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[ Opinion ]

What is Your Default?

I was at work the other day, listening to a speaker for a 12-step fellowship who had volunteered his time to come in and bring a meeting to the patients. John spoke of his late wife, who after many years of recovery had begun drinking again, and drank herself to death in a period of four years. He said that his children asked him why she had drank again, to which he replied, “That is the wrong question. A more interesting question is, why did she not drink for so long?” He then proceeded to tell the patients that we should not be surprised when alcoholics drink, because “that is what we were born to do.” He asserted that the surprise, indeed the miracle, is that “a group of self-centered, self-seeking drunks could organize and help each other stay sober one day at a time.”

What is the message here? What were these children told about their mother? What were the patients in our treatment program told about their basic nature? Let’s break it down into its basic units:

1. You are an alcoholic and were born to drink.

2. You should not be surprised if you drink again.

3. Your only hope for salvation is a miracle.

The archetypal tale of the hopeless wretch transformed by grace is an inspirational one to which many can relate; but remember that the story begins, and is made relevant by, the hopeless nature of its protagonist. Those who speak and think like this will insist that the message described here is one of hope. However, once one has been labelled an addict or alcoholic and told that their default modus operandi is to drink or use drugs, what effect will that have on his chances of success? Those who identify themselves this way in 12-step meetings will usually say that they need to be constantly reminded of their condition; that it engenders humility, and that it allows the newcomer to identify with his peers. There have also been debates about whether the label or the name should come first in one’s introduction. Do I say, “My name is Adam and I am an addict” or “I am an addict named Adam”? Some insist that “if I forget what I am, I will lose who I am”. The thought and detail that goes into a simple introduction, when deconstructed, seems almost superstitious; but the neurolinguistic programming involved has a very real effect. What we believe about ourselves, what we say about ourselves, becomes true for us. Our thoughts and beliefs become manifest. I wrote in my entry entitled The False Dichotomy: Spiritual vs. Self about my friend who utters several times a week, “I am an addict and my problem is Dave”. This clever variation neatly sums up the fatalistic attitude embedded in some recovery thought.

Our introductions to recovery are developmentally formative, much like the first few years of our lives, and for many of the same reasons. Without the skills we need to survive, we look to more experienced people to learn how to live. When we are taught that our default is to be sick and that the most we can achieve is fragile, fleeting recovery, why should anyone be surprised when so many fail? And that is exactly what John told the patients: don’t be surprised when you fail. Be amazed if you can recover.

I never fully accepted the idea that I was sick or broken by default; and I believe that that has had a good deal of influence on my recovery. Even when I was in the throes of addiction, I believed that I could recover if I put my mind to it. This is not to say that I did not need help; but my integrity as a person was never a question. I was told this my whole life, every time I made a bad decision; “you are a smart guy, you were raised well; you can do better than this.” And I made a lot of bad decisions, so I heard this quite often. I was never told, “you are a deficient person, you are hopeless, it is in your nature to screw up.” I think my outcome may have been very different if I had been.

After the meeting, I spoke with a patient who has been admitted to our facility three times in the last three months. She said that, no matter how hard she tries to “work the program”, she just keeps getting drunk. I thought to myself, why wouldn’t you? That’s what alcoholics do.