument to confirm their own delusions that being famous or suddenly wealthy means living a charmed life. It can be almost impossible to develop genuine relationships; few can be trusted, save childhood friends and family members.

 

Responding to the image

 

We are treated by the general public as “not normal” . . . larger than life . . . somebody special. This applies not only to the famous but to their children, staff, and advisors. Soon, we begin responding to the public by acting in kind, believing our own hype, and assuming an artificial life or personality.

 

As children growing up with a prominent parent, we witness the transformation when people meet our parent, as well as our parent’s transformation in relating to admirers. We also see the personal disparity between the public image and personal behavior.

 

The drive for success

 

As we work hard and are rewarded for our success, the cycle becomes self-fulfilling – and addictive. We become consumed with our work and won’t even consider taking time off to deal with our personal issues or other addictions (i.e., go to treatment).

 

Checking out

 

For the big name in a small town, getting out of dodge seems like an easy solution, but our problems leave with us. Hiding out only works for a while. If we can’t actually skip town, we stay home and take a magic carpet ride or use Mommy’s little helpers to escape our notoriety.

How prominence/fame impacts addiction and recovery

The experience of being famous or prominent impacts – and complicates – our addiction and recovery alike.

 

Fame can be intoxicating

 

For the well-known, the public applause and admiration can create its own addictive cycle. “Getting out of the limousine as a child with my father made me feel special, a feeling I could only recreate with drugs.”

 

Restoring public image

 

Are we seeking treatment to get well? Or are we here to fix our image, dry out, and then return to the good life? Aided and abetted by lies or misleading information from our publicist, staff, and family, we try to perpetuate the myth that all is well. This dishonesty is the antithesis of what is needed to begin recovery.

 

We know best

 

If our success was due to our hard work, talent, and brains, we believe that because we knew what to do to be successful in life, we know what to do for recovery. We won’t take feedback, and we don’t need your advice.

 

Difficulty trusting others

 

It’s always difficult to sort out the motives of those close to us or those who want to be close to us. We’ve been burned by people who violate our trust, appear to be trustworthy but are not, or who get vicarious thrills from being our friends. But sticking with our original set from our youth has its own dangers because they won’t challenge our dysfunctional behaviors.

 

Being a commodity

 

We become a commodity – a means to make money – for those who benefit economically from us. We are sent to treatment when our productivity diminishes and are expected to sober up and return to work. Relapses will be tolerated until our liabilities are too great – then we are goners.

 

Ulterior motives from peers and staff

 

Being in the presence of money and fame distorts many people at a core, emotional level. Over and over and over again, we are exploited by people who want something from us or to be near us. Why should we try to engage in authentic relationships? How is a treatment setting any different? And how should we interpret the requests from peers for money and from treatment centers for donations?

 

Issues of abandonment

 

With parents caught up in the limelight, high society, and workaholism, it’s easy for children to be neglected and left in the hands substitute caretakers. When divorce or parental chaos strikes, the impact is exacerbated.

 

Lack of empathy from others

 

“I’d trade places with you in second.” “If you don’t want to do what we tell you, go out and use some more and come back and see us.” How many times have we heard this garbage? We have a right to our stories and a right to get well.

 

Loss of self

 

Who are we? Are we the famous person? The brand name? The son of the governor? The star? Are we superior to other people because we are prominent? Or are we simply people with significant problems that will take us down unless with do something about them?

Helps us and hurts us

It’s not easy for us to talk about something that both helps us and hurts us, often in dramatically different ways. Being famous or growing up in a prominent family can be so much fun, but it also can cost us genuine relationships and drive us to compare ourselves to other, more famous people.

 

In treatment, isolation from peers, as well as from our authentic selves, can keep us from lasting recovery. The challenge is finding safe spaces where we can experience true intimacy and healing from interacting with others.

Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted – Part VII (cont’d)

Dec. 9th 2014

Barriers to recovery: PTSD symptomatology in affluent addicts

In Pain Part II, we continue to explore the question: “Why am I destroying myself with alcohol and drugs?” Answering this question requires much more than simply identifying painful situations, attitudes, and events common in wealthy families – it requires accessing the associated emotions and understanding how they are related to using. Unfortunately, this proves very difficult to put into practice. Many of us are truly baffled as to why we keep relapsing and often succumb to a pattern of continued use and dysfunctional behavior, due to what can best be characterized as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD as manifested in the affluent

You might say, “Wait a minute. How can we, wealthy people, have PTSD, when we have it so easy?” Well, the degree of absent, neglectful, destructive parenting – combined with societal hatred of the wealthy (wealthism) – often inflicts major damage during childhood. The damage continues into adulthood, although sometimes in more subtle forms. These experiences alone can lead to PTSD. Add in actual abuse in its many forms or the unexpected loss of loved ones, and it’s almost a guarantee.

 

In Part I, we identified causes of suppressed pain in childhood and how that pain impacts us in adulthood by keeping us detached from our feelings and from others while seeking ways to mask the pain and fill the void (often with drugs, alcohol, and other compulsive behaviors).

 

The combination of bad parenting, societal resentment, and trauma (i.e., abuse, death, etc.) often results in our adopting “survival roles,” where personal identity is significantly changed or lost.

 

Survival roles allow us to get by as best we can when we’re struggling to effectively handle everyday life. We often live a double life, either secretly drinking or using pills or keeping dual sets of friends. Working too much or other “isms” are common as well. Money helps keep the façade intact – we’re trying to look good on the outside, while dying inside. We block the cognitive, physical, and psychological meaning to these painful events and experiences.

