Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted – Part IV

29/09/14 4:21 PM

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.

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