A while ago, when I was an active member of a 12-step program, I was constantly bombarded with the information that I was not “terminally unique.” I believed that term was used to point out to people suffering from addiction that there’s nothing special about them, and they don’t need special treatment. This leveling worked for many, I’m sure, as the belief in personal uniqueness also came head-to-head with the idea that nothing could be done to arrest a person’s addiction. Once you felt that you were just like everybody else, you could get better – just as everybody else did!
As I say, this might’ve worked for many – and it worked for me as well, but only for a time. Eventually, I had to rebuild my identity outside of the 12-step rooms and outside of my identification as an “alcoholic.” With recovery and sobriety, I learned I was so much more than just that. It was the things that made me unique that both caused me to fall prey to addiction, but also to recover from it. Today, I identify as many, many things, for example, as someone who is Recovered, an Introvert, a Myers Briggs ISTJ (reserved yet willful with a rational outlook on life), someone who’s Highly Sensitive, an Immersionist, a Chronic Malcontent, someone who is Relational, which means that I see myself through how I relate to others, to myself, and how I relate to Reality.
I also identify as a Relinquishee – someone who was relinquished at birth.
It is the combination of all of my identities that makes me me. The 12-step idea that I was not unique, although useful in not thinking of myself as someone deserving special treatment, was also not helpful in recovering my identity. As a person who was given up for adoption and a person who lived with addiction, my identity was already so fragmented that dismantling it even further would’ve done me no favors. I owe a lot of my stabilization and recovery to the 12 steps. Still, I also owe a lot of my recovery to life experience, some great teachers that I had, the time it took to piece myself back together, and the wisdom and life’s philosophy that grew from all of that.
Growing up, I’d always felt that I was different from my peers. I struggled with identity, as I didn’t have any biological markers to draw on, and I was always feeling ashamed. I know today that I suffered from what is known as “Identity Crisis” – a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society,” as coined by the German developmental psychologist Erik Erikson. It’s no stretch to apply Erikson’s developmental work and say that adoptive children have more difficult and less culturally supported developmental tasks to achieve than those in a functioning biologically-related family.
My identity struggle was what caused my addiction to overwhelm my life. I needed drugs and alcohol to quiet my mind, which was always searching and looking for clues on how to be. I had no idea how to trust people, including myself. I felt alone, isolated and misunderstood and, most importantly, I felt that my very existence was rooted in shame. Abandonment and Betrayal were my other constant companions. Sound like a recipe for a disaster, doesn’t it? Well, I found alcohol to help me cope with my problems. Alcohol altered my perceptions, it changed my Reality. It gave me a personality. It even gave me identity. On alcohol, I was gregarious and social and good at my job in finance, and successful socially. I could talk to women and I could throw parties, and I could even start a family and become a relatively well-functioning father (till I wasn’t functioning so relatively well). I numbed and medicated instead of processed life.
Thankfully, I was able to get sober and clear my mind. Yet I continued to feel lost. I still felt that something was wrong with me beyond my addiction. Something had to be wrong with me if I was given up for adoption, right?
So I had to continue to dig even deeper to figure it out. I had to start questioning my now-sober perceptions and pick up that process of personal development – including learning healthy coping mechanisms for life’s challenges from where I left off, from where they were developmentally interrupted – from when I started drinking. Now without the help of alcohol, shame was still going to tear me apart. And I choose that word “tear” very intentionally, as I often felt that I was at war with myself – and that my identities – my fragmented selves – were being ripped further and further away from each other.
This is why I had to move beyond active involvement in the 12-steps, why I had to continue to carve out my own way to recovery. I had to do this to better understand myself and to discover and solidify my identity. To better and more completely answer the question: “Who am I?”
I need to consistently ask myself that question to stay happy and healthy (physically, psychologically, intellectually, emotionally, and some might say spiritually, though again, I prefer the term “relationally”). I need to be unique because this journey that I am on for the rest of my life is all about two things: One, investigating how my experiences (context) and observations (perceptions) have combined to define who I am today. And Two, examining the role of my self – my identity, character, values, personality, psyche, and spirit – in my past, present, and future. Recovering or healing means developing identity and expanding it.
So how is being unique good for you? First of all, we need to take the negative meaning out of “unique” that you might hear in recovery groups. Yes, it’s essential to relate to others – why I like to call myself Relational – and find a common language, but it’s also important to celebrate and develop your own identity in order to heal.
#mentalhealth #sober #soberlife #sobriety #health #addictionrecovery #addiction #alcoholism #substanceusedisorders #recovery #adoptee #adoption #trauma #traumainformed