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The Myth of Perfection In Recovery

There is a distinct story arc in many systems regarding addiction: fall from grace, act of providence facilitating redemption, gratitude for a “life beyond your wildest dreams”.

It’s a beautiful story and representative of almost nobody, at least nobody honest.  Recovery is rarely that linear.  If only you’d just hit bottom, go to treatment and voila! But anybody who’s hit many bottoms (hi), gone to multiple treatment centers (hello) or had the time and then eaten shit again (me again), knows it’s never that simple.  And I think making it look like it should create a lot of shame and self-doubt.  “Relapse isn’t part of recovery”, people say. Well, I disagree.  If it wasn’t part of  “your” journey of recovery, yay! But it sure was part of mine and most people I know.

In 12 step, there’s the “progress not perfection” tenet.  Yet few in long term recovery are willing to admit how far from perfect they are.  They are put up on a pedestal, doing circuit speaking, revered among the AA community. However, it is not uncommon for these same old-timers to blow their brains out or relapse at 19 years because they can’t be honest.  There is a heavy expectation to be the leaders, to have it all together all the time. They have the answers, the secret, the key.  But because of this all pressure, they don’t feel like they can admit they’re struggling and the result can be lethal.

In recovery, as in your using life: people will die.  You might go or stay broke.  You’ll get dumped.  You could have health problems.  You’ll still get to grapple with your mental illness.  Just because you have some better tools and have stopped putting a needle in your arm, doesn’t change that life is in session.  You’re not immune because you’re sober. 

I guess I’m a recovery advocate.  I’m not even sure what that means.  But people call me that but I’m not like the other ones.  I’m the black sheep punk rock hot mess of recovery advocates.  I swear too much.  I don’t post platitudes.  I make terrible drug jokes. I don’t talk about how “grateful” or “blessed” I am all the time.  I post pictures when I’m depressed with bedhead.  I talk about marrying my cat because I can’t get it together in relationships.  I don’t levitate. I don’t offer a meditation course.  Do I think that’s inspirational? Not really but other people seem to. In a land of pseudo-spiritual gurus with sparkly rainbow perfect sobriety, people seem to appreciate “realness”.  

My cohost of Rehab Confidential Joe Schrank says,

“Life, is hard. Being sober won’t change that life is unjust and it’s unfair. Your recovery will not be perfect. You will not do it perfectly. Perfection is the errand of the ego. What you get is authenticity, you get to experience life and all it has to offer in an authentic way. It won’t always be pretty, in fact, it seldom will be. The truth is, most people struggle, the ‘and now, I’m a counselor to help others’ while inspirational and beautiful, is often bullshit. It’s tantamount to a fairy tale where a handsome prince rides in to the rescue.”

This “progress not perfection” should be applied to getting sober as well but it’s not.  Harm reduction is still looked down upon.  Nobody applauds you for moving from shooting dope to smoking pot.  But shouldn’t they? Improvement matters. And you can’t find a recovery if you’re dead.  Abstinence is the Holy Grail in AA and treatment centers and nothing short of that is good enough.  In no other treatment of disease do we disregard the desires of the patient?  Here’s the hard truth: abstinence is not wanted or attainable by everybody.  

“In my career as a social worker, Joe Schrank said, “I have battled this idea for decades. When I was running a sober living in NYC, I would often sit in my office talking to someone who came, hat into the hand, to do the shame spiral mea culpa: ‘I used’. My calmness was often misinterpreted as indifference but the effort was to combat shame spiral descent into the cultural pressure of: I’m a piece of shit addict”. ‘Ok, let’s not beat you up about it, and let’s recognize that you used once in the last 30 days, not 30, as you were doing. I would often be lambasted by the recovery culture as ‘giving permission to use’. Generally, this would come from the untrained self-ordained recovery guru or the rogue social worker consumed by the ‘fill my beds’ world of rehab.”

Let me make it known that both Joe and I are in AA and are both abstinent.  That works for us.  But we don’t apply what works for us to everybody.  That’s sober fundamentalism and it’s killing people. Joe doesn’t push his Catholicism on me, a half-breed Jew, thank God.  I mean if every time we spoke or did a podcast he talked to me about the body of Christ or the Messiah or that I was going to hell, I’d be like “bye, girl”. Evangelicalism has no place in recovery or anywhere in my opinion.  There is no one way and there is no “doing it right”.  There’s enough room for everybody’s journey under the tent of recovery. 

Joe Schrank said,

“I had a very close friend who was consumed with the idea of  ‘not doing it right’. Sycophantic would be sponsors circling his quasi-celebrity like hawks to be the savior ultimately turned him completely off to the idea of mutual aid. He refused to participate. He overdosed and died, leaving three boys and a wife. Did the cultural paradigm of ‘perfection’ kill him? No, his own pathology did but it didn’t help.”

“Separate from my work as a social worker,” Schrank continues, “I’m a person in long term recovery. My life is better since I stopped self-treating depression with a dark room, a Dylan CD, Whiskey, and self-pity. (It’s a bad treatment plan by the way). But is my life, my recovery perfect? Hardly. I still battle many things: depression, my big mouth. I’m a shitty businessman. I’m not swift at relationships. I can’t sit still. As a young guy, I would sit and listen in AA and think ‘Fuck, I’m doing something wrong’ mostly because of the competition for whose fall was deeper, whose redemption was more miraculous and I quite simply, didn’t fit that mold. I still don’t.”

In closing, here’s some honesty. You’re entitled to nothing. It will be hard. Days will suck donkey dicks. You’ll also be happy but not nearly enough of the time. You will have setbacks. Most people do. People will die. You’ll hear of horrible things. You’ll cry. You’ll laugh a lot if you let yourself. People will be assholes. I know this doesn’t sell the idea of sobriety as nirvana but it’s the reality. And the more you prepare yourself, the easier it will be to stay sober when the shit hits the fan.

So tell your truth and don’t let anybody tell you you’re not working a good enough program or any of that bullshit.  Being sober is HARD. Perfection is actually an insane and unattainable ideal. And what is “perfect”?  What makes others comfortable or look up to you? Fuck that. 

I’ll finish with one of Joe’s dumb baseball analogies that I as Jewish girl never understand,

“In baseball, failing 66% of the time makes you a Hall of Famer. Take that in and know we will never get it all right.”


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Amy Dresner is a journalist, author, and former comedian as well as a recovering addict and alcoholic. She has been a columnist for the addiction/recovery magazine theFix.com since 2012 and has freelanced for Addiction.com, Psychology Today, and many other publications. Her first book, “My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean,” was published by Hachette in 2017 to rave reviews from critics and readers alike, and is currently in development for a TV series.

Joe Schrank is a clinical social worker and interventionist.  He is founder of thefix.com and executive editor of the small bow.

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