Recovery From the Dominant Culture
My name is Nichola, and I’m an addict. I have what is sometimes called, in pop psychology terms, an “addictive personality.” When I am not working a recovery program, I tend to develop unhealthy attachments to people, ways of being, and substances that I then try to use to give my life meaning or at least to numb the meaninglessness for a while.
Over the years, I have used all of the following in this way: career, activism, politics, large quantities of sugar and flour and fried foods, romantic partners, people I’ve taken on as fix-it projects, and spirituality. All of these addictions have—progressively over time—made my life unmanageable, although some are more socially acceptable than others and have even gotten me kudos from some corners.
I first found some relief from this unmanageability many years ago through the Al Anon program, which is a 12-step recovery program for people who have been affected by someone else’s drinking. Having grown up with an alcoholic father and having since involved myself with many people who struggle with addiction, I found a lot of resonance in those rooms. I recognized myself in the stories people told; I, too, had trouble accessing my own emotions, tended to focus on other people (both as the source of my happiness and as the source of my suffering), spent a lot of time trying to help other people while my own life fell apart, and based my self-worth on what others thought of me. When I would share in meetings, however, I often found myself struggling to relate my problems to alcoholism. Often the current triggers for my behavior had nothing to do with anyone’s drinking or addictive behavior. I also wondered why it seemed to me that almost everyone I knew could benefit from Al Anon, even though they didn’t all have experience with alcoholism.
Then I ran across Anne Wilson Schaef’s little book, WHEN SOCIETY BECOMES AN ADDICT, and I suddenly understood what I had been sensing. While many people have not been intimately involved with an alcoholic, all of us who grew up in the United States have been shaped by interaction with an addict—namely, the society into which we were born, with its insatiable economic appetites, its unrelenting drive to fulfill them, its obsession with keeping up appearances that cover over intense suffering, brutality, and despair, and its insistence on recruiting us into serving all of that.
What’s more, I came to believe that alcoholism is a symptom of or reaction to this cultural dysfunction. Compulsive eating, drug addiction, sex addiction, workaholism, compulsive activism—all are symptoms of some larger dis-ease that comes from living amidst and colluding with so much brutality, oppression, and injustice.
For example, my father was born in 1939 in Berlin. He learned to walk in a bomb shelter while his father was off serving in the SS. He won’t talk about most of what he saw during the first six years of his life, but I know from other family members that he witnessed his best friend being crushed under a building collapsing from bombing damage. I don’t know what, if anything, he knew about what was happening to Jews in his country, but I do know that it was (literally) in the air. When he was seven, he was brought to this country, where he didn’t know the language, where he was hated as an enemy German, and where he was raised by a brutal grandmother shaped by her own experience laboring for almost nothing in the German potato fields. Having inculcated gender norms that dictate what it means to be a man, he has never found a way to speak of this, much less grieve it. Is it any wonder that he has turned to alcohol?
It is a vast oversimplification to say that my distorted ways of being originate in exposure to alcoholism. It also lets the rest of the culture off the hook, enabling it to continue unchecked, churning out more and more wounded people.
I think we desperately need to start naming the social, political, economic, and historical forces that have contributed to our suffering. We are taught that if we are unhappy, it must be our own fault. We must be doing something wrong. Either that, or it’s our family’s fault. (Usually it’s our mother’s fault. Remember the “schizophrenogenic mother,” the woman whose parenting was believed to foster schizophrenia in her offspring?)
It’s time we begin to call a lie a lie. It’s time we begin to name the ways that racism, sexism and its handmaiden heterosexism, capitalist labor practices, immigration, land theft, genocide, and war have impacted our families and the institutions in which we grew up. Dr. Joy DeGruy has done groundbreaking work in this area; her book Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome lays out some of the ways that enslaved Africans developed parenting practices that once helped them survive, but now, handed down over many generations, no longer serve. I believe we need to do the same work around how slaveholding impacted parenting in white families. For example, what effects did it have that many white women took massive amounts of opium to numb their human reactions against the brutality of slave-beatings, or, if they didn’t take drugs, simply retreated to their rooms with unnamed infirmities that made them unavailable to their children? And what did it mean, then, for those children to be raised by African-descended women whom they were simultaneously being taught to despise and subjugate? How are those effects still felt in our families today?