Drinking: My solution to losing my son

To use my personal experience as an example, drinking was my ultimate way of coping with the loss of my beloved son. Born with Down syndrome, he died from an inoperable heart condition at age six. I had also lost my 10-year-old brother from a similar condition when I was nine. I knew alcohol wouldn’t fix my pain, but it did provide some relief … until it took over my life.

 

While I could talk about their deaths, I had great difficulty showing feelings when doing so. I could cry when Lassie was lost, but not over my brother or son, which was very confusing to me. This is a common experience for many others as well, who either can’t connect feelings of pain and unease to experiences or can’t give themselves permission to explore the implications on our substance use and recovery.

Internalized self-oppression and loss of identity

When we can’t access or make sense of our experiences and emotions, the resulting depression, chronic anxiety, and anger are often turned inward. We belittle ourselves for our inability to cope with life. This self-oppression becomes internalized with loss of esteem and increasing shame, leading to a weak sense of personal identity and alienation from our core values of family and culture. Many chronic substances users – even those with lots of money – have toxic shame, hating themselves on some level but unable to figure out why.

Treatment as trauma

In the context of affluence, it’s hard for us even to accept a PTSD diagnosis – let alone accept outsiders, including those in the helping profession. But I know many individuals from wealthy and prominent families who fit the definition, based on childhood experiences and mistreatment due to exploitation and resentment. In response, we become paralyzed – unable to take positive steps toward healing, with treatment becoming an additional source of trauma.

 

We come into therapeutic settings such as treatment scared, mistrustful, and reserved – evaluating whether it is a safe space and whether staff or patients can be trusted. Will our life experiences and feelings be heard and respected? Or will we be told not to talk about money (“It has no place in treatment!”) or labeled grandiose? The phrase “I’m not going there!” is so much more than fear of exploring feelings. It’s about being mistrustful – if not re-traumatized – by damaging therapeutic experiences.

 

Negative messages about the danger of feeling

 

Many of the childhood hurts are hidden but sending powerful messages about self-worth and the danger of feelings, because no listened to us as children. If we feel, we might get out of control, and who knows what might happen? As a result, we fail to experience appropriate emotions and to trust “the process.”

 

The isolation trap

 

We believe: If I talk, people will resent me, take advantage of me, or hurt me. If I don’t talk, people will see me as unresponsive, aloof, and withholding.

 

Detachment

 

We don’t feel connected to others and, in fact, fear connection to others. When our emotions are frozen or unavailable on a conscious level, simply being asked to describe our feelings puts us on the spot – we don’t know what to say.

 

Low self-worth

 

We feel shame, including the shame of being different. Our differences become particularly difficult when we try to relate to others in treatment and don’t fit in.

 

Self-pity

 

We feel sorry for ourselves and tell ourselves, “No one wants to know the real me. They only want to know me for my money/body/public image.”

 

Staying in the image

 

We prioritize maintaining the public persona as a rich, famous, important, or professional person to avoid introspection and to protect ourselves from further resentment and exploitation.

 

Becoming a survivor

 

The ultimate goal is to shed our survivor roles and become survivors in the true sense of the word – “thrivers” – flourishing in our new life. But once the drugs are gone, all these feelings come up: fear, overwhelming sadness, anger, and despair. As Terry Hunt suggests, pain can be a source of helpful information from our “engine room.” It’s firing up, but can we embrace our pain and use it as motivation for a different life? Can we gain enough understanding about what happened to us to realize how it affects our efforts at quitting and staying quit?

How suppressed pain impacts recovery

Negative messages about us or our families

 

After internalizing all of the bad things that the world has to say about us, we struggle to develop enough self-esteem to want to recover. Am I worthy of recovery?

 

Parental pressure to be perfect

 

It is hard to feel OK about ourselves as addicts or our relationships with others if we expect perfection or think others expect perfection. Am I OK with being good enough? Or am I marching to another’s drum?

The molded child

 

When we follow the path our parents have laid out for us and use it to identify ourselves, the focus is only on externals. This leads to little insight into addiction. Growing up protected and sheltered, we have very few resources to deal with addiction. And we refuse extended care to learn these tools because we must go home to the people and place that form our identity. Finding my own identity is scary. What if I don’t like who I am?

 

Parents relate to us on their terms and ignore our wishes

 

Our own feelings aren’t acknowledged or considered, so we learn to deny them. “What I feel doesn’t matter.” We also feel we can’t change things because we were unable to do so as a child. So, we feel powerless – stuck in the situation. Can I learn to self-actualize? Can I learn from a 12-step program?

 

Parents absent, raised by servants

 

This abandonment leads to lack of connection to ourselves, meaning we cannot get in touch with our feelings or the feelings of others – not in treatment or through A.A. fellowship. How can I find the courage to join in?

 

Turnover of (hired) primary care giver

 

The inconsistency results in distrust and feelings of powerlessness. “You, too (counselor), will not be there for me.” Yes, it’s difficult finding good treatment and therapists.

 

Parents confuse being present in the home with having a relationship with children

 

Pseudo-parenting can lead to pseudo-recovery (only fixing what shows, not working on what’s inside). If our anxiety and fears can be addressed, it feels so good to rejoin humanity.

 

The awareness of us versus them

 

The effect of this separateness is isolation for those who believe their background and resources make them unique, with crippling fear around having to do what everyone else does. We have little experience in doing so. “Who are we if we are not different – better than?” For those of us trying to blend in, we harbor the fear of being outed – of getting honest. I can chose to stay stuck or chose to try something different.

