Recovery Mutants from Zardoz
by Dale Ryan
STEPS Volume 4, Issue 2, Spring 1993.
I have met people who think that recovery turns ordinary individuals
into whining, self-absorbed, irresponsible, blaming, childish,
incompetent, unbalanced, personality-disordered victims. (Why does
that sound like the story line from a B-grade sci-fi thriller? The
Recovery Mutants from Zardoz spread terror by seeding alien thoughts
into the minds of helpless Americans!). Other people have expressed
the concern that our whole culture is becoming like this - a culture
of victimization. I suppose this kind of concern is a necessary
companion to the wide-spread public acceptance of recovery as a
legitimate journey in life. You can't have John Bradshaw featured on
PBS and not generate some hostility. I don't, however, think that we
should dismiss these kinds of critiques as mere 'backlash'. Even
though hostile critiques of recovery may anger many of us (especially
when they come with a coating of Christian language and Christian
sentimentality), we still need to pay attention and to prepare
ourselves for this kind of reaction. So, let's ask the question: do
people in recovery have distinctive, negative personal qualities like
whining, self-absorption, and irresponsibility?
Probably the first thing to say is that there are all kinds of people
in recovery. We are not all one kind of person. The recovery community
is full of a rich diversity of journeys. Generalizations about the
character qualities of 'people in recovery' aren't any more helpful
than generalizations about gender or racial heritage. The statement
'people in recovery are self-absorbed' is very much like the statement
'people from the South are narrow minded.' They suggest, at best, that
a speaker is unfamiliar with their subject.
A second obvious point is that recovery is about change. Recovery
involves identifying character qualities that we want to change and
working a disciplined program that makes change possible. It doesn't
fit reality very well to say 'people in recovery never whine.' Or 'we
never get self-absorbed.' Most of us have a fairly long list of
character qualities that we wish to change. What doesn't help at all,
of course, is for other people to attempt to do a generalized
one-size-fits-all inventory for us, or to list the things we 'should'
change. If that kind of 'help' were helpful we would probably all be
better by now.
Thirdly, one of the things that makes change possible is a
sympathetic, grace-full understanding of the emotional roots of our
current character qualities. People who have lived through traumatic
experiences will struggle, for example, with hypervigilance (we tend
to overprotect ourselves when there is no threat), and with
dissociation (we tend to underrespond when threats are real). In order
to change these qualities of character we first need to remember that
these are skills which helped us to survive in very dangerous
environments. Hypervigilance is an asset in dangerous territory.
Dissociation is a kind of emotional protection in otherwise
traumatizing situations. They may not be very helpful when we are
having lunch with a friend or hugging a lover. But, in genuinely
dangerous territory, these are useful skills; skills which we need to
learn to use properly. We can affirm these skills at the same time as
we move on to develop a broader range of skills for daily living.
Or take 'whining' as an example. It's difficult to think of much, if
anything, good to say about whining - it is an unlikable character
quality. But, even in this least likely of character defects, there
are intimations of grace. Whining may have served us well in
environments where all other avenues to recognition were closed. And,
it has been my experience, that a whine may also be a kind of
inarticulate confession - an effort, as yet undisciplined in the ways
of confession, to tell part of our story. Many a wise counselor has
seen in a 'whine' a pathway to the roots of a person's struggle. Our
story may come out like a whine, it may come out like a scream;the
important thing is that we put our story into words and share it. We
will be inarticulate at first. Others will, no doubt, shame us for
being inarticulate. But we can put our trust in the God who encourages
confession, the God who honors us when we tell the truth.
There are at least three problems, then, with statements like 'people
in recovery are self-absorbed'. First, it is too broad a
generalization. Second, it may be a shame-based attempt to do our
inventory for us. And, third, it ignores the value of our character
defects; a season of self-absorption can be very functional for people
who have spent years running from their thoughts and feelings.
May your roots sink deeply in the soil of God's love.
Go to Dale
Ryan's Articles in STEPS Magazine.
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