Barriers to recovery: materialism
Materialism: Doing or having, rather than being.
Our third recovery barrier is materialism: putting money, possessions, lifestyle, and image ahead of self-care and recovery. It feels good to travel, spend, buy, meet celebrities, attend that special benefit, or be so philanthropic.
We love our new Jaguar; it just glides! Have you been to our beach house? Yes, it is a Rolex. Have you met his new wife – she must be 25 years younger. What about that endowment at Harvard or that reserve in Africa? And the investments!
For the wealthy, prominent, and powerful:
- Externals matter, so we purchase a lifestyle that reflects our success. This can include relationships as well.
- Hanging out with others like us leads to an atmosphere of comparison and competition. Who has the biggest private plane? Gives away the most? Is closer to GW, BC, or BA?
- Since we can buy the best, why not have the best? Schools, second homes – whatever it is we value takes on meaning, rather than focusing on the quality of our relationships.
- We learn immediate gratification because we get what we want when we want it.
In addition to a materialistic focus, many of us also buy into the notion that money, prominence, and power should make us happy. And when it does not, we turn to “more” as the solution, falling further into this trap. Alcohol and drugs help fuel and medicate this ride. Addiction is essentially the ultimate “consumer good,” in the sense that having a drink or a pill always alters our mood.
The transformation dilemma
Recovery is founded on transformation, an awakening or desire for a different life. But it’s really tough to let go of our self-identification and attachment to status, position, money, and possessions. Whether positive or negative, these feelings intensify when addiction strikes.
After detox, the hard, core question is:
Who am I without my money, name, power, or fame?
This is another “dark night of the soul,” stomach-wrenching question that many of us don’t want to face because we realize that when all else is stripped away, we are left only with our addiction. We’re just like every other drunk or druggie.
- We are used to buying what we want or our way out of trouble, so we try to buy recovery. This does not work for alcoholism/addiction.
- We believe our own press/bank account and give lip service to our counselors. How much do they make? How do they dress?
- Success in the material world leads us to conclude we know how to recover.
- Money is more important than our own health or recovery.
- We buy our way out of life’s experiences, like treatment. How much more do I need to pay for a private room?
- We have a limited life view. Example: Trying to figure how to fly first-class on the way home from treatment without succumbing to the offers of free drinks. Flying coach is outside the realm of considered options.
- We tell ourselves that attending to career, social, and extended-family needs takes priority over treatment recommendations.
- We call upon outside advocates or helpers to influence treatment professionals.
In treatment, it is so easy to focus on what we lost and want to regain by abstaining: trust fund disbursements, cars, houses, jobs, assets, position, stardom, etc. These seem to be the only way we can identify ourselves to others or feel secure in a new environment without a substance to fall back on. Above all, we comply and lie, in hopes of retaining a measure of what we think is self-worth or identity, rather than commit to recovery.
- I am here for winter vacation from graduate school. If I go to a half-way house, I can’t get my degree on time.
- If I don’t do the publicity tour, I won’t be hired for another film.
- I must go to my family’s annual summer gathering or they won’t give me money.
- Don’t tell anyone my job is a sham, I don’t want to lose my position.
When these and other core attitudes and behaviors surface, it’s a crossroads moment: We can decide to stay in our addiction or try a life without drugs.
On one level, this is about being unwilling to take a leap of faith and trust treatment professionals or our affluent friends in recovery. But on a deeper level, it’s a struggle to let go of attachment to the “material” and make recovery our first priority.
Some of us are lucky enough to have a light bulb moment where we realize that money and our other special attributes and resources are fueling the fires of our addiction. Others discover through self-reflection or interactions with others in treatment how money is a negative rather than a positive in our lives:
- We experience an underlying sense of unease when we take a good look at the world around us.
- We’re objectified by others we meet in treatment, our “peers” and counselors. (“If I had your money, I would never become an addict.”)
- Some feel bitter and disillusioned, wanting to get rid of the trust fund, get out of town, and change our name.
- We question if we really deserve all this when we’re given every advantage or have exploited, tricked, or screwed our way to the top.
- We substitute money and material possessions for love, self-worth, or achievement – leading us to feel alone and like failures in our personal lives.
- Money interferes with genuine relationships. Our friends and mates become dependent on us rather than establishing genuine relationships. As a result, no one says “no” to us – and if they do, we get rid of them or avoid them.
- We struggle to relate to others. Our toys, prerogatives, and privileges act as a barrier to forming meaningful relationships because we never go deeper than surface-level.
When these thoughts come upon us, we can feel very isolated. We are migrating beyond our comfort zone into uncharted territory. Few counselors really understand how hard it is to reframe and sometimes disconnect from the lifestyle that we begin to recognize is destroying us.
We long for something more
Ultimately, there is a persistent, underlying emptiness – a void that we previously filled with drugs and alcohol. In treatment, we hear that spiritualism stands in contrast to materialism and wonder if we can live with the contradiction and what that means. How do we sober up without losing everything and maintaining our abundance, however we define it?
These are excellent questions to consider in later blogs. But for now, the focus is how wealth, fame, and power are actually distractions from recovery, easily diverting attention from real issues, like keeping one’s sobriety and being just a first name.