The healing process

Assuming we can overcome these hurdles and find welcoming therapists and safe spaces, in my experience, honest, open, truthful communications from the heart are a good beginning. Just being able to talk to someone with similar experiences was life-changing. No matter how embarrassing or painful the subject, the deadly stresses and desire to use – born of multiple traumas – can begin to be released and healed.

 

Essentially, the healing process begins with learning to accept the consequences of our life and our actions and developing the maturity to bear our feelings – whether joy, sorrow, anger, or fear. In future blogs, we will elaborate on recovery settings and practices allowing us to understand and manage our experiences and emotions.

Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted – Part VII

Oct. 24th 2014

Barriers to recovery: suppressed pain

Suppressed pain: submerging the intolerable and denying our experiences

“Hey, it’s not so bad.”

 

When we ask ourselves, “Why am I killing myself with alcohol and drugs?”, it’s a question many are unable or unwilling to explore: The answers are either buried deep or too intolerable to address. When coupled with addiction, our pain only intensifies, with suppressed pain being the primary reason affluent people who actually want to recover relapse repeatedly.

 

Growing up in families of wealth, power, or prominence, the outside world perceives us as fortunate, equating good fortune with an easy and contented life, far superior to the other 99%. We were raised to believe happiness meant avoiding pain. With money and means, we can limit suffering, keep up appearances, and avoid embarrassing situations. The art of living then becomes the art of learning to suppress and deny negative experiences. When coupled with addiction-based denial, it becomes a double-edged sword too painful to touch.

Undermining our assumptions

Years ago, I joined a support group for adults from wealthy families. Many of us were suffering and uncomfortable, but we couldn’t identify why. Only when candidly speaking with one another did we discover common childhood experiences that undermined our assumption that being born into affluence guaranteed happiness and satisfaction. Later in life when I went to treatment, these insights helped me dig deeper and examine what was driving my addiction – an essential task to achieve sobriety.

 

Addictive behaviors inevitably are rooted in suppression or avoidance of pain. Even when we do recognize things aren’t right, it’s so much is easier to gloss them over with a drink or drug than do anything to resolve them. Unfortunately, the treatment community offers little in the way of expertise or rapport in supporting us as we pursue feelings relating to difficult childhoods and – too often – trauma. Because understanding and exploring suppressed pain is so critical to our recovery, this blog will discuss its meaning and manifestation, saving its impact on treatment and recovery for next time.

 

What does suppressed pain mean?

 

Events and experiences that hurt us and are submerged into our subconscious, denied, or reinterpreted.

 

Repressed pain comes from experiences that are too intolerable to hold in our consciousness. Examples:

  • Absent, perfectionistic, and critical parenting.
  • The child as the parent’s primary emotional relationship (i.e., becoming the love or hate object of a parent).
  • Abuse.

Denied pain comes from events we reinterpret so as to change their meaning. Examples:

  • “We had it so much better than others, we don’t deserve to complain.”
  • “When the going gets tough, we keep a stiff upper lip.”
  • “They invited me to dinner because they like my company, even if they do want a donation.”
  • Not speaking up when negative comments are made about the wealthy to be “nice,” when we’re actually afraid of confrontation or feel we “deserve it.”

We’re constantly told how wonderful and important our family is that it’s hard to fathom we might suffer from neglectful and misdirected parenting. By denying or suppressing painful experiences, we internalize negative messages about ourselves or our families.

Our childhood reality

Negative messages about us or our families

  • Children hear these messages more often than parents because saying them to us is safer than directly attacking the source of the resentment.

Parental pressure to be perfect

  • The object of parenting is to turn out the perfect child, with no infraction too minor to overlook.
  • We are expected to follow in the footsteps of previous generations.
  • An overly-critical environment leads to an internalized sense of never being good enough.

The molded child

  • If we accept the role of the molded child, all aspects of our life are directed by others. (Often money is the carrot.)
  • We fear leaving this protected environment. We have no idea of who are apart from our parents and little insight into our lost self.

Parents relate to us on their terms and ignore our wishes

  • We learn to deny our own feelings. “What I feel doesn’t matter.”
  • This leads to low self-worth, particularly when we see our parents being attentive to others, like servants or social friends, or spending time on philanthropic events. “Why don’t our parents have time for us?”

Parents absent, raised by servants

  • We feel abandoned. This leads to detachment and inability to connect with others. “A sense of observing ourselves participating in life, rather than feeling present.”

Turnover of (hired) primary care giver

  • This inconsistency leads to lack of trust and feelings of powerlessness, resulting in both abandonment and furthering the detachment generated by parental absence.
  • Our closest relationship is often with our nanny, not our mother. “The only time my heart was broken was when my Nana left.”

Parents confuse being present in the home with having a relationship with children

  • We experience a lot of isolation and insecure feelings, even around siblings or the extended family (i.e., anxiety, a sense of unease, “an acute sense of loneliness”).

The awareness of us versus them

  • We notice the real differences between us and others, in contrast to the egalitarian principles learned at school and religious institutions.
  • We observe, but do not understand why. Many of us adopt the belief we truly are superior in order to reconcile the reality of differences. Others try desperately to fit in.
  • In either case, the feeling of separateness is in the driver’s seat.

Above all, we grow up learning that it almost impossible to act on our own beliefs, if our beliefs differ from our parents’, because of internalized messages and a “system” designed to foster dependence, not independence.

Our adult reality

As we mature, we realize our lives aren’t any better than others. In fact, they’re worse in many ways because we are different from our friends; our parents aren’t around; and we’re pressured and expected to excel. As we think back on our childhood, we become increasingly aware as to how our upbringing impacts our lives and behaviors as adults:

 

Longing for a normal life

We often long for “normalcy,” but don’t know healthy ways to achieve it or quell the underlying feeling that something is wrong. Because we don’t know our own needs, it is easy to be misled, duped, exploited, and a “people pleaser.”

