by Dale Ryan
In the last article in this series I discussed the most insensitive, intransigent and personally painful kind of resistance to recovery – our own resistance. We tend to be our own worst critics. We resist the changes most tenaciously. In most cases we fight it, reject it, hate it – probably more than anyone else.
It is often true, however, that the recovery journey takes us through territory that is either ambivalent towards or downright hostile to recovery. Recovering codependents, for example, may find that some people prefer the ‘good old days’ when they were more compliant and self-sacrificing. Unpleasant emotions, once medicated with addictive substances or processes, may be experienced as threats to relationships that have adapted over the years to the insanity of addiction. Some people in recovery experience hostility when they start telling the truth in social systems which have been committed to silence for generations. Other people experience shame and rejection when people are skeptical about or merely uncomfortable with the changes that recovery brings.
Recovery is about change and most of us will encounter resistance when change produces new and unfamiliar behaviors. It is not reasonable to expect that all of the changes which take place during recovery will be received with rejoicing as if they were ‘answers to prayer’.
Resistance and Rejection
Most of the resistance we encounter in recovery will be personal and painful. Even when resistance comes in the form of intellectualized ‘arguments’ against recovery, it may feel like personal assault rather than dispassionate analysis. For example, suppose someone says: “You can’t change the past, so you should focus on the positive.” This may make some intellectual sense to you. It may ‘ring true.’ It might, indeed, be good advice at this particular stage of your recovery. But for many people it may also feel like a profound dismissal of their struggle towards sanity. The key to sorting out confusing stuff like this is not the truth or falsehood of “you should focus on the positive”. What is critically important is the tone of voice in which you hear “you should focus on the positive”. Is the tone practical and understanding? Or is it shaming and dismissing? Do I feel rejected as a person when I hear this?
I have found it very helpful when I am confused about a critique of recovery to ask myself questions both about the content of the criticism and about the ‘tone’ of the criticism. What tone of voice do I hear when I hear the critique? Sometimes I can identify a specific person’s voice in how I hear negative comments about recovery. It may be that understanding how you experience a criticism – it’s tone and ‘feel’ – will be as important to your response as the content of the criticism.
The Anti-recovery Backlash
Few of us need additional criticism. So, why focus on criticisms of recovery? Well, it might not be a good time for you to do this. At some stage of the recovery process, however, taking the time to think through predictable criticisms may help you to sort out the confusion more easily when someone criticizes your recovery. The point is not to try to be so ‘educated’ about recovery that you can ‘argue’ effectively with people in denial. There just isn’t any mileage in that. There is, however, some benefit in disciplining your intellectual capacity so that it can support your recovery.
Over the last year I have read most of the popular books of the ‘antirecovery’ genre. The Top Ten Reasons Not To Work On Your Recovery list is a very brief summary of the kinds of criticisms which people hostile to recovery make about recovery. It is NOT the purpose of this short article to provide you with intelligent responses to these criticisms. It is, rather, my hope that you will spend time struggling with these criticisms and that, in the process, you will learn to trust more deeply your capacity to think through criticisms of this kind. It is my hope that you will learn to trust your instincts about ‘content’ and ‘tone’ more deeply. You are not stupid. You can think through things that seem very confusing at first!
Responding to Resistance
I’m not sure that I have any general advice about how to respond to criticisms of recovery. Each instance is so unique. There are, however, a couple of things that come to mind:
First, some criticisms of recovery, even when published by distinguished folks with scholarly credentials, are just ‘cheap shots’ – critiques that are uninformed about the realities of the recovery process. The best example of this from the Top-Ten List, I suppose, is ‘recovery is simple minded.’ It is, dare I say it, a simple minded criticism. (I know that sounds like ‘I know you are, so what am I?’, but I enjoyed writing it!) It is true, of course, that many of us desperately needed to learn to ‘keep it simple’. One way the addictive process sustains itself is to make things so complicated that no one can possibly figure out what’s really going on. Because of that kind of confusion, recovery necessarily involves getting back to basics. There is a sense in which Martin Luther got it right when he said “To progress is always to begin again.” (Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans). I suppose ‘tell the truth’ might sound simple-minded to some people. It seems like a pretty simple thing. And, in theory, I suppose, it is. It has been my experience, however, that becoming the kind of person who has a capacity for the truth is a very difficult and complicated process. Recovery may be about simple things, but that doesn’t make recovery simple minded.
