Symbolic Firsts in Addiction Recovery

Symbolic Firsts in Recovery.jpgI recently discovered a study conducted by Valerie Purdie-Vaughns and Richard Eibach on the social psychology of symbolic firsts.  The study focused on how the pioneering achievement of a single individual from a historically marginalized group affects the self-identity, aspirations, and performance of other members of that group as well as culturally dominant attitudes toward members of that group (e.g., the effects of Barack Obama’s 2008 election on the academic performance of African American children and attitudes toward African Americans).   The study raised questions for me about the potential role of “symbolic firsts” within the addiction recovery arena. Here are some of the ideas I have drawn from and generated in response to the Purdie-Vaughs and Eibach study.    

Symbolic firsts inspire and elevate by challenging culturally-defined and self-defined boundaries of what is possible based on one’s social and personal circumstances.  Such heroic figures can play critical roles in the processes of intrapersonal, interpersonal, and social change as indicated by the history of the civil rights movement and the women’s, LGBT, and disability rights movements.    

Many people in long-term addiction recovery have gone on to outstanding achievement and community service, but the broader effects of such achievements have been limited by three factors: 

1) Such individuals often do not publicly disclose their status as persons in long-term addiction recovery or link their achievements to this status;

2) People seeking and in recovery do not, as a result, have the opportunity to identify with such individuals and their achievements; and

3) Members of the majority culture do not see these achievements in the context of addiction recovery and thus are able to sustain stereotypical thinking and attitudes about addiction and recovery.  

An essential stage of the recovery advocacy movement is the emergence of “symbolic firsts in recovery” within every arena of cultural life.     

Symbolic firsts in recovery will be marked by four essential actions.  They will:

1) make landmark and widely recognized contributions within their sphere of activity and influence,

2) publically acknowledge their recovery status before, during, or after the public/professional recognition of such achievements,

3) offer their stories in a more detailed format to affected individuals and families as a source for motivation and guidance, and

4) present their story and its implications as a form of “cultural intervention” to change prevailing perceptions and policies towards addiction and recovery.

Symbolic firsts in recovery stand as a living invitation for individuals, families, and communities affected by addiction and a source of motivation and guidance for those seeking and living in recovery. Through their achievements, symbolic firsts expand the roles and community spaces in which people seeking and in recovery can envision themselves.  Symbolic firsts in recovery diminish the community cues conveying that people in recovery do not belong in particular positions or places. They offer living proof of what can be achieved in recovery and the principles and strategies of how such achievements have been and can be made in the context of recovery.

Symbolic firsts in recovery achieve such status by acts of destruction (tearing down historical barriers of exclusion and their supporting machinery) and acts of creation (forging new niches and styles through which people in recovery can personally excel and socially achieve and contribute).

Symbolic firsts in recovery eschew “passing” (hiding concealable stigma for personal advantage) to achieve a higher social goal–even in the face of personal challenges and socially-imposed limits on opportunities that can potentially flow from this decision.  Symbolic firsts face extremes of experience different in nature and intensity than others who will subsequently fill the space that the trailblazers created. As a result, symbolic firsts in recovery need the full support of communities of recovery.

Symbolic firsts include iconic historical figures, but to sustain their viability as catalysts of personal and social change, they must be joined by contemporary figures with whom current generations can identify.  The job of the recovery advocacy movement is to extoll these historical figures and to recruit and support successive generations of recovery icons.

Symbolic firsts stand as visible lightning rods absorbing the energy of long-festering and deeply entrenched schisms within the culture (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, religious intolerance). By violating the proscribed social boundaries, symbolic firsts in recovery pose a significant threat to the existing social order.

Facing the threat (cognitive dissonance) posed by symbolic firsts in recovery, cultural majority responses span the following: 

1) public amplification of addiction (probing and focusing on lurid aspects of the addiction history with minimal reference to recovery status, recovery stability, and recovery achievements; 

2) denial of addiction status (“She wasn’t really addicted! She just had a bit of a problem.”; “Surely only one drink will not hurt you.”);

3) denial of recovery status (“I’ve heard rumors that he’s still using.”; no reference to person’s recovery status);

4) exceptionalism (“She’s done well, but she’s not like all the others.”),

5) condemnation and punishment of the unexceptional (“If she did it, why can’t you?!”); 

6) self-congratulation (“We’ve made so much progress on this” while denying all that remains to be done; loving the exception as a self-affirmation of one’s tolerance while hating the masses); and fortunately

7) reappraisal of perceptions and beliefs followed by changes in related behavior.     

For symbolic firsts to represent a benchmark of social change, they must be followed by a wave of others filling the space opened by the iconic figure.  Without such a wave, how marginalized group members view themselves and their possibilities is dependent upon the status and fate of the iconic figure.  Under such circumstances, he or she may experience suffocating expectations for sustained perfection in this pedestal role and a resulting sense of imposterhood.  When such an icon falls from grace, sometimes to escape their entrapment in this role, the entire group they represent is affected, as are the perceptions of group members by the dominant culture (e.g., responses to the recent deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams after prolonged periods of recovery).  The dangers of the pedestal role are best avoided by the mass mobilization of a vanguard of people in recovery.    

What symbolic firsts in recovery collectively do is elevate our imaginations–replacing the “recovery from” focus (escape from the painful consequences of addiction) with a vision of “recovery to” (achievement of a personally fulfilling and purposeful life in recovery). Symbolic firsts in recovery trigger breakthrough perceptions of the potential of a life that was not earlier thought to be possible.  Symbolic firsts have the potential to ignite in each of us a fierce determination–an irrevocable commitment–to not allow our own demons, the ignorance of others, or incidents of social and professional exclusion to stand in our way.  

This inspirational process can happen spontaneously, but is more likely to happen if individuals needing, seeking, and in recovery have opportunities for exposure to such iconic figures and mindful reflection on what that person’s story means to one’s own possibilities.  Such mindfulness can be stimulated by meditation, one-on-one sharing, group discussions, writing exercises, or through acts that test the strength of one’s interests, character, and stamina against the forces of cultural exclusion.  Such mindfulness exercises should be an integral experience within addiction treatment and recovery service settings.  

People in recovery who have and are making notable achievements and social contributions already exist in every imaginable sphere of cultural activity.  What remains is for a vanguard of people in recovery within these diverse sectors to jointly stand to declare their status as “symbolic firsts.” That collective act will do more to widen the doorways to addiction recovery than all of the professional efforts that have preceded it.