 

Problems? What problems?

We may actually want to stop or cut back, but without our reliable “friend” to keep our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings from surfacing, we continue on until we believe we can’t live without using. Life becomes intolerable without alcohol and drugs, but unresolved pain drives our addiction and our relapses.

 

Living in a cocoon

By minimizing our experiences and telling ourselves it was “not that bad,” we deny reality. And by deliberately ignoring or suppressing our reality, we lose the ability to learn information about our lives, including our drinking or use. Our feedback mechanism is defective, and people who are honest with us are replaced or ignored.

 

Money and resources to the rescue

Shopping, spending, sex, and other peak- or adrenaline-driven activities can be just as useful to avoid pain. All are interchangeable, and when drugs and alcohol become a problem, do we realize how pervasive pain avoidance has become? When the going gets tough, we spend money. And why not? Without understanding the connection between money and addiction, recovery is a fantasy.

Who can help us?

In moments of clarity, we have all these feelings we want to try to identify and talk about. But with whom? Who understands us or can help us gain insight and perspective? Who will be respectful of our experiences and not exploit us?

 

Here’s the bottom line: Without insight, we tend to reenact the struggles of our parents, even though we often vow not to – leading to our own dysfunctional lives. The same rejection and abandonment issues that create the drive for fame and wealth in the family founder can replay themselves in their offspring – leading to their need to be significant in their own right.

Pain as a source of information

We are taught from day one to learn to treat pain as a negative, rather than a source of information. A healthy attitude toward pain recognizes that pain is the soul crying out for help or the body crying out for attention. If we didn’t have physical pain, we wouldn’t know when our bodies are in grave danger.

 

Certainly, having discomfort gets our attention, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But for us addicts, alcohol and drugs are the reliable friend who is always there for us. And we prefer our “friend” over connection to aliveness. The consequence of our double denial is living an unconscious life, not understanding what life is about, not taking care of ourselves, and not listening to the data from our own life.

 

This all may seem bleak, but it’s our reality – a reality that we can change by understanding how suppressed pain impacts recovery and how a healthy attitude toward pain treats it as an opportunity to improve our lives. Don’t stress out too much; help is on the way in Part II.

Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted – Part VI

Oct. 18th 2014

Barriers to recovery: the Myth of the American Dream

Myth of the American Dream: With money and success, all our dreams will come true.

“While we spend our time enjoying the American Dream, in reality, is it all a lie?”

 

For the well off, America – The Land of Dreams, becomes America – The Land of All Your Dreams Come True. We’re raised to believe that having money means being happy and successful. For those working hard to accumulate wealth, we know one day our life will be one of leisure and worry free, as we delight in our deserved riches.

Wealth creates its own set of problems

“I have all this money, everyone tells me I should be happy, but I’m not and my using is out of control. What happened to me?”

 

The reality is that having wealth, earning high incomes, or accumulating money creates its own set of problems. Those who aspire to “make it” fail to understand the (mostly) hidden, pervasive dysfunction permeating affluent families and the ensuing guilt over leaving friends behind. Wealth, beauty, fame, and power are called the four curses due to their negative impact on the lives of their owners. Yet most people aspire to or would like to have any one of the four curses, believing their life would be better off no matter what the trade offs are.

Another hurdle to overcome

Being an alcoholic certainly is not fulfilling the American Dream, and when struggling with addiction, the Myth can be another hurdle to overcome. When addicted, we are living proof that the American Dream is fantasy, but the Myth soothes us and allows us to believe that we are living the good life and there can’t be any problems, so we continue on.

 

The Myth influences our lives in many ways:

  • We believe the Myth. Everyone tells us we have it so good – so we believe our experiences and feelings must be wrong. We don’t acknowledge the problems in our lives because we buy into the idea that our lives must be wonderful. This leaves us open to exploitation and an inability to take action to protect our selves because we can’t see our vulnerabilities – we are bullet proof.
  • People around us believe the Myth. We can be treated as objects to be seduced, deceived, or conquered by those who want a piece of the dream. Even our peers and counselors believe our lives are fantastic and refuse to accept that we might have problems.
  • We idealize the “family founder.” We adopt family stories about the famous family founder – without also examining the negative traits or luck that led to his/her success. We can never live up to the achievements of our family or fulfill our obligations to the world, when our forbearers become our idols.
  • We think achievements will make us happy. Especially for the self-made, we assume reaching our goals would make us happy – instead they often leave us miserable and searching for meaning.
  • We live our public image. We comply with the ought-tos and shoulds imposed by the life stylized for us by the media, merchandizers and our internalized messages. Whether ski goddess, corporate gladiator, trust funder, rock star, or philanthropic do-gooder – we spend our time acting the part and rarely experience who we really are.

Few experiences are more compelling than speaking with:

  • A lottery winner who is in treatment and can’t figure out what happened or why the newly-adopted lifestyle might be part of his problem: “You mean I should stay away from the Cubs, Blackhawks, Bears, Bulls, and the casino when I get home! What will my friends do without me?”
  • The tech guy who cashed out, with the much-envied wine cellar basement and accompanying bottle habit that makes him an unreliable parent and absent spouse.
  • The 40-year-old beneficiary who is filled with self-hatred when working at a recovery job at Home Depot.

These scenarios call for compassion, not scorn, because we, like them, all buy into the Myth at some level.

