Lifting the Veil of Recovery Invisibility
“How does it feel to be a problem…It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” –W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folks
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” ― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison introduced three concepts of considerable import to recovery advocates. Du Bois’ notions of the veil and double consciousness were brilliantly conceived with profound implications for the future of race relations and efforts to escape the personal effects of racism—or similar processes related to people affected by prolonged historical trauma and contemporary social stigma and discrimination.
In the addictions context, the veil is a metaphor for the artificial lens through which people in addiction recovery are socially viewed and through which they simultaneously view the larger social world in which they are nested. As Howard Winant has observed, “The veil not only divides the individual self; it also fissures the community, nation, and society as whole (and ultimately, world society in its entirety.).” The veil contains objectified images and caricatures that distort how one is seen and how one sees oneself and others. Self-talk and communication with others are hampered and distorted through the veil’s influence. The veil creates a deep sense of alienation, disconnection, and utter sense of aloneness. As Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas declares in Native Son: “Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knothole in the fence.”
Du Bois double consciousness depicts a related split produced by the introjection of addiction-related social stigma (a stained self) and the resulting defensive projection of a false self. Over time, these processes of double consciousness make claiming one’s “real self” increasingly difficult. As a result of this prolonged mask-making, one’s greatest fear is not that one’s inner evilness will be revealed, but that one’s utter emptiness and status as an imposter will be fully exposed to self and others.
Ellison’s concept of invisibility suggests a potential threefold loss of self: 1) being seen only as an objectified caricature if one’s recovery identity is revealed, 2) a profound sense of imposterhood as one’s stigmatized status is hidden behind layers of masks, and 3) the inability to feel and hold to one’s own true self. That sense of invisibility-even to oneself–is amplified by the depersonalization experienced in late stages of addiction. Social invisibility, whether buried within a subterranean drug culture or hidden behind a carefully but fragilely crafted mask of normalcy, is an inevitable dimension of the addiction experience.
While addicted, we are invisible until acts of degradation and desperation (or our untimely death) briefly thrusts us into the public spotlight. In recovery, we also remain invisible until we come to see ourselves as a “people” and respond to prophetic call to collectively step from hiding to declare our existence. Other illnesses once bore a moral stain (e.g., tuberculosis, epilepsy, schizophrenia, cancer) and social invisibility, but campaigns to destigmatize some of these disorders (most particularly, cancer) have fundamentally altered their social perception and their professional treatment.
When we all step out of our cloistered sanctuaries and look around, we realize a profound lesson: we are all wounded in some way and all reaching for healing and wholeness. When the veils fall, the need for double consciousness diminishes and invisibility and transparency give way to a new sense of personhood. When the veil is lifted, we can escape entrapment within the label “substance abuser” and emerge as a free person of substance. When the veil of shame is lifted, we will find to our great surprise that what lies beneath is not our personal inferiority, but shared pain, unquenchable hope, and our common humanity—what Ernie Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham christened The Spirituality of Imperfection. It is time the veil, the double consciousness, and the invisibility that pervades addiction recovery were relegated to the dustbin of history. Only a recovery advocacy movement sustained across generations will achieve that goal.