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.
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.