The Myth as an external message

While there are many similarities to other barriers, a difference is that the Myth is much more of a cultural, social, and media-driven concept, reinforced multiple times each day. In one sense, this is the other side of the coin from envy and resentment, which offends us, in that the Myth is something we become committed to. It makes acknowledging our addictions and seeking help to recover more challenging because we believe we cannot possibly have a problem when we’re following the recipe for success.

 

And if we become aware of problems, we cannot admit to them because that would be admitting failure where others are succeeding – failing to enjoy our privilege and power, failing to handle it, etc. That’s one reason why the thought of working at Home Depot or giving up the tickets generates so much shame, even revulsion. (Note: Recognizing our feelings as valid and reaching a compromise is far better than forcing us into a work or housing setting to prove a point.)

 

It’s usually when suffering the physical effects from using or we dry out for a while, that we come to grips with the reality that the Myth is not working for us.

 

And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful spouse

And you may ask yourself – Well how did I get here?

And you may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house?

And you may ask yourself, where does that highway go?

And you may ask yourself, am I right…Am I wrong?

And you may ask yourself, MY GOD, WHAT HAVE I DONE?

 

The Talking Heads express what many of us feel as we begin to realize how much deeper our hole is when abetted by money, power, and status.

Our reality

How is the Myth supporting our use?

  • People close to us or helping us may look at our assumed power (or the power of those associated with us) and be afraid to confront us with our behavior.
  • If we are related to or associated with the moneyed, powerful, or famous, we may be so dependent on the connection for self-worth, livelihood, or recognition, we can never let go long enough to develop a life of our own.
  • Drug and alcohol issues are about managing the image of abstinence or recovery – not necessarily about changing anything.
  • It is hard to experience healthy pleasure (including sex) in relationships because of doubt: Is it me or my money/body/fame? Am I being star-screwed? Substances help us gloss over all these feelings.
  • While the well-off are able to afford household help, this supposed luxury is belied by physical/sexual abuse by child care assistants or other employees. Because parents are dependent on their help, parents are reluctant to take action or are “too busy” to pay attention to what is actually occurring with their children.
  • Professionals, such as school personnel or doctors, refuse to believe us, because we come from such good homes, and their careers could be jeopardized by filing a complaint.

Different life, new dream

Reflecting on personal experiences, tallying up the high percentage of relatives with addiction and mental health issues and talking with others from similar backgrounds, provides solid evidence the myth is a sham. There is no American Dream! But we can learn to live a different life with a new Dream.

Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted – Part V

Oct. 10th 2014

Barriers to recovery: cultural and social rules

These rules act as breeding grounds for our addictions and prevent us from asking for help.

“What shows is what matters, and, above all, keep it in the family.”

 

In many settings, the very act of refusing a drink is viewed as being anti-social – so much so that when someone says, “No thanks, I’m in recovery,” common responses are: “You can have just one, right?” “Beer’s OK.” Or “Try this pill, it’s non-addictive.” Abstaining almost implies that anyone partaking has a problem, and that defies a heavily-invested-in norm – both literally (wine cellars and journeying) and emotionally (anticipating that drink or drug and conviviality).

 

The alternative of staying away is often viewed as an act of disloyalty, particularly for family summer or holiday gatherings, even though alcohol use is rampant and can awaken old using feelings for those trying to stay sober. And there may be a not-so-unspoken price to pay, when our economic wellbeing is dependent on family business employment or discretionary trusts. We may get a pass when first out of treatment, but many times we are simply expected to attend and tough it out, regardless of relapse triggers.

Examining social norms

One primary rule among wealthy and prominent families is that alcohol is served at every gathering. It is the social lubricant that allows many of us to function, connect with each other, and make our lives tolerable. (For the next generations, drugs serve the same function and are considered more socially acceptable than alcohol.) As Joanie Bronfman points out, this is one of many similarities between wealthy family culture and alcoholic family culture. Let’s look at others:

Our reality

  • The importance of maintaining appearances. What matters is what shows. What does not show does not matter.
  • Dress, manners, possessions, clubs, schools, activities, etc., show that one has money or is of privilege or power (can be counterculture as well).
  • Control and repression of feelings.
  • Limited interactions with people not like us. We’ve surrounded ourselves with “our kind,” going to the right schools, camps, colleges, living in the right communities, and associating with the right people.
  • A sense of entitlement. We believe we deserve what we have and expect to be treated differently than other people.
  • Judging ourselves in comparison with other people. This can be subtle or more direct, but comparisons often lead to feelings of superiority, based on what we have or who we are.
  • Expectations about appropriate work, mates, and social activities, which limit our individuality and creativity.
  • The message that we will be rewarded by our parents if we conform to their expectations as to how we should think and behave.
  • An emphasis on not showing off our wealth and prestige. Although some of us are ostentatious by choice – either deliberately modest or obnoxious.

And above all, when the going gets tough, we solve our problems our own way – thank you very much!

 

We learn social norms and rules as children, often by emulating role models or simply living a life organized around private schools, country clubs, camps, and second homes. The culture and expectations can be so internalized and stifling that we don’t speak our truth or have little idea as to what we want and who we are – a setup for the cocktail hour, joint, or pill taking on a life of its own. Handed down from generation to generation, this way of life is adopted by new entrants who are often unaware of the accompanying dysfunctions.

Save your face or save your ass

We can please our family and try to reclaim the veneer of respectability lost through our use, or we can recognize that committing to recovery means exploring, recognizing the limitations of our upbringing, and examining our delusions:

 

We live in the best neighborhood, our children attend the best schools, we support the best charities. Our family life is perfect – a credit to our family name… La-di-da.

