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:
- 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:
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.)
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.