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Recoveryism 101 (Part 1)

Published on 08. 07. 2014

Time to Heal - Hawaii Island RecoveryRacism, dogmatism, and sexism are the judgments that one race, set of beliefs, or sex are superior. Today we define and discuss “recoveryism:” the judgment that one approach to recovery is superior to all others. It can even go to the extreme: there is only ONE approach to recovery.  Any other “approach” is just pseudo-recovery. Individuals who try these pseudo-recoveries will not recover until they are finally “enlightened” and seek the one true way.

Why are recovery options so often framed in categories of superiority and inferiority? What is the source of this need to declare one's own particular brand of recovery as THE path to recovery and to consider it blasphemous to suggest anything less?  One option to consider is that this propensity comes from the intrapersonal wounds to self that accompany addiction and the stain on self that indelibly marks the social stigma attached to addiction and recovery. 


Stigma is a process of social shunning through which one's personal identity and humanity are lost due to one's membership in a socially discredited group. Unfavorable traits culturally attributed to the discredited group forge a pervasive sense of shame and unworthiness and a sense of being imprisoned by stereotype and caricature. In the quest to redeem their spoiled identity, there are many strategies commonly employed:

  • Attempting to hide one's stigmatized status
  • Living one's life within the cocoon of the stigmatized social group, claiming and reframing stigmatizing labels as badges of in-group status
  • Becoming a "professional-ex" (making a career representing one's group to the larger society)
  • Framing one's stigmatized condition as a gift that has taught one how to live in a far superior fashion than "normals."

  In 1951, philosopher Eric Hoffer observed:  "Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.  The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause" [or his or her particular style of recovery].  Author Herman Melville similarly opined:  "There is something in us, somehow, that, in the most degraded condition, we snatch at a chance to deceive ourselves into a fancied superiority to others, whom we suppose lower in the scale than ourselves". Hoffer and Melville offer insight into how people in addiction recovery have sought to manage social stigma and how this could potentially be played out in their relationships with one another. 

Stigma is a form of psychological and social violence that elicits violence in kind as the oppressed mimic their oppressor.  In the extreme, if you teach a people to hate themselves, you do not have to kill them; they will kill each other.  Thus in active addiction, we see addicts preying on each other, and in recovery we see conflict within and between organized approaches to recovery support and addiction treatment. 

There is a healthy place within the recovery experience for self-satisfaction of one's achievement, but there is a line one can cross into the realm of self-pride, arrogance, and intolerance - a stance of "my way is the only way." This latter stance infuses recovery with the distorted thinking and character excesses of active addiction and represents an immature way we act out our damaged selves in our relationships with each other.  It also represents a form of bigotry that mirrors the current paralyzing political wars in the U.S. and the violent religious and cultural clashes that seem to be tearing our world apart.

Another very important element in the equation are the families and community. What often scares families in crisis is that they have lost confidence in their loved one’s capacity to make wise choices given their addictive choices.  However, there is no eliminating choice in recovery.  If we don’t allow those in need to choose their own new path, it won’t be long before they are annoyed and angry, and choosing their old path.

If recoveryism is to end we need to 1) make information about the full diversity of recovery options available to all who need it and then 2) allow them to choose among them.  More precisely, we need to support individuals in crafting their own unique recovery paths. There exists as much diversity in recovery paths as exists among individuals. 

For now we can support the end of recoveryism by stopping any effort to say what recovery cannot be. We need to focus instead on what recovery might be. If an approach is showing some success, rather than suggest that disaster is just around the corner, let’s support what seems to be working. The recovery approach can be modified over time, and indeed is likely to be. This open-minded perspective is more likely than a rigid one to help individuals make changes sooner rather than later. Let’s just say Yes to recovery.



Next Week: Recoveryism 101 pt. 2: There ARE objective criteria by which pathways of recovery can be assessed.




Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, 1951

The Writings of Herman Melville, vol. 5, 1969

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