 

When addiction strikes and it’s time to take a hard look at our lives and what needs to be changed to recover, breaking addiction means breaking the “rules.” It’s save-your-face-or-save-your-ass time; you can’t do both. Is what we tell ourselves, how we live our lives, and what we are told to do, working for us or contributing to our downward spiral?

 

Time to take a hard look at answering that question:

Sociability

A valued trait for fundraisers, parties, business, and volunteer work, gregarity doesn’t work in treatment. For those shy or uneasy with small talk, alcohol and drugs ease the way at these gatherings.

Happy hour medicating out of reality

Alcohol and drugs make it possible to remain in intolerable situations.

Speaking the truth is betrayal

Destroying the family picture that “life is good” feels like a betrayal of family and social class, no matter how ugly the scene is: neglect, physical and emotional abuse, incest, etc.

Women: deference begets abuse

Women are taught not to make a scene and do as they are told, resulting in a reluctance to respond to emotional and physical abuse, date rape, or guilt trips by outsiders. (Although this is slowly changing with new generations.)

Male dominance

The family and cultural imperative to produce a worthy male heir at any cost can lead to a sons’ dominance over sisters and toleration of “boys will be boys” behavior.

Believing I can do this myself

Individualism and the feeling of being on our own inhibit us from talking about our lives and asking for help. Our training about self-determination prevents effective treatment since we believe we “should” deal with the disease on our own.

What’s public is what matters

It is the public display of drunkenness that matters, not the private display. Thus, dealing with a drug or alcohol problem is figuring out how to limit the public display – not how to sober up.

Secrets take priority over connecting with peers and therapists

Keeping the family secrets is viewed as a valued act of personal loyalty, rather than as perpetuating separation between us, our counselors, and peers, who perceive our “loyalty” as distant and withholding.

A no-win situation

Keeping secrets is also a no-win situation: “I can’t talk about what it is like to be me. But I can’t get help if I don’t talk.”

 

Ultimately, it’s tough to maintain the appearance that we are fine when we are in a treatment center because our life is a mess and our use is out of control. But many prefer to ignore these facts, perhaps because the alternative is too scary and holding on to the outward manifestations of success is all we have left.

Escaping social rules and expectations? Or not!

“That ain’t me. I’m not a creature of my upbringing. In fact, I am doing things differently from what I learned as a child.”

 

You may say that. But not so fast. Family and past experiences are very influential, particularly when overusing drugs and alcohol or returning from treatment to the same environment but without our “helpers.” In these stressful situations, the ingrained behaviors and relationship ties, often at an unconscious level, take control and steer us into trouble spots. Too many cannot give up or postpone pre-recovery activities (e.g., the weekly lunch at the country club, fundraiser, hunting trip, etc.), and relapse is around the corner.

 

For those whose identity is centered on rejecting the rules, we often fail to recognize a real element of belonging is knowing what the rules are – whether we choose to obey them or not. This is a common experience for many addicts who perceive themselves as rebels or marching to a different drummer but who are still dependent on the monthly check.

Learning a new culture

As mentioned, this blog is about how cultural and social rules inhibit our recognition of addiction and keep us sick or in relapse mode. Learning a new culture – the culture of recovery – is key to overcoming the power of norms and expectations that perpetuate our disease. Other practices include building intuition (learning to access your heart and feelings, rather than the voices of others) and spirituality (connecting with a power outside of ourselves, not the expectations of others). Neither is a quick fix and both require almost daily focus to be successful. More on these topics in future entries.

Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted – Part IV (cont’d)

Oct. 1st 2014

Barriers to recovery: resentment and envy

“Oh no, you are one of those people, I can’t sit with you.”

 

We continue our discussion of negative reactions to us as a barrier to recovery by exploring its origins and, in our pursuit of sobriety, ways to offset or overcome it. As mentioned, many us go to treatment actually wanting to recover but hostile reactions on the part of other patients and staff impede our efforts – one reason for our high relapse rates.

Understanding resentment, envy and wealthism

In our society, it is still permissible to make negative comments about people who are well-off, prominent, or powerful. This unfavorable opinion can come from various places. For one, we can be assholes, particularly when using or stressed. In some cases, people have had negative experiences with wealthy or famous people, finding them arrogant, rude, obnoxious.

 

The growing income disparity also breeds animosity.

  • The top 10 percent now receive one-half of all income and own 75 percent of all assets.
  • The top 10 percent also received 116 percent of income growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 lost 16 percent – that’s right, they went backwards.

No wonder people are angry with us.

 

Additionally, wealthism stems from myths we and others create. Many people believe that material experiences or possessions lead to happiness – and if you have money, you shouldn’t have problems. People subscribe to the idea that we are happy, have an easy life, and can do whatever we want when we want to do it. There are several reasons for this:

  • We build our image to give the appearance life is easy and grand.
  • We’re unwilling to talk about the realities of our lives, especially the problems and dysfunctions.
  • We believe we have transcended the basic activities ordinary people engage in to survive, yet we behave in ways that prove we are unworthy of this transcendence. (See bad behavior of the week in people or the tabloids.)
  • Our culture sells Americans on the idea that those who work hard will be rewarded with success. Many people work hard, yet do not achieve their goals for success. This can lead to anger against the successful, their family members, and successive generations who simply inherit money. (See: our upcoming blog on the myth of the American dream.)
  • The media sell Americans on the idea that material experiences or possessions create happiness and satisfaction (or access to happiness and satisfaction). Since we have money, a name, or are in positions of importance, others conclude we must be happy, and they either want what we have or resent us for having it. (See: our blog on materialism.)