Second, some criticisms of recovery are fundamentally misguided even though they may contain elements of truth. Most people in recovery recognize that there is some danger of excessive self-focus in recovery. That’s part of the reason, of course, that the 12th Step of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous involves a disciplined effort to ‘take the message to others’. Sobriety, like any kind of recovery journey, can’t be sustained without an outward focus. A kind of disciplined narcissism may, however, be a necessary part of early recovery – particularly for people in recovery from trauma or abuse. Someone who has spent 30 years disciplining themselves not to pay attention to their feelings, their bodies or their memories, may not be able to break these habits without a very disciplined season of self-focus. It will certainly not look like a ‘healthy balance’ of self- and other- focus. Narcissism is not one of the goals of recovery, but an appropriate, disciplined self-focus will be a necessary part of the process for many people.
I encourage you to spend time with each of the kinds of resistance to recovery listed in the Top-Ten List. Ask yourself:
Does this criticism have any truth to it?
Does this criticism have any specific relevance to where I am right now in my recovery journey?
If this criticism has some relevance to my personal recovery, is it okay for my recovery to be imperfect or do I have to get this right too?
When I read this criticism, what tone of voice do I hear?
If what I hear is shame, what do I need?
I think it is likely that each of the criticisms of recovery on the Top-Ten List will be baptized with Christian vocabulary and presented as ‘Christian’ critiques of recovery. So, it makes sense to give some thought to these criticisms now – you may see them again! In the next issue of STEPS I’ll look at some of the forms of resistance to recovery that are most common in the Christian community. The Christian community may not be more resistant to recovery than the culture as a whole, but the religious reinforcement of denial can pose some unique obstacles to Christians in recovery.
Top Ten Critiques of Recovery
- Recovery is simple minded
“We should worry about the willingness of so many to believe that the answers to existential questions can be encapsulated in the portentous pronouncements of bumper-sticker books”. Kaminer p 7
- Recovery makes mountains out of mole hills
the term “victimization,” like addiction, has come to describe incidents that were previously considered accidents, misunderstandings, or the normal ups and downs of life. Katz and Liu, p 30
- Recovery is authoritarian
The self-help tradition has always been covertly authoritarian and conformist, relying as it does on a mystique of expertise, encouraging people to look outside themselves for standardized instructions on how to be, teaching us that different people with different problems can easily be saved by the same technique. It is anathema to independent thought. Kaminer p 6
- Recovery encourages irresponsibility
I have done all these terrible things and hurt all these people, the program follower learns to say, and I am dreadfully sorry, but it wasn’t really me doing it –it was this addiction, this disease over which I had no control Katz p 47. People are active agents in – not passive victims of – their addictions. Peele p 3.
- Recovery is too religious
Although the literature about recovery from addiction and codependency borrows heavily from family systems theory and seems, at first, an offshoot of pop psychology, it’s rooted most deeply in religion. . . .More than they resemble group therapy, twelve-step groups are like revival meetings, carrying on the pietistic tradition. Kaminer p 3
- Recovery encourages narcissism
Recovery gives people permission always to put themselves first, partly because it doesn’t give them a sense of perspective on their complaints: parental nagging is not the equal of physical abuse and deprivation, much less genocide; vague intimations of unease are not the same as cancer. No one seems to count her blessings in recovery. Kaminer p 27
- Recovery encourages people to find their identity in negatives
One of the hallmarks of poor mental health is the tendency to view oneself in the bleakest terms possible. Yet most self-help groups insist that the only way to deal with a problem is to adopt it as your primary identity. Katz and Liu p 43.
- Recovery fails to distinguish degrees of trauma
The failure to acknowledge that there are hierarchies of human suffering is what makes recovery and other personal development fashions “selfish” and narcissistic. Kaminer p 27.
- Recovery is unnecessary
In most cases, no matter how bad the addiction seems at the time, people recovery from such a phase without mishap when they move on to the next stage in their lives. Peele p. 149
- Recovery expects weak people to help each other
Relations that are based on mutual weakness cannot serve as sources of strength or enrichment. Unfortunately, self-help groups breed just this kind of connection. Katz and Liu p 56
Peele, Stanton, Diseasing of America: Addiction Treatment Out of Control , Lexington Books(D.C.Heath & Co) 1989
Katz, Stan J. and Aimee E. Liu, The Codependency Conspiracy , Warner Books, 1991
Kaminer, W., I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional , Addison Wesley, 1992
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