Please note that I am not trying to create an equivalency between the suffering of enslaved children and that of the children of their masters but to lay out the ways that brutal and unjust practices harm everyone, albeit in different ways. It is our willingness to remain in denial about that simple fact that disrupts solidarity and allows those brutal and unjust practices to continue.
Similarly, we need to ask how ongoing capitalist labor practices have shaped our upbringing and our tendency to equate personal worth and value with our ability to produce and consume. Our “personal” suffering is not separate from the suffering of the life force held hostage to profit and power. It turns out that it is not healthy for human beings to participate in the degradation of other human beings, animals, plants, and the earth itself, and yet it is not possible to escape doing so without radically transforming our social systems.
It stands to reason, then, that “we cannot fully recover without contributing to the healing of the culture that makes us sick.” This is part of the preamble that we read at every weekly meeting of the new Recovery from the Dominant Culture program.
Recovery from the Dominant Culture is an experimental program in which we apply the 12 steps—the same steps that have been phenomenally successful in helping people recover from alcoholism—to our recovery from internalized oppression and supremacy and other limiting or harmful beliefs, values, habits, and ways of being.
We start by acknowledging that we have been shaped by larger social and historical forces that were beyond our control. We admit that we are powerless over having been affected by those forces and that, alone, we cannot change them. No one, acting alone, can transform heteropatriarchy, or white supremacy, or capitalism. We can only do that by working together as a community of people in life recovery.
We also open ourselves to the notion that a higher power can lead us to sanity. Some of us think of this higher power as a decolonized version of God; others turn to the interdependent web of existence as our higher power. Still others turn to Love or the Life Force or the Force for Healing and Transformation in the Universe. There is no standard definition of higher power. What we do share is a commitment to turning our will and our lives over to a higher power, “praying only for the knowledge of that higher power’s will for us and the power to carry that out.” Doing this moment by moment, held accountable in a diverse community, enables us to surrender our self-will and become humble agents of life and love in the communities in which we live, work, and play.
Infused throughout the program is a sense that we cannot afford to look only at our personal relationships but must also look at the social systems that structure our social relations. For example, working steps 8 and 9, which ask us to “make a list of all persons we have harmed” and then to “make amends to such people except where to do so would injure them or others,” requires that we think not only of people we’ve harmed directly, but those who have been harmed by social systems from which we have benefitted. How do people who benefit from white skin privilege begin to make amends to people of color who have paid the price for our privilege? How do we, in the so-called first world, make amends to the workers who have been exploited so that we could buy cheap goods? Or to the people around the world who go hungry as a result of trade policies that channel resources toward the wealthiest nations? How do we make amends to ourselves for having internalized our own oppression, taking on the shame of being female, or gay, or not being white, or not fitting into pre-existing gender categories or socially approved body types? There are no easy solutions, but we know that we can’t “heal” or “get well” without taking some steps, no matter how faltering, toward the liberation of all people. As Solomon Burke famously sang, “None of us is free when one of us is chained. None of us is free.”
Alcoholics in recovery often say that they “can’t keep it unless they give it away.” Similarly, those of us in recovery from the dominant culture can’t benefit from our recovery unless we are continually working for the liberation—the health, healing, and well-being—of all beings. We may never see what that looks like, but we can do ourpart, trusting that the outcomes are not ultimately up to us.
Nichola Torbett is the founding director of Seminary of the Street, a spiritual formation and training academy for “love warriors” seeking to change their communities by embodying God’s love in the world. Nichola has degrees from the University of Toledo and Indiana University at Bloomington, but has been most radically shaped by engagement with people who were willing to be real with her across lines of difference.