Whether legitimate or not, being self-aware and sensitive rather than dismissive of the views and feelings of the non-wealthy reflects an appreciation for how our circumstances in life could so easily be different.

Wealthism in counselors and the recovery community

In the counseling therapy community, unspoken and sometimes barely-veiled attitudes include:

 

“I work hard and I’m not rich. Why should you be rich, rather than me?”

 

“I hope you never recover because I will loss my cash fee.”

 

“As an alcoholic (or addict), you don’t deserve your money.”

 

Insight into counter-transference seems to be gleefully ignored and therapeutic integrity sore lacking.

 

When in treatment, our counselors encourage us to let down our guard and begin to trust our peers and the recovery community. But when we do, too often our newfound friends – even “sponsors” – ultimately are more interested in accessing our wallets, pants, or famous parents than supporting our sobriety. Halfway or sober homes with meetings open to outsiders are open season for sophisticated predators taking advantage of vulnerable clients just out of inpatient treatment. For those from out of town or with no stable outside friends, when this duplicity become evident, we withdraw – or even worse, relapse or give up on life.

Needed: good treatment centers and supportive counselors.

Unfortunately, centers providing quality treatment that address the needs of the affluent and therapists who can support us and advise us on how to tell our truth are hard to find.

 

(Note to us: We need to start our own one.)

 

What about centers that specialize in affluent clients?

  • First, many of the patients in these centers are not interested in recovery; they are there to dry out or please others – not a healthy peer group.
  • Second, many of these centers are high-end spas and lack the rigorous treatment programs necessary to build a foundation for recovery.
  • Finally, one core principle in recovery is that we become comfortable in our own skin – who we are as a person. We can’t do that if we avoid 90 percent of the population.

Aside from these three concerns, in my view specialty centers do not truly understand our underlying drivers of addiction or the barriers to and challenges of recovery. Treatment approaches tend to be superficial, rather than helping us gain insight into deep-seated fears and well-guarded feelings about our childhood experiences and relationship with money, power, and prominence.

 

My experience

 

On personal level, I was outed by someone who knew of me, so I made a decision to be honest regarding my general circumstances. Because I had talked about the loss of my brother and son, a good connection existed with many peers. And having spent years in sports and all male schools, I knew how to navigate the treatment unit environment. But many others are not at all successful.

 

When I did discuss how my finances and upbringing were part of my addiction, several peers came up to me and talked privately about their situation. But when their time to share came, they kept all that quiet. I could see the difference between the relief I felt from being honest and their continued obsessions and resentments about being in treatment. This was a light bulb moment for me and a motivator for exploring how wealthism impacted other affluent people attempting to recover.

What to do?

Some recovery practices combat resentment and envy. Here’s how:

  • Ask for help from trusted counselors, mentors, or friends (a support team) about how to tell our truth to others. This is about coaching and support. Since this is new for us, there will be a variety of experiences to talk about with our support team. No one gets this right the first few times. It is empowering to let others know who we really are.
  • Tell who we are in a safe environment. The fear of speaking our truth is much greater than the reaction we receive when we do talk about our lives. Most people will still like us. A few will not. Don’t take it personally.
  • When describing events, use the general description of the problem rather than the specifics. Otherwise the focus of the listener is on the details, rather than the problem. Example: “I went to political events to make me feel important. I was able to donate large sums of money which gave me access to the most important politicians.” Do not say, “I donated $100,000 to the Republicans, which allowed me to have lunch with Dick Cheney.”
  • Speak to the feelings and emotions in our lives as any normal person would. Allow yourself to be fully human. It is OK to acknowledge serious problems in our lives and deficient upbringings, while at the same time having or being related to money or prominence.
  • Set boundaries. Another time to ask for help or coaching. Examples of boundary talk:
    • “I am afraid to tell you about me for fear that you will not like me, ask me for things, or gossip about me.”
    • “No, it is not OK to ask me for my autograph; I am here for treatment (a meeting).”
    • “I am hurt that you seem angry with me, but I am here for help and I can’t get help unless I talk about my life.”
    • “The person you see in the picture or film or on TV is not the real me. It is an act or an image. The real me is an alcoholic/addict.”
    • “I am angry that when I told you money was an enabling factor in my life, you turned around and asked me for money. I feel that is a violation of the group trust.”
    • “Just because I look good by society’s standards does not mean I don’t have problems. I do have problems and I would like your support.”

All of these suggestions require sound advice and strategizing with a trusted therapist or friend and the courage to try new behaviors. We need to be better prepared to face resentment and envy in treatment and outfitted with the skills required to work through wealthism and focus on what brought us there in the first place: recovering.

Tragedies in the making

In our work, many of our most painful conversations are with parents who give up on children who keep relapsing and are deemed treatment resistant. When we dig deeper, we find their adolescents and young adults were afraid to participate and sometimes abused because of their background. These are tragedies in the making – almost all avoidable – one critically important reason to ignite a conversation about wealthism.

 

Too many of us go to treatment and are blindsided by negative comments or withheld interventions by staff and it’s time to bring this problem out in the open. It’s our experience and if people resent us for who we are, it’s their problem, not ours. Individually and collectively, it’s essential to summon the strength to be who we are – tell our truth and get on with recovery. Nothing makes the resentful angrier than to see us become sober without losing everything. And nothing makes us happier than doing so.

Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted – Part IV

Sep. 29th 2014

Barriers to recovery: resentment and envy

Wealthism, perceived or real, hinders our recovery.

“If I had your money, I would never be an alcoholic.”

 

Our fourth topic has a different twist to it in that we are talking about how others react to us as a barrier to our recovery. This is a sensitive subject few speak up about, as we are generally afraid to expose wealthism. However, discussing how it impacts us when we seek help is necessary. Unlike other barriers to recovery, which impede our commitment to change, this one impacts those of us who actually want to quit and sober up. But when we run up against prejudice, we lose our enthusiasm, become defensive, and try to “just get by” until our discharge date.

 

The genius of the 12-step movement is that people with a common problem learn from each other in order to stop self-destructive behavior.

  • We recover in groups, not alone.
  • Recovery is about the ability to tell our truth to other addicts and be accepted for who we are, flaws and all.
  • It’s also about reflecting on, identifying, and delving into what’s driving our addiction.

Without a doubt, wealthism, or prejudice against the privileged, runs rampant in the treatment and recovery communities. It’s a huge hindrance in overcoming alcohol and drug use, because unless we feel safe and free to tell our truth, it’s difficult to even contemplate stopping. And it’s nearly impossible if staff resents us, stands in awe, or caters to us due to our VIP status. A common reaction is to internalize the negativity, resulting in self-hatred that becomes even more corrosive when compounded with the shame of addiction.

Our reality

Resentment and envy can make it difficult for us to connect with other alcoholics/addicts and participate in recovery programs:

  • We’re stressed over hiding who we are really are in conversations with others and the fear of being discovered. By keeping our wealth private or hidden from others in recovery, we are essentially living a lie.
  • We don’t connect with other alcoholics and addicts through the sharing of our stories because we don’t feel we can speak freely. We edit or suppress important parts for fear that the telling will lead to negative reactions. Thus, we never complete the first step – we never rejoin the human race.
  • We withdraw from others, which results in not being present on an emotional level. Our peers in treatment and recovery sense something is missing, but what is it? We listen, but we don’t reciprocate.
  • We feel guilty because we also believe that money could “buy happiness” and feel like we have failed. This guilt prevents us from expressing our needs. Do we deserve to recover, when we blew it?
  • We try to manage or adjust the situation to minimize or offset anticipated or actual envy and hostility. This is another way of not connecting or surrendering – we are attempting to exercise control.
  • We lose contact with reality by avoiding the mainstream recovery community. Without regular contact with ordinary people, our personal issues can spiral into major emotional crisis. In reality, our problems are often trivial when compared to those facing ordinary people.
  • We’re reluctant to ask for feedback. We may not want to hear some truths about ourselves, especially truths related to our wealth, fame, or status.
  • We are perceived as objects or stereotypes instead of real people with a disease that is killing us.
  • We fear people will take advantage of us (i.e., gossip about us, sell our stories to the media, ask us for money, etc.).

Above all, it’s hard for us to feel good about ourselves when we repeatedly hear negative messages. We become mired in self-loathing and can’t summon the strength needed to engage in treatment.

Wealthism: what we experience

These wealth- and fame- related issues that crop up in recovery are byproducts of wealthism in the recovery community. Simply put, wealthism is prejudice toward people with money, simply because they have money. It includes actions or attitudes that dehumanize and objectify us. Expressions include resentment, envy, and awe.

  1. Resentment is a form of hostility or anger.
  2. Envy is a covert form of anger. Envy is based on the idea that anybody can be rich, well-known, or powerful. So why is it you and not me?
  3. Awe is the (apparent) experience of being overwhelmed by the beauty or extent of the riches or by vicarious enjoyment of our experiences as moneyed or well-known people. Awe is an indirect form of envy. Concern for our feelings is overwhelmed by the excitement generated by wealth. We are simply conduits for the assumed “magic” in our lives.

Thanks to Joannie Brofman for her dissertation on the experience of inherited wealth, for coining “wealthism,” and for her forthrightness in defining the problem.

Wealthism: what it sounds like

As children, we tend to hear the direct words, while as adults we experience indirect variations like patronizing behavior, false friendships, exploitative business, or charitable proposals. But in treatment, the juvenile directness returns:

  • “Your father is so wonderful. You are so lucky! Can I touch you?”
  • “Listen, if you got problems with your beautiful wife, let me have her, I know how to make her happy.”
  • “Our unit voted and decided with $20 million, you will never recover.”
  • “How can you have problems? You are so beautiful, you can have any man you want!”
  • “Oh look, here is your picture in Elle.”
  • “You got it easy. Why are you working so hard in treatment? Your life is handed to you on a silver platter.”
  • “What’s it like to work with Brad Pitt?.”
  • “You are so lucky, I wish I had what you had.”
  • “Can I have your autograph?”
  • “Oh no, you are one of those people, I can’t sit with you.”
  • “With his kind of money, put up with the abuse.”
  • “Will you lend me money?”

Constant comments like these make it hard to want to fit in, and even more so without the support of staff, who fall back on stereotypes, like “trust fund baby” or “arm candy” for a successful spouse.

Blaming the victim

It’s no wonder many of us are labeled “treatment resistant,” uncooperative, or reluctant to participate in group activities. Who wouldn’t be when faced with outright hostility from peers and the failure on the part of treatment staff to intervene on our behalf? A prime example of blaming the victim, when in fact it is treatment that failed.

 

In other blogs in this series, my preference has been to postpone suggestions on ways to overcome these barriers to recovery to future presentations to keep focus on the “problem.” But because resentment and envy emanates from others and so hinders our efforts to sober up, it is better to explore what to do now. Later this week, we’ll continue discussing resentment and envy, looking at what drives wealthism and what we can do about it.